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Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women opens seventy-eighth online session

15 February 2021

The Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women this afternoon opened its remote seventy-eighth session, hearing a statement by Ilze Brands Kehris, Assistant Secretary-General for Human Rights and representative of the Secretary-General. The Committee also adopted its agenda and organization of work.

Ms. Brands Kehris said that as a former treaty body member, she was fully aware of the Committee’s great responsibility and of the many challenges facing the treaty body system, especially in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic, and commended the Committee’s decision, along with that of six other treaty bodies, to test online State party reviews on an exceptional basis while in-person meetings were not possible because of the pandemic.

At the last meeting of the Chairs, on 14 December 2020, they had highlighted the continuing challenges that they and their respective treaty bodies faced with on-line meetings, pointing out that to be able to conduct dialogues with States parties online, they needed to be empowered with appropriate online platforms to be able to engage in constructive, substantive online dialogues that must “continue being interactive, accessible to persons with disabilities, transparent and participatory”. In seeking support from Member States, the Chairs had urged them to consider the establishment of a dedicated online platform for all mandated activities of treaty bodies.

On a more sobering note, Ms. Brands Kehris said that the regular budget recently adopted by the General Assembly for 2021 had not approved the requested staff resources to support the increased workload of treaty bodies, mainly related to individual communications. Despite this highly unfortunate situation, the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights continued to do its utmost to ensure adequate support for the treaty bodies’ work and actively look for solutions.

Last month, the Secretary-General had briefed the General Assembly on his 10 priorities for 2021, reasserting that he would address gender equality as a key priority, highlighting several obstacles women faced, such as higher rates of poverty and gender-based violence as a result of COVID-19. The high priority given to the human rights of women had also resonated in the Secretary-General’s Call to Action for Human Rights, launched last year on the occasion of the seventy-fifth anniversary of the United Nations. The Secretary-General had stressed that realizing gender equality underpinned every element of his Call to Action, and that there was no such thing as human rights for all while half the global population was subject to the levels of violence, misogyny, exclusion, entrenched inequalities, economic disempowerment, and multiple forms of discrimination that many women and girls faced every day.

Ms. Brands Kehris said that, regrettably, as documented in the September 2020 report of the Secretary-General to the Human Rights Council on cooperation with the United Nations, acts of reprisals against those engaging with the human rights mechanisms were reported in similar scope and numbers as in the past. The report highlighted that those working on women’s rights and the rights of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, intersex, queer plus persons, including sexual and reproductive health rights, seemed to be particularly at risk. The Committee had received allegations of arbitrary detention, torture and sexual abuse in detention, criminalization, online threats, and smear campaigns and public defamation. The reported cases most probably represented a fraction of the total, as under-reporting remained a major concern due to fear of further reprisals. What was encouraging was that the treaty body system was well equipped to address reprisals. The 2015 San José Guidelines on intimidation and reprisals were a good reference tool and contained operational guidance.

Ms. Brands Kehris concluded by expressing sincere appreciation for the flexibility and commitment that the Committee demonstrated in these exceptional circumstances to ensure the continuity of its important mandate.

Hilary Gbedemah, outgoing Committee Chairperson, then invited the new members of the Committee – Leticia Bonifaz Alfonzo (Mexico), Corinne Dettmeijer-Vermeulen (Netherlands), Natasha Stott Despoja (Australia), and Jie Xia (China) – to make their solemn declaration.

Ms. Gbedemah said that since the last session, the number of States parties that had ratified or acceded to the Convention remained at 189. Similarly, the number of States parties that had accepted the amendment to article 20, paragraph 1, of the Convention concerning the Committee’s meeting time remained at 80. The number of States parties to the Optional Protocol to the Convention remained at 114. A total of 10 States parties had submitted their periodic reports to the Committee since the beginning of the last session, namely Albania, Armenia, Belgium, Finland, Georgia, Honduras, Switzerland, Timor Leste, Tunisia and Turkey. Also since the last session, two States parties had informed the Committee of their decision to submit their future periodic reports under the simplified reporting procedure, namely Ireland and Romania.

The Committee Chairperson and Committee Experts then provided an update on their respective activities during the intersessional period.

The Committee will elect a new Chairperson and members of its bureau this afternoon during a closed meeting.

The Committee’s session will take place online from 15 to 25 February. The Committee will review the ninth periodic report of Denmark from 22 to 24 February. Dialogues with other State parties have been postponed because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Documentation, including the agenda and the programme of work, can be found at the session webpage.

The webcast of the Committee’s public meetings can be accessed at http://webtv.un.org/. Meeting summaries in English and French are available on the Meeting Summaries page of the United Nations Office at Geneva website.

The Committee will reconvene in public at 3 p.m. on Thursday, 18 February, to meet with representatives of non-governmental organizations.