Recently, Obama Administration officials, including Secretary Hillary Clinton, Ambassador Susan Rice, and even President Barack Obama himself, have spoken in support of ratifying the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW). The treaty also enjoys support from former Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor. Naturally renewed talk of CEDAW, combined with a Senate hearing held on the treaty in November 2010, has activist groups gearing up for an epic inside-the-beltway battle should President Obama transmit the treaty to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee (SFRC) for its advice and consent.
While I understand arguments against CEDAW, especially those concerning the unenforceable nature of human rights treaties, I find them unconvincing considering the promise CEDAW holds as a tool of diplomacy on a very sensitive and complicated issue. Treaties do not always need an enforcement mechanism to be useful. Human rights treaties can function as a means of establishing agreed upon norms and values that serve as a framework for dialogue to address worldwide problems. In this capacity, CEDAW has the potential to provide the United States with another tool to engage internationally and serve as a model on the rights of women. Even better, it can do so at little or no cost to U.S. sovereignty.
Once the U.S. ratifies CEDAW, U.S. citizens will be eligible to sit on the 23 person CEDAW Committee, which is charged with monitoring efforts to implement CEDAW worldwide. Leadership on this committee would provide an opportunity for the U.S. to share its expertise and best practices. While not enforceable, the recommendations of the Committee can be used as guidance by countries as they implement laws that protect women’s rights. Also, as certain countries undergoing post-conflict transitions review their laws, they can use CEDAW’s standards as a model to establish regulations preventing discrimination against women.
CEDAW also provides NGOs and civil society with a platform for lobbying their own governments worldwide, something the United States should further support and enable. Women living in countries where their basic rights are systematically ignored often do not even know that their rights are being violated. Some accept the abuse as a part of daily life. In countries where subjugation of women is the norm, NGOs can use the CEDAW definition of discrimination to hold trainings to educate women about their rights. In addition, since States parties must report to the CEDAW Committee at least every 4 years on the progress of implementation, NGOs are able to write shadow CEDAW reports to provide an alternative view to the Committee. This practice creates an important conversation between the Committee, the States party, and the NGO community in certain countries. It also helps nurture a more robust civil society that is devoted to and concerned with women’s issues.
One central argument against CEDAW is that America would cede sovereignty by ratifying the treaty. Such an argument fails to take into account that the CEDAW Committee lacks an enforcement mechanism for non-compliance by States parties. Furthermore, reservations, understandings, and declarations (RUDs) proposed by President Bill Clinton in 1994, as well as the SFRC in 2002, include a non-self executing declaration, an understanding proposed by former Senator Jesse Helms (R-NC) that excludes abortion from the definition of family planning, and a reservation rejecting the obligation to regulate private conduct, except as required by the U.S. Constitution. These RUDs provide additional assurances that CEDAW will not infringe on United States sovereignty or override laws made by Congress. With these RUDs, the SFRC reported CEDAW favorably with bipartisan support in 1994 and 2002, but the full Senate has not considered the treaty.
Other opponents of CEDAW argue that it is an ineffective way of preventing discrimination against women, as evidenced by some of the States parties that continue to have poor women’s rights records. They point to Saudi Arabia and North Korea, both of which have women’s rights records incompatible with CEDAW’s aims, as examples. However, as noted previously, the role of CEDAW is to create a framework for dialogue and to draw attention to women’s rights issues. The treaty cannot change entrenched discrimination against women overnight.
Seven countries in total have not ratified CEDAW, including Iran, Somalia, and Sudan—nations that are hardly good company to keep when it comes to women’s rights. Even if CEDAW did have an enforcement mechanism, the United States would have little to fear by ratifying CEDAW, as its domestic laws already fulfill most of the requirements under the treaty. Many would argue, myself included, that total equality for women in the U.S. is still a work in progress, but our standards are high and our legal framework strives to protect the rights of both men and women. The same cannot be said for the laws of certain other countries in the world.
The Obama Administration deserves credit for making the participation of women in politics, the economy, and education a priority worldwide, but if the U.S. ratified CEDAW it would gain still more credibility with the 186 other countries in the world that have already supported the treaty. The United States can serve as a more formal example by ratifying CEDAW, because it can then point to officially agreed upon standards – standards that even the most powerful country in the world agrees to follow – when addressing the woefully inadequate treatment of women and girls around the world. Missing another opportunity to ratify this important treaty would be a mistake.