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CSW 59 – Beijing Betrayed

FRIDAY FILE – Two decades after the Fourth World Conference on Women, women and girls around the world deserve better than this year’s CSW outcomes. At this time of celebration and affirmation of Beijing and commitment to accelerated implementation of the Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action, what women don’t need is an outcome weakened by its lack of engagement with women on the ground and lacking in vision and commitment.

It’s been twenty years since the Fourth World Conference on Women in Beijing, a flashpoint moment for women’s rights activists around the world. Women’s rights are human rights: this oft-repeated phrase still holds power for many belonging to the generation after Beijing. It represents a moment of claiming and an affirmation that women’s rights, lived experience and human dignity are central and equal rather than marginal.

Yet on this twentieth anniversary and celebration of the Conference (Beijing +20), state missions came together to draft a Political Declaration weeks before nearly 9000 activists stepped away from their daily lives to attend the 59th Session of the Commission on the Status of Women (CSW59). There will be no outcome document at the end of CSW59, and women’s rights and feminist groups have been shut out of negotiations.  As a result, the final version of the Declaration adopted last Monday is weak and general, and does not go far enough towards the kind of transformative change necessary to truly achieve the promises made in Beijing two decades ago on the indivisibility of human rights, gender equality and the empowerment of women and girls. The Commission also brought forward a resolution intended to review and enhance its methods of work this year, but again, civil society voices were largely excluded from the Working Methods process. 

An ahistorical declaration

It is heartening that the opening of the Declaration highlights women’s and girls’ full and equal enjoyment of all human rights and fundamental freedoms and the need to ensure the acceleration of the implementation of the Platform for Action and to integrate a gender perspective into the post-2015 development agenda. Governments also recognized the reality that many women and girls continue to experience multiple and intersecting forms of discrimination and vulnerability throughout their life cycle. 

But, this year’s Political Declaration is so general as to elide the clear links between the work of the CSW and many other international human rights bodies, mechanisms and policies. On this historic occasion, the Declaration reads as ahistorical. There are very few references to states’ international human rights commitments and principles. While states at least acknowledged the mutually reinforcing nature of the Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action and the Convention on the Declaration of Elimination of Discrimination against Women(CEDAW, adopted in 1979), it only calls on states that have not yet done so to considerratifying CEDAW or its Optional Protocol. There is no reference to the universality and indivisibility of all human rights, as for instance upheld in the Vienna Declaration and Programme of Action, nor to the public international law principle that mandates states to exercise due diligence to promote, protect and fulfill human rights, including by preventing human rights abuses by private actors—such as domestic and intimate partner violence. 

Lack of civil society participation silences women and allows States to renege

The weaknesses of the Declaration are stark and unsurprising given the removal of civil society and women’s groups from the process. Engagement of activists working on the ground, directly connected to the needs, threats and opportunities of the moment, was critical in securing the bold and progressive declaration of twenty years ago. This year’s Declaration, meant to reaffirm states’ commitment to Beijing, paints a troubling picture of our current moment.

Human rights are an underpinning principle of gender equality, gender justice and empowerment, and invoke mutually agreed international standards, binding legal commitments, and concrete state responsibilities to protect and empower their citizens as equals, without discrimination. Yet, most references to human rights have been culled from the Political Declaration, both from those included in the original draft, as well as language brought forward by some states during closed-door negotiations. This removal of human rights language from the Declaration undercuts the legacy of Beijing, which centrally affirmed the goal of realizing the human rights of women and girls. It suggests an attempt to evade commitments made by states to women and girls; and to narrow their range of human rights. All women and girls, without exclusion, are entitled to all human rights—to say anything less is to treat us as second-class citizens and to renege on international legal commitments.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, given the process of this year’s negotiations, references to key civil society actors including feminist organizations and women human rights defenders (WHRDs) were also excluded from the final draft of the Declaration. The only way to make progress that will honour the human rights of women is to listen to those women, especially those that work day to day, in conditions of insecurity and hardship, to challenge inequality. In the face of rising challenges to political participation and freedom of expression worldwide, it’s a matter of grave concern that these critical voices were not affirmed, especially given the 2013 General Assembly resolution on Women’s Human Rights Defenders.

It is important to mention some of what was removed from the Declaration text over the course of this non-inclusive process, because of the lack of civil society voices—including those from the Global South, who had no physical presence in New York where the negotiations took place. Some progressive and forward-thinking language unfortunately fell by the wayside in the rush to finalize the text, such as references to decent work for women, grassroots and feminist groups, to an inclusive definition of women and girls “in all their diversity,” almost all references to gender-based violence, and specific protected grounds for discrimination including disability and HIV status. Governments also chose not to keep in references to women’s decision making in conflict and post-conflict situations and their equal and effective participation in peace processes and mediations efforts. In addition, promotion of the right to education of women and girls on the basis of equal opportunity found its way out of the text.

In response, almost 1000 women rights advocates and organisations signed onto a statement lambasting the UN and Member States for their lack of political will and commitment to women’s human rights, saying that the Declaration “represents a bland reaffirmation of existing commitments that fails to match the level of ambition in the Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action and in fact threatens a major step backward.”

Missing and watered down language does not bode well for the new development agenda

Alarmingly, the Declaration makes no reference at all to women’s sexual and reproductive health and rights, despite years of affirmative language at the CSW and other international human rights processes. Government missions also watered down language on gender and the post-2015 development agenda significantly. While the final Declaration makes mention of the stand-alone gender equality goal, the lack of commitment to gender equality in the sustainable development process from states around the world sends the wrong message about the critical links between women’s human rights and development as the post-2015 process continues. The post-2015 process must be robust and inclusive of women. 

It is also disappointing that the Declaration agreed last Monday alludes to contemporary challenges to gender justice and women’s human rights around the world, but misses this important opportunity to call attention to any of these current issues. For states and the international community to be able to tackle specific obstacles to make a real difference in women’s and girls’ lives, they must first be recognized as a springboard for nuanced and comprehensive commitments to act.

Unfortunately, the Political Declaration makes no reference to climate change; the rising power and growth of State and non-State actors around the world using anti-rights interpretations of religion, culture and tradition to justify violence, further their political interests and agendas, and gain access to power and resources; gender-based violence against women and particularly that targeting WHRDs; threats posed by non-state actors such as criminal networks and militia; and increasing economic inequality and persistent economic crisis. Commitments and clarity on allocations of state resources and accountability measures and mechanisms to achieve gender equality, human rights and empowerment were also conspicuously missing from the Declaration. 

Working methods resolution further reduces space for civil society participation

The majority of negotiations on the Working Methods resolution occurred prior to the CSW and finalized in the second week of the Commission, again without Ministerial involvement. It is alarming - but indicative of this trend towards closing off spaces for participation - that member states considered it appropriate to formulate and cement even the future mechanisms and processes of the Commission without real input from women’s rights and feminist groups.

Women’s rights activists were again confronted with a document featuring many of the same weaknesses as the Political Declaration. While strong efforts by civil society advocates over the past days led to greater inclusion of human rights language in the resolution, no specific references to sustainable development goals made it into the final draft. Feminist groups were again excluded, and language on civil society engagement in the Commission was restrictive. No reference to women’s and feminist group’s involvement in negotiations at the CSW was left in the resolution, and there are real fears that this resolution, along with the pre-negotiated Declaration, increase the risk that women’s rights activists will be systematically excluded from real involvement in the outcomes of the Commission moving forward.  

Representatives of feminist and women’s organizations and organizations working to promote the full realization of the human rights of women and girls, expressed outrage at the this exclusion issuing a strong statement. It is crucial that women’s rights advocates engage with the very real challenges that face us, and uphold the human rights and fundamental freedoms of all without discrimination, with bravery, strength and integrity. That is how to honour the legacy of Beijing and truly respect the human rights of all.