Don't Be Deceived: Only a "Clean" CEDAW Should be Ratified

August 31, 2009

On Aug. 26, Women's Equality Day, advocates for ratification of the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW), called on President Barack Obama and members of the U.S. Senate to take action. The U.S. is one of very few countries -- and the only democracy -- that has not ratified the "women's treaty" since its adoption by the United Nations General Assembly in 1979. As a supposed world leader in human rights, the U.S.'s failure to have ratified this important treaty over the last 30 years belies that leadership claim. Three decades of foot-dragging and a series of unnecessary limitations placed on the treaty (should it someday be ratified) suggests that our political leadership may even be hostile to women's equality.

Well, that certainly wouldn't come as much of a surprise, would it?

The National Organization for Women supports ratification of CEDAW, but we are also very much aware of the 11 limitations that have been attached to the treaty by prior administrations and conservative senators -- limitations that would undermine key provisions. A resolution passed at our 2009 annual conference directs that NOW "vigorously advocate for ratification of CEDAW without the addition of harmful reservations, understandings and declarations" and "calls on the Justice Department to reject the [RDUs] previously under consideration"

An analysis of those restrictions, called Reservations, Declarations and Understandings (RDUs), has been prepared at our request by Martha Davis, Esq., a human rights law expert and former NOW Legal Defense and Education Fund attorney. All but one of these restrictions were found to be undesirable, objectionable or constitutionally unnecessary. You can review Davis's analysis (PDF) for a detailed explanation. The various RDUs convey a clear lack of commitment to ending discrimination against women and specifically claim no responsibility for the U.S. to undertake efforts to expand maternity leave, improve access to health care services for women, or take more effective efforts to address sex-based pay discrimination, among other objectives that would promote women's equality.

Almost no other women's rights or human rights organization has spoken out to object to the RDUs. In fact, the leading groups in support of ratification are inexplicably silent on the RDUs -- possibly+ out of fear that any criticism of the treaty will further stall ratification. Earlier discussions with representatives from groups who have advocated for ratification over the years, suggest that the RDUs have little meaning and could potentially be removed from the treaty at some point. NOW remains unconvinced on either point. Unfortunately, several key administration and congressional leaders are advocating for ratification, with not a critical word regarding the RDUs.

Do they really think that we can be fooled?

Only Global Justice Center President Janet Benshoof has called out these harmful RDUs in an article (Twisted Treaty Shafts Women, Feb. 2, 2009) which appeared earlier this year. Benshoof, a human rights lawyer with considerable experience in advocating for women's rights at the international level, has stated that the RDUs "gut CEDAW to the core," and that leaders who support CEDAW ratification "do not realize that if passed with the qualifiers currently in place, CEDAW will threaten the advancement of equality rights globally."

Benshoof singled out one such Understanding, which states, "Nothing in this convention shall be construed to reflect or create any right to abortion and in no case should abortion be promoted as a method of family planning," Added to the treaty by the late arch-abortion rights opponent, Sen. Jessie Helms (R-N.C.), some have described this language as benign or neutral. However, Benshoof warns that "this language can and has been used as an anti-abortion weapon."

NOW believes that the Reservation disavowing the "doctrine of comparable worth" will have a similar chilling effect on efforts to advance legislation that would strengthen current laws prohibiting sex-based pay discrimination. Davis points out in her memo to NOW: "Instead of taking a blanket reservation to enacting comparable worth legislation, the U.S. should commit to bringing U.S. law into conformity with the international standards of wage equity." Already, 12 states have comparable worth legislation and three other states use a different term to describe this standard.

Why would the U.S. want to refuse recognition of comparable worth at the national level? Could it be that congressional leaders want to stop any further progress of equal pay legislation?

Benshoof concludes that ratifying CEDAW with these debilitating RDUs attached will hurt the cause of women's rights worldwide -- and NOW agrees. Women in the U.S. have no constitutional guarantee of equality, and our constitution is not written in a way that requires the government to take steps to eradicate systemic historic inequalities, Benshoof points out.

That is why NOW believes we need a strong CEDAW, with no restrictive conditions.

Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) has spoken about the problematic RDUs; earlier this year she told the Associated Press that her Subcommittee on International Operations, Human Rights, Democracy and Global Women's Issues would take up a clean CEDAW. We hope that Boxer holds to that promise, and that the full committee chair, Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.), will take seriously the critique of how detrimental it would be to ratify CEDAW with the disabling RDUs in place -- not only for U.S. women, but women everywhere.

Find out how you can take action on this issue.