In the coming months, the Obama Administration and the Senate will have the chance to right a major wrong of the Bush era: the US government's refusal--along with such beacons of women's liberation as Sudan, Iran, Qatar and Somalia--to ratify CEDAW, the UN Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women, adopted by the General Assembly in 1979.
What does CEDAW promise? Guaranteed maternity benefits. The right to equal pay. (And no, Lily Ledbetter didn't give us that. The right to sue after you've been discriminated against for years is not the same as the right to be free from discrimination.) A commitment, at the broadest level, to eliminate acts of discrimination against women--i.e., to prohibit them, and to punish them when they do occur.
It's good stuff. One of the best things about the treaty is that it requires governments periodically to review and evaluate their policies and programs relating to women's equality, provoking what Human Rights Watch's Marianne Mollmann calls "a democratic dialogue" about women's rights, which has already occurred in some of the 184 signatory nations, including Peru.
Another admirable aspect of CEDAW is its stipulation that, when traditional cultural or religious practices collide with women's rights, the state is obliged to intervene on the side of women.
This dimension, quite naturally, drives religious conservatives nuts. In some countries they've found a way around it: Saudi Arabia signed the treaty but attached conditions stating that it could only be implemented in a fashion consistent with Sharia law. Needless to say, that isn't exactly what the framers had in mind.
Here in the USA, the Obama administration, which has been very pro-CEDAW, lost no time in dispatching the treaty to the DoJ , which will decide whether to attach conditions--called "reservations, understandings and declarations" (RUDs)--before it goes to the Senate (where it needs 67 votes for approval). Last time round, in 2002, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee--largely at the behest of now-departed Senator Jesse Helms--sandbagged CEDAW with nearly a dozen RUDs, which in the view of some feminists essentially gutted it (and it didn't pass anyway).
One of the most egregious addressed abortion. It read: "Nothing in this convention shall be construed to reflect or create any right to abortion and in no case should abortion be promoted as a method of family planning." As Janet Benshoof, president of the Global Justice Center, recently noted, this language was "…drafted to be used as an antiabortion tool. Under U.S. law nearly all abortions, including those needed by women due to serious health problems or fetal abnormalities incompatible with life, are defined as abortions as a ‘method of family planning.'"
Moreover, as Benshoof points out, the inclusion of this provision would undermine women's access to reproductive health services around the world. Already, CEDAW has been cited in court rulings striking down laws criminalizing abortion in signatory nations, such as Colombia. An endorsement of this qualification by the US it would weaken the legal position of women's advocates in these cases, giving aid and comfort to abortion rights opponents everywhere.
Will the Obama administration, and Senate Democrats, bow to pressure from antiabortion Republicans and include such conditions in this year's version, in a bid to ensure passage? Or will they push for a "clean CEDAW," as many feminists are urging? Senator Barbara Boxer, who heads the relevant Foreign Relations subcommittee, has pledged to begin hearings with a clean version of the treaty, but pressure will quickly mount to muck it up.
This past December, in honor of the 60th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, King Mohammed VI of Morocco lifted the "reservations" that his country had imposed on the implementation of CEDAW, and embraced an unqualified version. Wouldn't it be a fitting tribute to the late Senator Helms if the United States did the same?