Land of the Free? What the U.S. Has In Common With Iran, Sudan, and Somalia


Rarely does the United States find itself in the company of the countries of Iran, Sudan, and Somalia in matters involving human rights, except apparently when it comes to women’s rights.

The Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) was first passed in 1979, and its adoption set forth international standards for the promotion and protection of women’s rights. It also puts in place mechanisms to increase access to these rights, and establishes the need for countries to dismantle and hold accountable individuals, governments, or organizations that seek to deprive women of them. Some 187 countries have ratified this treaty, and the United States counts itself among only six that have failed to do so.

In order to pass the treaty, it must first be ratified by the U.S. senators. Ratification requires a two-thirds vote or 67 senators to pass. Ratification would also mean that the U.S. is bound by the articles of the treaty, and that’s where the problems begin.

Despite the Obama administration’s support of ratification, many in the senate have expressed objection. These reservations stem from the treaty's stance on: the decriminalization of prostitution, abortion, women in the military, maternity benefits and the role of the federal government in enforcing these rights. The Senate Foreign Relations Committee has formally attached 11 of these reservations, understandings and decelerations (RUDs) to the treaty. 

As the self-professed standard bearer of human rights around the world, it would seem incumbent of the United States to support ratification. The widespread adoption of this treaty, and the U.S. refusal to do so highlights the larger issues between the U.S. and U.N. 

During the Bush years the U.S. all but destroyed its relationship with the world body. There was massive distrust and skepticism. The Obama administration has done much in way to repair its relationship with the UN but it finds itself at odds with the world body on issues such as Palestine. As the largest monetary supporter of the organization, there are those within Congress who would seek to use that power in order to force reform. Thus tensions between the U.S. and the UN are almost always present.

What we really have here is not an issue with the treaty but an issue of politics. It is not that the treaty is at odds with the vast majority of American values or principals because it isn’t. What is really happening here is a power play by those in the senate who wish to delegitimize the UN. The arguments against ratification are strikingly similar to those we heard over the UN disabilities treaty. There is a widespread fear that ratification somehow limits or undermines American sovereignty. 

That fear is unfounded and shrouded in the kind of nationalism unbecoming of a country  in the 21st century. The treaty is not ‘self-executing’, which means any piece of legislation seeking to implement a provision of CEDAW would have to pass both chambers of Congress, just like any other legislation introduced into the House or Senate.

By expressing its RUDs (though there are those that wish to see ratification without these RUDs attached) the U.S. further inoculates itself against the parts of the treaty it is at odds with. 

What purpose would ratification serve? 

It would a message to the world that the United States takes women’s rights seriously. It would give the U.S. credence and legitimacy when it goes to the UN and denounces human rights atrocities in other countries. Do not doubt the importance this legitimacy has in a world body that suffers from a lack of enforcement mechanisms. 

The U.S. did not make it into the list of 20 best countries for women, as it ranked 22nd, and has been falling in rank over the last three years. CEDAW would send a powerful message to the women of this country that the U.S. stands with them and will work to alleviate ongoing issues of discrimination.

CEDAW will not magically fix the issues of inequality and discrimination, and is not without its own problems. CEDAW must find a way to be inclusive of all genders and be careful to not use exclusive or alienating gendering language. However, CEDAW would serve as a blueprint in the global quest to end violence and discrimination against more than half the world’s population.