A “gaping hole” in international law is allowing governments to ignore their commitments to end gender-based violence, according to the former UN special rapporteur on the causes and consequences of violence against women.
Rashida Manjoo said states are not held fully accountable for ending violence because there is not an international treaty compelling them to do so. Manjoo called for a binding framework within the UN system to tackle what she called a pervasive human rights violation.
A professor in the department of public law at the University of Cape Town in her native South Africa, Manjoo was appointed special rapporteur in 2009. Her tenure ended in July, and her parting shot was a report to the UN Human Rights Council that reiterated the case for establishing a legal instrument to hold governments accountable at international level. In October last year, she told the UN general assembly that the lack of a legally binding agreement was a major obstacle in achieving gender equality.
“UN entities continue to pass resolutions, but they are not legally binding … we talk about the universality of human rights, when there’s a gaping hole. We need to focus on state accountability,” she told an event on ending violence against women in London last week, hosted by the Guardian and ActionAid.
In 1979, UN member states adopted the convention on the elimination of all forms of discrimination against women (Cedaw), which set out what constitutes discrimination against women, and identified ways in which inequality could be tackled. Sixteen years later, at the fourth world conference on women in Beijing, member states agreed to eliminate violence against women. More recently, in September this year, the UN general assembly adopted a new set of development goals that included a target to eliminate all forms of violence against women by 2030.
Manjoo said she expected most countries would sign up to an international treaty because “no country will want to be in the grey space of not signing”. A specialist monitoring body would be established to ensure the agreement was implemented.
The idea of a legally binding agreement on violence was first mooted more than 20 years ago. Similar treaties have already been established to address torture and disability “because we recognise we need specificity, to shine a spotlight on it”, she said.
“Over my last six years I have been constantly raising the fact, and not just because I’m a lawyer by training. When we have a gap, it’s difficult to hold a state accountable,” she said.
Her report to the human rights council in June drew attention to existing legal accountability models that address women’s human rights in Africa, Europe and the Americas. The contents of these agreements could provide a starting point on which to negotiate a UN-wide agreement, said Manjoo, who has been a human rights activist for more than 40 years.
She accepted that establishing an international mechanism would not be quick, but added: “We have to challenge negative thinking that everything is a long process. The [previous] battles have been long and vicious. Many of us are tired of asking and knocking on the same doors. But we can’t allow that to become a reason that we accept second best.”
Last Thursday’s event also heard that the lack of funding for small, grassroots organisations — those best placed to support women and girls experiencing violence — was severely hindering their work.
This year, the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development introduced a tool that will track how much aid is being spent on ending violence against women. – By Liz Ford
Image – United Nations Special Rapporteur Rashida Manjoo addresses journalists in central London on April 15, 2014. (AFP / Carl Court)