,UN, December 18, 2006

CEDAW and Fear of Women's Rights

By Susan Roosevelt Weld

UNITED NATIONS - Twenty-seven years ago today, on 18 December 1979, the United Nations unanimously passed a landmark treaty for the rights of women that has since been ratified by nearly every country in the world.

Every industrial democracy in the world has ratified CEDAW -- the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women -- except the United States.

Why, in 27 years, has the United States Senate failed to ratify CEDAW?

The Senate should do so as part of its outrage at the cruelties inflicted on women all over the world. Darfur is only the latest shameful example. CEDAW is a symbol of American ideals of equality and human rights. These are standards that we ourselves helped draft. We should not continue to distance ourselves from them.

U.S. Senate ratification of CEDAW will demonstrate our concern about women's rights, our willingness to join the global consensus and hold ourselves to the international minimum standards for the treatment of women.

We in the United States pride ourselves on being one of the first great experiments in building a just and representative government. Our founders took advantage of their fresh start after casting off colony status to build a new nation in what was still a new world. They famously declared “we hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal….”

While a small and radical minority might still read these words as limiting full equality to male human beings, courts and public opinion have long agreed that the resounding words of the Declaration of Independence must be read to include all people, both male and female.

A century and a half later, after one world war led all too quickly to another, it was the United States under Franklin Delano Roosevelt and Harry S Truman who pushed for the creation of the United Nations. The new organization would be necessary to keep the peace in a future shadowed by the nuclear bomb and promote human rights in a world shared uneasily between capitalism and communism.

Stephen Schlesinger has recently told the inside story of the San Francisco Conference: the obstacles that had to be overcome and the compromises that had to be made to produce the Charter. The words of the Preamble reflect the hope and optimism of the moment and should be a matter of pride for citizens of the United States:

We, the peoples of the United Nations, determined

-- to save succeeding generations from the scourge of war, which twice in our lifetime has brought untold sorrow to mankind, and

-- to reaffirm faith in fundamental human rights, in the dignity and worth of the human person, in the equal rights of men and women and of nations large and small, and

-- to establish conditions under which justice and respect for the obligations arising from treaties and other sources of international law can be maintained, and

-- to promote social progress and better standards of life in larger happiness

have resolved to combine our efforts to accomplish these ends.

After 1945, the United Nations scored notable successes in promoting these four goals.

The Security Council helped to prevent the worst potential danger of the conflict between the capitalist democracies and the socialist bloc: the outbreak of nuclear war.

The United Nations served as the rallying point for expanded protection of personal rights and freedoms, expressed in the Universal Declaration on Human Rights and the International Conventions on Political and Civil Rights and Economic, Cultural, and Social Rights.

The United Nations established the World Court to adjudicate issues of international law among those of its member nations who had acceded to the jurisdiction of that Court.

The related organizations and agencies of the United Nations achieved unprecedented progress in improving agriculture, preventing famine and disease, protecting education throughout the world.

However, despite these successes, groups in the United States have become increasingly suspicious of the United Nations and less and less willing to join in cooperative international efforts to accomplish its goals. Even as the USSR moved through glasnost toward democratization, powerful factions in the United States became increasingly isolationist.

Well-known political commentators warn that the United Nations poses a threat to the United States' independence and sovereignty. Radio commentators put out alarming reports of UN military forces, the frightening “black helicopters,” preparing to move against the United States from hidden bases in this hemisphere.

While sensible people do not join in these fears, politicians have become less and less willing to push ahead with ratification of United Nations instruments that they perceive as having little upside and significant potential downside among their constituents.

[For a list of the instruments which the United States has oddly failed to sign and/or ratify, see Op Ed article by David Kaye and K. Russell LaMotte, treaty negotiators for the State Department in the Clinton and George W. Bush administrations, “Pacts Americana?” New York Times, December 15, 2006.]

The most harmful deviation from international consensus may be CEDAW.

Political opponents of the Equal Rights Amendment of the 1970’s were already aroused and well-organized when this treaty was up for ratification. The conservative “Concerned Women for America" put out this statement on CEDAW:

A privilege of our American system is that we, the people, decide what our laws will be and who will represent us. Advocates of CEDAW intend to use the treaty, and its interpretations dreamed up by the CEDAW Committee, to formulate legislation and challenge existing laws. Rulings from a U.N. body, consisting of people from foreign countries and cultures, will be relied upon to attempt to direct the policies, culture and laws of America.

This group wants us to think that CEDAW will harm the United States, will nullify our elected government and subject us to foreign control. Senator Jesse Helms, who later chaired the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said that CEDAW is "a terrible treaty negotiated by radical feminists with the intent of enshrining their radical anti-family agenda into international law."

Such language paints women's rights in the colors of radicalism.

United States citizens should look carefully at the text of the treaty itself before accepting the alarmists' hostile view of this human rights document. Far from substituting foreign, radical norms for our own, CEDAW is designed to establish basic minimum standards.

The new Congress, both Republicans and Democrats, should join the international consensus on CEDAW. A careful reading shows that there is nothing to fear in CEDAW, but fear itself.


SUSAN ROOSEVELT WELD was a member of the U.S. Delegation to the Fourth World Conference on Women in Beijing in 1995 and one of the co-founders of MassAction for Women. More recently, she was General Counsel to the Congressional-Executive Commission on China. She currently teaches Chinese law at the Johns Hopkins School for Advanced International Studies. Previously she taught Chinese history and thought at Harvard University where she received her J.D. and Ph.D.

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