August 2018
REGION: Global

Ronagh McQuigg’s “Is it Time for a UN Treaty on Violence against Women?” addresses the omission of the issue of violence against women from the UN’s Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW), the approaches taken to violence against women by the UN in light of that omission, and proposals for implementing a new binding international standard. McQuigg also provides a brief evaluation of reasons states may choose not to ratify such an instrument, and elaborates on the other options available to international bodies.

At its inception in 1979, CEDAW was authored to provide an anti-discrimination framework, and was not considered a measure for guaranteeing substantive rights such as the rights to bodily integrity, freedom from inhuman and degrading treatment, or freedom from torture. In the decades since CEDAW’s adoption, understandings of discrimination against and equality for women have broadened, but protections against violence have failed to keep pace despite recognition as substantive rights violations. To attempt to reconcile CEDAW with this expanded view of rights, the CEDAW Committee issued General Recommendations 12 and 19, which define and interpret gender-based violence and impose positive obligations on states to report information about victim support, statistics on violence against women, and legislation in force to protect women.

Violence against women is addressed through other UN instruments, as the General Assembly passed a resolution for the protection of women’s rights to life, equality, liberty and security of person, equal protection under the law, freedom from discrimination, access to physical and mental health services, just and favorable conditions of work, and the right not to be subjected to torture. The resolution enumerating these rights, the Declaration on the Elimination of Violence Against Women, faces the same criticism as CEDAW and Recommendations 12 and 19: it is effectively unenforceable.

While it is generally agreed that there should be an international approach to these issues, the current approach offered by the UN is problematic in practice. McQuigg identifies that a lack of coordination and state response to the present UN instruments has effectively undermined the efforts to encourage states to develop protective measures. In practice, the lack of enforcement mechanisms in existing documents aimed at violence against women has led to a failure to hold states responsible for violations. For these reasons, McQuigg suggests the remedy be binding, most likely in the form of a treaty.

Ratification of an international treaty on violence against women hinges on a few variables, particularly the willingness to be bound to the obligations in the treaty, the amount of resources the state can reasonably be expected to expend in order to comply with those obligations, and the state-specific attitudes about gendered or gender-neutral approaches to legislation. As McQuigg points out, states are concerned with adding the burden of additional treaty body reporting requirements. Additionally, the CEDAW Committee also operates under time and resource constraints, and would feel the weight of additional reports. McQuigg addresses these challenges by proposing a new monitoring body to handle assessment and evaluation of information and complaints as an alternative to the use of existing bodies. Furthermore, given such a body’s narrow focus on violence against women, it might also be tasked with making detailed recommendations.

Alternative options to a treaty include incorporation of issues of violence against women into existing policy areas or mirroring current models and tailoring them for violence against women. For example, given the close connection between domestic violence and violence against women, a UN committee that receives and reviews complaints under the auspices of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights might be appropriately suited to address one source of violence against women. McQuigg argues, however, that such a document would unlikely be broad or effective enough to fully accomplish the purposes of CEDAW.

While CEDAW has worked to put forth definitions and information regarding rights violations and has made recommendations to states, its measures are not enforceable and therefore lack the ability to hold states accountable and enforce obligations to respond or report. In order to make progress in this area, it is crucial to resolve the tension between obligations and resources, and to alleviate any grey areas by clearly defining and guaranteeing rights and violations.


NOTE: This summary is produced by the Rule of Law Collaborative, not by the original author(s).

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