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Opening statement by Mr. Ivan Simonovic, Assistant Secretary-General - New York Office, Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights to the Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women 49th session, New York, 11 July 2011, Conference room 3, NLB

Madam Chairperson,
Distinguished members of the Committee,
Ladies and Gentlemen,

It is my honour and great pleasure to greet you at the beginning of the forty-ninth session of the Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women.  I would like to express my appreciation to all members of the Committee for your excellent work in promoting and protecting the rights of women and supporting States to ensure the full implementation of the Convention at the national level. Your outstanding work in facilitating international standard setting for women’s human rights, including through the elaboration of numerous general recommendations, is highly valued and critical to the realization of the fundamental human rights of women in all corners of the globe.

Let me first share with you brief information on the treaty body reform process. As the treaty system continues to expand, we are continuously challenged on every front. On 31 May, the election of the 10 inaugural members of the new Committee on Enforced Disappearances brought to 172 the number of experts serving on treaty bodies. 

The situation with this Committee is illustrative of why the process of treaty-body strengthening is so important and so timely. Since your last session, consultations with civil society took place in Seoul and Pretoria. Consultations with States took place in Sion, Switzerland, and again in Geneva during this year’s Meeting of Chairpersons less than two weeks ago. If I dare to summarize the many messages that have come out of these meetings, it would be as follows:

  • Civil society organisations are clearly calling for strengthening of the system and they propose many specific ways in which this can be pursued. One key demand is that all treaty bodies align their engagement procedures, instead of multiplying them in different forms and formats, reinforcing the same request by national human rights institutions made some months ago.
  • The key message of States, on the other hand, who also lend moral support to strengthening the treaty bodies, is clearly one of austerity and self-discipline, particularly in respect of the so-called “non mandated activities” undertaken by nearly all treaty bodies, such as follow-up procedures, the development of general recommendations or comments and the holding of days of general discussion. 

During their recent Annual Meeting, the Chairpersons took a number of notable decisions. They decided to embark on drafting guidelines on the independence and expertise of members of treaty bodies, taking inspiration from the guidelines developed by the Human Rights Committee on this subject in 1998.  The Chairs also decided to hold their next meeting in June 2012 in Africa in order, among other reasons, to interact with the regional mechanisms and actors, after their fruitful meeting last year in Brussels where they interacted with the European human rights mechanisms. In addition, please note that the Inter-Committee Meeting has been suspended by the Chairs. Finally, the Chairs agreed to enhance their powers on procedural issues, which should be discussed in advance by each Committee.  If a treaty body would subsequently disagree with a Chairs’ decision, it could opt out.

Your present session will constitute your main opportunities to provide inputs into the process. In this regard, on behalf of the High Commissioner, I wish to encourage you to review closely and give feedback on the specific proposals emerging from this consultation process.  The compilation of proposals is only that at this point – a compilation – but it will serve as the basis for the report that the High Commissioner will present next year. 

Let me now turn to substantive issues. In recent years the issue of violence against women, particularly sexual violence in conflict and post-conflict situations, has become an important item on the agenda of the Security Council. Additionally, the Council has adopted several resolutions and established various mechanisms to expose the use of sexual violence as a tactic of war, to identify and hold all parties of war accountable for their acts of violence against women, and to provide support to governments in strengthening the rule of law in response to sexual violence in conflict.

I would like to highlight some of the initiatives undertaken by the United Nations, and in particular by OHCHR, in this regard.    

First, the Team of Experts established under Security Council resolution 1888 to be rapidly deployed to situations of particular concern with respect to sexual violence in armed conflict is now fully operational. It includes an OHCHR member, and has already undertaken assessments in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Liberia and South Sudan. These assessments result from a wide range of consultations with counterparts on the ground, including the UN, the Government concerned and civil society organizations and build on research and analysis, including concluding observations of human rights mechanisms such as the CEDAW Committee.

Second, pursuant to Security Council resolution 1960, OHCHR has worked closely with the Office of the Special Representative of the Secretary-General on sexual violence in conflict and with the UN Action against Sexual Violence Network to produce a guidance note on the establishment, at the field level, of Monitoring, Analysis and Reporting Arrangements. These aim to help the UN system to better address issues of sexual violence. The UN also envisages establishing Women Protection Advisors within human rights and gender components of peacekeeping missions to strengthen capacity in preventing and effectively responding to sexual violence in conflict.

Third, this issue of effective response to sexual violence refers not only to accountability for perpetrators of sexual violence in conflict, but also to protection, effective remedies and reparation for victims. In this regard, the OHCHR High Level Panel on Remedies and Reparations for Victims of Sexual Violence in the DRC, whose report was launched in March of this year, recognized the importance of a victim-centred response to acts of sexual violence. A pilot reparations initiative is currently underway with the support of the Government, local women's groups and UN partners in the DRC, especially UN Women.

In light of these and numerous other initiatives, the CEDAW Committee’s general discussion on the protection of women’s human rights in conflict and post-conflict contexts is very timely.  A general recommendation on this issue will provide a deeper understanding of the gender dimensions of conflict as well as appropriate and authoritative guidance to States on the measures to be adopted to ensure full compliance with their obligations to protect, respect and fulfil women’s human rights during times of armed conflict, the immediate aftermath of conflict and long-term post-conflict reconstruction.

During my recent missions to Afghanistan, Iraq and Cote d'Ivoire, I had the opportunity to witness and learn more about the realities of women in post-conflict situations.  In all three of these countries, the conflict has impacted women’s lives extremely negatively and has impeded the realization of their rights. Inadequate governance processes, weak institutions and widespread impunity have weakened the rule of law and heightened the marginalization of women. 

In Afghanistan, the high incidents of civilian casualties and the particular vulnerability of women and girls were among the key concerns.  While the peace and reconciliation process currently underway may offer opportunities for positive changes, it also risks compromising fundamental principles of impunity and create further restrictions on women’s rights. I highlighted to the Security Council the importance of women’s participation in the peace talks currently taking place in Afghanistan. Only having women around the negotiating table will ensure their right to participate as equal partners in shaping the future and development of their country.

When visiting prisons for women, especially for minors, I met many women and girls who had fled their families due to domestic violence and abuse. They face criminal charges for alleged intent to commit zina - extra-marital sexual relations – just because they sought refuge outside of their family. The Supreme Court instruction which instituted the criminalization of ‘run away’ girls should be withdrawn and measures of support for women victims of violence introduced, including the establishment of shelters. I requested President Karzai to put an end to this unacceptable practice as well as to support independent shelters for victims of family violence. Perpetrators of domestic violence and enforced marriages should be prosecuted instead of runaway victims. In Afghanistan, still almost half of all girls marry before the age of 15m most of them against their will – some of them being even sold into marriage.

My speaking time is running out so on Iraq and Cote d’Ivoire I will be shorter. In Iraq, I observed with concern that 'retraditionalization' of society and customs had negatively impacted women’s rights, in particular their participation in public life and freedom of movement and expression. The issue of violence against women, including domestic violence also requires urgent attention.

Regarding Cote d'Ivoire, it is essential that the transitional process fully engages women’s meaningful participation, including their membership in the Truth and Reconciliation Commission.

Madam Chairperson,
Distinguished members of the Committee,
Ladies and Gentlemen,

A number of other concerns limiting the rights of women and girls were brought to my attention during these missions, including inadequate access to education and employment, the use of harmful traditional practices and domestic violence and abuse. Persistent practices of discrimination against women and girls must be addressed, including through women’s economic and political empowerment.
The recent historical events unfolding in the Middle East and North Africa give us hope as we see women adding their voices and standing along side men in this democratization process. With this movement, women in the Middle East and North Africa now have a greater chance to leverage their knowledge, engage in genuine dialogue, and gain influence and space in fora where previously they did not have access. This vital role which women are embracing must be sustained in the new era of freedom and hope envisaged for the region.  The excellent work of this Committee in promoting these principles will be crucial in the realization of this vision for the Middle East and North Africa and beyond.

Madam Chairperson,
Distinguished members of the Committee,

I wish you very successful deliberations and a productive session. And, I thank you for your attention.