Selective Declaration

By Robinson, Mary | Harvard International Review, Fall 1999 | Go to article overview

Selective Declaration


Robinson, Mary, Harvard International Review


Abstract:

Women's rights are human rights. This affirmation seems self-evident, yet women waited until 1995 to see it stated unequivocally in an international document. That year, the overwhelming majority of the world's nations adopted the Beijing Declaration and Platform of Action at the end of the Fourth World Conference on Women in China. The inclusion of these documents in the final act of that historic gathering is not to be underestimated. The recognition of women's rights as human rights, one of the goals of the international women's movement, came about only after decades of struggle. More importantly, it visibly illustrates evidence of women's transformation of the human-rights discourse, pointing toward the recognition of the human rights of all people.

Text:

Women's Human Rights into the New Millennium

Women's rights are human rights. This affirmation seems self-evident, yet women waited until 1995 to see it stated unequivocally in an international document. That year, the overwhelming majority of the world's nations adopted the Beijing Declaration and Platform of Action at the end of the Fourth World Conference on Women in China. The inclusion of these documents in the final act of that historic gathering is not to be underestimated. The recognition of women's rights as human rights, one of the goals of the international women's movement, came about only after decades of struggle. More importantly, it visibly illustrates evidence of women's transformation of the human-rights discourse, pointing toward the recognition of the human rights of all people.

The 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the international covenants that followed it proclaim equality between men and women and proscribe discrimination, but the traditional human-rights framework has not fully incorporated the rights of women. The concept of equality means much more than treating all persons in the same way, for equal treatment of persons in unequal situations will perpetuate rather than eradicate injustice. Feminists and others quickly realized that a critical rethinking of what human rights meant to women was required. As Rebecca J. Cook has observed, "International human rights and the legal instruments that protect them were developed primarily by men in a male-oriented world. They- have not been interpreted in a gender-sensitive way that is responsive to women's experiences of injustice.

To transform international human rights in order to take the concerns of women into account is to tackle notions that have held firm sway for decades, some even before the birth of the human rights movement. Among these notions is the primacy accorded to civil and political rights over economic, social, and cultural rights-an imbalance which in itself belies the supposed "gender neutrality" of rights.

Gender and Human Rights

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights enshrines the inherent dignity and equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family. The Vienna Declaration and Program of Action of 1993 forcefully reiterates that all human rights-civil, cultural, economic, political, and social-are interdependent. With the benefit of 50 years of experience, it has become clear that all human rights must be respected with the same degree of affirmation and conviction. Freedom of speech and belief are as important as freedom from fear and want; the right to fair trial and the right of participatory and representative government should be considered side by side with the rights to work, health care, and education.

This vision continues to be challenged, however. Some still hold that economic, social, and cultural rights are not rights at all buy goals, albeit laudable ones, that governments should strive to achieve. For many in this camp, only civil and political rights are universal. This attitude may help explain why fundamental rights to decent living conditions, food, basic health care, and education, all laid down in the International Covenant on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights, are widely denied. …

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