March 26, 2010

The UN Women's Treaty: The Case against Ratification

Christina Hoff Sommers

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In the late 1970s, a United Nations committee drafted a treaty called the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women. CEDAW (pronounced SEE-daw) commits signatory nations to abolishing discrimination against women and also to ensuring their "full development and advancement" in all areas of public and private life. The document was adopted by the General Assembly and submitted to the UN's member states in 1979. Since then nearly every nation has ratified what has come to be known as the "Women's Treaty" or the "Women's Magna Carta." The only holdouts are three Islamic states (Iran, Sudan, and Somalia), a few Pacific islands, the Vatican, and . . . the United States.

America's failure to ratify CEDAW has not been for lack of high-level political support. President Jimmy Carter submitted it to the Senate for ratification in 1980. Many powerful legislators of both parties have favored it over the years. In 1993, sixty-eight senators, including Republicans Orrin Hatch, John McCain, and Strom Thurmond, urged President Bill Clinton to secure ratification. Nine years later the Bush administration told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee that CEDAW was "generally desirable" and "should be ratified." Its supporters have included not only political leaders, but women's groups such as the National Organization for Women, as well as influential broad-based groups such as AARP, AFL-CIO, the American Bar Association, and the League of Women Voters. Even the Audubon Society has endorsed CEDAW.

Some ascribe the U.S. failure to ratify the treaty to one man: the late Senator Jesse Helms of North Carolina. To Helms, CEDAW was a terrible treaty "negotiated by radical feminists with the intent of enshrining their radical anti-family agenda into international law." As chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee from 1995 to 2001, Helms refused even to hold hearings on the matter. In 1999, ten women from the House of Representatives marched into his committee room, disrupted a hearing, and demanded that he schedule CEDAW hearings. Pounding his gavel, Chairman Helms reprimanded the placard-carrying women for their breach of decorum. "Please be a lady," he said to the leader, Representative Lynn Woolsey from California. He then instructed the guards to eject the group from the room. (Among the shaken protesters was future Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi.) Representative Woolsey would later tell the press that Helms "held CEDAW hostage so that women across the globe continued to be victimized and brutalized." But Senator Helms never wavered. At a 2002 Senate hearing, he described the treaty as harmful to women as well as a direct threat to American sovereignty. "It will never see the light of day on my watch."

Helms' watch is now long over, and CEDAW supporters can see daylight. President Barack Obama and Vice President Joe Biden are strong supporters. So are Senators John Kerry, chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, and Barbara Boxer, chairwoman of the subcommittee with jurisdiction over CEDAW. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton is an enthusiast, as is Harold Koh, former dean of the Yale Law School and now the State Department's chief legal adviser. An influential advocate of "transnational jurisprudence," Koh invokes the sad irony that "more than half a century after Eleanor Roosevelt pioneered the drafting of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, her country still has not ratified . . . CEDAW." 

The State Department has notified the Senate that it favors ratification and that among the many human rights treaties the United States is considering, CEDAW is its top priority. The treaty is now at the Justice Department undergoing interagency review, and Secretary Clinton could submit it to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee soon. "The prospects for ratification have never been better," says the United Nations Association of the United States.

The possibility that the Senate will at last seriously consider CEDAW has energized dozens of activist groups and inspired an impressive volume of reports, fact sheets, petitions, position papers, and talking points praising the treaty's merits. There is even a pro-CEDAW rap song. The visible opposition consists of a few Catholic advocacy organizations, two conservative women's groups, five or six Republican senators, and a handful of worried libertarians and academic skeptics of "international law." So U.S. ratification of CEDAW, followed naturally by a triumphant address by President Obama in some international forum, seems inevitable.

Except that it is not. For many years, Senator Helms's adamant opposition to CEDAW made support an easy gesture for many senators who may have shared his qualms but not his temerity. Now that ratification has become a live prospect, there will be a real debate and actual votes--and public opinion, not just interest-group positioning, will come into play. Americans are clearly committed to helping women in the developing world: no nation on earth gives more to foreign aid or has more philanthropies and religious groups dedicated to women's causes. The ratification debates will involve many heated claims and abstruse legal issues, but two basic questions will decide the matter. First, will ratification really improve the well-being of women throughout the world? Second, for better or worse, how will ratification affect American life?

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Christina Hoff Sommers is a resident fellow and the director of the W. H. Brady Program at AEI.