Global Justice Center Blog

Will the UN Conference on the Arms Trade Treaty Actually Result in a Treaty?

The UN Conference on the Arms Trade Treaty (July 2-27) will conclude this week in New York, and member states and NGOs are scrambling to include last-minute changes and amendments to the document before the final is submitted to a vote by member states. The Treaty itself has taken years to draft and includes input from civil society groups as well as governments and intergovernmental organizations. The push for such an agreement was initiated by NGO’s and civil society groups concerned with the proliferation of weapons and the role that arms producers play in perpetuating armed conflicts in some of the poorest nations in the world. The fact that the Conference is taking place at all is a testament to the hard work and dedication not of governments or politicians, but of groups representing individuals and civilians who suffer most from the unmitigated international weapons trade.

Proponents of a strong ATT face significant obstacles in their quest to limit the international arms trade. The monetary value of the global arms market is estimated at $60 billion per year and many powerful states run highly lucrative arms industries that serve to enrich governments and elite officials both financially and in terms of political power and influence. Originally, the United States and other large countries expressed support for a strong treaty that included clear language prohibiting the export of arms to countries or governments with a history of using such weapons against their own populations or in the face of evidence that the weapons may be used for non-defensive purposes. Over the past two weeks, however, many states have begun to pull back their support for strong language and meaningful regulations.

While many were confident of the treaty language early in the Conference proceedings, there have been growing attempts to weaken the treaty’s language to a degree many find unacceptable. This is a troubling trend as it suggests that states may not be able to ultimately agree on treaty conditions and that members may ultimately fail to pass the treaty at all. States and NGOs that are proponents of a strong ATT argue that no treaty would be better than a weak treaty that fails to address the real concerns and dangers implicit in the international weapons trade. Further increasing the likelihood that member states will fail to pass an ATT is the fact that the United States ensured early in the process that any vote on an ATT must be voted for unanimously by all member states in order to take effect. Given these difficult circumstances, it looks to be increasingly unlikely that the UN will be able to agree on any meaningful ATT before the Conference comes to a close on Friday.

Post by: Adrian Lewis

CEDAW Review Showcases State Parties’ Reluctance to Fully Disclose Shortcomings in Abortion Policies and the Subsequent Repercussions

July 9, 2012 began the 52nd Session of the Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women.  This session, which continues for three weeks, includes reviews of the reports submitted by several countries that are up for review.  Each country that is a party to the Convention must submit periodic reports as an accountability measure detailing how they are complying with the requirements of the Convention, along with progress and updates relevant to the Convention.  Upon reviewing each country’s submission, the Committee is then able to question the country regarding its report, and make general recommendations.  While the reports are intended to detail all areas of the country that pertain to the Convention, there are often gaps in information or areas that are not given the same degree of focus as others.  Proposing questions to the country’s delegation allows the Committee to dig deeper to find out that missing information, or reasons as to why it was not included in the first place, as well as to challenge any areas where the country does not appear to be meeting the standards required by the Convention.

On July 17, Mexico was up for review.  The head of the Mexican delegation began by presenting a synopsis of the country report to the Committee.  After about an hour, the question and answer period began where many issues were discussed including women’s access to education, female representation in government, violence against women, and more.  While there seemed to be a heavy focus on addressing the state of violence against women and female missing persons, there was a noticeable lack of attention to the issue of women’s access to abortions and the inconsistent policies throughout the country relating to abortions.  The subject of abortion was not raised during Mexico’s introductory presentation and even in the question period it took a significant amount of time for anyone to even mention it.

The questioning segment of the review is conducted by taking several questions at a time, and then intermittently allowing the delegation up for review to organize a response to all of the questions presented so as to allow for efficient answers and avoid overlap and repetition.  While this method does allow for consolidation of responses, it also presents the opportunity to gloss over certain questions or parts of questions, which is precisely what happened with most of the instances where abortion was included as a part of a question.   CEDAW experts asked about ensuring that federalism would not be used to perpetuate the limiting of women’s human rights and about the impact of failure to universally provide abortions on maternal mortality rates.  In both instances, the delegation attempted to skirt the issue, but when they were finally pressed upon it, they were forced to concede their shortcomings.

Mexico universally allows for abortion in the case of rape.  However in other circumstances, the individual states within Mexico determine their own legislation on the issue, and there are several states that protect life at conception.  This inconsistency and great potential for discrimination precipitated the question on federalism.  The delegation finally admitted that due to the current state of Mexican laws, it is possible that one’s degree of protection against discrimination varies simply depending upon where she is born.  They recognized that they must make headway in terms of equality in this area, especially regarding their CEDAW obligations, and they have not yet achieved this.  The delegation furthermore stated that failure to provide access to safe abortions continues to be one of the leading causes, the 5thleading cause to be exact, of maternal mortality.  While they claim that Mexico is committed to reducing the maternal mortality rate, they simultaneously have disclosed that the 7% of maternal deaths result from abortion related issues, and that figure is not decreasing fast enough despite the programs and measures put in place.

The main point of concern is surprisingly, not only the fact that Mexico has such a long way to go in the realm of guaranteeing universally equal abortion rights and working towards decreasing maternal mortality rates.  The most disconcerting facet of this situation is how easily overlooked the entire topic of abortion almost was.  Not only was Mexico ready to push abortion aside and hope no one would bring it up, but when it was brought up, the delegation was almost completely able to leave those questions unanswered.  Only when the CEDAW experts consistently and adamantly pressed for answers to their questions was the delegation finally sufficiently cornered such that they couldn’t avoid the question any longer.  The purpose of reviewing the parties to the Convention is to ensure that the parties are adhering to the Convention.  The only way to truly ensure this is if all parties cooperate and participate in an honest manner.  It is hardly expected that upon signing a treaty every party will instantly conform to the requirements of that treaty.  Instead, progress and effort must be demonstrated that the parties are moving in the direction of full fulfillment of the requirements.  However, either for fear of sanctions, unwillingness to make the necessary changes, or some other motivator that prevents parties from addressing the areas they need to improve in, parties seem to consistently fail to fully convey an accurate portrayal of what is happening in the country.  Fortunately, NGOs often pick up the slack by filing shadow reports, making sure that Committees has a more complete picture of the state of affairs.  However, the CEDAW review of Mexico highlights the need for countries to be more amenable to complete, true reports, and shows the need for Committee members and any other reviewing body to take a skeptical eye to reports submitted by countries.

Disappointment at Rio+20 for Women

The outcome of the Rio+20 summit failed women everywhere. Language regarding reproductive rights and gender equality was dropped from the draft agreement, representing a significant step backwards from earlier agreements.

Going into the summit, the draft document included specific language ensuring reproductive rights and gender equality. A handful of oppressive regimes opposed this language and the Holy See led the opposition in an influential campaign that insisted on equating women’s reproductive rights with abortion. In reality, reproductive rights are about a great deal more than abortion, but unfortunately, the Holy See was able to assert enough pressure to succeed in getting the language removed from the agreement, leaving behind only vague references to reproductive health.

Ironically, most states are already under obligation to ensure reproductive rights and gender equality. As of today, 187 states have ratified Convention on the Elimination on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW), which requires member states to, among other things, take affirmative action to eliminate gender discrimination and to ensure that women have access to affordable, quality health services, including reproductive health. In fact, lack of access to reproductive health services and information is considered discriminatory against women under CEDAW. Unfortunately, due to weak enforcement mechanisms and a substantial number of reservations taken by states in ratifying the convention, performance of state obligations under CEDAW has been relatively poor. Including strong reproductive rights and gender equality commitments in the Rio+20 agreement would have been an excellent way to reinforce the importance of these issues, especially since it would have been from a sustainable development perspective.

Every day, evidence of the importance of reproductive rights and gender equality can be found in the news. For instance, Save the Children just came out with a  report on family planning finding that complications during pregnancy is the number one killer of teenage girls worldwide; babies born to mothers under the age of 18 are 60% more likely to die before their first birthday; and a “major barrier to family planning is that many vulnerable women and girls are unable to exercise their rights to make decisions over their own health care, including family planning.” Additionally, in Uganda, where approximately 16 women die during childbirth every day, women activists are currently taking a case to the Supreme Court in an effort to force the government to provide better maternal health care.

Rio+20 represents a lost opportunity. What could have been a significant step forward for women’s rights turned into yet another instance where women were left out of the picture.

If These Walls Cold Talk, They Would Be Censored: U.S. Restrictions on Pro-Choice Speech

If United States foreign assistance funded the writing of this paper, which addresses free speech and women‘s rights issues of the utmost international concern, the authors, two United States citizens, would be censored—by U.S. law—from making any statements that advocated for abortion in any context.

Because the writing of this paper is not conditioned on the revocation of the authors‘ First Amendment rights, this paper can and will examine the legality and impact of U.S. abortion speech restrictions on foreign assistance recipients. The restrictions violate U.S. constitutional protections of free speech and contravene international law regarding democratic reform of criminal abortion laws abroad and human rights guarantees, including the right to health. Although the U.S. places myriad abortion-related restrictions on foreign assistance, this paper focuses on the speech concerns of the Helms Amendment3 in the context of domestic constitutional law and the Helms and Siljander Amendments4 in the context of international law. 

Download PDF