Interview | Chilean Ambassador Marta Maurás, Gender Parity in the UN Human Rights Council.

Originally posted at the Human Rights Brief

Chilean Ambassador Marta Maurás Pérez is a pioneer for gender parity in the UN Human Rights Council (HRC). As the only woman in the 2015 HRC Consultative Group, she was a leader in the Consultative Group’s creation of the 2015 Gender Parity Guidelines. She continues to work to increase the number of women holding special procedures positions. We spoke with Ambassador Maurás to discuss her dedicated work on closing the gender gap within the UN and around the world. When the Human Right Brief caught up with her on December 6, she had come from the launch of a new platform on economic gender parity initiated by the Chilean government in partnership with the Inter-American Development Bank (IDB) and the World Economic Forum (WEF). The project’s purpose is to encourage both the private and public sectors to close the wage gap in Chile.

For background and further analysis on this topic see Claudia Martin’s article, Taking Stock: The Human Rights Council and Gender Parity in Special Procedure After Ten Years.


Q: In your view, why is it so important to have gender parity in international human rights mechanisms?

Women are an absolutely indispensible part of the global effort to improve the quality of life for everybody – both men and women, and particularly for women and children. That has been my own personal struggle throughout my life as part of the UN. In the UN in general there has been a lot of progress involving women, especially in agencies that are very operational on the ground. I was with UNICEF for many years in Africa, Asia, Latin America, and in HQ, and UNICEF has one of the highest rates of women’s participation in positions of decision-making among its own ranks. It is also a very powerful advocate for women in development, humanitarian action, and peacebuilding. But, the gender parity record among mechanisms created by the Human Rights Council, for which the Consultative Group recommended the Gender Parity Policy in 2015, is not very good. Yet these experts are the ones assisting countries in protecting and promoting the human rights of all, including gender equality.

Women have been more active in what are considered fields of women’s interests. Gender parity in the Treaty Body that I belonged to for four years, the Committee on the Rights of the Child, has been good. But, the subject matter there is children, a “woman´s” subject. The CEDAW Committee is composed mostly of women as well, though there are a couple of men and that number should probably increase. We know that women are just as able to get into peacebuilding, peacekeeping, and other fields of development. Security Council Resolution 1325, promoting the role of women in international security, now has a good record of achievements, and there is a growing consciousness within international organizations of the role women can and should play.

Where we need to improve is in the human rights mechanisms. For instance, Treaty Bodies, whose members are elected through a secret vote by States Parties to the respective treaty or convention. We should not have a repeat of the recent case in which no women were among the eight newly elected members of the Committee on the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. This left one woman in a seventeen-member body that examines the human rights of men and women with disabilities. And these are decisions by member states. The UN standard in these cases is to strive for gender balance, but it’s not mandatory, it’s an aspiration.

Q: Why do you think there are so few women in these positions?

There are two types of factors: pull and push.

Independent experts work pro bono, and therefore, these mandates mostly attract people who have a work platform that allows them to devote time and resources to the issue. Therefore, these positions are mostly filled by academics, generally belonging to well-endowed institutions, or by people from NGOs who are given the freedom to hold these mandates. Although in more developed countries men and women are more or less equal in academic circles, this is not the case in many other parts of the world. These positions require time that is not rewarded financially and the capacity to spend time abroad, which women in their family forming years often cannot afford.

On the other hand, the Office of the High Commissioner of Human Rights, which is the Secretariat of the HRC, needs to improve its search, outreach, and targeting for better women candidates; and the Consultative Group itself needs to apply criteria of selection that will give a fair chance to women candidates. This was raised as an issue of concern by the 2014 Consultative Group, presided over by a woman, the Ambassador of Canada, which established that the proportion of women occupying expert´s positions had been stagnant at around thirty percent for several years. So the next year´s CG, 2015, took this on. We looked at the push and pull factors and the fact that we were not doing enough to really reach out to women. We agreed with the Secretariat that if we did not get enough candidates in the first call for any post, we would extend the application period and make a further effort to reach NGOs, countries, academic centers, and other places where we were more likely to find women. That was our first proactive decision and we did elicit more candidates than before. We realized that there is a need to break the barrier women face that prevents them from coming forward by providing better information, answering questions, and being more sensitive to the requirements of professional women.

Then there was the question of applying some sort of quota system that would help proactively increase, at a faster rate, the number of women being appointed to positions. At that point there was a parallel debate in Chile about a quota bill for political parties to present women candidates to Parliamentary positions. The law passed and is to be applied in the coming elections in 2017.

The Consultative Group discussed the idea of parity at length. We did discover that definitions of concepts like parity and quotas are really shaped by the cultures and preconceptions of individuals about gender roles. For instance, when deciding what proportion would constitute “parity” in a list of five individuals, it was not readily clear to all that this could mean “two men and three women” as easily as it could mean “three men and two women.” It shows that long-held conceptions are difficult to change, and it takes determination to make progress in the direction of gender equality and non-discrimination.

The guidelines that were developed as a result of this exercise in 2015 helped us to propose a number of women candidates that would have moved female representation to thirty-five percent, had they all been accepted by the President of the Council who makes the final decision (which, unfortunately, they were not). Nevertheless, our idea was that small increases maintained over time would result in larger growth than simply waiting for it to happen as a result of “natural” growth.

Q: Are the gender parity guidelines having the intended impact?

Despite the fact that the 2016 Consultative Group comprised of three women ambassadors and two men, no advancements were made on gender parity. What this tells me is that there are more barriers than one expects to getting women into these positions. I’m afraid they have to do with whether women feel they can or cannot exercise these positions with success and without too much personal sacrifice, which means that their conditions of service may need to be looked into beyond the measures already identified to encourage them at least to come forward. I also believe that parity has to be mandatory for recommendations by the Consultative Group and for decisions by the President in any given year. Otherwise it will not happen any soon.

The Geneva Gender Champions Initiative launched in 2015 by the Director of the UN in Geneva and the Ambassador of the U.S., which by now has more than 100 Gender Champions and is becoming an international movement, may help push forward a higher participation of women as Special Procedures of the Human Rights Council.

Q: What would it look like to make gender parity mandatory?

The idea of gender balance is already present in HRC decisions such as the composition of panels on any given subject. It is becoming less and less acceptable to have only-men round tables or panel discussions, though we still have only women panels on “women´s issues.” Procedurally, to make parity mandatory is delicate, as it is to change any established procedure of the Council. This has a lot to do with a divide among States on what changes are possible or legal. There is a school of thought that believes that tinkering in any way the Council´s operations is not allowed by the two founding resolutions that set out how the Council would be governed. They believe that operational changes could only be discussed or come about in 2021 when a General Assembly review of the status of the HRC is to take place.

A second school of thought believes that to be effective, the Council needs to change with the times and  adapt operationally as the world evolves. So in fact, it is the obligation of the Council to look at ways in which it can improve how to fulfill its mandate – to protect human rights for everyone everywhere in the world. And this requires the participation of women on an equal footing with men.

Q: Do you see gender parity in the Human Rights Council happening anytime soon?

It could. It needs leadership. The Geneva Gender Champions could promote this idea. I know that if asked, Chilean President Michelle Bachelet would be happy to espouse something like that. But it requires negotiation, political agreements, and leadership. It depends on who the Presidents of the Council are in the next four years. It depends on how we get to 2021 in terms of the Council’s program of change. There is also a very important group of women Ambassadors who could broach the subject, though the group would need more focus to make an idea like this work. I think it will take some time, but it could happen.