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Shulamith Koenig

"We need to build a new political culture based on human rights."
Nelson Mandela

What are Human Rights?
Women and Human Rights
Human Rights, NGOs and Economic Policies.
Women and Trade Policies


There is no doubt that every human being -- women, men and children, KNOWS when justice is present and injustice is imposed. But the hard question is: what can I personally do and what can a community do to achieve and effect justice? Is injustice God-given? Must some of us fall between the cracks for others to achieve justice? For the common good? Should we turn to charity to right wrongs? Should we work on OUR injustice and keep a blind eye to injustice done to others? Or can we work together to achieve a life of dignity for all? How do we ensure that justice is not ignored in the system of trade and investment proliferating to the farthest corners of the earth under the auspices of institutions like the WTO?

As a cultural Jew I always remember and frequently share this historical memory with my colleagues: every human being must know that the process of living in the world in dignity with others must be a process of moving from bondage to freedom. We all need to develop systemic analysis and to abandon the discussions about victims and victimizers in which we all take part. The human rights framework, viewed as a political and economic ideology, provides us with this systemic analysis.

In Webster's Dictionary we find the following definitions:

Culture: the integrated pattern of human behavior that includes thought, speech, action and artifacts and depends upon human capacity for learning and transmitting knowledge to succeeding generations.

Ideology: a systematic body of concepts about human life or culture.

Political: relevant to the total complex of relations between human beings in society.

Human rights is a political-economic ideology. Human rights norms and standards set out and expand upon a particular cultural, ideological, and political praxis that promises a future of dignity and peace for humanity. I shall briefly explain the contours of that praxis and how we can begin to realize it. The premise of my comments is that if all women, men, and children knew that they were owners of human rights and adopted the human rights framework in their struggles for economic and social justice, a new economic political system would emerge.

What are Human Rights?

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) has for fifty years served as the foundation of the human rights framework. It is historically unique among the human rights instruments in its comprehensive nature. It includes all of humanity, asserting and acknowledging in very practical ways that all human beings are born equal in dignity. It purports that all people, women included, must be treated as absolute equals, though in practice we have fallen far short of that goal.

Importantly, the UDHR sets out all human rights on equal terms. The economic, social, and cultural human rights of all people are as important as people's civil and political human rights. Furthermore, Article 30 of the Universal Declaration states that, "nothing in this Declaration may be interpreted as implying for any State, Group, or individual person any right to engage in any activity or to perform any act aimed at the destruction of any of the rights and freedoms set forth herein." In other words, the exercising of one person's economic or political rights, for instance, may not violate another's. NO ONE HUMAN RIGHT CAN SUPERSEDE OR VIOLATE ANOTHER!

In discussing Women's Human Rights and the horrendous violations of these rights around the world, it stands to reason that we first need to truly understand the meaning of human rights: for all people of all ages, for all classes and all races and genders, and that rights are interconnected and interdependent. We can not ignore the historical fact that all "solidarities˛ from the beginning of human history, be they religious, social, economic, political, cultural, or civil, have formed for one purpose: to maintain the dignity of their members and/or to create communities that sustain justice and freedom. If we probe the historical memory of each of these groups, we will no doubt find out that the definition of dignity is everywhere the same. Declarations made across the generations state loud and clear: A life of dignity is sacred!

The realization of the fundamental human rights -- civil and political, economic, social and cultural -- of all people is vital to dignified lives for all. The human rights discourse, as an ideology, must counter the oppressive and intricate system dominated by the three "P"s ­ Patriarchy, Property and Power ­ by fighting for the ideal that no human right of any group or person can violate the human rights of any other group or person. That is, it must break through the vicious cycle of humiliation by moving "power" to human rights.

Be they civil, cultural, economic, political, or social, the rights of everyone are systemically interconnected. We cannot all work on every concern, issue or oppression, it is true. But all of us can greatly strengthen our work for social and economic justice by using the human rights system to alleviate wrong and achieve what is fundamentally right. (I often say: in the race to the bottom, the floor we land on should be human rights. This marks me as a human rights fundamentalist. For that purpose I wish we all become fundamentalists.)

There is no better way to try to sum up the importance of human rights than to quote Professor Upendra Baxi's book Of Human rights and Human Wrongs.

no single phrase in recent human history 'has been more privileged to bear the mission and burden of human destiny than [the phrase] "human rightsŠ. The greatest gift of classical and contemporary human thought is the notion of human rights. Indeed, more than any other moral language available to us at this time in history , the language of human rights is able to expose ' the immorality and. . . barbarism of the modern face of powerŠ.' We witnessed repeated and increasingly emphatic declarations of human rights, a proliferation of formal adherence to human rights unprecedented in human history. Human rights standards now relate to all kinds of rights: economic, social, cultural, civil and political; of individuals as well as collectives; and for all people: women, children, the old, indigenous peoples, migrant workers and their families, industrial workers and rural workers. Human rights norms outlaw abominations such as torture, genocide, extra-judicial executions, arbitrary detentions, racial and other forms of discrimination; they guide the activities of the UN (and other actors) involved in development, peacekeeping, and humanitarian assistance. For better or for worse, these standards represent a beacon of light and hope for the world's ever-growing numbers of international refugees and internally displaced persons.

Women's groups around the world say "Women's Rights are Human Rights". I prefer the formulation of a group of Latin American women: "Human rights that do not include women are not human." While only the realization of human rights for ALL people will ensure that women are included as fully human, women specifically have suffered violations and neglect as a consequence of gender neutral understandings of human rights. Thus, the following section will highlight the rise of an awareness of the need to specifically address women's human rights and efforts made by the United Nations to this end.

Women and Human Rights

In 1946, two years before the UDHR came into being, the Committee on the Status of Women was established, chaired by Bodil Boegstrup of Belgium. As the UDHR was being framed, Boegstrup was one of the first to argue that the human rights of women should be clearly defined in the UDHR, claiming that inequality between men and women must be seen as a major human rights concern. However, the chair of the Commission on Human Rights, Eleanor Roosevelt, felt strongly that gender should not be addressed specifically in the UDHR and that the document's language should be understood to apply equally to men and women, and that everyone should understand that the theoretically gender-neutral terminology in the document refers to men and women equally. There was little debate about or analysis of the specific human rights violations women suffer. Decades of gender "blindness" in human rights documents rendered these abuses invisible. The fundamental needs of half of humanity were forgotten. Similarly, and possibly for the same political reasons, the promotion and enforcement of civil and political rights have been prioritized over social, economic and cultural rights. Both specific violations of women's human rights and violations of economic and social rights generally call for systemic analysis and fundamental social change, assuming we accept the idea that no human right can violate another.

Despite the efforts made to articulate the importance of human rights and the hopes that I harbor for the enforcement of human right to secure human futures ­ and thus the human rights of women as well ­ it is sad to note that human rights to date enjoy no predominant or permanent role in guiding international and national policy making. This situation prevails in spite of the Plans of Action adopted by nation-states at world conferences from Rio to Vienna to Copenhagen, from Cairo to Beijing and Rome. All of the preambles to these agreements pay homage to human rights. The failure of governments to protect the human rights of poor people, and specifically of women and girls, has allowed the present intolerable human rights conditions to persist.

In the last decade the percentage of women among the poor had grown from 50% to 70% and is still increasing. Very few acknowledge the connections between human rights, gender, trade policies and the feminization of poverty. The World Trade Organization--virtually the only intergovernmental organization that has strong enforcement mechanisms-- regardless of its various public declarations, does not consider human rights in its decision making process. WTO neglects to frame trade issues as human rights issues although every government of the world has ratified at least one (and in some cases, all) of the major human rights conventions, through which they undertook an obligation and made a commitment to integrate human rights norms and standards into their political and economic activities and agreements.

Furthermore, many of the NGOs and activist groups ­ composed of women and men alike who are working to fight against the MAI or to call for action against WTO policies ­ are unaware of the powerful tool of action that human rights provides them. One-hundred and sixty-three countries have ratified the Convention on the Elimination of All forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW). How many women's groups working on gender and the WTO have carefully studied this very revolutionary document, one which applies forcefully, directly and indirectly, to every violation imposed on women by WTO policies? How many have considered the usefulness of other human rights conventions such as the Economic, Social and Cultural Covenant and the Convention of the Right of the Child?

In 1979 the Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women met and finalized a draft of the document which addressed the uneven social conditions which have supported discrimination and various forms of violence against women throughout history. It made the definitive statement that:

discrimination against women violates principles of equality of rights and respect for human dignity, is an obstacle to the participation of women, on equal terms with men in the political, social, economic and cultural life of their countries, hampers the growth of the prosperity of society and the family and makes more difficult the full development of the potentialities of women.

CEDAW laid the groundwork for the protection, promotion and fulfillment of the human rights of women. The introductory articles to CEDAW spell out that "State Parties Shall Take All Appropriate Measure" to eliminate discrimination. Article 2 states that policy measures to be taken to eliminate discrimination are to include: writing principles of equality into constitutions and national legislation; ensuring that public authorities, institutions and individuals refrain from discriminatory laws, customs, regulations and practices; guaranteeing by law and in practice equality of rights between men and women; and protecting women against discrimination.

The International Covenant on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights is also of fundamental importance to ensuring a life of dignity for all women. In 1966, in order to address the lack of protection of economic, social, and cultural rights, the Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights drafted the final versions of the International Covenant on Economic, Cultural and Social Rights. The Covenant, which has been ratified by more than 150 countries, states that food, housing, health-care, work and education are fundamental human rights that must be progressively realized, echoing the preamble of the UDHR, which proclaims the goal of freedom from want, and the provisions it sets out in Articles 22-26. The Covenant assumes the rights of people to freely pursue their economic, social and cultural development, and addresses the right of everyone to the enjoyment of just and favorable conditions of work, ensuring in particular: "fair wages and equal remuneration for work of equal value without distinction of any kind, in particular women being guaranteed conditions of work not inferior to those enjoyed by men, with equal pay for equal work" [People's Decade of Human Rights Education had developed a Web Site ­ www.pdhre.org ­ where all activists for social justice can discover the human rights framework as it relates to all social and economic justice issues of women, men, and children.]

The Vienna Declaration of 1993 is also vital to our struggle, as it represents a strong affirmation of the interconnectedness of rights from a gender perspective. It calls clearly for increased coordination on human rights within the UN, for increased human rights resources, for equality and dignity for the rights of racial, ethnic and religious minorities, indigenous people, and migrant workers, for the equal status and human rights of women, and for the rights of the child and disabled people. It reaffirms that the nature of human rights is that they are "universal, indivisible, and interdependent and interrelated."

One doesn't have to be a human rights expert to know the enormous importance of these norms and standards, which give women activists a forceful language to claim social and economic justice for women. After 50 years of human rights advocacy, we still look back at a century of oppression and pain. But women's voices are rising up loud and clear against it. We must make the world aware that we women will not stop until all human rights apply to us too, in every community around the world.

Human Rights, NGOs and Economic Policies.

Women are aware of the erroneous assumption fundamental to trade policies, that trade provides a boost to developing economies because opportunities and wealth trickle down to the poor. In fact, there has been much evidence to the contrary ­ that opening up markets and placing restrictions on the economic activity of the poor (especially women), takes advantage of cheap, unorganized labor, increases suffering and heightens domestic and institutionalized violence and discrimination, and diminishes the power and income of the poor (that is, women) where they had some before.

Article 2 of CEDAW, as ratified throughout the world, guarantees that regulation and practices undertaken by public authorities, institutions, and individuals must refrain from economic discrimination and all that it entails. Consequently, this article can be deployed to mobilize shame. Many NGOs that embrace human rights as a way of life are working to convince women and men alike that the human rights framework can be used as a mode of analysis through which current human rights violations against women can be addressed. The following are two examples: I. CLADEM, Latin America and Caribbean Committee for the Defense of Women's Rights, a 17-country network, took the initiative in consultation with the People's Decade of Human Rights Education and 180 women from around the world to develop a Human Rights Declaration from a Gender Perspective. The new document was officially presented in the session of the Human Rights Committee in Geneva in March 1998. All women and men have been invited to know and support the Declaration.

The principal aim of this declaration is to make a contribution to the 50th anniversary of the UDHR by creating a new and broader legal human rights tool that adopts a gender perspective taking into account the rights of women, indigenous people, homosexuals and lesbians, children, older people, the handicapped, and all other groups that have been excluded from the concept of "human being" expressed in the UDHR of 1948. The declaration maintains that even though the UDHR has constituted the ethical code for the second half of the 20th century, women believe that today, on the threshold of the new millennium, it is necessary for member states to approve a new document for the international protection of human rights that integrates the advances of the last 50 years in relation to human rights ideas and experiences without invalidating anything whatsoever that has been accomplished by the Universal Declaration.

As the declaration states, we all have:

THE RIGHT TO IDENTITY AND CITIZENSHIP: Among other proposals, CLADEM sets forth the right to citizen identity with no regard to civil status, sex, sexual orientation, race, ethnic or social origin or any other condition.

THE RIGHT TO PEACE AND TO A LIFE FREE FROM VIOLENCE: They propose guaranteeing the right to a life free from violence, both in public as well as private areas; the participation of women in the solution of armed conflicts and in the construction of Peace.

SEXUAL AND REPRODUCTIVE RIGHTS: Reproductive autonomy and self-determination in relation to one's sexuality are keystones in this area. This includes the right to not suffer discrimination for one's sexual orientation and the right to have a safe and legal abortion.

THE RIGHT TO DEVELOPMENT: In this section CLADEM sets forth the right to enjoy the benefits of human development and the complete fulfillment of economic, social and cultural rights, including physical and mental health, education, work, adequate housing, nourishing security, equal and fair access to the land, credit, technology, potable water and energy. Furthermore, they state each woman and man's right to raise and educate sons and daughters, do housework, and to provide for the needs of the family, even after a divorce.

ENVIRONMENTAL RIGHTS: where CLADEM states that all women and men have the right to a sustainable environment and that equality of gender is one of the bases to achieve said sustainable development and moreover, the conservation of the environment.

B. In a policy statement, the NGO Committee on Human Rights in Trade & Investment states that the promotion of human rights is a necessary and legitimate objective and justification for bilateral and multilateral trade, investment and financial regimes . If trade agreements serve only the objectives of perpetuating and securing a place for the powerful and wealthy elite ­ corporate actors ­ and in the process secure the poverty of an ever-growing population of disenfranchised poor, they have no basis for legitimacy. The goals of human rights and trade policies grow out of fundamentally different assumptions. Too few are familiar with the notion that every human is born with human rights; too many have been persuaded that trade is the answer to the economic woes of developing nations. The international community has acknowledged and reiterated that development refers to social as well as economic development, and that in fact they should be regarded as interdependent, but this is largely forgotten in trade negotiations.

It is imperative that human rights agreements guide the principles of the WTO. The protection of women's human rights is the responsibility of the state and therefore states, and the international community as a whole, should condemn agreements that do not uphold the human rights of women. As noted above Power, Patriarchy, Property ­ and to add a fourth "P": Poverty ­ are deeply rooted in all political systems, including so-called "democratic" ones. The human rights framework aims to restructure these systems and to monitor them from a legal perspective. Fundamental changes regarding the position of women in society and their full participation in the decision making process, along with the redistribution of financial resources, challenge traditional political and cultural perceptions at all levels of society. Ensuring these rights requires long-term commitments by states, institutions, and persons everywhere, commitments many have not been willing to make.

The question is not whether these rights are basic human rights, but rather what entitlements they imply and the legal nature of the obligation of states and economic institutions to realize them. Despite the proclamation of the "interconnectedness and interdependence of human rights," an effective, holistic strategy has not been put to use. This has been a particular detriment to the fulfillment of women's economic and social status and rights.

The International NGO Committee on Human Rights in Trade and Investment wrote a letter to Heads of States and Foreign Ministers of all UN Member States articulating the following five "human rights and environment issues at stake in the multilateral trade and investment system":

  1. Multilateral human rights and environmental treaties may be contradicted by international trade and investment agreements.
  2. Measures to eliminate discrimination and promote equality of vulnerable groups may be challenged by the trade-investment concept of non-discrimination.
  3. The human right to self determination includes the right of all peoples to determine their economic future, which may be impossible when freedom without responsibility is given to foreign investors.
  4. The human right to sustainable livelihoods (to include the human rights to work, adequate housing, food education, and health) and collective survival rights (such as the human rights to development and healthy environment) may be jeopardized by the economic priorities required by trade policy.
  5. Stipulated conditions favoring foreign investors may eliminate the possibility of human rights and environmental accountability of non state actors, specifically multinational enterprises.

These documents were produced by activists with the deep conviction that, regardless of the specific issue, the human rights framework is ours to use to effect social change and to develop a system that brings justice to all.

Women and Trade Policies

It is important to note that for the most part, the call for women's rights as human rights has grown out of a concern over violence against women. Economic violence, such as women being chained to their chairs while they work, or not being able to go to the bathroom more than once a day, or being paid shameful wages, are not being fully addressed as human rights violations. Specific violations women suffer, such as rape as a tool of torture, female genital mutilation and domestic violence, have been more successfully integrated into mainstream human rights than economic, social and cultural, but these latter are vial too, and often constitute violence against women as well.

A common misunderstanding persists (and is fostered by patriarchs) that women's human rights movements are calling for "special" rights, rather than making a fundamental claim about the realization of equal human rights. This challenges women activists to address economic, social, and cultural rights as human rights. It is imperative to seek a comprehensive strategy for alleviating and preventing all abuses of the human rights of women. Moreover, a framework capable of integrating all these concerns into trade agreements is essential and should be a priority of all activists concerned with women and human rights. Without it, sustainable human development cannot be achieved, nor can women's human rights be realized.

Just how do trade agreements result in violations of women's human rights? Two case studies and analysis make this point:

In her report on "Gender, Trade and the WTO: A Ghana Case Study, Myriam Vander Stichelle notes: "WTO policies calling for trade liberalization will severely compromise women's economic status by increasing the capital needed to stay competitive in market trade, and will further reduce their participation in international trade." The report cites the effects on women working in the import and export trades and in domestic markets. Export processing zones (EPZs) instituted as part of an export strategy wed developing (and highly indebted) countries to programs which promote the "cheap labor" phenomenon. The labor force is primarily made up of women who are willing to work for low wages because of a lack of better opportunities, and often because they have been forced to abandon their traditional income source due to the very policies designed to promote economic growth of the kind favored by the WTO.

These policies threaten to increase the disparity in earnings between men and women, reduce women's traditional entrepreneurial creativity and livelihood, and prevent women from enjoying the benefits of development, and thus from realizing and enjoying their human rights.

Many working on gender and trade issues argue that these policies can be ameliorated with a solid gender analysis of how policies may reduce (or ideally increase) women's power and income. This is not enough! Women's right to development - recognized as a human right in the 1998 meeting of the Commission on Human Rights in Geneva, and as stated in the UNDHR, CEDAW, ICESCR and at the Vienna Conference ­ is violated in the tampering with traditional economies.

The economic adjustment externally imposed on developing countries such as Ghana prevents some of the gains of trade from reaching local people. The fact is that structural adjustment policies already in place have reduced women's access to land, affected educational subsidies (and therefore the number of children in school), and further marginalized women's productive capacities and activities, possibly increasing their unremunerated work. Some of the human rights violated in this superimposed structure are the right to equal access to productive resources, including land, credit and technology and the right to equal access to information including vocational training and to equal participation in political, economic and social decision making. Women in such vulnerable positions are more likely to work for below-subsistence wages, more likely to suffer abuse at home or in the workplace, and more likely generally to see their human rights violated. In short, women are denied the right to a life of dignity.

WTO policies compound these effects of structural adjustment programs and other macroeconomic programs, which tend to benefit the wealthy at the sacrifice of women.

2. Another example of the impact of trade in promoting women's under-development process can be seen in India. The corporate takeover of traditional agriculture has been framed as a new partnership in international trade but has actually robbed women of their traditional livelihoods and undercut a long-standing cultural tradition. Women have had a primary role in the cultivation and production of rice, which is now being dominated by the international trade agenda. It requires that a once- diverse selection of rice seeds now be genetically engineered so that they will not germinate, causing a new market for seeds every season.

This serves the agenda of a U.S. corporation to coopt the local markets and make a claim on them, thus reducing the demand for, and capability of, women to produce rice. This will have far-reaching effects on women's status, and could constitute a violation of women's human rights, especially as enumerated in CEDAW, the Vienna Declaration, and the Declaration on the Right to Development, because of the failure of the Indian state as a state actor to protect and fulfill women's economic, social, and cultural rights.

This example explicitly demonstrates the need for further investigation into the role of corporations in violating human rights, as well as the limitations they place on governments to promote human rights, especially for those most affected by agreements ­ poor women. Without an enforceable understanding of human rights in the WTO, situations such as these will increase as will the permanent feminization of poverty.

A human rights gender analysis of such policies is vital. Unless more privileged nations such as the USA and European countries take responsibility for promoting human rights in trade agreements, as the mandate of the Vienna Declaration requires, we will see the further reduction of women's status and participation in their societies.


In 1995, recognizing Women's Rights as Human Rights, participants at the Fourth World Conference on Women in Beijing ­ from grassroots organizers and activists to NGOs and government representatives ­ created a powerful document that affirmed the dignity, worth and human rights of every woman as a member of the human race. The

Platform for Action fleshed out what it means for gender rights to be fully understood as human rights. It built upon the pivotal human rights documents to send a very clear message to governments, and for the first time, to non-state actors, actively to fulfill their duties to protect and now promote the human rights of women. The platform took as absolutely central to a complete understanding of human rights an understanding of the rights of women, including the specific ways in which women's human rights are systematically violated. This conference reaffirmed and made popular the notion that "all human rights ­ civil, cultural, economic, political and social, including the right to development ­ are universal, indivisible, interdependent and interrelated." It further affirmed that "the human rights of women and the girl-child are an inalienable, integral and indivisible part of universal human rights." That all 189 governments represented gave firm commitments not only to protect the human rights of women, but to take affirmative action towards their realization, gave many hope and sent them back to their respective countries with a plan.

Now, almost five years later, we need to step back once again and look at what has been accomplished in the years since this landmark conference. Governments have not moved swiftly to defend and promote the human rights of women, which they committed themselves to do. And we must sadly comment that many excellent women activists around the world have yet to address injustices which women suffer as human rights violations.

The 1997 Human Development Report finally acknowledges that "poverty IS a human rights violation.˛ Poverty has been established as a human right violation, allowing us to forge ahead and remind governments not to "forget" that they have already agreed to prevent these violations. To do so it is crucial that economic and social justice issues be fully recognized as human rights issues! To enforce these human rights for women everywhere, a holistic approach to human rights must be adopted.

Today the reality is that most women do not know that they are owners of human rights. Fifty years after the UDHR was adopted by the UN, most people do not even know that they have human rights to claim. An organized response of women within the human rights framework becomes ever more urgent. Raising awareness of human rights and the importance of claiming them constitutes an important objective for organizations.

We need to recall that in 1993, the World Trade Organization was given the power to "enforce [trade] agreements, by withholding benefits from non-compliers. " Signatories to the agreement acknowledged that among the responsibilities of trade agreements was "raising the standards of living, ensuring full employment" and "seeking to protect and preserve the environment and enhance the means for doing so in a manner consistent with their respective needs and concerns at different levels of economic development." These assumptions sound fair, but the truth is that human rights mechanisms that can be used to enforce these "social concerns" exist but are blatantly ignored! Thus, not only WTO must begin to understand the importance of considering human rights and deploy the human rights instruments provided by the United Nations, people must organize to hold WTO accountable to human rights standards.

For more information, please contact PDHRE:
The People's Movement for Human Rights Education, 526 West 111th Street, New York, NY 10025
tel: 212.749-3156; fax: 212.666-6325; e-mail: pdhre@igc.org