|Promoting the Human Rights and
Fundamental Freedoms of Women (Item 9)
Nancy Rubin, Head of U.S. Delegation
Statement before the United Nations Human Rights Commission
Geneva, Switzerland, April 2, 1997
One day historians may look back upon our era and search for the precise moment when women's human rights were accepted into the mainstream of the international human rights community.
Perhaps they will point to the Vienna Conference of 1993, where a half a million women organized themselves to sign petitions and call on the United Nations to recognize a simple fact: that it was long past time to pay close attention to the particular human rights of women.
It is fascinating how history ebbs and flows, how issues can build for years and nothing is done to address them. Then, somehow, the logjam of inaction is broken. This is what happened in Vienna. Critical mass was reached. After years and years of effort, enough women finally wielded enough power to move the process forward.
Their effort and determination is reflected clearly in paragraph 18 of the Vienna Declaration, which states that "the human rights of women and girl-children are an inalienable, integral and indivisible part of universal human rights."
With that statement the process of incorporating women's human rights into every aspect of the UN's work began in earnest. Soon even skeptics began to notice.
But it is by actions, not words, that we are judged. One clear sign that the UN was beginning to understand women's human rights was when this Commission approved the appointment of its first Special Rapporteur on Violence Against Women, Its Causes and Consequences. This was no empty gesture. Radhika Coomaraswamy's appointment meant that the Human Rights Commission was serious. Indeed, since then she has made a vital contribution to this Commission's work and to the international human rights community in general.
But perhaps the historians will focus less on Vienna than the Fourth UN Conference on Women which took place in Beijing in September 1995. By all accounts it was a huge success, the largest gathering of women's human rights activists in history, the place where First Lady Hillary Rodham Clinton caught the world's attention by asserting one simple truth: "human rights are women's rights and women's rights are human rights."
That such an assertion could stir women's hearts and minds in even the remotest parts of this planet shows how far the wings of modern telecommunications have taken us. On the other hand, that such an assertion could seem revolutionary to anyone is a sign of how far we still must go.
Of course, the Beijing Conference was more than just a meeting. There were 40,000 people there, representing 189 nations and more than 2,000 NGOs. But equally important was the Platform of Action: a series of practical and far-reaching steps for the nations of the world to follow.
If there was one message that came from the Beijing Conference it was empowerment. Empower women and reap the benefits. Use their brains, their creativity, their energy. A healthier, better-informed, and more productive world is sure to follow.
Empower women. Eliminate the threat of violence, for it is the most widespread and entrenched violation of women's fundamental human rights. End dowry deaths, widow burning, and female infanticide. The next century needs all its citizens, Mr. Chairman, not just half of them.
Women are an essential element of civil society. Where they have access to economic, social, and political power, the nations they live in are more likely to prosper. Where they do not, they more often fail. This is no accident; it's common sense. A society which values all its citizens, benefits from all of them. A society which neglects and abuses them, limits itself and its future potential.
Still, it is not enough for the women of the world simply to declare their case and petition for their human rights. We must learn the lessons Vienna and Beijing have taught us. No one will give us our rights. We must take them. We must keep the pressure on. We must be vigilant about issues that are important to us. For it is not just justice, but talent and numbers which are on our side. We must use them.
Mr. Chairman, the United States is proud of the progress we have made in advancing women's human rights. Frankly, it has not always been easy. But in the end the achievements of American women -- in every walk of life -- have made it impossible to keep our women down. Such is the virtue of democracy: it responds to a nation's changing needs. That is why we continually advocate for democracy here and at every forum across the world. Indeed, much of our foreign assistance is focused on democracy-building. For we have found that governments that respond to their citizens listen to their women, too. Such governments are not likely to be major abusers of human rights.
We have also learned to concentrate more of our foreign assistance in the hands of women and local women's groups. Simply put, healthy, educated women make good choices, and not just for themselves, but for their children, their families, and their neighbors. Our experiences with microenterprise lending, for example, bears this out. In case after case, country after country, women have proven the benefits of investing even the smallest sums of money productively. And when they profit from their own enterprise, their children, their families, and their neighbors often profit from it, too.
Our State Department is now strongly focused on the subject of women's human rights. There is a senior coordinator and a presidential council to ensure the full integration of women's human rights issues into our foreign policy. Our annual country reports have increased their documentation on the conditions women and girls face in every country. And every month, we report on the progress that has been made in the U.S. and abroad since the Fourth Conference on Women was held.
And at the Commission on the Status of Women (CSW) last week, the United States worked with other delegations to integrate a gender perspective in humanitarian assistance programs. For the fact is that humanitarian crises do not fall on all groups of people equally. It is the powerless who suffer the most as refugees and a high percentage of them are women and children.
I would like to take this moment to acknowledge the southern African states for the efforts they made at the CSW to breathe life into one of the key planks of the Beijing Platform: the full right of women to inherit land. As this had not been possible in a number of African states, we applaud their efforts to push for an end to this economic discrimination.
The United States is also taking a strong leadership position both at home and internationally to halt the trafficking in women and girls, and we strongly support all efforts of the Commission to help protect migrant workers from this odious abuse. Similarly, we have been at the forefront of those urging the Chief Prosecutor of the War Crimes Tribunal for Rwanda and the Former Yugoslavia to prosecute rape vigorously for the war crime that it is.
All this we are doing -- and much more. Let no one doubt our commitment to promoting women's human rights at home and putting our beliefs and experience to work internationally.
But where do we go from here, Mr. Chairman?
We stand on the brink of a new millennium, the challenges of which may tax us beyond anything we've ever known. Can this planet really survive with only half its brains and talent working? Or will the pressures of over-population, environmental degradation, and the ever-fierce competition for scarce resources finally overwhelm us?
The answer, of course, lies within us all. It is not a man's answer or a woman's answer, but a human answer. We need all our people, all the time. Common sense tells us that the single most important investment any society can make is in the education of its children. And yet figures show that there are more than 600 million women and girls today who are denied access to a decent education. Thus is our world diminished by ten percent.
Common sense also tells us that when women cannot participate in the life of a community, that community is poorer for its loss. A nation of lost opportunities is at a disadvantage and so it will be increasingly in the complex, technology-driven century that awaits us.
But an idea can change a community and a community can change a nation, Mr. Chairman. And so I do not look toward the new century with dread, but with hope. Women's human rights are too right, too just, too powerful to be held at bay forever. We have come some distance on our march. We have worked and dreamed to give our vision life, and now, at last, our efforts are bearing fruit almost everywhere.
We who believe in the inherent justice of the women's human rights movement must take advantage of this moment, build on momentum we helped create, for there are laws of motion just as there are laws for mass. Women's rights are human rights, and human rights are women's rights. We've heard it and worked to make it happen. Now let us work to keep the process moving forward -- here at the Commission, back at home and everywhere our common interests take us. Thank you.
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