Women's treaty revives old debates

Tuesday's Senate committee vote, on a treaty 170 nations have already signed, will be a rights vs. sovereignty debate.

If the idea of an international treaty to promote equality for women sounds oh so '70s – well, that may be because it is.

But in the United States, where the Equal Rights Amendment never passed and where "women's rights" remains one of the deepest dividing issues on the liberal-conservative fault line, a 1979 United Nations treaty already approved by 170 countries has reemerged for ratification.

With the Senate Foreign Relations Committee set to vote Tuesday, reveille has been sounded for the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) which has lain dormant since Jimmy Carter signed it in 1980.

Even if passed by the committee, the treaty would still require a two-thirds vote by the Senate – an onerous hurdle. But committee action would raise women's rights as a political issue in time for the fall's midterm elections, while raising new questions about the Bush administration's interest in multilateral diplomacy.

Treaty debate is spilling over from the hot-button issues that usually swirl around the theme of women's rights – sexual equality, contraception, abortion – into questions of America's status and role in the world. CEDAW joins a list of international treaties – including the International Criminal Court recently rejected by the Bush administration – at the heart of a national debate on the future of national sovereignty.

Advocating the treaty as an international tool for improving women's lot, supporters say it could affect such cases as the status of women in Afghanistan – given a high profile by the war on terrorism – and the recent well-publicized punishment by gang rape of a woman in Pakistan. More than 160 rights organizations, including nonpartisan groups that advocate America's traditional involvement in international affairs, say ratification will allow the US to be an effective promoter of basic women's rights.

"The United States is a world leader in human rights, we're the New York Yankees of the human rights world, but because we haven't ratified this treaty yet our work is being undermined," says Sarah Albert, public policy director of the General Federation of Women's Clubs and a co-chair of the CEDAW Coalition. Without ratification, the US can't sit on the treaty's 23-country commission to review signatories' compliance.

Opponents – largely from the Christian Right, but also neo-conservatives who see the treaty as one more attempt to impose global norms on the US – attack the treaty as the work of international forces promoting abortion rights, sexual freedom, and promiscuity, while undermining motherhood.

Mother's Day threatened?

"CEDAW doesn't like mothers – Do Senators?" trumpets the Web page of the conservative Eagle Forum, which claims ratification could even lead to pressure on the US to scuttle the celebration of Mother's Day.

The best way to promote women's rights is to promote democratic governance in the world, say opponents – not through big- foot coercive measures against local cultures.

"Where is discrimination against women worst? In countries like Saudi Arabia and Afghanistan ... places like Iraq, North Korea, and China, that have ratified," says Wendy Wright, of Concerned Women of America. "That's why what we really ought to be doing is promoting open and freer societies."

Both sides see the treaty, until recently lying forgotten like a basement spud, increasingly becoming a political hot potato.

The Bush administration originally supported CEDAW, as recently as February calling it "generally desirable." But the State Department now calls the treaty "vague" and "complex," and wants the Justice Department to review its potential impact on US law.

That switch raised a red flag to CEDAW's backers, who consider a review by Attorney General John Ashcroft, a strong Christian conservative, a call to arms. They suspect the administration has "got religion" under pressure from its conservative supporters.

"George W. Bush's entire constituency is up in arms against [the treaty]," Eagle Forum leader Phyllis Schlafly wrote recently.

One key point of contention is just how coercive the treaty would be in terms of national impact if ratified by the US.

CEDAW "can be ratified without spending a dime or changing one of our laws," says Ms. Albert. The treaty's advisory capacity has been enough to serve notice to countries about areas where their laws need improvement to ensure women's legal and health rights and girls' access to education, she says.

Still, Albert says she expects the US to place a new "condition" on the treaty to affirm that the 23-nation advisory committee has no enforcement authority.

Questions of sovereignty

But Ms. Wright calls that position "disingenuous," saying supporters know full well the treaty has already been used to pressure signatory nations on everything from abortion rights to access to day care. She cites a March assessment of CEDAW by the American Bar Association, which asks of signatory countries "what training programs exist to educate judges and other legal professionals about CEDAW's precedence over national law?"

Calling that assessment the supporters' "smoking gun," Wright says, "This shows the proponents do intend to use this treaty to supercede national law."

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