Posted by: estellepetrie1 | March 29, 2016

Why a dialogue?

I arrived back from Europe two weeks ago, and have started the next phase of my internship back in the office at KL. First task, analysing the Concluding Observations of the CEDAW Committee which were coincidentally released around International Women’s Day, perfectly timed with my return to Malaysia.


Stop Diskriminasi mug at work


You know you are becoming a real UN nerd when you see the CEDAW Committee recommend to Japan that they ratify ‘the Protocol to Prevent, Suppress and Punish Trafficking in Persons, Especially Women and Children’ and you note it down as ‘Palermo Protocol on trafficking’.

I remember when I first arrived in Kuala Lumpur all the acronyms flying around the IWRAW-AP office were overwhelming. On top of this the UN experience added a healthy serving of Frameworks, Conventions, Protocols, Optional Protocols, Concluding Observations, Standards and General Recommendations. Welcome to the constellation of international human rights law instruments. Luckily, as a budding international law nerd I am becoming increasingly familiar with this language.

Now, concerning the Concluding Observations themselves, normally this type of document might make for fairly dry reading, or can get miserably repetitive. In Iceland’s Concluding Observations for example the Committee ‘is concerned about the continuing existence of stereotypes concerning the roles of men and women in the family and society’. A sad reality in most if not all countries.

However, the devil is in the detail. Or rather, the thrill for UN and human rights nerds is in the background context to such statements from a UN treaty body.

At this point I refer to my copious rapporteur notes from the dialogue with Iceland. In discussing Article 5 of the CEDAW the issues facing Iceland were a cut in funding to civil society organisations after the global financial crisis, limiting the capacity of such organisations to run programs that target the elimination of stereotypes. Stereotyping is also strongly related to violence against women, a persistent phenomenon in Iceland where problematic culture within the police force is an exacerbating factor. Recommendations can’t be understood in isolation.


Obligatory UN chamber shot, not the actual CEDAW room!

Further, experiencing the CEDAW session and analysing the outcomes for me underlined the importance of the process as a dialogue.

Firstly, sitting in front of the Committee forces states to engage with the issues of discrimination which are raised in a way that is both more nuanced and frank. As I described in a previous post, my preparatory work for the session involved reading state reports, the subsequent ‘List of Issues and Questions’ (LOIQ) from the Committee and the states’ replies to the LOIQ. It was incredibly frustrating to notice states failing (read: avoiding) addressing the specific concerns of the Committee.

Tanzania was an interesting example of how direct dialogue is more revealing than the submitting of reports. Throughout the dialogue with Tanzania the topic of persistent discrimination under customary law was raised, such as with widows’ inheritance rights (the subject of a Communication to the CEDAW Committee under the Optional Protocol ). Customary law is afforded special recognition by the ‘formal’ law of Tanzania and in the dialogue it was clear the state was concerned to strike a balance between communities’ traditional cultural practices and the principles of non-discrimination found in CEDAW, and in their own formal legislative instruments.

There were two Committee members from African Countries who almost counselled the state delegation on amending customary laws. I recall one member highlighting the possibility of using law as ‘a tool of social engineering’ which could lead the way in eliminating discrimination. These powerful conceptual statements about interactions between law and custom were likely only possible in that particular format of verbal engagement.

The second reason that the process of a physical dialogue is important is for the opportunity it provides to NGOs and civil society to engage with the Committee. That was the major object of my work in summarising and analysing the Concluding Observations.

My notes throughout the weeks documented the different elements of NGO lobbying and engagement including their oral statements to the Committee in the opening session and their informal lunch briefings. I compared the content of the Concluding Observations with the information and analyses which NGOs gave the Committee.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, my impression after trawling all of these documents and notes was that NGOs can and do have an effect on the outcomes of the session, that is, substantive recommendations are made on issues they raise.

Sometimes, we might suppose glaring issues will be covered regardless of NGOs’ presence, such as lack of compensation for Roma women who were victims of forced sterilisation in the Czech Republic. However, it was apparent that hidden or “niche” issues highlight by NGOs were picked up by the Committee. An example includes the above mentioned Police culture issues in Iceland, or the Czech Republic’s lack of informed consent and choice around childbirth procedures provided to women.

In addition, even for those issues which are bound to be covered NGOs can influence the specific way in which the state is questioned or the concluding observation is targeted and phrased.

I could go on ad nauseam about the invaluable on the ground insight which NGOs can provide and elaborate further on their work, but this post is already far too long. Instead, I leave with a link to this article by Imogen Wall last week about Somali activist Degan Ali decrying the huge portion of humanitarian funding which goes to international organisations to the detriment of local groups working directly on the ground.

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