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Chances Improve for Ratification of CEDAW

The United States has been an odd holdout in ratifying the UN treaty on women’s rights. Now it’s a priority of the Obama Administration, and Senator Barbara Boxer chairs the subcommittee that will hold hearings. Still, there’s no guarantee.

Just because the Obama Administration puts the CEDAW women's rights treaty in the top three UN treaties it wants ratified doesn't mean the Senate will cooperate.

It's a step in the right direction, of course. Democrats dominate Congress and hold the White House, and CEDAW also has some Republican support.

But getting any treaty ratified at a time of a global economic meltdown will be a challenge. Ginning up grass roots interest in any treaty—even the UN Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women—is another hurdle, at a time when job losses are the core concern.

And some U.S. grass roots activists have questioned why they should back CEDAW rather than put their efforts behind attempts to re-start a U.S. constitutional change in the form of an Equal Rights Amendment.

The religious right may have less power than before but could take this on as a cause to rally against, as it appears to be doing with another UN treaty on the rights of children.

Nevertheless, CEDAW is on the radar screen again.

In this country, 96 cities, counties and states have passed resolutions calling on Congress to ratify CEDAW. Representative Lynn Woolsey, D-CA, introduced a resolution early in January with 121 co-sponsors, urging Senate action on the treaty.

"We're at the cusp of a new era and I hope we will ratify CEDAW," said Ruth Nadel of the Women's National Democratic Club, one of more than 200 groups pushing for ratification.

Sarah C. Albert, who has been a front-tier activist on behalf of CEDAW as policy director of the General Federation of Women's Clubs and now as social policy and advocacy director of the YWCA USA, said there is "a stronger political will" now than in recent decades to look hard at human rights laws and at international laws as they affect this country.

Albert said there also is "a renewed interest in how the United States is seen from abroad," and a realization that continued U.S. opposition to CEDAW complicates its efforts to call out human rights offenders in other countries.

CEDAW stemmed from the 1975 UN International Women's Year convention and was first sent to the Senate for approval by President Jimmy Carter. It essentially is a bill of rights for women and has been used as a gold standard for many global grass roots groups seeking to shape laws that would expand rights of women in their own countries.

Today, only eight countries have refused to ratify CEDAW: the United States, Iran, Sudan, Somalia, Qatar, Nauru, Palau and Tonga. Opposition varies in this country. Consistent critics have included religious right conservatives and small but vehement critics of the United Nations itself. President George W. Bush initially favored it; in 2002, then-Secretary of State Colin Powell told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee that CEDAW was "generally desirable and should be ratified."

Not so fast, admonished then Attorney General John Ashcroft. He had opposed CEDAW as a senator and, as chief legal beagle for the government, had the clout to kill off the treaty, at least then. Despite bipartisan support after contentious 2002 Senate hearings, the treaty never made it to the full Senate and never was brought up again during the Bush regime.

This year, Senator Barbara Boxer, D-CA, is poised to hold Senate Foreign Relations subcommittee hearings on the treaty. If it is approved as expected, it would be sent to the full committee, headed by CEDAW supporter John Kerry, D-MA.

Boxer has said she wants to start with a clean version of CEDAW, shedding the dozen restrictions added in 2002 during the unsuccessful attempt to ratify it. These so-called RUDs—for reservations, understandings and declarations—included stipulations that the treaty could not compel the government to provide paid maternity leave or force women to serve in military combat units. The most contentious stipulation, however, and the bid to win over religious right opposition, was that the treaty should not be construed as creating a right to abortion.

The Justice Department is reviewing the RUDs and will recommend for or against keeping them on the CEDAW treaty when it is sent to the Senate for advice and consent.

President Obama, Vice President Joe Biden and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton backed CEDAW during their presidential campaigns last year. Another prominent legal supporter is Harold Koh, dean of the Yale Law School who has been nominated as legal counsel for the State Department and in that capacity would have a say on CEDAW as well.

Koh had testified earlier that CEDAW was silent on the issue of abortion and that its ratification would not affect how countries handled reproductive rights issues. In the more than three decades that CEDAW has been in circulation, however, a growing number of legal opinions have cited CEDAW in striking down laws criminalizing abortion in countries that have ratified the treaty.

That's why many U.S. and international women's rights activists are alarmed about the prospect of U.S. ratification of CEDAW with the 2002 reservation on abortion intact. Janet Benshoof, president of the Global Justice Center, said that reservation was "drafted to be used as an antiabortion tool" and including it would undermine women's access to reproductive health services, globally.

A treaty requires 67 Senate votes for ratification—and it takes only one senator to put a hold on a treaty vote, for any reason. This year, unlike in the past, however, the identity of that senator must be revealed.

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