The Corner

The Case against the U.N. Women’s Treaty

On Thursday, November 18, at 2:00 p.m., the Senate will hold hearings on the U.N.’s Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW), which commits nations that sign it to abolishing discrimination against women and to ensuring their “full development and advancement” in all areas of public and private life.

Adopted in 1979, CEDAW has been ratified by nearly every nation except the United States. There is growing momentum for the U.S. to finally sign: Pres. Barack Obama, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, women’s groups such as the National Organization for Women, and broad-based organizations such as AARP, the AFL-CIO, the American Bar Association, and even the Audubon Society all support ratification.

But a close look at the content of the treaty shows that the Senate has been wise to resist ratification for 31 years. Though CEDAW contains many worthy declarations, its key provisions are 1970s egalitarian feminism preserved in diplomatic amber. Releasing those aged provisions into 21st-century America would be strange at best, and would risk seriously compromising the privacy, well-being, and basic freedoms of Americans.

Proponents of CEDAW have disseminated influential but factually challenged information sheets that claim to dispel “myths” about CEDAW. What follows is an effort to correct the myths in those documents.

MYTH: CEDAW does not call for state regulation of family life.

FACT: The treaty is an eccentric document that espouses a style of feminism that flourished in the 1970s, when the treaty was first drafted, but has since gone out of fashion. For instance, it defines discrimination against women as “any distinction” based on sex. It urges governments to take measures to eliminate all sex roles and all behaviors that evince sex stereotypes.

Under CEDAW, even private behavior — such as how couples divide household and child-care chores — is subject to government oversight and modification. The U.N. monitoring committee routinely censures countries like Denmark, Norway, and Iceland for failing to prevent women from taking primary care of children, a practice it deems “discriminatory.”

If the U.S. ratifies CEDAW, there will be a three-ring circus each time we come up for review. American laws, customs, and private behavior will be evaluated by 23 U.N. gender ministers to see if they comply with a feminist philosophy that is 30 years out of date.

MYTH: American law is already fully in line with CEDAW.

FACT: American law is based on the ideal of equal opportunity; CEDAW demands equal outcomes. Furthermore, the treaty mandates programs and policies that American voters, legislators, and courts have explicitly rejected time and again: gender quotas, reverse-discrimination programs, mandatory paid maternity leave, government-funded daycare, and equal pay for comparable work.

MYTH: CEDAW has no enforcement authority.

FACT: While it is true that the rulings and recommendations of the U.N. monitoring committee would not be legally enforceable in U.S. courts, this does not mean that they would have no effect on policy developments within the United States. #more#The official nature of the committee, and the legal authority conferred upon it by the international community, ensures that its judgments would become a powerfully persuasive force in American politics.

The U.S. should not commit itself to international agreements it is not prepared to keep. Just as proponents of CEDAW claim that it is shameful that the U.S. has not yet ratified CEDAW, they will argue, once it is ratified, that it is shameful that the U.S. is not abiding by its terms and by the rulings and pronouncements of the U.N. monitoring committee. Many judges and legislators will agree and rule accordingly.

Thus, although judges could not directly enforce the provisions of CEDAW absent the passage of additional domestic legislation, CEDAW would serve as an impetus and a justification for judges to make radical new rulings in cases touching on gender issues.

MYTH: CEDAW would have little or no effect on American laws and customs. It is a foreign policy initiative — in Sen. Barbara Boxer’s words, “a diplomatic tool for human rights.”

FACT: Groups such as NOW, the Feminist Majority Foundation, and the National Women’s Law Center view a ratified CEDAW as a legal mandate to implement their agenda in the United States. For them, the treaty is a license to sue, re-educate, and re-socialize their fellow citizens — opportunities that have eluded them under the U.S. Constitution. NOW president Terry O’Neill stated her position clearly in a March 2010 letter to President Obama urging immediate ratification of CEDAW: “U.S. women have endured denials of their basic human rights long enough — please don’t make us wait any longer.”

MYTH: The treaty poses no threats to American laws or customs since, before signing it, the U.S. can attach a list of stipulations, known as RUDs (“reservations, understandings and declarations”), that will uphold U.S. sovereignty and protect American rights and freedoms.

FACT: The legitimacy and role of “reservations” in international human-rights treaties is one of the most contested areas of international law. Legal experts disagree about the power of RUDs to insulate a country from provisions of a treaty it has committed itself to honor. CEDAW itself states, “A reservation incompatible with the object and purpose of the present Convention shall not be permitted.”

 It is not even clear that pro-CEDAW groups like Amnesty International or the American Bar Association, whose officials tout the protective power of RUDs in their CEDAW “fact sheets,” truly believe they are effective. When NOW met with several human-rights groups in 2009 to plan the pro-CEDAW campaign, it expressed concern that RUDs would make it difficult to enforce treaty provisions in the United States. But as NOW (somewhat indiscreetly) reported on its website in August 2009, “Representatives from groups who have advocated for ratification over the years, suggest that RUDs have little meaning and could potentially be removed from the treaty at some point.”

No one can contest that Americans are committed to helping women in the developing world. No other nation gives more to foreign aid or has more philanthropies and religious groups dedicated to women’s causes. Voters across the political divide welcome innovative programs to help women struggling with repressive governments and with barbaric traditions such as child marriage, dowry burnings, genital cutting, and honor killings. But no U.S. senator can in good conscience vote in favor of ratifying CEDAW as a foreign-policy tool. The treaty is aimed at the United States, and risks for American freedoms are too high.


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