Wednesday, July 29, 2009


This is the second week of the 44th session of the Committee on CEDAW at the United Nations headquarters here in our fair city. What, you may ask, is CEDAW? The acronym stands for the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women, and in UN parlance a 'convention' is a treaty. The Committee that is currently meeting consists of 23 'experts' who check up on whether or not countries that have signed or ratified this treaty are operating in compliance with it.

As with so much that the United Nations does, an international treaty offered in the spirit of affirming human rights and denouncing discrimination sounds like a treaty that no one could object to. Indeed, the CEDAW articles affirm women's rights to equal treatment under the law, in education and in the workplace. CEDAW denounces female prostitution and trafficking in women. But, just as the treaty defines equality and lays out the problems, it also spells out the solution. Or, in the treaty's own words, it provides an 'agenda for action' that countries should follow in order to achieve the equality that CEDAW defines for the international community.

One area of concern for some is CEDAW's persistent inclusion of abortion as part of the action agenda it promotes for countries that have ratified CEDAW. Though the word 'abortion' never appears in the treaty, the UN code words for abortion--'reproductive rights,' 'reproductive health'-- do. (Secretary of State Hillary Clinton confirmed this code language in April, 2009 when she spoke before a U.S. House committee and said that the Obama administration thinks 'reproductive health includes access to abortion.') The treaty puts it this way: '. . . the Convention also devotes major attention to a most vital concern of women, namely their reproductive rights.' And '. . . .the Convention is also concerned with the dimension of human reproduction as well as with the impact of cultural factors on gender relations.'
Thus, when the CEDAW Committee meets, as they are doing now, countries up for compliance review are, among other things, examined as to whether or not their laws provide access to the supposed 'right' to abortion, even though CEDAW never mentions abortion. An organization that follows all UN activities on abortion and other sanctity of life issues is C-Fam, the Catholic Family and Human Rights Institute. I had the privilege of learning a bit about how CEDAW and treaties like it function while volunteering at C-Fam this past year.

Today and tomorrow, the CEDAW Committee will be reviewing two tiny countries that legally and culturally oppose abortion. They are Tuvalu and Timor-Leste. Tuvalu, in case you haven't heard of it, is the world's fourth smallest country located in the Pacific Ocean between Hawaii and Australia. Tuvalu's 8 or so islands comprise about 25 square km of land with a population of roughly 10,000 people. The Committee is most likely having a field day with tiny Tuvalu because not only does the country consider abortion a crime, but the Tuvaluan constitution does not explicitly guarantee equality between the sexes. (Perish the thought!) From the research I did while at C-Fam, I learned that the Committee has already questioned Tuvalu as to how and when the country plans to amend its constitution on the matter of equality between the sexes. The Committee also wants to know how little Tuvalu plans to change its culture (yes!) regarding some of its deep-seated traditions which don't exactly square with CEDAW's notion of how the world should run. It's fascinating how little tolerance the UN has for multi-culturalism when it interferes with their 'agenda.'

The case of Timor-Leste and CEDAW is also interesting. While at C-Fam, I wrote a piece about the country which I invite you to read here:


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