"Gender" Wars at the United Nations

Article excerpt


His Eminence Ennio Antonelli's Address to participants of this conference quotes Pope Benedict XVI in stating: "Human rights are increasingly being presented as the common language and the ethical substratum of international relations." (1) For this very reason, scholars from various disciplines have gathered to study the foundation of human rights, in particular Catholic contributions, with a view to promoting authentic human rights. In this regard, Cardinal Antonelli draws our attention to the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights ("UDHR") emphasizing the fact that, "although the UDHR makes no mention of God, it illustrates a 'great convergence between the Declaration and Christian anthropology and ethics' and offers a 'meeting' point for dialogue, as well as a necessary reference for integral human development and peace." (2) Indeed, the UDHR is essential for a more Catholic-inspired vision of international human rights law, and should especially be included as part of the response to sorting out current discussions about troublesome terminology. Elsewhere, (3) I have fleshed out how and why the UDHR embodies a universal and objective notion of the human person and promotes rights as well as duties "based on the natural law inscribed on human hearts and present in different cultures and civilizations." (4) Therefore, it is beyond the scope of this Article to revisit this thesis as an answer to the problems I raise for discussion today.

Rather, the purpose of this Article is to explore the controversy surrounding the meaning of the term "gender" within the United Nations ("U.N.") system, with a view toward developing a context for those scholars who may be unfamiliar with how human rights are discussed and debated on the international level. The gender debate is related to ongoing discussions about, on the one hand, "sexual orientation" and "gender identity," (5) and on the other hand, "sexuality education." (6) However, due to time constraints, a discussion of these latter terms will be left for another day. In specific regard to gender, this Article argues that, notwithstanding lobbying efforts to promote a radical understanding of "gender," a historical review of U.N. initiatives for women reveals that the term "gender" is commonly used as a synonym for women and/or male and female. The majority of State Parties, in negotiated documents, have consistently rejected the radical feminist concept of "gender" as a social construct "based on world views which assert that sexual identity can be adapted indefinitely to suit new and different purposes." (7)

To flesh out this thesis, this Article will be divided into two Parts. Part I will give a brief historical overview of initiatives for women in the U.N. system and analyze the various attempts to integrate the term "gender" into different U.N. documents. Part II will consider four possible understandings of the concept of gender within the U.N. system: (1) gender as a social construct; (2) gender as a cultural aspect of femininity and masculinity, but based on the biological sexes, male and female; (3) gender as synonymous with women and sex, or women and children; and (4) gender meaning the two sexes, male and female, within the context of society. This last definition constitutes the only definition in international law that binds State Parties that have signed and ratified the Statute of the International Criminal Court. (8)


A. The Period: 1945 to 1962

The 1945 Charter of the United Nations is considered the first global treaty to call for "equality between women and men." (9) The Charter reaffirms a "faith in fundamental human rights, in the dignity and worth of the human person, in the equal rights of men and women and of nations large and small." (10) The United Nations places "no restrictions on the eligibility of men and women to participate in any capacity and under conditions of equality in its principal and subsidiary organs. …