U.N. Pact Sinks on Issue of Violence Against Women
Emily Freeburg, USA
April 24, 2003
(WOMENSENEWS)—Violence against women—and what steps nations should
take to reduce it—became the issue that led to a first-ever
diplomatic failure at the United Nations Commission on the Status of
Meeting in early March two floors below the Security Council, which was
also hamstrung over the issues of conflict in Iraq, the women's
commission failed to adopt official language detailing measures to
reduce rape and trafficking, promote reproductive health and end
impunity for war crimes against women, as well as many other ways to
eliminate gender-based violence.
The commission had spent two weeks writing what's called "Agreed
Conclusions" on two themes: women's participation in and access to
the media and the elimination of all forms of violence against women.
The conclusions are typically used as models for governments to
create policy and as advocacy tools by non-governmental
organizations. The document on ending violence against women and
girls would have been used by advocates to strengthen legislation to
end domestic violence and sexual exploitation and trafficking of
women. It would also have been used to educate governments on how to
promote and protect women's human rights.
Consensus on the conclusions came to an end when Iran, Egypt,
Pakistan, Sudan and the U.S. raised objections. The Iranian
delegation objected to a specific paragraph that said governments
must not use religion or custom as an excuse for violence against
women. But the failure to pass this text was about more than cultural
The idea that religion and custom are not excuses for violence
against women is not new language in U.N. documents. The subject was
already agreed upon in various U.N. meetings, conferences and
documents, including the Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action
from the Fourth World Conference on Women, the Special Session of the
General Assembly in June of 2000, and the Convention on the
Elimination of All Forms of Violence against Women. Many governments
and non-government organizations participating in the commission
agree that to re-negotiate already agreed upon text is to take steps
Also, some governments emphasized that consensus could have been
reached if all delegates had demonstrated fairness and respect in
"It's remarkable to see that after decades of work by feminist
activists and 12 years of U.N. conferences the ways that
women's human rights are still seen as negotiable," said Charlotte
Bunch, executive director of Rutger's Center for Women's Global
Breakdown of Security Council Talks Influences Commission
Bunch also says the impact of the fact that the commission met during
the same time as the breakdown of the Security Council over Iraq
cannot be underestimated. The governments that were responsible for
ensuring consensus was reached were preoccupied and angry about their
loss of power at the Security Council.
"The Commission on the Status of Women is one of the weakest U.N.
bodies in terms of power and, when it confronted problems, the heads
of governments were upstairs" at Security Council meetings, Bunch
said. The new people at commission, she added, did not "have the
authority to come out with new solutions and there was no attention
to working out compromises."
Like many conflicts at the United Nations, the controversy over the
religion and custom clause played out in disputes over procedure.
As the appointed hour for adjournment neared, Iran raised the
objections. Fernando Coimbra, chair of the meeting and first
secretary of the Brazilian Mission, moved to accept the conclusions
on violence regardless. The delegations of Pakistan, Sudan, Egypt and
the U.S. raised their placards in objection. Ignoring them, Coimbra
declared the conclusions adopted. This caused another round of
placard waving and gavel banging. Eventually, the meeting was
adjourned because it was 7:30 p.m. on a Friday night and the
translators had left.
Some advocates present speculate that, if the government delegations
themselves had had more experience and authority, they could have
asked the translators to stay another two hours and continued to
reach consensus. Regardless, when the commission resumed 10 days
later for its closing meeting, governments had time to renegotiate if
they so chose. Yet, the violence statement still did not pass.
"The disappointment is particularly sharp because we were very close.
Essentially an agreement could not be reached by the deadline. There
was little willingness by delegations to continue negotiating past
that time," said Carl Fox, social affairs advisor to the U.S.
Governments did reach consensus on the theme of women and media,
which asked governments to increasingly involve women in the
information and communication technology world and allocate resources
to ensure that women and girls, especially in developing countries,
have access to new information technologies. The conclusions also
require that the recommendations from the commission regarding women
and media be incorporated in December's World Summit on Information
Society in Geneva.
"The important thing is that advocates at the national level know
that the Commission on the Status of Women exists," said Muthoni
Wanyeki, from Kenya's African Women's Development and Communication
Network. "It's one thing when the women's groups are asking their
government to do this and the other. It helps immensely when you can
say you as a government committed to this internationally. It
embarrasses them, and it often speeds up the process of work on
policy, but it is a very tedious process."
Many non-governmental organizations, however, also viewed the
proceedings on media with disappointment. They say media discussions
did not touch upon hot issues such as intellectual property rights,
media ownership, open source technology or network security. The
policy on these issues will likely be decided in final negotiations
at the upcoming Geneva information summit, a meeting that will be
dominated by business interests.
For more information on the 47th Session, U.N. Division for the Advancement of Women, March 3-14, 2003, see UN Division for the Advancement of Women and
PeaceWomen: Women's International League for Peace and Freedom.
Emily Freeburg is a freelance journalist in New York.
From Women’s Enews, April 24, 2003.