Interview with Alison Symington, a researcher and the Content
Development Coordinator of the Women's Human Rights Resources
in Toronto, Canada.
is the Optional Protocol for the Convention on Women?
protocol can be thought of as an appendix to an original convention.
It can stand on its own as an internationally legally binding
agreement, but it is probably easier to think of it as an addition
to the original convention. It is important to note that this
particular document is an optional protocol, which means that
it is legally binding only for those states that have signed
and ratified it. States that have already signed CEDAW can choose
to sign this protocol as well, however, if a state has not signed
the first agreement, they cannot sign this one either.
has been added onto the original CEDAW Convention to create
an enforcement mechanism. One of the biggest problems with CEDAW
has been that until now there has been no complaint mechanism
which meant that there was no means to enforce states' commitments
on women’s human rights. This new Protocol has two enforcement
mechanisms that will allow women to bring human rights abuses
or cases of discrimination to the attention of the international
community more effectively. The protocol was opened for signature
December 10 1999; came into force December 22 2000; as of December
31 2000 had 63 signatories and 15 parties.
What are the new enforcement mechanisms in the Optional Protocol?
two main procedures that are included in this Protocol - a mechanism
for individual complaints and an investigative mechanism. Other
conventions have similar types of procedures, which may serve
as models in establishing this system. The individual complaint
mechanism is designed so that an individual woman, or a group
of women, who feel that her/their rights have been abused can
submit the details of the discrimination to a committee of experts
which will review the case. This committee will then contact
the relevant state for the state's response and ultimately with
a decision on the matter. There are however, a number of requirements
that women have to meet in order to use this part of the Protocol.
The most important of these are as follows:
- The entire
claim must be submitted in writing; there is no oral hearing.
- The state
in which the alleged abuse of rights took place must have
been a party to the original Convention and the Optional Protocol
at the time the
abuse occurred (or the violation must continue beyond the
date when the
state became a party).
- The submission
cannot be anonymous. Each submission must have an
identifiable woman or group of women as victim(s) of the abuse.
requirement has been controversial as many groups have argued
that it makes it more difficult for the most vulnerable women
to bring complaints forward, however the requirement has remained.
- All domestic
channels must have been exhausted before women can bring a
case to the international level.
procedure in the new Optional Protocol is an investigative procedure.
Ms.Symington notes that while the individual complaints mechanism
has received significantly more media attention, this second
procedure may actually end up being more interesting and possibly
more useful for women's rights work. This procedure is much
looser than the individual complaints procedure in terms of
procedural requirements. If the CEDAW Committee is alerted that
there have been grave or systematic violations of women's rights
in a particular state, the Committee can, in co-operation with
the state, launch an investigation. It remains to be seen how
the terms "grave and systematic" will be interpreted with respect
to women's rights and discrimination, which could be a determining
factor in the usefulness of this mechanism.
the initial report of women’s human rights violations, the original
woman or group of women are no longer formally involved in the
investigation. In the course of their investigation, CEDAW will
assign several committee members (usually 2) to investigate
the allegations and to formulate a report that is submitted
to the state in question. The state is then asked to respond
to the findings within 6 months. These inquiries are confidential
which means the public may never know of them at all. While
we do not yet know how this will play out for this Convention,
other Conventions such as the Convention against Torture, have
similar functions already.
How can women use these new procedures?
Optional Protocol is so new, the formal rules and procedures
are not yet written up. However, it is expected that these will
be somewhat similar to those designed for use with other conventions,
such as the Convention against Torture and the International
Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. Based on these precedents,
it is expected that to use the individual complaints procedure
a woman or a group of women who feel that there has been a violations
of her/their human rights should do the following;
a claimant or the victim;
write-up and document the case for submission to the Committee.
there is not a specific format for submitting a communication,
there are suggested models that have been developed through
the other conventions. If women are looking for specific resources
to help with the documentation process, a particularly good
resource (for both documenting individual complaints and systematic
violations) is the Torture Reporting Handbook: How to Document
and Respond to Allegations of Torture within the International
System for the Protection of Human Rights, written by Camille
Gifford and published by the Human Rights Centre, Sussex, 2000.
This full-text is available in English (it is possibly being
translated into several other languages) online at http://www.essex.ec.uk/torturehandbook/english.htm.
information is submitted to the Committee for an individual
complaint or an allegation is submitted for the investigative
procedure, the Committee takes over and the role of the woman's
organization or victim is minimal.
Why is this new Protocol so exciting?
in the international human rights system, women's rights issues
have been given less priority than other human rights issues.
This is evidenced by the fact that the CEDAW Committee receives
less funding and meets for less time than other Committees and
until now the CEDAW Convention has lacked any enforcement mechanism.
In addition, CEDAW is the Convention with the most reservations
from states that have signed on, and many of these reservations
are extremely broad.
very inception of CEDAW during the 1970s, until now, women have
been pushing for a stronger body and an enforcement mechanism.
This pressure finally culminated in the Beijing and Vienna conferences
which then provided the impetus to develop the Optional Protocol.
This Optional Protocol places women's human rights on a more
equal footing on the international scene as the Committee's
decisions will now have more legal authority. As the responsibilities
of the CEDAW Committee have been increased with the addition
of the investigative and complaint procedures, presumably the
Committee will receive an increase in funding and in personelle
as well. While this Protocol has great potential, it is not
going to change the world. However, it does provide women with
one more tool to lobby their governments and to mobilize people
to take a stand against violations of women's human rights.
While an individual decision of the Committee may not matter
a great deal in actual transformative terms, these decision
can be used as a strategic tool by other groups of women and
in that way can be quite influential.
What are areas that activists may want to be looking at in the
there needs to be some serious discussions and strategizing
around the issue of how this Protocol is actually going to be
of use to the international human rights community and to women's
groups around the world. Now is the time to start strategizing,
forming networks and planning to use the new mechanisms. Also,
the mechanisms can not be used unless countries have signed
on to the Optional Protocol so women need to ensure that their
governments ratify both the CEDAW Convention and the Optional
the CEDAW Committee is going to need more money and more time
to be able to live up to the potential of this new protocol
and this is an area that is going to require lobbying from women's
organizations. Additionally, people have generally paid insufficient
attention to the appointment process of Committee members. As
these members are now going to be making legally binding decisions,
these appointments are now more important than ever and organizations
may want to start getting more involved in and aware of this
process. Additionally, it is important to note the Women's Committee
is one of the only human rights committees which is not composed
entirely of lawyers. Organizations involved in women's human
rights need to think about the ramifications of this as the
new enforcement mechanisms come into use.
the actual procedures and rules of the complaint and investigative
processes still need to be written - we need to think about
whether these should basically follow those designed for the
other conventions or if there are gender-specific concerns that
need to be met that are not included in the other convention
procedures. These are all procedural issues that need to be
thought out and then lobbied for by organizations involved in
women's human rights work and by women's groups more broadly.
Finally, organizations need to start thinking about how they
are going to effectively use the decisions and reports generated
by this Committee. What is important is trying to get women's
human rights respected "on the ground", thus decisions made
internationally have to be brought to bear on the domestic scene.
struggle requires a great deal of consideration and strategizing,
not only from human rights advocates who have been working with
international mechanisms for years but also from those concerned
with women's issues more broadly who may not have considered
international human rights mechanisms as a tool in their work.
How can people check if their country has signed the Optional
At the UN
website, the Division for the Advancement of Women has posted
the full text of the relevant treaties, including all of the
reservations from different states. The list of countries that
have signed the CEDAW Convention and the Optional Protocol is
also included. This site can either be accessed through the
UN site or can be accessed directly at http://www.un.org/womenwatch/daw/cedaw/protocol/index.html.
A vast collection
of information on women's human rights law is posted on the
website of the Women's Human Rights Resources: http://www.law-lib.utoronto.ca/diana/.
This information collection may be of use to those interested
in understanding the potential (and drawbacks) of using international
human rights procedures and to those considering using either
of the procedures of the CEDAW Optional Protocol (the collection
includes academic commentary, international Conventions and
Declarations, model communications, relevant international human
rights judgements, NGO reports, and links to organizations and
resource centres around the world.)
Friday File Issue 11
February 2, 2001
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