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CSW58 – The Role of Civil Society, Geopolitics and the Holy See in Negotiations

FRIDAY FILE: The 58th Commission on the Status of Women (CSW 58) to evaluate the challenges and achievements in the implementation of the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) for women and girls started this week and will continue until 21 March in New York. AWID interviewed gender, sexuality and human rights activist, Cynthia Rothschild, about some of the issues affecting this year’s negotiations.

By Susan Tolmay

AWID: CSW is in full swing, with negotiations on the Agreed Conclusions taking place. Having seen various versions of the Agreed Conclusions, what do you think are the most important issues at stake during this year’s negotiations, given the theme and current context?

Cynthia Rothschild (CR): The question this year is whether governments will support human rights of women, and all people, in ways that catch up with what the many vibrant social movements that exist all over the world are saying and demanding. Are we still living in the 1990’s with the outcomes of those conferences[1], which were ground breaking at the time, but from which activists advanced. It seems that governments, because of their geopolitical priorities and commitments, are digging their heels in and pushing us to fight the same battles that we have been fighting for at least the last two decades.

The task ahead is for women’s rights advocates to influence and call on governments to support their own previously agreed commitments and create new ones. Governments need to take into account the realities of women’s lives - discrimination, violence, poverty, lack of access to resources, environmental injustice etc.

The language that is being negotiated in the CSW outcome document - governmentally negotiated Agreed Conclusions (AC) - is particularly important at this year’s CSW because of the discussions taking place around the Post 2015 development agenda. Now that we are moving past the MDGs, it is essential that the new development paradigm takes account of the realities of women’s lives; and should not be mired in geopolitics that dictates government decisions or the rhetoric of twenty years ago. These CSW negotiations are particularly important because they will be one of the only gender specific tools used in the ongoing development negotiations around post 2015, which means that the language that governments agree to in the AC’s will be used in the official post 2015 development processes that will culminate in General Assembly discussions happening partly this and next year. The next governmentally agreed paradigm will come out of that process.

In terms of women’s interests, one of the sets of issues I am following closely is around sexual rights generally and what’s at stake is whether governments support women’s autonomous decision making, rights to control our bodies, rights to be free from violence, coercion and discrimination - all of these rights are under attack in discussions on the ACs, as is the entire human rights framework, so there are some big ticket discussions and some governments are being very obstructive. The threats to human rights language and overall framework are deeply under attack, which women’s rights advocates are extremely concerned about. Language on sexuality is under attack, for instance, sexual orientation and gender identity (SOGI) is always a geopolitical hot potato – governments manipulate arguments about culture, religion and sovereignty with an undercurrent that is very much an anti gay, anti abortion, anti reproductive rights and anti gender equality agenda.

AWID: How is civil society able to influence the Agreed Conclusions and what do you see as some of the challenges ahead?

CR: The major challenge is that while we are here talking about women’s rights, the discussions are never only about just one thing. So, we might think we are talking about gender equality, women’s rights, sexuality and issues of women’s autonomy, but we are caught in a geopolitical web of discussions about a range of other issues such as oil, aid, military air space, trade and economic agreements etc. and these are always the issues that influence the ways governments take positions in these spaces. As such, we never quite know what we are grappling with, because, for example, we may think we are talking about comprehensive sexuality education and we may think we have governments on board to support that language but depending on the geopolitics between specific States at a particular moment, it is those issues that drive the negotiations. This is the broader geopolitical context that we have to operate within and these are tricky things to define.

In terms of civil society and our influence over this process - governments would be lost without us. We are the ones doing the activist work, service provision, creating analysis generally out in the world, it is not the diplomats. It is our job to produce the analysis, understanding and nuance and to hand that to ally governments and to challenge opposition governments about what we know to be true.

Governments are playing their own geopolitical game and it is our job to ensure that they have the best tools available to them; and those tools are often the truths we know and bring to these spaces. At a very practical level we consistently help country delegations understand the issues they are negotiating about, they would not know how to negotiate on these issues, for the most part, without our providing the detail, and that’s a critical contribution that women’s rights advocates, organisations and movements make to this process. We also provide ethical and moral support to delegations that are our allies, and this is important because right wing/ conservative organisations take this space very seriously and we cannot cede the space to them, we know we’re on the right side of justice but it’s a battle to remind everyone else of that.

Part of what also makes the process difficult is that CSOs cannot directly observe the negotiations so as the two weeks of the CSW roll out there is a lack of accountability in the process because it is so closed to civil society.

AWID: What role does the Holy See play at the CSW and how does this affect negotiations?

CR: The Holy See is deeply involved in the CSW process, they function in essence as a State in this space and they wield great influence. People should not be fooled by the fact that there is a new Pope who has occasionally been quoted as potentially having more moderate positions. The Holy See is driving some of the most conservative and regressive and anti women and anti human rights language in this process, that is always the case and we have no reason to believe that this changes. They work very specifically with a number of States, which is not to say that those States would not have conservative positions anyway, but those agreements and that shared set of ideologies are very much about the protection of the Church and the connections, including economic connections, between States and the Vatican. This also means that right wing organisations, some of which are based in North America, are very present here and they work as the mouthpiece of the Holy See, and they are using similar strategies to women’s rights advocates in that they too are assertively trying to influence State positions.

The Holy See needs to be exposed as having the conservative positions that they do. They sometimes function under cover here, having other States speaking on their behalf meaning that there is a very strong conservative religious influence at the CSW. Alternatively there are some faith based organisations that are more progressive and much more supportive of women’s human’s rights but they have mountains to climb.

[1] Including at the Vienna Conference on Human Rights in 1993, the International Conference on Population Development (ICPD) in Cairo in 1994 and the Fourth World Conference on Women