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Declaration of Human Rights from a Gender Perspective

Introduction | Background | Basis

In December 1998, the United Nations will commemorate the 50th Anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Knowing the great significance of this event, CLADEM, along with other regional and world organizations, has been boosting a proposal that aims towards the adoption of an international instrument which resumes the rights developed since the approval of said Declaration.

We understand that 1998 is a very special opportunity for the States to renew their commitment with the acknowledgement and validity of human rights, incorporating the perspectives and rights which have arisen during the last decades.

In the same way that the 1948 Declaration has constituted the ethical letter of the second half of the 20th. century, we consider it necessary that today, on the threshold of the new millennium, the States approve another document of international protection that, without invalidating, abolishing or modifying the 1948 Declaration itself, integrates the advances developed hitherto in a body of a similar nature.

Introduction | Background | Basis

We women have always made efforts of reflection and action designed to achieve the acknowledgement of our human rights. In the contemporary age, the first historical landmark of this initiative is constituted by the Women's and Citizen's Declaration of Rights, written by Olympe de Gouges and presented by herself to the French National Assembly two centuries ago, for the defense of which she was condemned to die in the guillotine.

In recent years, several women's groups from all the world over have continued the task of promoting the acceptance and effective validity of our fundamental rights and freedoms, contributing in different ways and through different means to a global reconceptualization of human rights defined as such by the Universal Declaration of the United Nations in December 1948.

In that sense, as part of the process which led to the World Conference on Human Rights, held in Vienna in June 1993, us women from Latin America and the Caribbean, simultaneously with women from other parts of the world, developed all sorts of activities, the prime objective of which was to obtain the inclusion of women's human rights in an international instrument of a general character that explicitly contemplated a broadening and deepening of the traditional concepts and definitions in the matter.

CLADEM was prompt to accept the challenge to contribute to this task. Taking the project of the Declaration of Women's Human Rights, written during the satellite conference "La Nuestra" (San Jose, December 1992), as a starting point, CLADEM has elaborated a document containing the principal proposals that, from the point of view of a women's movement and with a gender perspective, it estimates should be incorporated during the 50th. Anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

The various drafts prepared by CLADEM have been the object of consultation with several organizations and people from all the world over. These, with their comments and suggestions during a prolongued period of debate and maturation, have enrich the original proposal. The proposal was spread for its discussion at the Latin American Preparatory Conference in Mar del Plata, September 1994, and at the 4th Women's World Conference in Beijing, September 1995.

The document we now present tries to be a contribution from women's groups from Latin America and the Caribbean to the theoretical construction of human rights.

Introduction | Background | Basis

The ethical importance of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, December 10th. 1948, is unquestionable. Through it, the basic principles which have been taken as common guidelines for several world nations during a long time, were established. The influence of this Declaration is reflected in the over fifty constitutions promulgated in the latest years.

However, the concept of human rights has been limited to the individual-state relationship and to the violations occured in the public environment. This determined, among other things, that during many years family and sexual violence against women was not considered as a violation of human rights. Nevertheless, due to the theoretical development of these rights, as well as to the demands from the organized groups of women, the international norms have incorporated the protection of women's rights, conceiving them as a state of things, interests or necessities the satisfaction of which must be demanded from the State as well as from the individuals.

In spite of the fact that the Declaration singled out two types of human rights, the civil and political rights and the economic and social rights, the States laid greater emphasis on the acknowledgement of the former, the compliance of which easily materializes through the State's non-interference in the individuals' actions. For this reason, these rights were called "cheap freedoms" and since they were the first to be mentioned in legal texts, they were called "first generation rights".

The acknowledgement of civil and political rights did not suffice. Insofar as the satisfaction of people's basic necessities, such as health, food, education or housing, did not also constitute rights, personal dignity and peoples' development could not be guaranteed. Thus, legal texts gradually acknowledged these second generation rights, which, unlike the first generation rights, imply that the States and the individuals take positive actions for their enforcement.

In 1966, the General Assembly of the UN adopted the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, which came into effect ten years later. Through it, the States parties commit themselves to assure women and men of equal title to enjoy economic, social and cultural rights.

After the United Nations' World Summit on Social Development in Copenhagen in April 1995, advances were produced in the definition of the concept of the Right to Development. This right is conceived as a universal and inalienable human right, which has as basis and end the human person, and fosters the enjoyment of all human rights in an integral manner, by both women and men, in a framework of economic, political, social and cultural equity relationships; in a framework of democracy and social justice and in life opportunities free from the fear of violence; in a healthy environment; with policies that place the human being at the center of development and economy at the service of human necessities.

In relation with women's rights, the most important international instrument is the Convention on the Elimination of all forms of Discrimination Against Women, adopted by the General Assembly of the UN in 1979. This Convention has been ratified by the majority of the UN States Parties. However, great efforts are still required for its effective implementation.

In June 1993, on the occasion of the World Conference on Human Rights in Vienna, along with other advances women and girls' human rights were incorporated to the Program of Action. Such rights were declared an inalienable, integral and indivisible part of the universal human rights. Moreover, violence against women and all forms of sexual harassment and exploitation were declared incompatible with the human being's dignity, and therefore their elimination was demanded. In this way, an important prejudice that persisted at the theoretical level, about the impossibility that the State answers for violations of human rights that occur in the private environment, was defeated.

In June 1994, the States belonging to the Organization of American States, convinced that the elimination of violence against women is a fundamental condition for their individual and social development and their full and equal participation in all the spheres of life, signed the Interamerican Convention to Prevent, Sanction and Eradicate all forms of Violence against Women (Convention of Belem do Para).

The list of human rights cannot be static. Inasmuch as new necessities emerge throughout history, new challenges together with new rights arise. On the other hand, the content of these rights also evolves, according to the transformation of the reality that we endeavour to norm. Such is the case of the right to equality, which is no longer only understood in its formal dimension but also in its material sense. In this way, it is demanded that human beings be treated as equals, unless there are relevant differences for an unequal treatment, the States having the possibility of dictating differentiating norms to amend situations of real inequality.

For instance, the situation of real inequality in which women find themselves has been perpetuated, on the one hand, due to the difficulty to exercise the rights already legally achieved, and on the other hand, because many of their necessities were not translated in terms of rights. Maternity and reproduction have been utilized to define the role of women and to deny them the performance of other sorts of roles in society. In this sense, it is indispensable to acknowledge the sexual and reproductive rights, the enjoyment of which is tightly related to the freedom and development of the personality.

Besides, the confirmation of the diversity of cultures to which the catalogue of human rights had to be applied, as well as the demand for the self-determination of the peoples, posed a question as to the titularity of human rights, by then a monopoly of the individuals.

The rights of the communities seek to reinforce the traditional rights, seeing that certain individual rights cannot be exercised out of society. The individual is also understood from her/his social or collective dimension. The defense of the rights of the peoples is a requisite for the realization of the individual rights since, for instance, as long as the development is not effectively shared among all nations and peoples, part of the human rights' speech will continue to be purely formal. Human rights must give an answer not only to the problems of the developed world, and in that sense, the assumptions for the elaboration of juridical dispositions must be broadened.

The idea proper of individual autonomy is associated to a social context that allows human beings to acquire an identity not only as individuals, but also as members of a community. This involves, aside from a conscience of continuity with the past, the hope of continuity in the future and the conscience of a cultural community, protected by means of appropriate institutional forms.

Hence, presently, rights to peace, development, permanent sovereignty over natural resources, to the environment, to self-determination, cultural identity, etc., are assigned to collective entities (peoples, future generations, minorities). These are the third generation rights.

Human rights are universal, indivisible and interdependent. In virtue of the universality feature, the holders of these rights are all human beings, irrespective of nationality, sex, race, beliefs or social status. But universality also concerns the obligations implied by human rights, generating not only negative general obligations but also positive general obligations. This means that the State as well as the individuals must carry out positive actions for the realization and effective protection of human rights.

On the other hand, human rights are indivisible and interdependent insofar as it is not possible to establish a hierarchy that sets one group of rights over another. All human rights have the same importance and moral force, and therefore, their acknowledgement can be submitted to no condition whatsoever.

In the same way as political freedoms are born in a specific historical framework, the new rights obey necessities of the contemporary world. These advances in the field of human rights demand to be systematized in an international instrument that resumes the present scope of the concept of human rights.

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