Stephen Hopgood’s assessment of the current state of human rights advocacy is far from unwarranted, but it is missing a key element of the global human rights picture. Half the world’s people are women, and those women - North and South - may well have a different take on the viability and importance of universal human rights.
Hopgood’s blind spot is apparent in his failure to include the 1995 Fourth World Conference on Women in his list of successes in the 1990s. The Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action is built on a human rights framework, a first in the history of women’s conferences and an accomplishment that was achieved only because women from the South (as well as the North) were savvy and strong in the negotiations leading up to and during the World Conference.
Many of these women had honed their political and negotiation skills in the regional conferences prior to Beijing. But even before that, as Hopgood also fails to note, the document that came out of the 1993 World Conference on Human Rights (Vienna) included an unprecedented recognition of women’s human rights.
Flickr World Bank Photo Collection/Curt Carnemark. Some rights reserved.
The Human Rights Watch representative was knowledgeable and effective at Vienna, but most of the nongovernmental actors in the negotiations were from relatively small North American based NGOs and from the global South. And the phenomenon of women’s visibility that landed on the cover of Newsweek was generated by these same small, determined groups.
The international women’s human rights movement has never been dominated by either HRW or AI, which I prefer to call “corporate” human rights organizations rather than inflating their significance with capital letters. In fact, women had to fight mightily to earn a presence at Human Rights Watch, and their human rights interests were at first assigned a “project” designation, only becoming a full-fledged division a number of years later. Its work is now locally oriented and can be effective, but it is not a global driver of issues. AI has never addressed women’s human rights effectively, for example proving itself tone-deaf in its insistence on mounting the usual letter-writing campaign in the northern Nigeria case of Amina Lawal despite pleas from her lawyers for outside agencies to stay out of a very delicate local situation. AI discovered violence against women as a global cause only in 2003, fifteen years after the first major international study (by the Commonwealth Secretariat) and ten years after the issue was put on the map at Vienna. Local groups were way ahead of it.
The model for addressing women’s human rights, South and North, differs greatly from the definition of human rights originally promoted by the corporate human rights entities and, indeed, still promoted by many states and institutions. The critical element of women’s human rights violations is discrimination, plain and simple. The historic battle to define violence against women as a human rights violation was framed not only as a matter of criminalizing the violence (which was itself a breakthrough in 1993 and in many places remains an issue), but of recognizing that women experience violence as a result of massive discrimination in all areas of life, from son preference and discriminatory family laws through discrimination in education and economic and political life. Women experience human rights violations as a result of not being considered fully human.
The ways and means of addressing discrimination against women must be localized and contextual, but the principles remain universal and indivisible. Discrimination is discrimination, everywhere. As a male African colleague wrote many years ago, women’s human rights should not depend on where they are born. The universal definitions, now refined through thirty years of reviews of states’ records by the international human rights treaty bodies - primarily, but not only, the UN Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women - set the standard. Starting with that framework, advocacy must be finely calibrated to identify the critical points of entry. Only local people can do that - and they are.
In short, before dismissing universal human rights as passé, ask the women.
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