– The U.S. is one of only a handful of countries that has yet to ratify the Convention on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW), rendering it “strange bedfellows” with Sudan, Somalia, Iran, Tonga, and Palau.
Twenty years ago, after Harold Koh*, made a clear foreign policy case for ratification, we develop three more reasons as to why now—during the Biden Administration— the U.S. is at a critical moment to finally ratify the CEDAW.
1) A New Public Reckoning: Advancing our Domestic Policy on Gender and Race Intersectionality
For four decades, Congress failed to rally enough votes to ratify the CEDAW, but today, social justice movements are building new momentum like never before.
At a time of a public reckoning spawned by the Black Lives Matter (BLM) and #MeToo Movements, the Convention represents an important vehicle to address institutional and structural sexism through an intersectional lens.
As Harold Koh argued in 2002, “a country’s ratification of the CEDAW is one of the surest indicators of the strength of its commitment to internalize the universal norm of gender equality into its domestic laws.”
The potential for the CEDAW to inspire necessary change in the US directly relates to some of the United States’ current policy objectives.
The National Strategy for the COVID-19 Response and Pandemic Preparedness (2021) illustrates the Administration’s commitment to place women and girls at the center of global recovery. The Rescue Plan recognizes that COVID-19 has exacerbated domestic violence and sexual assault, thereby creating a “shadow pandemic.”
As the Biden Administration looks toward the reauthorization of the Violence against Women Act (VAWA), it must now look to the horizon—to the ratification of the CEDAW. Ratifying the Convention will give the Biden Administration significantly more legitimacy in its effort to end violence against women and would demonstrate the solidarity needed to achieve this goal.
As President Biden himself stated, the renewal of the VAWA “should not be a Democratic or Republican issue—it’s about standing up against the abuse of power and preventing violence.”
Our data analysis of the State Party Reports to the CEDAW Committee from 2016 to 2020 reveals a significant focus by the CEDAW Committee on two issues that are central to the Biden Administration and to the United States’ national security and foreign policy in general: (1) violence against women; and (2) an intersectional focus on gender.
In every Concluding Observation across all five years between 2016 and 2020 (107 countries reported to the CEDAW Committee during this period), the CEDAW Committee mentioned intersectionality and gender-based violence 100 percent of the time.
2) Ratification of the CEDAW is part of the U.S.’s Transformative Power Arsenal: From Soft Power, Smart Power, to Transformative Power
In response to global challenges, CEDAW continues to be one of the standard-setting policy tools to advance gender and intersectional equality and we address this in our analysis of CEDAW’s impact on drafting domestic legislation, national constitutions, judicial decision making and in changing the national conversations and public discourse in countries in the Arab region.
As Ambassador Melanne Verveer, one of the authors, testified before Congress in 2010: “[I]t is true many countries do not live up to that treaty, but we know how effectively that lever is for rights advocates to seize and to use effectively to bring about the kind of consistent application of the principles of the treaty to their own lives.”
3) The Women Peace and Security and its Linkages to CEDAW
The Women, Peace, and Security (“WPS”) agenda is one gender issue that has near total bipartisan support, as demonstrated by over a decade of concerted legislative efforts by both Democrats and Republicans.
We explore how the United States’ strong bipartisan commitment to the WPS agenda and how its global security goals can be advanced by ratifying the CEDAW. From the United Kingdom to Afghanistan, the CEDAW has played a role in strengthening commitments to the WPS agenda.
The United States has emerged as a global leader in WPS, both by spearheading U.N. Security Council Resolutions to condemn sexual violence against women and girls in armed conflict, and by codifying its commitment to pursuing the WPS agenda in domestic law.
Former U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice introduced what later became Security Council Resolution 1820 (2008). In proposing this Resolution, Secretary Rice confirmed that sexual violence against women in conflict was an imperative which the U.N. Security Council was charged to address.
A year later, Security Council Resolution (SCR) 1888, introduced by then Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, reaffirmed Secretary Rice’s premise, acknowledged that the CEDAW is inextricably connected to women’s security.
The U.S. needs to leverage the bipartisan support for the WPS agenda to piggyback support for the Convention. After all, global security is in our best national interest.
In 2020, during the 75th Anniversary of the U.N., the CEDAW Concluding Observations for Afghanistan, the Congo, and Zimbabwe had sections dedicated specifically to WPS, providing substantial suggestions for improvement in state action in this issue area.
For instance, the CEDAW Committee observed in detail that “Afghan women are systematically excluded from formal peace negotiations, such as the 2018 Kabul Process and the negotiations that followed the conference held in Geneva in 2018.”
Today as we bear witness to the fall of Afghanistan, history will judge us on how we protect the rights of women and girls in Afghanistan.
As we fight the forces of a pandemic, the global and domestic recovery will be measured by whether it created greater gender and racial equity.
Ultimately, the arc of American engagement, both in foreign and domestic policy, must bend toward ratifying the CEDAW. After decades of lawmakers failing to muster the political will for ratification, the demand for change has now reached a fever pitch both nationally and globally.
The Biden administration must rally bipartisan support to ratify the CEDAW as a tool to advancing the human rights of women around the world. In then- Senator Biden’s words in 2002, “Time is a Wasting” for the U.S. ratification of the CEDAW.
This summary is excerpted from the article by Rangita de Silva de Alwis, faculty at Penn Law and Hillary Rodham Clinton Fellow on Gender Equity at GIWPS, Georgetown (2020-2021); and Ambassador Melanne Verveer, the first U.S. Ambassador for Global Women’s Issues. Rangita thanks Dean Theodore Ruger, Dean of Penn Law for his support in writing the paper.
*Footnote: On September 10th, Columbia Law School’s Journal of Transnational Law will convene a High Level Roundtable highlighting “Time Is A-Wasting”: Making the Case for CEDAW Ratification by the United States by Professor Rangita de Silva de Alwis and Ambassador Melanne Verveer to be published in Volume 60 of the Columbia Law School’s Journal of Transnational Law. The goal of the High-Level Roundtable is to raise national attention to elevate the importance of the CEDAW ratification ahead of the 76th Session of the UN General Assembly.
Commentators will be led by Harold Hongju Koh– former Dean of Yale Law School, Sterling Professor of Law, former Legal Adviser and Assistant Secretary of State for Democracy, Human Rights and Labor, currently Senior Advisor in the Office of the Legal Adviser, U.S. State Department for the Biden Administration and repeat witness before Congress on behalf of the CEDAW.
The Roundtable will be opened with a welcome by Dean Gillian Lester, Dean of Columbia Law School. More information on remote participation in the Roundtable can be found here: Roundtable landing page