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Complaints About Women’s Rights Violations Can Be Submitted Directly to the UN

By: Norbert Klein Posted: January-14-2011 in
Gender Balance?
Norbert Klein

The Mirror has tried to observe, and to elaborate on the meaning of public, especially also international days of remembrance and their function and background.

12 January 2011 is also such an occasion: on the basis of United Nations Conventions, and decisions of the Royal Government of Cambodia, complaints about women’s rights violations can, since 12 January 2011, be submitted directly to the United Nations.

There are not only declarations of lofty goals, but there is now also a practical complaints mechanism that can be used if a group or an individual feels that injustice has to be rectified.

This is not a shortcut, and it is not an easy way – but it is a legally supported method that can be used when all other efforts in the country have failed.

There is a long, and surprising history behind achieving this new possibility.

The General Assembly of the United Nations adopted in 1979 the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (“CEDAW”). This Convention provides a definition of what is to be considered discrimination against women, and it creates an agenda for actions on the national level to end such discrimination. States which accept this Convention, have committed themselves to action against discrimination against women, including the following:

  • to incorporate the principle of equality of men and women in their legal system, abolish all discriminatory laws and adopt appropriate ones prohibiting discrimination against women;
  • to establish tribunals and other public institutions to ensure the effective protection of women against discrimination; and
  • to ensure elimination of all acts of discrimination against women by persons, organizations, or enterprises.

A Cambodian government had signed the Convention on 17 October 1980, and Cambodia acceded to it on 15 October 1992.

What is interesting is that the signature of Cambodia in 1980 was provided by the representative of the Khmer Rouge government – “Democratic Kampuchea” – which held the UN membership of the country until 1991. And it is equally interesting that the governments of Belarus, Bulgaria, Czechoslovakia, the German Democratic Republic, Hungary, and the Russian Federation – from the block of socialist countries – protested to the Secretary-General of the UN (East Germany in 1980, and the others in 1991), as they did not recognize the Khmer Rouge representation to be legitimate, while the Cambodian government in Phnom Penh was not considered to be a legal representative of Cambodia by the majority of the members of the United Nations at that time. But when the Cambodian government in October 1992 endorsed the former signature to the Convention, Cambodia – governed by the Supreme National Council under the UNTAC administration – became a country that had acceded to the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women.

Actually – and surprisingly in view of the political realities in the country at that time – the government of “Democratic Kampuchea” had also signed the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, both on 17 October 1980. It was the later government of Cambodia that deposited the instruments of accession to these covenants.

What is new since 12 January 2011?

The Government of the Kingdom of Cambodia had signed the Optional Protocol to the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women in November 2001, and acceded to the Optional Protocol on 13 October 2010. And on 12 January 2011 the Optional Protocol came into force, after the required numbers of countries had ratified it. Cambodia had been the 100th country to do so and became a leader in Southeast Asia in providing an international mechanism for the lodging of complaints, where the Philippines and Thailand have also joined.

But what is the big difference, specifically and practically?

While the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women is a declaration, the Optional Protocol provides practical procedures to act, if there are victims of discrimination who consider that the Convention is not being implemented properly. Cambodia has opened itself to international inspection. The Optional Protocol to the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women includes a Communications Procedure and an Inquiry Procedure.

The Protocol contains two procedures: (1) A communications procedure allows individual women, or groups of women, to submit claims of violations of rights protected under the Convention to the Committee. The Protocol establishes that in order for individual communications to be admitted for consideration by the Committee, a number of criteria must be met, including that domestic remedies must have been exhausted. (2) The Protocol also creates an inquiry procedure enabling the Committee to initiate inquiries into situations of grave or systematic violations of women’s rights. In either case, States must be party to the Convention and the Protocol. The Protocol includes an “opt-out clause,” allowing States upon ratification or accession to declare that they do not accept the inquiry procedure. Article 17 of the Protocol explicitly provides that no reservations may be entered to its terms.

Prime Minister Hun Sen has supported since many years, at various occasions, he basic goals of CEDAW. As early as 2003, while the Ministry of Women’s and Veterans Affairs was headed by Mu Sochua (1998-2004), the Prime Minister said in a speech on the occasion of the International Women Day in 2003:

“May I take this opportunity to extend my sincere appreciation to her excellencies Minister, Secretary of State, His Excellency Under Secretary of State, ladies and gentlemen, officials at all levels of the Ministry of Women’s Affairs and Veteran, who have made their utmost efforts for the cause of enhancing the role and status of women and veteran in Cambodia, especially of the capacity building of women as well as attitude change and of gender biased views in the society… On the International Women’s Day of 8 March, the topic on jointly build a society without violence on women and children remains the most important topic, which we must continue to support and jointly resolve with urgency.”

More recently, this was followed up in July 2010, saying, “I made the first-ever decision to order all cities and provinces to appoint a woman as deputy governor for cities, provinces, districts, villages and all state ministries and institutions.” And in early 2011 the Prime Minister advised the administration throughout the country to consider the appointment of women whenever a position in the administration of provinces and of other state institutions become vacant.

That this is not an easy change to achieve is obvious almost regularly when observing official functions, like it is seen on the picture of the opening ceremony of the Cambodia-Japan Cooperation Center at the Royal University of Phnom Penh – gender balance is still a hope for the future. But it has to be remembered that the emancipation and the gaining of rights formerly denied – in all countries and throughout human history – has been achieved only as a result of struggle.

The Optional Protocol provides a legal basis for such struggle. Now it depends that the relevant institutions – the Ministry of Women’s Affairs on the side of the government, and various NGOs concerned with the rights of women – human rights organizations, and the specialized NGOs like the Cambodia Women’s Crisis Center, Gender and Development for Cambodia, the Khmer Women’s Voice Center, and the Women’s Department of the Open Institute – to name some examples – get actively involved to help that the practical and procedural opportunities, which the Optional Protocol provides, will also be available and operational for those who need them.

That the path of struggle ahead is steep and long is obvious in view of the almost daily reports about the rape of girls younger than 10, or even 5 years old.

Norbert KLEIN

This article was first published by The Mirror, Vol. 15, No. 699 – Thursday, 13.1.2011
Have a look at the last editorial - you can access it directly from the main page of The Mirror.

Norbert Klein is the Editor of The Mirror – The Mirror is a daily comprehensive summary and translation of the major Khmer language press - More about The Mirror


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