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DisAbled Women's Network: DAWN ONTARIO

 

Interview with Alison Symington:
How can women use the
Optional Protocol of CEDAW?

 

 


Interview with Alison Symington, a researcher and the Content Development Coordinator of the Women's Human Rights Resources in Toronto, Canada.

 

What is the Optional Protocol for the Convention on Women?

An optional 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.

This protocol 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?

There are 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. This
    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.

The other 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.

After making 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?

Since the 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;

  • identify a claimant or the victim;
  • exhaust local/domestic channels;
  • Carefully write-up and document the case for submission to the Committee.

Although 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.

Once the 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?

Traditionally 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.

Since the 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 near future?

Firstly, 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 Protocol.

Secondly, 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.

Thirdly, 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.

This on-going 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 Protocol?

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.)

From Resource Net
Friday File Issue 11
February 2, 2001


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