Ensuring Accountability for Progress on Women’s Rights

Ramona Vijeyarasa

International Women's Day is an opportune moment to reflect on whether the the UN's review process has had any positive impact on the reproductive and sexual health of women.

As activists around the world
gather to celebrate International Women’s Day, we are also approaching
the one year anniversary of the newest mechanism introduced by the UN
to protect and promote human rights. Universal
Periodic Review (UPR)

was created to review the human rights records of every UN Member States
once every four years under the auspices of the UN Human Rights Council.
Only three hours are dedicated to each of the sixteen countries reviewed
each session, during which time, other States have the opportunity to
pose questions about human rights concerns in the country being considered.
Having started the process last April 2008, all 192 Members States will
be reviewed by 2011.

International Women’s Day
is an opportune moment to reflect on whether the process has had any
positive impact on the reproductive and sexual health of women in countries
that have been reviewed. Has the process created a space for high-level
discussions on key issues like abortion and maternal health that particularly
matter to women? 

Following the introduction
of UPR, the Sexual
Rights Initiative (SRI)

moved to promote sexual and reproductive rights before the Human Rights
Council. Formed in 2005 and originally known as "Reframing Sexual
Rights", the aim of SRI is to broaden the concept of sexual rights.
Whilst initially addressing only LGBT concerns, it has become a tool
for advocacy on issues such as sexual violence, abortion, transgender
issues, and sex worker rights. It therefore brings together feminist,
LGBT and southern and northern organizations fighting for political
space and has played a pivotal role in lobbying Members States to heighten
the attention given to sexual and reproductive health in the UPR process. 

UPR has "great potential to shed light in
the darkest corners of the globe
claimed the President of the Human Rights Council, Martin Ihoeghian
Uhomoibhi, at the end of the 4th UPR session in February
of this year. The President also expressed his view that several of
the States which have already been reviewed have started to implement
recommendations, including "adopting new polices, programs and measures
aimed at improving the human rights". Yet Sunita Kujur, from CREA in India, who attended India’s review
during the 1st Session, holds a different view: "The
potential of the UPR can only be realized if States view UPR as an opportunity
to check ground realities and review human rights standards in their
countries, instead of being defensive of their "failures".
Kujur adds, "For India, the bridge between the Human Rights Council
and domestic laws and policies is very wide. Until the Government of
India can consistently be held accountable for the promises it makes
at the international level, domestic laws and policies will not reflect
a human rights framework." 

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Reflecting on the 1st year
of UPR, Ximena Andión Ibañez, International Advocacy Director at the Center for Reproductive
, also expresses
disappointment at how reproductive rights have largely been ignored
in the process. "Until now reproductive rights have not gained enough
attention during the sessions of the UPR." In Andión’s opinion, not
only does this suggest that these issues are not a priority for many
States but also that "they do not even consider these human rights
issues". Like Kujur, she reflects on the disappointing review of India
last April: "It was shocking that during the review of India, no State
inquired from the government to explain the dire state of maternal health,
despite the fact that India has the highest number of maternal deaths
in the world." 

Both Kujur and Andión also
reflect on whether the UPR process remains as politicized as its predecessor.
Andión believes that instead of "being a good accountability mechanism,
the process has the danger of being just a meeting for political concessions
and trade offs". She does, however, note the surprising level of attention
given to what would otherwise be considered too controversial an issue,
sexual orientation, though credits this attention to the great advocacy
efforts of the NGOs working in this area. Whilst the February review
of Malaysia was considered "extremely disappointing" by the co-secretariat of
(the Coalition
of Malaysian Non-Governmental Organizations in the UPR Process), issues
such as sexual orientation were raised, with a recommendation made to
amend the Penal Code to decriminalize sexual acts associated with a
person’s sexual orientation. Malaysia was also asked to specify time
frames for removing
the CEDAW Convention and ratifying its Optional Protocol, which establishes
an individual complaints mechanism for CEDAW. If implemented, this would
indeed be a good starting point for individuals or groups to claim their
rights under CEDAW have been violated. 

On the need for civil society
to get more involved, Andión believes that "it is important for the
women’s rights organizations at the national level to get more involved
in their States review." As UPR is a mechanism designed to facilitate
discussions on the human rights situation at the local level, Andión
advocates for more input from more groups involved in this work. "Furthermore,
the only way to ensure accountability for the commitments made by the
States under review is for women rights and other civil society organizations
to get involved and follow-up on the recommendations made." 

In the words of Andión, "The
HRC is really a thermometer to measure how serious States take their
human rights obligations and the collective obligation to ensure that
human rights are respected, protected and fulfilled." We therefore
have an opportunity for States to have an honest dialogue on the situation
of women’s rights. With some optimism, Andión reflects on the progress
that has been made since the 1st session last April: "We
are seeing a very slow but important evolution on the quality of the
dialogue between States and also in the quality of the recommendations." 

UPR could give women from all
continents, regardless of ethnic, linguistic, cultural, economic and
political differences, an equal platform to advocate for issues that
matter to them. For the United Nations to be a body that truly promotes
and protects the equal rights of women, it is essential that UPR becomes
a less politicized process and a space for discussing issues such as
reproductive and sexual health, regardless of how controversial they
are deemed to be by Member States. 

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