Senate Committee Considers UN 'Women's Rights' Treaty

By Jeff Johnson | July 7, 2008 | 8:28 PM EDT

Capitol Hill ( - In the 22 years since its introduction by the United Nations, the "Convention on Elimination of All forms of Discrimination Against Women," or CEDAW, has not been ratified by the U.S. Senate.

Thursday, Democrats controlling the Senate Foreign Relations Committee held a hearing in an attempt to bring the treaty back to the attention of the public and to call for a ratification vote by the full Senate.

Supporters say the U.S. cannot speak to discrimination against women in other parts of the world because it has not signed the treaty.

"If we truly want to be regarded as a world leader and champion of human rights, we must teach by example and ratify CEDAW," Rep. Lynn Woolsey (D-Calif.), who has sponsored several resolutions in the House promoting the treaty, told the committee.

Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.), who chaired the hearing, agreed.

"The U.S. should be pushing Afghanistan to abide by the principles contained in the CEDAW treaty," Boxer cited, as an example. "We are speaking to the women of Afghanistan and the women of the world when we act on this treaty."

But opponents say the U.S. is the undisputed world leader in women's and all human rights and does not need a U.N. treaty to prove it.

"Afghanistan was a signatory in 1980 to CEDAW and look what took place there," said Sen. Sam Brownback (R-Kan.). "It's the actions that count. The actions of ours of putting forward troops, putting forward an aggressive effort ... to see that women were involved in the [new Afghan legislature], that women are involved in the Afghan cabinet."

Rep. Jo Ann Davis (R-Va.) opposes CEDAW, not for its goals, but for its implementation by the "Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women," which decides whether or not signatory countries are abiding by the terms of the treaty.

"Although the treaty specifically states that countries shall take measures to suppress trafficking and exploitation of women, the CEDAW Committee has actually called upon China to decriminalize prostitution ... and urged Germany to legitimize prostitution," she noted. "The committee has also criticized a country for the reintroduction of Mothers' Day, arguing that it 'reinforced sexual stereotypes.'"

Sen. Mike Enzi (R-Wyoming), believes the CEDAW treaty would be a good idea, if it actually did what its name implies.

"The title itself promotes the right thing on behalf of women, and I sense that all of us here today share that view," he agreed. "But, ultimately, it's not about the name. What matters for us here is what's inside the convention. We find an assortment of measures, both radical and ill-defined that belie its name."

Enzi says the 22 years that have passed since the U.N.'s introduction of CEDAW are not a reflection of U.S. inaction on the treaty, but of a very deliberate effort by Republicans and Democrats alike to "keep a lid on the Pandora's box."

"It's most admiring signatory countries don't adhere to the letter of CEDAW," Enzi charged, citing the following examples:

The government of China continues to practice forced abortion and sterilization;
- A series of governments in Afghanistan oppressed women until the liberation by U.S. and allied forces;
- The French government refuses unconditional extradition to the U.S. of fugitives convicted of murdering American women and girls;
- Germany will not return abducted American girls to their American parents;
- Iraq has killed its own women and girls with chemical weapons;
- North Korea starves and oppresses its women and girls; and
- In Saudi Arabia, religious police let 14 girls die in a fire rather than allow male rescuers to enter their burning school.

"I don't want the United States' prestige to suffer by association with this group of anti-women rogues," Enzi concluded.

Another concern Enzi shares with opponents to the treaty is its threat to U.S. sovereignty.

"CEDAW would supercede U.S. federal and state law, surrendering American domestic matters to the norm-setting of the international community," he warned.

Kathryn Ogden Balmforth, a civil rights lawyer and former director of the World Family Policy Center at Brigham Young University, agrees.

"One important characteristic of American civil rights law is that it is crafted, legislatively and judicially, to balance society's interest in preventing discrimination with other, equally important, societal interests, such as fundamental First Amendment rights to speech and freedom of religion," she explained. "By contrast, CEDAW - on its face, and ... as it is being interpreted by the CEDAW Committee - is a threat to political freedom, freedom of thought and belief, parental rights, privacy rights, and religious freedom."

She points to the document itself as evidence:

Article One of CEDAW defines discrimination as "any distinction ... on the basis of sex."
Article Two of the treaty requires signatory states to eliminate all discrimination against women, not just by government, but "by any person, organization, or enterprise;"
- Article Five of CEDAW directs governments to "modify the social and cultural patterns of conduct of men and women, with a view to achieving the elimination of ... all ... practices which are based on ... stereotyped roles for men and women."

"In other words, CEDAW requires government to intrude in all areas, no matter how private, consensual, or even sacred, if there is any distinction made on the basis of sex, or if any culture perpetuates 'stereotypes,'" she cautioned. "CEDAW requires the exertion of government power against family, religion, and even thought."

Sen. Joseph Biden (D-Del.), the chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, dismissed the criticisms.

"Within the last decade, the United States has joined multilateral human rights treaties banning torture, promoting civil and political rights, and banning racial discrimination," he recalled. "It's long past time we join the rest of the world dealing with the rights of women with the same fervor."

The Bush administration had expressed its support for the treaty in writing as late as June 4, when it sent a prioritized list of treaties it is seeking action on to the Senate. CEDAW was listed in the third category of priorities under the heading "generally desirable and should be approved," according to Biden.

The Delaware Democrat says that when he contacted the State Department to invite witnesses to Thursday's hearing, he was told that the Justice Department was completing a new review of the treaty and that final administration comment on it was, therefore, not yet available.

"I want to express my disappointment with the manner in which the administration has addressed this treaty. Its cooperation has been far from satisfactory," Biden charged.

"The fact it's reviewing the treaty and the committee's proposed resolution for ratification from 1994, to see if additional conditions should be recommended to the Senate, should be done quickly," Biden said, referring to a provision included in the committee's resolution by Sen. Jessie Helms (R-N.C.) stating that "nothing in the treaty shall be construed to reflect or create any right to abortion."

"I decided to proceed with this hearing today, and to hear from the executive branch when it's fully prepared," Biden explained. "And if it's not fully prepared, to move the treaty, period, with or without their input."

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