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The Position of Women in UN Human Rights Documents

The controversial position of women's rights within human rights is also reflected in the development of international agreements and documents, via which women's rights can be determined and violations of women's rights punished by the United Nations (UN) worldwide. The text is divided up into the following sections:

bulletDeclaration on Equality and Decree on Non-Discrimination against Women (1945-1979)
bulletThe Practical Implementation of Women's Rights (from 1975): 
- Agreement on the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination against Woman 
- The World Human Rights Conference in Vienna 1993 
- UN Declaration of the Elimination of Violence against Women of 1993 
- Fourth United Nations World Conference on Women: "Acting for equal opportunity, development and peace"
bulletOpportunities for sanctioning against the violation of women's rights at international level

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Declaration on Equality and Decree on Non-Discrimination against Women (1945-1979)

The principle of equal opportunities amongst the sexes had already been recognised during the foundation of the UN (Preamble and Article 1.3 of the UN Charter: (The community of states commits itself to the equal opportunities of man and woman). In the Universal Declaration of Human Rights of 1948, the principle of non-discrimination on the basis of gender was determined in addition to other things.

Reality for women worldwide looked totally different however. This fact hardly found any consideration in the human rights institutions of the UN. Inside the UN committees, women's rights were dealt with by special committees ("women's commissions"), whose recommendations were not sufficiently put into action. Existing UN agreements failed to alter the actual situation of women. Gender-specific human rights violation were not dealt with explicitly. The general failure to consider matters concerning women in the UN apparatus caused the women's commission to make a recommendation to the UN General Assembly in 1972: 1975 was announced International Year of the Woman and activities in the area of women's were strengthened.

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The Practical Implementation of Women's Rights (from 1975)

The International Year of the Woman in 1975, the following Decade of the Woman from 1976 to 1985 and the three UN World Women Conferences which were each held during this decade under the motto of "Equal, Development and Peace" marked a turning point. Increased activity in support of women took place within the UN.

Agreement on the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination against Woman

This convention, adopted by the General Assembly in December 1979, formed an important step towards recognising women's rights as human rights. On the one hand, it combined the precautionary provisions already existing at that time and non-discrimination clauses. In addition it extended the responsibility of the states parties for violations of rights to non-state players.

This represented a large step forward, since the discrimination and violation of the rights of women are not played out on the part of the state, but in the "private sphere". Important is the actual programme that obliges the states parties to carry out the actual measures, which should not just bring about the legal (de jure), but also the actual (de facto) equality of woman and man.

The weakness of the agreement can be found in the implementation and control of the contractually agreed commitments. This agreement has the largest number of conditions known, and not all of the 165 parties accept all of their commitments. The states are obliged to submit an annual report on the state of women's rights in their country to the expert committee. Due to structural problems, the processing time is long, and many states fail to fulfil their obligations to submit their report. Other reviewing or sanctioning measures were not provided for initially.. The women's convention committee only has access to meagre financial means compared to other UN human rights organisations. Furthermore, the committee is not formally authorized to use information from non-governmental organisations.

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The World Human Rights Conference in Vienna 1993

Initially, the viewpoint of the community of states was that the living conditions of women were different from those of "tough" human rights and not suitable for control mechanisms. Due to the deep roots that the lives of women have in cultural and social traditions, the living conditions of women were meant to be changed in the main part through long-term social and economic measures. Violence against women was not explicitly condemned at the woman's convention.

As the result of the long-term campaign "Women's Rights are Human Rights", the international women's rights movement succeeded in bringing violence against womeninto the forum of discussion for governments at the Second World Human Rights Conference. This resulted in the Final Declaration of Vienna containing an express condemnation of violence against women as a human rights violation for the first time in the history of the United Nations. It was expressly determined here that "the human rights of women and girls are an inalienable, integral and indivisible component of universal human rights". Following this conference the United Nations ratified a "Declaration on the Elimination of Violence against Women" in December 1993. According to the Declaration of Vienna and the Vienna Action Programme, women's rights comprise an inalienable and inseparable component of universal human rights, which cannot be relativised by making reference to cultural and traditional customs.

[The text on the Declaration of Vienna can be found in the document section on Human Rights as a topic in its own right: Go to the text on the Declaration of Vienna]

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UN Declaration on the Elimination of Violence against Women of 1993

Im December 1993 the UN General Assembly made the formulation of the final document in Vienna more precise by adding its own "Declaration on the Elimination of Violence against Women" and announced the following forms of violence against women in the public and private sphere as representing human rights violations:

bulletBodily, sexual and psychological violence in the family, including physical abuse and the sexual abuse of girls in the home,
bulletViolence in connection with the dowry,
bulletrape in marriages,
bulletgenital mutilation and other practices damaging to women,
bulletviolence outside of marriages and violence in connection with exploitation,
bulletphysical, sexual and psychological violence in the social environment, including rape, sexual abuse, sexual harassment and mobbing at work in educational establishments and other places.
bulletTrafficking in women and forced prostitution,
bulletphysical, sexual and psychological violence by the state or tolerated by the state, wherever it occurs.

Im March 18 1994 the human rights committee set up an office for a special rapporteur on violence against women whose mandate comprises a full explanation of the elimination of violence against women.

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Fourth United Nations World Conference on Women: "Acting for Equal Opportunity, Development and Peace"

In September 1995 the 4th World Women's Conference took place at which some 47,000 delegates participated. It was the largest conference in the history of the UN to-date. Women's rights were determined to be an integral component of human rights in the "Declaration on the Elimination of Violence against Women" which was ratified. However, a difficult discussion on the culturally different definitions of women's rights in the various societies worldwide took place. That the 150 page long catalogue of demands referred to as the "Action Platform" was signed by 189 states was mainly due to the presence of many thousands of members of non-government organisations. The following obligations passed for ratification.

bulletTo promote the equality of the sexes in politics, the economy and society.
bulletTo protect the rights of women,
bulletTo fight the poverty of women, particularly in the developing countries.
bulletTo punish violence against women in every form as a violation of human rights,
bulletTo dismantle gender-specific differences in education and training.

The Action Platform represents a good basis on which individual persons and women's organisations can make a plea to their governments. However, no possibilities of sanctions exist for the non-fulfilment of obligations.

Information on the web
(English): http://www.igc.org

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Opportunities for sanctions against the violation of women's rights at international level

1) The Facultative Protocol for "The Agreement on Eliminating Every Form of Discrimination Against Women".

Despite objections and debates on basic issues, a Facultative Protocol was submitted four years after Beijing according to the model of comparative texts, which permits individual person's complaints to the committee if they are discriminated against in the areas named in the agreement. The requirements for a complaint are set very high however:

bulletThe state to which the accuser belongs must have ratified the agreement and the Facultative Protocol. To-date around five states have signed the Protocol and ratification is still in process.
bulletAll inner-state paths for legal action must have been taken. This is also the case when no opportunity for complaint exists for the women concerned at national level, for instance, when a national court is only open to her when she has the acceptance of a male relative, or if the national courts place traditional or "customary laws" above other legal obligations.

If an individual or a group objects to the violation of rights from the agreement by a signing state, the women's rights committee from the signing state can demand provisional measures to secure the rights of those affected. In addition the committee can begin an investigation by its members if information on "serious violations of the rights laid down in the agreement" is received.

2) The International Court of Justice of the United Nations

In what is known as the "Foca Case", individual persons were prosecuted and condemned for sexual violence connected to warring activity. Sexual violence was persecuted here as a serious breach of the Geneva Convention of 1949 (as "torture" and "slavery"), for which the International Court of Justice is responsible for prosecuting against war crimes in former Yugoslavia.

[Author: Dorette Wesemann; Edited by: Ragnar Müller]

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