Women’s Rights as Human Rights: Local and Global Perspectives
Strategies and Analyses from the ICCL Working Conference on Women’s Rights as Human Rights (Dublin, March 1997)
Edited by Niamh Reilly

Using Human Rights Instruments, Procedures and Lobbying: Political and Legal Strategies for Action*

Human Rights Treaty Monitoring Bodies and NGO Input. Many human rights bodies (such as the committee that oversees the UN Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW)) welcome the direct input of NGO’s, especially when they are due to review the official government report for a given country. This is an opportunity for NGOs to provide information on human rights violations and concerns that the CEDAW committee may not receive in the official report.

Preparation of NGO shadow reports to accompany official government reports under various conventions (for example, CEDAW or the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights) can also be an effective strategy to encourage more attention to human rights domestically and not only as a "foreign affairs" issue. It is also an opportunity for human rights education and to encourage public debate about human rights. An NGO shadow report should ideally follow the same structure as that of the government report to allow for ease of comparison. A collective co-ordinated NGO report in a particular state, rather than a series of individual and issue-based commentaries, is more likely to be effective. It was also suggested that the international committees which examine state reports prefer that NGO’s do not contribute to the government report, but make independent comment on it.

Co-ordinating the Lobbying of Human Rights Committees. When the official government report is coming up for review it is a good idea for NGOs to coordinate their lobbying efforts so that the committee in question asks the most crucial and relevant questions at the time of the presentation and examination of the report; often members of an international committee may not understand the key issues facing a country or they may misinterpret the most pressing needs. Furthermore, an NGO’s physical presence at the committee hearing is extremely effective with much of the most useful work being done during informal encounters with the members of the committee.

Individual Complaints to the CEDAW Committee Shireen Huq spoke of the particular importance of the CEDAW. She argued that its content and spirit go beyond traditional approaches to non-discrimination by concentrating on both the legal and informal recognition of rights, emphasizing equality of outcome rather than just equality of opportunity. One of the main drawbacks of the convention has been the lack of an "individual complaints procedure" which would allow women whose rights under CEDAW have been violated to present their cases to the CEDAW Committee and have a public inquiry into their claims. However, there are efforts underway to introduce such a procedure and it is expected that this avenue will be available to individual women and to groups by 1998. This will strengthen the CEDAW convention enormously.

The Special Rapporteur on Violence against Women Florence Butegwa noted that Radhika Coomaraswamy, the Special Rapporteur on Violence against Women, also represents an important avenue to advance women’s human rights. The mandate of the Special Rapporteur is to gather information (largely from NGOs) and to make recommendations to the Commission on Human Rights on the issue of violence against women in the home, in society and in situations of conflict. The Special Rapporteur is open to receiving information from NGOs, so working with her office is a potential human rights strategy for those who want to bring attention to particular deficiencies in the protection of women’s human rights in relation to gender-based violence.

Limits to the Effectiveness of Human Rights Agreements. Pauline Conroy pointed out that with respect to all human rights instruments there is a need closely to examine the extent of to which governments dilute their responsibilities under human rights conventions by retaining "reservations" either to the conventions themselves or to the "protocols" which would make them effective. To encourage full accession, states must be lobbied to improve national legislation – bringing it in line with international commitments – and to remove reservations. In this regard it is to be remembered that access to the European Court of Justice, for example, for an individual, is protracted, costly and complicated. There is also an obligation on NGOs to monitor the circumstances surrounding the accession of new states to regional instruments or associations, particularly the EU where permission to opt out of key human rights agreements regarding woman’s rights may be granted in order to facilitate entry of a state which does not promote women’s rights as human rights.

The Need for Information. There is a need for accessible and clear information in relation to the extensive array of human rights agreements, mechanisms and processes which may be utilised by individuals or groups. This could include a calendar of important human rights meetings and deadlines, as well as information on dates and methods for submission of reports to the various mechanisms. It is also important for NGOs that are familiar with the human rights systems (such as Amnesty International, the Irish Council for Civil Liberties, the Commission for the Administration of Justive, and other human rights experts) to share their knowledge with other NGOs.

Lobbying Domestically for Human Rights. In addition to providing shadow reports under different treaties, NGOs can also lobby for the full ratification of the all the UN human rights treaties including, in the case of Ireland, the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination (ICERD) and the Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment. In addition there are a number of reservations to the CEDAW which should be reconsidered.

NGO Diplomacy. It was suggested that it is important to avoid "confrontational strategies" when dealing with international human rights bodies; there are examples of incidents where "direct and adversarial action on the part of an NGO forced a backlash by the international bureaucracy against the cause itself." Political and diplomatic dialogue are important in these contexts, including the use of accepted institutional language when discussing the issues within the frameworks of the mechanisms.

Access for NGOs in Developing Countries. Some NGOs in developing countries have great difficulty accessing copies of documents – often even those produced by their own governments. It is important for NGOs in different states to assist and show solidarity in exchange and networking. The Internet is a very valuable tool in this regard.

For more practical information on many of the issues discussed in this section, see Jane Winter, Human Rights Human Wrongs: A Guide to the Human Rights Machinery of the UN (British Irish Rights Watch, 1996); Christine Bell (ed.), Women’s Rights as Human Rights: A Practical Guide (Centre for International and Comparative Human Rights Law, 1997); and Women’s Human Rights Step by Step (Human Rights Watch Women’s Rights Project, 1997)


* See Appendix iii for an overview of the UN system.

Next | Back to the Table of Contents