Human Rights Day 2012: Time to Ratify CEDAW Women’s Treaty

Today is International Human Rights Day, a yearly effort of the United Nations to celebrate and “advocate for the full human rights by everyone everywhere.” A perfect time to remember the ladies.

This year’s theme focuses on the right of everyone to be heard in public life and decision-making. It adds some much-needed urgency to the decades-long effort to get the United States to ratify the UN Convention to End All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW), which will be more simply referred to as the CEDAW Women’s Treaty in the rest of this post.

Related: Today an acting head of the women’s affairs department in eastern Afghanistan was killed on her way to work. Nadia Sediqqi was the replacement for Hanifa Safi, who was killed by a car bomb in July of this year. If this disturbs you, if you care even a smidge about international women’s rights, you need to care about the United States ratifying the CEDAW Women’s Treaty.

So what is the CEDAW Women’s Treaty? Crafted in 1979, it says simply that women’s rights are human rights and offers ratifying countries a practical blueprint for improving the participation and status of women in critical areas including education, healthcare and employment. Nearly every country has ratified it except Iran, Palau, Somalia, Sudan, Tonga and … the United States.

Not ratifying the CEDAW Women’s Treaty is a huge deal because ratifying countries regularly meet within the United Nations to discuss their progress. Absent signing on to the CEDAW Women’s Treaty, the U.S. has no structured international forum for addressing the treatment of women in other countries that remains intact in times of war and peace. We are absent from discussions. What an embarrassment for Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, an undisputed champion of international women’s rights.

It is strategic to lead with the international angle, because it tends to be the case that the United States has an easier time discussing women’s rights as human rights, and reaching ever-elusive bipartisan consensus, when the women being discussed happen to live in countries that overlap with countries that are thought to be our national security interests. (Even George W. Bush — anything but a champion of women’s human rights much less women’s political participation — took on Afghan women as a cause in conjunction with the war he declared in Afghanistan.)

But it shouldn’t be lost that ratifying the CEDAW Women’s Treaty would also improve the lives of women and girls in the United States. Why?

When we ratify the CEDAW Women’s Treaty, our country will go on record for the first time that women’s rights are human rights. (Contrary to what the majority of the population believes, the United States does not yet have a constitutional guarantee against discrimination on the basis of sex.) We’ll also be able to learn from other countries successes in areas where our laws are still catching up to reality — to address discrimination against mothers in the workforce, for example.

Okay, gravy equality train, good and great – but stop. Rick Santorum and Pat Robertson and Republican extremists! Didn’t they just kill the U.N. Convention on the Rights of People with Disabilities and embarrass the living daylights out of the United States? In front of former Senate Majority leader Bob Dole (R-Kan.)?

All of the major arguments leveled against the CEDAW Women’s Treaty are simply without merit. As some players are wont to do, you say “women,” they say “abortion,” and create a circus. Well, the fact is that the CEDAW Women’s Treaty does not address abortion. There has been concern at times that Mother’s Day would somehow be attacked, but that hasn’t happened anywhere else in the world. Cross-cultural truth: It’s generally uncool to dis your mom.

The other two main arguments were leveled against the Disabilities Treaty and were thoroughly debunked before and after the shameful Senate vote. The CEDAW Women’s Treaty, just like the Disabilities Treaty, does not obligate the U.S. to change its laws. Second, the United Nations is not some anti-sovereign plot to dissolve this nation into a monolithic new world order.

Just as the Disabilities Treaty should be revisited and ratified, so too should the CEDAW Women’s Treaty be ratified. This is an opportunity for those “kinder, gentler” Republicans who were supposed to come out after the election thumping to demonstrate a support of women. And it’s also an opportunity for President Barack Obama, a champion of women, to create a a capstone legacy for the history books.

The United States has a moral obligation to acknowledge women’s rights as human rights, and to participate in helping to bring equality for women at home and around the world. This International Human Rights Day again reminds us its time to ratify the CEDAW Women’s Treaty.

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