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 U.S. drags feet on ratifying UN treaty on women's rights
 Dina Rabadi, USA
 June 13, 2004
 

Since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, the treatment of women in the Islamic world has received unprecedented attention.

Mass e-petitions to "Save Afghan Women" were circulated; the Revolutionary Association of the Women of Afghanistan raised record amounts of money; Iraqi women came forward on shows such as ABC's "20/20," and the burqa, for many Americans, became a symbol of women's oppression under fundamentalist rule.

The Bush administration added the status and treatment of women in these countries to the list of justifications for warfare against them.

"America will always stand for the non-negotiable demands of human dignity: the rule of law, limits on the power of the state, respect for women, private property, free speech, equal justice and religious tolerance," President Bush said in his first State of the Union address after the attacks.

Secretary of State Colin Powell said, "The worldwide advancement of women's issues is not only in keeping with the deeply held values of the American people; it is strongly in our national interest as well. . . . Women's issues affect not only women; they have profound implications for all humankind."

In March, Bush addressed women's rights during a visit with a group of 250 women from around the world who had gathered at the White House to celebrate International Women's Day.

"The advance of women's rights and the advance of liberty are ultimately inseparable," he said.

Does he really believe this?

As of March, Human Rights Watch charged that the interim Iraqi constitution did not do enough to protect women's rights, particularly in the areas of family law, which includes marriage, inheritance and their children's citizenship.

For a woman in the Middle East, these rights are of life-making or life- breaking importance.

Then came more disturbing news.

The United Nations adopted the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women in 1979. It was the first international instrument to comprehensively address women's rights within political, cultural, economic, social and family life. It continues to be the only international treaty to do so.

No U.S. ratification

As of April 20, 2004, 177 countries had ratified the treaty.

The United States is among several nations that have not, including Iran, Syria, the United Arab Emirates and Qatar.

Harold Hongju Koh, who was a Clinton administration assistant secretary of state for democracy, human rights and labor, called ratification of the treaty a clear sign that a country is on board on the question of gender equality.

"I found that a country's ratification of [the treaty] is one of the surest indicators of the strength of its commitment to internalize the universal norm of gender equality into its domestic law," Koh said.

The closest the U.S. came to treaty ratification was in the summer of 2002 after it was voted favorably out of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, but then-Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle (D-S.D.) was reluctant to bring the treaty up for a vote because he didn't have the 67 votes required for passage.

Some undecided senators said they wanted to hear the Bush administration's view of the treaty. In June 2002, when the hearings were held, the administration was invited but wanted more time to finalize its review process. The administration's review was not completed by the time the committee finally voted to release the treaty that July. The Senate adjourned, and the treaty reverted back to the committee.

In a letter to Sen. Joseph Biden (D-Del.) dated July 8, 2002, Powell said the State and Justice Departments had started their reviews of the treaty. To date, the administration has not reported the results of this review to the Foreign Relations Committee.

Document sits in committee

Any further action on the treaty by the Foreign Relations Committee awaits the result of this review.

Sima Samer, then the minister of women's affairs in Afghanistan, wrote a letter to the committee emphasizing the importance of the treaty.

"I cannot overstate to you how important it will be for me and other Afghan women if you do take this step," she said in the letter, published by The Washington Post. She emphasized that U.S. ratification would bring the treaty additional legitimacy and would help her fight for women's rights.

But the treaty still has not been ratified.

We used the defense of women's rights as one of the reasons to bomb and occupy two countries. How can we demand that other countries take women's rights seriously when our own government does not?

The failure to ratify this treaty makes us look like hypocrites. It undermines our credibility as leaders in international human rights. It makes our presence in these countries suspect. It gives our adversaries ammunition to continue their mistreatment of women.

It also makes our allies wonder how we are to create an international community if some of its members choose to make rules they don't follow.

Dina Rabadi is a freelance writer and project assistant at the Center for Middle Eastern Studies at the University of Chicago.

Reprinted from The Chicago Tribune, June 13, 2004.