International Human Rights Law Supports #BeBoldForChange for Gender Parity

By Mary Dahdouh ’18, Vaitiari Rodriguez ’17, Miguel Zavala ’18 International Human Rights Law Clinic, University of California, Berkeley, School of Law

Last week, International Women’s Day reminded us -as it does every year- of the strength and resilience of women. Yet, to this day, women are underrepresented in virtually every international judicial and treaty monitoring body responsible for adjudicating and developing international law. The equal participation of women, who represent half of the world’s population, is imperative for the legitimacy and impact of these bodies, which are founded on principles of equality and non-discrimination enshrined in international law.

The GQUAL Campaign aims to tackle the lack of gender equality by holding States accountable to widely recognized international legal obligations to ensure gender parity on international bodies—an effort that resonates with this year’s International Women’s Day theme of #BeBoldForChange.

From the Beijing Platform to the UN Sustainable Development Goals, UN and State practice have shown an international commitment to women’s participation in positions of leadership in political and public life, including government, public administration, civil society, and the judiciary.

But most international judicial institutions and human rights bodies do not have explicit provisions in their founding treaties to ensure gender representation. For these, more general human rights obligations come into play, most obviously the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW). However, our team at the International Human Rights Law Clinic at the University of California Berkeley, School of Law has written a working paper that identifies international legal support beyond CEDAW to yoke the full measure of applicable international obligations in service of the GQUAL Campaign. For this, States have undertaken several human rights obligations that can be brought to bear in this regard.

Grounded in the universal principle of anti-discrimination, the right of access to decision-making, the right of access to equal opportunity in employment, and the right of access to justice are enshrined in human rights treaties and require States to consider gender representation when they nominate and vote on appointments to international bodies.

For example, the right of equal access to decision-making is codified in Article 25 of the ICCPR. This right has been given fuller expression in international consensus documents like the Beijing Platform and the UN development goals. Its influence defined Security Council policy regarding Women, Peace and Security, which contains specific commitments of equal inclusion of women as decision-makers in this area. States should apply their treaty obligations when the nominate and vote on candidates to ensure equal access to decision-making for women in line with these international instruments.

Broad interpretations of the right of access to equal opportunity in employment also support gender parity on international judicial and adjudicatory bodies. Articles 6 and 7 of the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, extend the right of access to equal opportunity in employment to uncompensated positions on international judicial and monitoring bodies. When positions within these organizations are understood as “work,” States have affirmative obligations to eliminate occupational segregation by promoting women’s equal participation in all positions and types of employment, including membership on international bodies.

Additionally, interpretations of the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities have advanced the view that Article 13’s right of access to justice means that, when qualified individuals are denied the opportunity to participate in the administration of adjudicatory bodies, they do not have access to justice.

The upcoming elections of the Inter-American Commission of Human Rights and the Inter-American Court of Human Rights present a ripe opportunity for States to accelerate this trend toward positive change and come closer to realizing the ultimate goal of the GQUAL Campaign: gender parity. To encourage OAS member States to take bold action in this regard, the Center for Justice and International Law hosted a GQUAL briefing in Washington, D.C. on March 14th, at which our team, along with other clinics, presented this research.

By upholding the rights of women to access decision-making positions, employment opportunities, and the justice to which they are entitled, States can realize their full obligations under international law to achieve gender parity on many of the most important legal bodies worldwide. Echoing the theme of this year’s International Women’s day—#BeBoldForChange—our team hopes to translate these convictions into concrete results and effective change.