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What is international human rights advocacy?

CASE STUDY: Global Rights, a non-governmental organization based in Washington, DC, United States, published “Combating Human Trafficking in the Americas:  A Guide to International Advocacy” in 2007. The guide explores the ways in which non-governmental organizations and civil society may utilize regional and international institutions to promote a human rights-based response to human trafficking.  The guide describes how non-governmental organizations may participate and bring attention to violations of human rights before the Organization of American States, the Summits of the Americas, the Regional Conference on Migration, the United Nations, and the International Labor Organization.   
  • International human rights advocacy and monitoring at the United Nations may be accomplished through UN bodies, charter-based mechanisms and treaty-based mechanisms, and specialized agencies, including special rapporteurs.  In order to enforce the provisions of international treaties, the UN does not rely solely on information about violations of human rights brought by individuals or NGOs.  The UN human rights bodies themselves regularly monitor compliance with treaty obligations. There are two ways that the reporting and monitoring procedure can be initiated:

(1) Required State Reporting

  • NGOs have successfully used the State reporting period as a tool for advocacy.  Most commonly, NGOs may submit alternative or "shadow" reports, which offer an alternate view of State compliance with treaty obligations. Typically, shadow reports elaborate on information contained in State party reports and provide an alternative analysis. Accredited NGOs can also monitor many of the Committee's proceeding as observers.  See:  Reporting and Monitoring Mechanisms, StopVAW, The Advocates for Human Rights, 2007.

Example: The International Women's Rights Action Watch has developed an online knowledge resource on CEDAW, including an inventory of shadow reports submitted since 2004.

CASE STUDY:  In Nepal, the Forum for Women Law and Development (FWLD), coordinates shadow reporting to the Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women. For Nepali women, shadow reporting has been an important advocacy tool. In preparation for shadow reporting, FWLD used national dailies to call upon interested groups to join in the consultation around the reporting process, resulting in a shadow reporting coalition with representation from 45 groups in Nepal.  This coalition identified key issues to address in the report, and determined to bring issues from the entire “life-cycle” of girls, women, and elders to the attention of the Committee. A writing committee was formed and received training on key principles of CEDAW.  In partnership with other women’s groups, FWLD held regional consultations to gather information on conditions for women across Nepal. Representatives from Nepali NGOs traveled to the Committee’s review sessions to participate. After the Committee issued its report, women’s rights groups used its observations in an advocacy campaign that ultimately led to the repeal of many discriminatory legal provisions including those in criminal laws, inheritance laws, adoption, and divorce. Nepali women’s groups have also used CEDAW concluding observations to address discriminatory citizenship laws, and a new draft of the constitution eliminated those discriminatory provisions. See: Using Shadow Reporting for Advocacy, New Tactics; CEDAW Shadow Report Preparation, FWLD.

(2) Committee or NGO-initiated Reporting
Some UN monitoring bodies initiate a report on government action outside of the reporting schedule required by a treaty. In the case of the UN Special Rapporteurs, such as the Special Rapporteur on violence against women and Special Rapporteur on trafficking in persons, the office initiates analyses of specific issues or developments, which is published in a report. Alternatively, information from advocates and NGOs may bring a specific issue to the attention of a UN body, such as the Commission on the Status of Women, which will then carry out a study and issue recommendations. See:  Reporting and Monitoring Mechanisms, StopVAW, The Advocates for Human Rights, 2007.

(3) Using the Universal Human Rights Index for Advocacy
The Universal Human Rights Index (Index), designed for and maintained by the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, is designed primarily to facilitate access to human rights documents issued by the UN human rights treaty bodies and the special procedures of the Human Rights Council. The Index provides any interested party, including civil society groups and NGOs, with a new tool for searching the observations and recommendations of these expert bodies. The Index allows advocates to quickly locate relevant information through searching by country, by region, by treaty body, by right, and by affected group. A search for Angola and CEDAW, for example, allows advocates to instantly review all the Committee’s observations related to Angola’s reports as well as the Committee recommendations, which can serve as a blueprint for advocacy.

(4) CEDAW Optional Protocol Complaints and Inquiry Procedures

  • The CEDAW Optional Protocol came into force in 2000 and there are currently 99 ratifications. This Optional protocol provides an enforcement mechanism for the CEDAW treaty, which had been lacking up to that point. There are two main procedures under the Optional Protocol – an individual complaint mechanism and an inquiry mechanism. Individual women who have a complaint of discrimination against a state party to the Optional Protocol can submit their communication to the Committee in accordance with the rules under the protocol. The Committee will contact the state for a response and will ultimately make a decision regarding the complaint.  In order to submit an individual complaint:
    • The entire claim must be submitted in writing; there is no oral hearing.
    • The state in which the alleged abuse of rights took place must have been a party to the original Convention and the Optional Protocol at the time the
      abuse occurred (or the violation must continue beyond the date when the
      state became a party).
    • The submission cannot be anonymous. Each submission must have an
      identifiable woman or group of women as victim(s) of the abuse. This
      requirement has been controversial as many groups have argued that it makes it more difficult for the most vulnerable women to bring complaints forward, however the requirement has remained.
    • All domestic channels must have been exhausted before women can bring a case to the international level.
  • The Committee can also request that states to take interim measures at any time during the complaint process. The Inquiry procedure allows the committee to investigate grave and systematic violations of women’s rights in a particular state if they receive a report on such a situation from either and individual or a group. This confidential process includes the appointment of a small group of committee members to investigate the claim and submit a report to the state in question. See: How Can Women Use the Optional Protocol of CEDAW?, DAWN Ontario.

CASE STUDIES:  CEDAW Decisions

The Committee has issued ten decisions regarding complaints filed against parties under the Optional Protocol. In five instances, the complaint was found “inadmissible” due to lack of supporting evidence, failure to exhaust normal judicial remedies, or other reasons that the Committee could not reach a decision on the merits. 

In four instances, the Committee has found a violation of the Convention.  In A.T. v. Hungary, issued January 2005, the author of the complaint (“author”) alleged that she and her children suffered severe violence and abuse at the hands of her common law husband but had not received any protection from the Hungarian government.  The allegations included violent physical abuse, threats of sexual abuse, and refusal to pay child support.  The allegations of physical abuse were supported by medical certificates.  Not only were no restraining orders or protection orders available for the author under Hungarian law, but the husband successfully obtained an order from Hungarian civil courts allowing him access to the family’s apartment based on the conclusion that no abuse could be substantiated and the husband’s property rights could not be restricted. (The apartment was jointly owned.) The author sought help from the civil and criminal courts and child protection authorities, but did not receive any assistance or protection.  Following some discussions with the Committee, in 2003 the Hungarian government adopted a resolution regarding prevention and treatment of domestic violence, including plans to introduce legislation providing for restraining orders, provide free legal aid in some circumstances, collect data on domestic violence, and implement a number of additional initiatives. However, in 2004 the author alleged that none of these proposals had been effectively implemented.  The Committee found that Hungary had violated the rights of the author under the Convention, and made recommendations to Hungary that it act to protect the safety of the author and act more generally to effect the rights granted under the Convention.

In A.S. v. Hungary, issued August 2006, the author alleged she had been subjected to coerced sterilization.  She was given a form to sign during an emergency caesarean section, which turned out to include a section (which was barely legible and used terms she did not understand) granting consent to a sterilization procedure.  After the caesarean section was complete she asked when she would be able to have another child, and only then understood that she had been sterilized.  She filed a civil legal complaint, but was unsuccessful, primarily because the court found that she had not proven that it was completely impossible that she would be unable to reverse the surgery or otherwise become pregnant.  The Committee found that Hungary had violated numerous provisions of the Convention, and recommended that Hungary compensate the author and take steps to prevent similar events from occurring in the future, including reviewing domestic legislation and monitoring practices in hospitals. 

Sahide Goekce (deceased) v. Austria, and Fatma Yildirim (deceased) v. Austria, both issued August 2007, were related cases that were brought by domestic violence organizations on behalf of women who had been killed by their husbands.  In both cases, although the police had repeatedly intervened in response to allegations of abuse and threats, and the victims had been granted numerous restraining orders, all attempts to have the perpetrators detained or prosecuted had been denied by local government officials.  The authors argued that Austria failed to take sufficient measures to protect the life and safety of the victims, failed to appropriately prosecute those who violated another's right to be free of gender-based violence, and generally failed to protect the safety of women.  The Committee found that although Austria had an acceptable system in place to deal with violence and abuse, it failed to ensure that its representatives acted to protect the rights and safety of individual victims.  As a result, Austria was in violation of numerous provisions of the Convention.  The Committee recommended that Austria improve the passage and monitoring of its legislation regarding domestic violence, strengthen training programs, and take related steps to improve implementation of relevant law, including improving prosecution of domestic violence perpetrators.

(See:  CEDAW Decisions, StopVAW, The Advocates for Human Rights, 2008)