The Need for a UN Treaty on Violence against Women
Dr Ronagh McQuigg looks at the work of the United Nations as regards the protection of women and calls for a dedicated UN Treaty on Violence against Women.
Violence against women constitutes one of the most prevalent human rights abuses at the global level. However, none of the UN treaties refer specifically to this issue. This situation is problematic from both a theoretical and a practical perspective, and it is therefore time for a UN treaty on violence against women to be adopted.
The Omission of Violence against Women from CEDAW
The fact that there are no international treaty provisions on violence against women is all the more surprising given that since 1979, a ‘women’s convention’, the UN Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (also known as CEDAW), has been in existence. However, when CEDAW was adopted, violence against women was simply not viewed as a major problem and certainly not as an issue which should be addressed by international human rights law.
Nevertheless, despite the omission from CEDAW of any express provisions on violence against women, the CEDAW Committee (the Convention’s monitoring body) has interpreted CEDAW in such a manner as to encompass this issue. In 1992 the Committee issued its General Recommendation 19 which stated that, ‘Gender-based violence is a form of discrimination that seriously inhibits women’s ability to enjoy rights and freedoms on a basis of equality with men.’
Using the interpretation put forward in General Recommendation 19, the CEDAW Committee frequently makes recommendations to states relating to violence against women. In addition, UN consideration of the issue of violence against women is not limited only to the CEDAW Committee. For example, in 1994 a UN Special Rapporteur on violence against women, its causes and consequences was appointed.
Problems of Principle
However, even though a multitude of statements on violence against women have been issued by the CEDAW Committee and by other UN bodies, these all fall within the category of ‘soft law’ which is non-binding on states. There are still no legally binding treaty provisions at the international level which address the issue of violence against women. From the perspective of principle, this is unacceptable. When CEDAW was adopted in 1979, the prevalence and nature of violence against women was not understood to any great extent. However, since then there have been enormous developments in the understanding of this phenomenon and it is no longer tenable for the lack of international treaty provisions on violence against women to remain unaddressed. A treaty on violence against women would therefore be of substantial symbolic importance.
The absence of international legally binding treaty provisions on violence against women is also problematic from a practical perspective. The former UN Special Rapporteur on violence against women, Rashida Manjoo, has frequently spoken of the difficulties which she faced in holding states to account as regards violence against women. In a report of 28 May 2014 to the UN Human Rights Council (U.N.Doc. A/HRC/26/38), she stated that, ‘although soft laws may be influential in developing norms, their non-binding nature effectively means that states cannot be held responsible for violations.’ Since then, Manjoo has made various other statements in which she strongly expresses her view that the adoption of a legally binding treaty at the international level is an absolute necessity in order for states to be held accountable as regards their responses to violence against women.
Indeed, Rashida Manjoo is not alone in her belief that legally binding standards are needed as regards the issue of violence against women. In 2011, the Council of Europe adopted a Convention on Preventing and Combating Violence against Women and Domestic Violence (also known as the Istanbul Convention), despite the fact that the member states of the Council of Europe are all parties to CEDAW and are therefore subject to the ‘soft law’ standards developed by the CEDAW Committee and the other UN bodies as regards this issue.
Would States Ratify a UN Treaty on Violence against Women?
However, if a UN treaty on violence against women were to be adopted, would a significant number of states actually choose to ratify such a treaty? It is notable that the large majority of states within the Council of Europe have, to date, either ratified the Istanbul Convention or have indicated their intention to do so by signing this instrument. In addition, the Inter-American Convention on the Prevention, Punishment and Eradication of Violence against Women, which was adopted in 1994, is the most widely ratified convention within the Inter-American system. The generally favourable responses by states to both of the regional conventions on violence against women seems to indicate that a large number of states may in fact be willing to ratify a global treaty on this issue.
There would of course be other challenges to be faced. All of the UN human rights treaties suffer from substantial problems as regards their implementation and enforcement. Although it is highly improbable that difficulties of this nature could be avoided in respect of a UN treaty on violence against women, extensive consideration would need to be given to the question of how such problems could be minimised as far as possible. Other issues which would require substantial examination would include how best to strike a balance between, on the one hand, making state obligations under such an instrument as effective and detailed as possible, and on the other, not making such duties so onerous that states would be discouraged from ratifying the treaty.
However, despite these undoubted challenges, the fact remains that it is unjustifiable from the perspective of principle that there are still no legally binding provisions at the international level on the issue of violence against women. This situation is also problematic from a practical perspective, in that it creates difficulties in terms of holding states accountable as regards their responses to this issue.
It is therefore time for the development and adoption of a UN treaty on violence against women.