Gender Issues in the Human Rights Committee– From Guatemala to Yemen

3 Apr

Joining the Arms Trade Treaty Preparatory Committee, the annual meeting of the Commission on the Status of Women and the Programme of Action on Small Arms Preparatory Committee as major, recent UN activities with direct implications for GAPW’s mandate, the Human Rights Committee (HRC) also convened to review select state performance in the human rights area. As it has done in the past, GAPW monitored the HRC as it posed often difficult questions to high level representatives of states parties regarding the fulfillment of their commitments under the International Covenant of Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR). The HRC is a treaty body consisting of eighteen non-government experts and is designed to assess gaps and inconsistencies in states reports submitted as part of treaty obligations. The impact of HRC’s recommendations on the states under review has been a subject of debate. What is not debated is the commitment and skill of committee members as they interrogate official interpretations of performance – in this cycle of the Dominican Republic, Yemen, Guatemala, Turkmenistan and Cape Verde – while supporting states that agree to come to New York (or Geneva) and submit themselves to this type of review.

Particularly alarming aspects of the HRC’s discussions with these states – especially in the case of Yemen and Guatemala – were related to both violence against women and discrimination that impedes women’s participation in social and political life. Given Guatemala’s current membership in the Security Council as well as the heightened attention to women’s contributions to the so-called Arab Spring, the HRC’s dialogues with these countries were particularly relevant reflections of some of the core issues under discussion within the UN on how to hold governments accountable to their obligations to promote participation of women and end impunity for violence.

Cultural diversity, protecting legal pluralism and assurances of greater accessibility were some of the key issues for Guatemala. Similarly, violence against women was also addressed, in particular the ‘femicide law’ and the specialized courts that were established to enforce the provisions of the law. Guatemala was specifically asked for details on how cases of violence against women are prosecuted, as well as how police and prosecutors are trained on these issues to ensure that formal charges are filed and pursued for all crimes related to femicide. In this context, violations of the rights of the indigenous women were also emphasized. Guatemalan officials gave details about the national legal framework that has been enacted to ensure equality, end discrimination against women, improve accessibility to justice, and increase response to the particular needs of indigenous women. To what extent any of these law and provisions have positive outcomes for ending violence and promoting participation was an open question.

Violence and discrimination against women are critical human rights issues for Yemen as well. The responses by government officials to committee questions highlighted government efforts to promote women’s rights in the constitution and increase the representation of women in politics and the judiciary. Enacting a quota system to increase women’s participation in political affairs was specifically mentioned. Yemen also responded to questions about women’s limited access to education and the high illiteracy rate by noting that young girls are transitioned from school into marriages at a young age. While secondary education of young girls is encouraged, there is limited opportunity in Yemen’s many rural communities. On some of the Sharia-governed practices, such as polygamy or early marriages, Sharia requires equal treatment for women so women must be consulted before marriage and have grounds for divorce if they are treated unfairly. Yemen also highlighted proposed legislation to withdraw weapons from armed groups as well as efforts to control the flow of weapons into the hands of non-state actors, situations which pose unique risks for violence against women.

Overall, it was helpful for committee members to keep their focus on women’s participation and the state’s accountability regarding violence against women. It will be important to follow how these issues will be developed and, in particular, to what extent the recommendations of the HRC will be implemented. Clearly, there was some skepticism on the part of Committee members that concerns they raised in response to national reports from these and the other countries on this docket (including Turkmenistan and Dominican Republic) would lead to significant and lasting changes. Especially the case of Yemen, women’s issues seem to be adjudicated on the basis of three distinct and at times contradictory principles – the ICCPR, the national constitution and Sharia law, the latter of which still permits stoning and amputation as suitable punishments for transgressions including adultery. Only women are eligible for stoning. 

There is a tendency in these meetings for governments to respond to allegations of neglect or abuse with affirmations that appropriate constitutional provisions are in place, the assumption being that if the right laws exist, the right behavior ensues. Clearly this not always the case, and committee members are wise to insist, as best they can, on practical policy responses to their practical human rights concerns. Moreover, despite their heavy case load and report backlogs, members are wise to insist on diretrct engagement by relevant UN agencies within the countries under consideration. It is important that states respond to evidence-based concerns with evidence of their own, rather than recourse to constitutional or other texts.

– Dr. Robert Zuber and Melina Lito 

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