By Judge Aruna Devi Narain and Marcia Vaune Jocelyn Kran
This article was first published in PassBlue on November 18, 2021
Women have a right to participate in public and political life and the work of international organizations under the United Nations Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women, or CEDAW. This right extends to membership in all UN bodies, including the ten committees that are meant to help countries protect international human-rights obligations. Although the first committee was set up in 1977, gender equality has not been achieved in the membership of most of these entities.
These committees are called treaty bodies, and their role is to monitor a country’s compliance with the UN human-rights treaties that collectively cover civil, cultural, economic, political and social rights; the rights of women, people with disabilities, migrant workers and children; and the right to freedom from torture, disappearance and discrimination. The committees function separately from the Human Rights Council, and committee members are independent experts rather than national officials. As part of their work, committees directly recommend to countries how they can improve their national human-rights policies, laws and action. The Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, currently led by Michelle Bachelet, acts as the secretariat for the committees, providing the staff that is needed to organize and support committee meetings, most of which are held in Geneva.
The decisions of the committees establish frameworks for national policies, law and programs, ultimately affecting the everyday lives of their citizens, including women. Without an equal number of women experts on board, however, the treaty bodies are more likely to overlook critical issues and perspectives that should be part of their legal agenda.
In June 2021, the Human Rights Council considered a report exploring the impact of women’s underrepresentation in UN bodies and mechanisms — including the treaty bodies — and the overall challenges to gender parity. The report flagged four treaty bodies with particularly low numbers of women among their membership: the Committee on the Protection of the Rights of All Migrant Workers (14 percent); the Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (28 percent); the Committee Against Torture (30 percent); and the Committee on Enforced Disappearances (30 percent). The representation of women across all treaty bodies is 48.83 percent but concentrated in only four of the 10 committees. Two of these address women’s rights and children’s rights: the CEDAW Committee and the Committee on the Rights of the Child, or CRC (The United States is not a party to CEDAW or the CRC.) Currently, gender parity has been achieved only in the 18-member Committee on the Rights of the Child.
The input provided by women expert members of Treaty Bodies is crucial and indispensable in all committee functions including reviewing countries’ human rights compliance through constructive dialogues and deciding on individual complaints of violations and formulating guidance through General Comments/Recommendations. For example, a number of such cases decided by the Human Rights Committee under the First Optional Protocol to the ICCPR specifically relate to issues of gender inequality or discrimination based on sex. The Committee has directly considered cases claiming these violations, time and again. Some recent examples include a case submitted by Ms. Elena Genero, where the Committee decided that Italy, by setting a minimum height requirement to become a permanent firefighter, violated the non-discrimination and other principles of the ICCPR. Such requirements posed an unnecessary disadvantage to women and restricted their opportunities in a profession traditionally dominated by men.
In a case against Nepal, in 2019, the Committee dealt with issues of arbitrary arrest and torture including rape and sexual assault of a 14-year old indigenous girl, while in custody. The State Party was held liable for violating ICCPR provisions, including Article 26 on non-discrimination. Similarly, in 2017, Ireland’s restrictive abortion laws were found to be in violation of the Covenant given their inherent arbitrary and discriminatory nature. The Committee required Ireland to pay compensation and offer psychological support to the complainant, Siobhán Whelan.[BM(1]
As we probe the problem of underrepresentation of women on Treaty Bodies, it is clear that one reason for the lack of gender parity in all but one of the treaty bodies is that countries have not nominated enough women as candidates for the committees. Countries that have ratified the relevant treaties nominate candidates and elect members for four-year terms at the UN in New York City. Sadly, most nomination processes are informal and lack transparency, resulting in qualified women candidates left unaware of such vacancies.
Prioritizing gender parity in the countries’ nominal processes remains pivotal to overall effectiveness and the credibility of the treaty body system. Inadequate representation of women across these mechanisms could potentially lead to certain key gender issues being overlooked.
Moreover, the countries may also be hesitant to consider and implement a recommendation by a treaty body on gender related issues when that treaty body’s composition is itself underrepresented by women.
This gender gap can be solved by countries and the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights taking the action recommended in the report to the Human Rights Council. For example, countries could identify women candidates for treaty body membership and, where appropriate, give women preference. They could closely work with civil society organizations like women’s associations to collect profiles of qualified women and widely publicize vacancies including to these groups. They also could incorporate gender as an explicit feature in nomination processes, as was done in Canada’s call for application for membership in the Committee of the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. It would also be ideal for the countries to track their progress on these gender parity measures across the ten committees.
While the nomination of more women candidates would be a step forward, we also need to ensure that countries vote for and elect such candidates. Elections during the Covid-19 pandemic have relied on virtual campaigns, and candidates now also reach out to civil society organizations to lobby their governments to vote for qualified women candidates. In addition, an informal group of former women chairs and members of treaty bodies could be set up to mentor women candidates and advise them on their campaigns. Countries that have adopted a feminist foreign policy, like Canada, France, Luxembourg, Mexico and Sweden, could also play a leading role in promoting women candidates.
The Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights could broadly advertise upcoming treaty body elections in women’s networks. It could also regularly track the number of women and men serving as independent experts, and make this information public in a format similar to the gender parity dashboard that is used to measure staff composition in the UN Secretariat. And it could help countries design ways to achieve gender parity during the nomination and election processes. The Secretariat could also periodically report on the existing nomination policies and mechanisms and highlight the best practices.
Furthermore, the Countries and the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights could promote research to identify, analyse and cope with the barriers to achieving gender balance across the UN treaty bodies and also, report on the current national best practices.
We believe that High Commissioner for Human Rights Bachelet is in a unique position to urge countries to take concerted action to push for gender parity in the treaty bodies. Familiar with breaking glass ceilings, she was the first executive director of UN Women and the first woman president of Chile. She could make a policy statement giving high priority to the achievement of gender equality in the committees and call for parity in nominations of candidates.
It is paradoxical that the treaty bodies entrusted with upholding the principle of non-discrimination based on sex use a process to select expert members that can result in discrimination. Now that the treaty bodies have been functioning for many years, it is long overdue for countries and the UN Secretariat to put their gender equality commitments into action.
About the authors:
Judge Aruna Devi Narain is a judge of the Supreme Court of Mauritius and expert member (2017 – 2022), vice-chairperson, and rapporteur of the UN Committee on the Elimination of all forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW Committee).
Ms. Marcia Vaune Jocelyn Kran O.C. is an international lawyer from Canada; who was formerly Director at the UN Human Rights Office in Geneva and Senior Regional Manager at the UN Development Programme in Bangkok and Bratislava, and is a member of the UN Human Rights Committee (2017 – 2024).
Note: Thanks to Ms. Bhavya Mahajan, a lawyer and mediator from India, who helped with the research for the article.