Women Press U.S. Violations at U.N. Rights Review

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Marsha Freeman

(WOMENSENEWS)–The United Nations Human Rights Committee is meeting with United States officials in Geneva, Switzerland, today and tomorrow in a review of its compliance with the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.

About 65 representatives from U.S. advocacy groups, including at least six women’s rights activists, have traveled to Geneva to discuss their concerns with the Human Rights Committee members, who are expected to issue observations and recommendations on July 28.

Frustrated by what they see as the current administration’s disregard for U.S. women’s rights, the National Organization for Women and the Massachusetts CEDAW Project, among others, have joined a coalition of more than 140 U.S. social justice, civil rights and human rights groups in submitting a joint “shadow” report on violations of civil and political rights.

The shadow report includes a 50-page assessment of employment discrimination against women, abuse of female prisoners, the impact of immigration reforms on women seeking asylum and housing discrimination against victims of domestic violence.

Other issues, such as secret detention facilities, the rights of prisoners held at Guantanamo Bay and monitoring of phone calls and e-mails inside and outside the country without judicial oversight, are probed by the 465-page shadow report.

“This is the first time U.S. women’s groups have formed a coalition to address the U.N.,” said Christina Vogt, executive director of the Los Angeles-based International Gender Organization.

This is only the second such review for the U.S., which ratified the treaty in 1992. The country last reported to the Human Rights Committee in 1994.

Prisoner Shackling on Agenda

An agenda developed by the Human Rights Committee in March for its meeting with the U.S. already includes questions about the shackling of female prisoners while giving birth, the refusal of health care providers to dispense contraception and regulations prohibiting federally funded programs from providing abortion counseling, assuring that those subjects will be part of the discussion.

Sex discrimination in the workplace, however, is not on the agenda, and the Human Rights Committee might not see it as a priority given the other more politically prominent issues on the table.

In its section on women’s rights, the official U.S. report highlights laws such as the Pregnancy Discrimination Act, which outlaws employment discrimination because of pregnancy; Title IX, which prohibits sex discrimination in federally funded education programs; and the Violence Against Women Act to make the case that the country guarantees civil and political rights equally to men and women.

“The U.S. has more comprehensive laws on sex discrimination than most other countries outside of Europe and Canada,” conceded Marsha Freeman, director of the International Women’s Rights Action Watch, a gender and human rights resource center in Minneapolis, who helped write the shadow report.

But in their shadow report, the women’s groups point out that under the current administration, the number of sex discrimination cases pursued by the U.S. Department of Justice has dropped from an average of 13 a year to an average of four.

And although women continue to earn 77 cents for each dollar a man earns, the Bush administration in 2002 cut funding for the Equal Pay Matters Initiative, which was established in 1999 to promote equal pay for equal work.

Maternity Leave and Child Care

The report also says the lack of paid maternity leave and affordable child care has made it difficult for women to attain equality at work.

“We chose to prioritize employment discrimination because it’s a cross-cutting issue that we can act on back home if the committee addresses it,” said Vogt.

Vogt and Freeman worked with the Washington-based National Organization for Women, the International Women’s Human Rights Law Clinic at the City University of New York Law School and the Massachusetts CEDAW Project at Suffolk University in Boston to produce the shadow report on women’s rights.

The report was endorsed by the Washington-based National Council of Women’s Organizations, an umbrella organization of over 200 women’s groups.

The civil and political rights agreement under U.N. review is based on the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and entered into force in 1976. It addresses basic human rights such as the right to life and dignity, freedom of speech and religion, and equality before the law. One article obliges countries to ensure men and women are able to enjoy all civil and political rights equally and to prohibit any discrimination based on sex.

Under the treaty, men and women also have an equal right to make informed decisions about their reproductive health and the Human Rights Committee has previously stated that lack of access to contraceptives constitutes discrimination.

Although the U.S. ratified the treaty on civil and political rights with a number of reservations that prevent it from automatically becoming a part of U.S. law, Vogt said any statement from the Human Rights Committee can be an advocacy tool.

“We can’t use what the Human Rights Committee says to litigate, but we can use it to gain visibility and to draft and change legislation,” said Vogt.

“In this political climate, having an outside party validate our concerns can be incredibly empowering,” agreed Freeman.

Pushing CEDAW Profile in U.S.

Freeman hopes that the outcome of the review will help get more women’s groups in the U.S. involved in advocating for ratification of CEDAW, the international women’s rights treaty called the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women.

“It can launch a conversation among American women about international standards and what they can mean to their work,” Freeman said.

The Center for Reproductive Rights in New York submitted a separate shadow report detailing the adverse impact that the lack of insurance coverage for reproductive health care and contraception, abstinence-only sex education and barriers to abortion have on women and girls, particularly those from minority groups and those living in poverty.

While in the U.S. reproductive rights have been defined in terms of health and privacy, the international covenant under U.N. review treats them as integral to women’s human rights and offers broader protection, said Nancy Northup, president of the Center for Reproductive Rights.

“We need to hold the U.S. accountable to the same international standards as anyone else,” Northup said.

Countries report to the Human Rights Committee usually every four years, but the U.S. delayed submitting its second report until October 2005.

Of the seven principal international human rights treaties, the U.S. has only ratified three so far: the political and civil rights treaty, and, in 1994, the Convention Against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment and the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination.

It has not ratified treaties on economic, social and cultural rights, women’s rights, children’s rights, or the rights of migrant workers and their families.

The women’s shadow report notes that in 2001 the Bush administration abolished both the White House Women’s Office of Initiatives and Outreach, which coordinated federal programs charged with women’s equality, and the President’s Interagency Council on Women, which was responsible for overseeing the implementation of U.S. commitments made at the 1995 Beijing World Conference on Women.

“We have fewer and fewer options to advocate for women’s rights in this country,” Vogt told Women’s eNews.

Bojana Stoparic is a freelance writer based in New York.

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