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National NOW Times >> Fall 2006 >> Article

NOW Scores with U.N. Human Rights Report

By Jan Erickson
Director of Government Relations

In late July, the U.S. Mission to the United Nations promised to examine the concerns of the United Nations Human Rights Committee (U.N. HRC) on sex discrimination in the U.S. That commitment marked an important outcome for women in the United States and for the NOW Foundation, which presented detailed documentation of employment discrimination against women in the United States and lobbied the U.N. HRC for a report that would prompt U.S. response.

The approach of using the U.N. human rights treaty review process to advocate for women's human rights is a new avenue for advocacy for NOW Foundation. In this case, the U.N. HRC assessed U.S. compliance with the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), an international treaty designed to protect individuals' human rights and to which the United States is a signatory. When paired with the Convention on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights, human rights advocates call the two conventions the "International Bill of Rights." Both documents offer a more fundamental and complete protection of women's human rights than exists in the U.S. Constitution and statutes.

For ten years, the U.S. delayed submitting a required biennial report in ICCPR compliance. When the report was finally submitted in October 2005, it defended U.S implementation of the ICCPR and circumvented many issues, including prisoner abuse at Abu Ghraib, prisoner detention at Guantanamo, domestic wire-tapping, overbroad definitions of terrorism, infringement of civil liberties, human rights abuses in the aftermath of Katrina, capital punishment, de facto race discrimination, racial profiling and police brutality, and many others. The report also stated that women have full legal protection from sex discrimination, among other dubious assertions.

In late May, NOW Foundation released what is called a Shadow Report, a tool that is used to highlight a country's treaty violations when the country itself refuses to acknowledge them. This report detailed a wide array of areas in which discrimination against women in employment, de facto and deliberate, is practiced in this country. We stressed that the U.S. Constitution does not prohibit sex discrimination and that laws intended to reduce sex discrimination in employment are too narrow and poorly enforced to be effective. Following are a few of the important points raised in the NOW Foundation's Shadow Report:

  • Since U.S. ratification of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights in 1992, little has been accomplished. The U.S. government has failed to adopt effective laws to address the problem of persistent and pervasive pay inequity.
  • Laws against sexual harassment and sex discrimination in employment and education are inadequate and poorly enforced.

Family support policies are seriously lacking in the U.S., and their absence makes it nearly impossible for women to achieve equality in the workplace. Family and medical leave provisions affecting women and their families are among the most unfriendly of all developed nations, providing only unpaid leave, and only about half of all employers are required to provide even that small relief.

Our report was included with those of seven other women's rights groups into a larger Gender Shadow Report that discussed the harsh treatment of women in prison and denial of their abortion rights, inadequate protection of women fleeing gender-specific persecution, discrimination against battered women in employment and housing, the limitation and disappearance of factual information from the government regarding sex discrimination, and the provision of biased and incorrect information in abstinence-only sex education programs.

The Gender Shadow Report recommended ways to resolve many of the women's human rights violations in the U.S., including the establishment "of a national human rights institution or any other department or bureau with responsibility for monitoring and promoting women's human rights" (see "Report on Women's Human Rights in the United States Under the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights" at http://www.nowfoundation.org/issues/economic/GenderShadowReport.pdf).

The Gender Shadow Report was presented to the U.N. Human Rights Committee in early July; among the 174 Non-Governmental Organizations (NGO's) that testified included representatives from NOW Foundation, International Gender Organization, and the International Women's Rights Action Watch. In all, the accumulated Shadow Reports produced a 465–page critique of the U.S. failure to live up to ICCPR treaty provisions (See http://www.ushrnetwork.org/page227.cfm). Women's rights advocates also met with key U.N. HRC members to ensure they understood the true state of women's human rights in the U.S.

Our efforts were successful. Officials from the U.S. Mission to the U.N. were questioned about the reports, and the charges made in the NGO Shadow Reports. Human Rights Commission (HRC) member Judge Elizabeth Palm of Sweden asked why sex discrimination in employment is still a serious problem in the U.S. Another committee member inquired why women in prison were being denied abortions (detailed in the Gender Shadow Report). Most importantly, the U.N. HRC's Concluding Observations on U.S. compliance with the ICCPR said that it was "especially concerned about the reported persistence of employment discrimination against women."

NOW Foundation can use the treaty review process to demand accountability from the U.S. government (as well as from state and local governments), such as pushing them to issue human rights ‘impact statements' on how various proposed laws and ordinances are in compliance with treaties the U.S. has signed. Furthermore, women's activists can renew efforts for U.S. ratification of CEDAW, the Convention to Eliminate All Forms of Discrimination Against Women, which (combined with the ICCPR) could significantly strengthen protections for U.S. women. A campaign is already underway to have local, state, and federal governments adopt resolutions in support of its ratification.

Instead of being an international leader for human rights, the U.S. has consistently violated the treaties it demands other countries enforce. NOW Foundation will continue to highlight these violations and advocate for changes that will ensure compliance with international treaties and for the ratification of CEDAW.

Please visit http://www.nowfoundation.org for more information.

 

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