The Magazine

This Is No Time to Go Wobbly

After 29 years, Senate ratification of the CEDAW treaty is still a terrible idea.

Apr 27, 2009, Vol. 14, No. 30 • By AUSTIN RUSE
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The United Nations Committee on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women once told Libya to reinterpret the Koran so as to fall within committee guidelines. It instructed Belarus that a national celebration of Mother's Day violated women's rights by perpetuating a negative cultural stereotype.

It appears that the Obama administration and Senate Democrats want the United States to sit in the dock before this same committee, as must every country that ratifies the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW, pronounced See-Daw). The CEDAW treaty has bounced around the Senate for 29 years, ever since President Jimmy Carter signed it in 1980. It has twice been voted favorably out of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee but has never received the necessary concurrence of two-thirds of the senators present, no matter which party has been in power. Now, however, with staunch backers like Hillary Clinton and John Kerry in key positions in the executive and legislative branches, CEDAW's moment may finally have come.

Let us hope not. The first big reason for rejecting the CEDAW treaty is wholly practical: It is unneeded. American women enjoy civil and human rights that are the envy of the world. Take the word of one of America's leading feminist activists and theoreticians, Janet Benshoof. She writes on RH Reality Check, a website funded by Ted Turner's UN Foundation, "No one questions that American women enjoy a higher standard of rights and freedoms than do most people in the world." American women do not need CEDAW to guarantee them their rights.

The second big reason not to ratify is the language of the treaty itself. Note that it calls for the elimination of "all forms" of discrimination against women. And its backers are not kidding. The treaty is explicit that this refers not just to public but also to private behavior. Two years ago the committee instructed both Greece and Indonesia to root out sex differences in housework; another signatory, Norway, actually legislated sex parity on private corporate boards, then testified before the committee that the law was proving difficult to enforce.

The treaty may be bad, but the committee that is charged with monitoring compliance is worse and is the third big reason to resist CEDAW. All U.N. human rights treaties establish compliance committees before which governments must report every few years. At least on paper, the committees have the power only to "offer observations." But they go further, and much of what they say is purely ideological. The CEDAW committee directed China to legalize prostitution even though the treaty condemns prostitution. It criticized Ireland for allowing the Catholic Church too great a voice in public policy. It took Slovenia to task because only 30 percent of children were in state-sponsored day care.

Some will look at these pronouncements and conclude the committee could not possibly have any real power. They would be wrong. Many legal advocates and national courts around the world take the committee seriously. It should be noted that any power the committee has is given to it by leftist lawyers and activist judges. Still, it is actual power.

The high court of Colombia recently overturned the country's laws on abortion. In doing so, it cited the CEDAW committee, which had told Colombia it was treaty-bound to change its laws. The Mexican high court recently upheld the liberal abortion laws of Mexico City, and at least two of the judges mentioned supposed CEDAW obligations.

Keep in mind that the CEDAW treaty is silent on abortion, something Senator Barbara Boxer and the Congressional Research Service underscore in deflecting this objection to it. What they don't say is that the committee's General Recommendation 24 has reinterpreted the treaty to make abortion a part of its health mandate. According to Human Rights Watch, the CEDAW committee has directed 93 countries to liberalize their abortion laws.

Who sits on this committee that reinterprets the hard-fought political decisions of sovereign states? Twenty-two academics and left-wing NGO advocates for women's rights from countries like Bangladesh, Cuba, Algeria, Thailand, and Ghana (to cite just the countries of the first five members listed). At present all but one of the members are female. As for their eminence, it's a safe bet that long-time CEDAW supporter Vice President Joseph Biden couldn't name a single one of them. Nevertheless, once nominated and elected by signatory nations, the members of the committee are accountable only to themselves. And this is the group the Obama administration would invite to judge the United States.

Which brings us to the final big reason for refusing to ratify the CEDAW treaty. Like every kangaroo court, it undermines the rule of law, and in this case it also sullies the international system. If the treaty obligations of sovereign states can be reinterpreted by this committee and then accepted by national courts, the concept of sovereignty has been drained of meaning. For that matter, the whole notion of human rights is up for grabs if left-wing nonstate actors are allowed to create and impose new human rights at will.

It is tempting to assume that neither the CEDAW treaty nor the committee could affect a big, strong country like the United States. But remember, the Supreme Court decision in Roper v. Simmons overturning the juvenile death penalty cited the U.N. Convention on the Rights of the Child, a treaty the United States has never ratified. The Court also cited the death penalty provision of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, a provision the Senate formally rejected when approving the covenant. Far from deterred, the left-wing legal class in this country is primed and ready to advance litigation citing CEDAW, and high officials toeing the feminist line are eager to give them that chance.

Still, sensible politicians of both parties have found good reason to resist this troublesome treaty for a generation. May they once more carry the day.

Austin Ruse is president of C-FAM (the Catholic Family & Human Rights Institute), a New York and Washington-based research institute on international social policy.