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July 01, 2010

CEDAW Ratification: Backseated Once Again

Penny Wakefield

The Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW), or the treaty for the rights of women, is one of several UN human rights treaties designed to give concrete form to the post–World War II aspirational goals of the UN’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Over the last several decades, most of the world’s nations have ratified these treaties: One hundred eighty-six of the UN’s 193 member states have acceded to CEDAW.

The United States is a startling exception. In the late 1980s and early 1990s, the U.S. Senate exercised its constitutional responsibility to “advise and consent” regarding U.S. ratification of UN human rights treaties dealing with civil and political rights, racial discrimination, and prevention of torture and genocide. Left on the table were treaties on children’s rights, social/economic/cultural rights—and CEDAW.

Since then, the Senate has not mustered the necessary 67 votes to ratify CEDAW or any of these other conventions.

Drafted in the late 1970s to address long-standing and pervasive inequities against women worldwide, CEDAW sets out a comprehensive definition of discrimination, as well as a framework for improving women’s lives and measuring nations’ progress toward CEDAW goals.

President Carter signed CEDAW in 1980 to open the way to what many thought would be rapid U.S. ratification. But the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, which has primary jurisdiction over treaty ratifications, was slow to act. It held hearings in 1994 and in 2002, but, in each case, too late in the congressional session to create a realistic opportunity for the full Senate to consider ratification before adjournment.

Hope rose anew at the outset of the 111th Congress in January 2009. More treaty-friendly democrats controlled the Senate. Hillary Clinton, who as First Lady had proclaimed at the Beijing World Conference on Women in 1995 that “women’s rights are human rights,” became secretary of state. Human rights advocates Harold Koh and Michael Posner also moved to the State Department as, respectively, legal adviser and head of the U.S. Department of State’s Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor. The administration declared that CEDAW ratification was a human rights priority.

Ratification advocates in the nonprofit community also reenergized and reorganized. Over the winter of 2009–10, with major foundation financial support, the Leadership Conference for Civil and Human Rights brought additional voices and resources into the coalition of domestic and international organizations that have long sought ratification. It formed an umbrella task force whose members marshalled facts, undertook legal impact analyses, developed communications networks and messages, and visited senators, one by one, to seek their commitment to support ratification.

The message: The time for ratification is now. Research shows that an increasing awareness of women’s plights around the world, and CEDAW’s impact in helping women, has bolstered support for CEDAW over the last thirty years in places where it is being implemented—and even where it isn’t. In a comprehensive poll undertaken across the United States in May 2010, 89 percent of respondents said that the United States should ratify the treaty.

But what counts most is the number in the Senate. Reaching 67 is never easy, as recent debate over the new nuclear nonproliferation treaty has shown. It would require bipartisanship, which has been difficult to achieve for even noncontroversial Senate business in recent years. It would mean overcoming vocal CEDAW opponents, who since the 1990s have been erroneously alleging—and persuading some senators—that CEDAW would infringe U.S. sovereignty, promote international over U.S. law, and run counter to U.S. values concerning home, family, and security.

Reaching 67 also would require beating back many years of collective inertia in the Senate concerning treaties that have been pending so long that some current senators are unfamiliar with the treaties and the ratification process.

In the end, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee did not take any further action on CEDAW in 2010. Although CEDAW proponents were gratified that the Human Rights Subcommittee of the Senate Judiciary Committee held a hearing on CEDAW on November 18, 2010, that committee lacks substantive jurisdiction on treaty matters. Without a strong signal from the administration, Foreign Relations Committee Chair John Kerry, or other Senate leaders, some senators have demurred regarding their public commitment to ratification until they conclude that action on the treaty is likely.

It seems that history is repeating itself. CEDAW ratification once again has been pushed to the backseat by other driving forces in the Senate, making the time for ratification not “now,” but “when?”

Meanwhile, the United States remains in the company of only Iran, Sudan, Somalia, Nauru, Palau, and Tonga as a nation for which women’s rights are not universal human rights.


Penny Wakefield

Penny Wakefield, who works on legislative and public policy matters affecting women’s rights and international human rights, chairs the Individual Rights and Responsibilities Section’s International Human Rights Committee and serves on the Leadership Conference’s CEDAW Task Force.