Don’t Miss a Story: Subscribe to PassBlue
Sign up to get the smartest news on the UN by email, joining readers across the globe.
There is still a long way to go to uphold the rights of women worldwide, and UN Women, a department of the Secretariat, is now carrying the torch in this struggle. It builds on the efforts of the UN human-rights program going back to the earliest days of the organization.
For International Women’s Day, on March 8, it is fitting that this fourth article in a series using material from UN archives looks at how much work has been invested in advocating the rights of women over decades.
When the UN was established, injustices against women pervaded. The Commission on the Status of Women and the Commission on Human Rights and its subcommission created protection building blocks, one after another. Margaret Bruce, known as Molly, of the UN Division of Human Rights was one of the pioneers. Eleanor Roosevelt led the entire human-rights cause.
The UN studied issues such as discrimination affecting the nationality of women, their political rights, consent to marriage, minimum age for marriage, registration of marriage, suppression of trafficking in persons, the abolition of slavery, the slave trade and practices similar to slavery. The UN established international norms on these and other topics. These were foundations the world had never witnessed before. The world had changed.
From 1974 to 1975, Helvi Sipila of Finland, the secretary-general of the first World Conference on Women, held in Mexico City, ignited the world with her campaign to promote the rights of women and to highlight the importance of the conference. She was a true heroine of the human-rights cause. Subsequent world conferences, the last one in Beijing, further built on the edifice to uphold women’s rights. Women’s rights, Hillary Clinton memorably declared at the Beijing Conference, are human rights.
In 1979, the UN adopted the Convention on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women, which now has an optional protocol for considering petitions about violations of women’s rights. The Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women, or Cedaw, has delivered notable decisions on cases involving domestic violence that resulted in deaths of victims (Goekee v. Austria and Yildrin v. Austria). It has also considered issues such as inadequate care during pregnancy, resulting in death (Teixiera v. Brazil).
The process of considering petitions and handing down decisions upholding the rights of women was pioneered in the Human Rights Committee, which operates under the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, adopted in 1966. The Committee has delivered landmark decisions supporting the rights of women, and the path blazed by it is crucially significant. In a world of political, legal, cultural, religious and philosophical diversity — now undergoing numerous challenges and convulsions — it is the jurisprudence of bodies such as the Human Rights Committee that defines what is just in our world.
Global society cannot survive without justice. In fact, Plato cautioned, no society can.
In the 1970s, a foreign woman who married a Mauritian man had the legal right to live with her husband in Mauritius. A foreign man marrying a Mauritian woman did not have that right and had to apply for a residence permit that could be granted or refused. The law did not permit redress to the courts in case of refusal. This could obviously put the enjoyment of family rights at risk.
Mauritian women joined together to bring a case before the Human Rights Committee, complaining that Mauritian immigration laws discriminated against Mauritian women, as alien wives were guaranteed automatic residence rights in Mauritius by law, whereas alien husbands were not. The Committee held that the legislation was discriminatory and that Mauritian women had the right to equal treatment: “The protection of a family cannot vary with the sex of the one or the other spouse.” (Ameeruddy-Cziffra and others v. Mauritius.)
This case was the first time the Committee recommended a change in domestic law to make it consistent with the Covenant. Mauritius complied and removed the discriminatory aspects of the law: a breakthrough decision for women worldwide.
In the 1970s, native Indian women in Canada who married outside their tribe lost their right to live with their kin on tribal land. The Canadian government was ready to change the law, which dated to the 19th century, but male elders of Indian tribes opposed it. After a divorce, Sandra Lovelace, a Maliseet Indian, wanted to return to her family and kin on their tribal land but was refused. After going unsuccessfully to the Canadian Supreme Court, she brought her case to the Human Rights Committee and won. The Committee held that she had a right to continue living with her tribe and to share in its culture. This was a milestone for women in Canada, and the government used the decision to change the legislation.
In the 1980s, women in the Netherlands who contributed to the social security system on par with men could, unlike men, receive benefits only if they could show that they were breadwinners. A man was not required to meet this condition. Two Dutch women, F.H. Zwaan-de Vries and S.W.M. Broeks, brought cases before the Human Rights Committee, which held that they had been victims of discrimination. These decisions helped provide justice for women in the Netherlands.
In the 1980s in Peru, the civil code provided that when a woman was married, only her husband was entitled to represent matrimonial property before the courts. The Committee found this discriminatory (Ato del Avellanal v. Peru).
These decisions touched four continents and made global law.
Judge Jakob Moller of Iceland, chief of the petitions branch of the UN human-rights secretariat for 25 years, who led the team that assisted the Human Rights Committee in its consideration of these and other cases, calls these decisions building blocks for gender equity and global justice. With an American colleague, Alfred de Zayas, he published a book on the decisions of the Human Rights Committee.
When the Human Rights Committee first began considering cases, the Cold War was in full swing. Committee members from Eastern Europe took a narrow view of the Committee’s role in considering national reports and petitions. It took great skill and wisdom to pilot decisions such as these.
Judge Rosalind Higgins of Britain, later president of the International Court of Justice; and Judge Christine Chanet of France, Judge Elizabeth Evatt of Australia, Professors Gisèle Côté-Harper of Canada, Cecilia Medina of Chile and Pilar Gaitan de Pombo of Colombia were among the Committee members who helped steer its decisions. In the midst of it all, Moller provided wisdom, tact and inventiveness. He and his team prepared the draft decisions considered by the Committee.
The decisions of the Human Rights Committee and Cedaw will stand the test of time. They are among the most important contributions of the UN in upholding human rights generally and the rights of women in particular. They are the core of global law on human rights. They are signposts for determining what is just in particular countries and in the world at large. Plato — and Antigone, a strong believer in justice — would be pleased!
Thank you, United Nations.
We welcome your comments on this essay; please write them in the Comment section below.