Symposium on Gender Representation: Women’s Representation on the UN Human Rights Treaty Bodies – Action Needed to Achieve Parity

Symposium on Gender Representation: Women’s Representation on the UN Human Rights Treaty Bodies – Action Needed to Achieve Parity

[Marcia V. J. Kran is a Member of the UN Human Rights Committee (2017 – 2024) from Canada, and a former director at the UN Human Rights Office in Geneva and the UN Development Programme Regional Centres in Bangkok and Bratislava. She has worked on development and human rights in over 40 countries. Thanks are due to Ms. Bhavya Mahajan for her research assistance for this blog.]

Women hold up half the sky but they usually do not occupy half of the seats in the positions of influence. Women’s right to participate in public and political life including as members of  international institutions is a fundamental right, as provided in Article 7 of the Convention on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW Convention). Ironically, this right is not fulfilled even in the United Nations Human Rights Treaty Bodies – committees established to scrutinize and assist States’ implementation of international human rights.

The ten Treaty Bodies in the UN system monitor implementation of the core international human rights treaties, and review the performance of the State Parties under these treaties. Without an equal number of independent experts who are women, the Treaty Bodies risk the legitimacy and effectiveness of their work by potentially overlooking matters and perspectives that should be part of their legal agenda, and would only be achieved through gender parity.

Back in 1997, the Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW Committee) recommended measures regarding women’s participation in  political and public life including in the work of international organizations such as inter alia Treaty Bodies. It is crucial that women are not only beneficiaries but also agents of international policy-making and development. According to Article 8 of CEDAW, State parties have an obligation to provide equal opportunities to women and men to participate in the work of international organisations. The decisions made at the international level shape policies adopted by State Parties which ultimately affect the everyday life of rightsholders including women.

Efforts to increase women’s representation on the Treaty Bodies have had some success. However, they have been inadequate as parity, which is pivotal if Treaty Bodies are to fulfil their intended purpose, has not yet been achieved.

Low Levels of Representation of Women in United Nations Treaty Bodies

This year, for the first time, the UN Human Rights Council formally addressed the current levels of representation of women in UN Bodies and Mechanisms including the Treaty Bodies in response to Human Rights Council Resolution 41/6.  This report, which was considered by the Council in June 2021, explores the impact of women’s underrepresentation and the challenges that hinder gender parity.

As described in the Report, four Treaty Bodies — the Committee on the Protection of the Rights of all Migrant Workers and Members of Their Families (CMW), the Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (CESCR), the Committee against Torture (CAT), and the Committee on Enforced Disappearances (CED) — have the lowest number of women members at 14%, 28%, 30% and 30% respectively (Figure 1 below). Currently, the total representation of women across all ten Treaty Bodies is at 48.83%. However, only four Treaty Bodies have a high number of women members. Two of them are those mandated to address women’s rights and children’s rights respectively: the CEDAW Committee and the Committee on the Rights of the Child (CRC). The CEDAW Committee has never had more than two male members of its 23 members. If we consider the levels of gender representation across the other eight Treaty Bodies, the number of women drops to 40%. Further, without the Committee on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD) which has 67% women, the average number of women on the remaining committees is low: 36%.

Figure 1

When I was elected as a member of the UN Human Rights Committee for the term starting in 2017, there was an all-time high representation of women on the Committee. Eight members out of eighteen experts or 44.4% of the members were women. However, the proportion subsequently dropped with the current representation at under 40%. Only seven women out of eighteen members of the Committee are women. Nevertheless, it is a positive change from 2020 when only five women (27.78%) were members.

UN Human Rights Committee: Mandate Grounded on Non-Discrimination and Equality

The low number of women on the UN Treaty Bodies prompts us to consider the negative impact it has on the effectiveness and legitimacy of our work. Treaty Bodies were established to assist, guide and encourage national implementation of international human rights treaty provisions and scrutinize the human rights performance of State Parties. For example, the UN Human Rights Committee scrutinizes State party compliance with the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR). The Covenant, like various other treaties, obligates State Parties to protect against discrimination on grounds of sex, which extends to women’s right of equal participation in international decision-making. Thus it is logical that the Human Rights Committee would respect these rights in terms of its composition.

Women’s input as expert members of Treaty Bodies is clearly indispensable in all committee functions such as conducting reviews of country human rights compliance through constructive dialogues, deciding on individual complaints of violations and formulating guidance for States through General Comments/Recommendations. Many of the cases decided by the Human Rights Committee under the First Optional Protocol to the ICCPR relate specifically to issues of  gender inequality or discrimination based on sex. Time and again, the Committee has directly considered cases claiming these violations. A few examples follow. In 2020, in a case submitted by Ms. Elena Genero, the Committee decided that Italy, by setting a minimum height requirement to become a permanent firefighter, violated the non-discrimination and other principles of the ICCPR. Such requirements posed an unnecessary disadvantage to women and restricted their opportunities in a profession traditionally dominated by men. In a case against Nepal, in 2019, the Committee dealt with issues of arbitrary arrest and torture including rape and sexual assault of a 14-year old indigenous girl, while in custody. The State Party was held liable for violating ICCPR provisions, including Article 26 on non-discrimination. Similarly, in 2017, Ireland’s restrictive abortion laws were found to be  in violation of the Covenant given their inherent arbitrary and discriminatory nature. The Committee required Ireland to pay compensation and offer psychological support to the complainant, Siobhán Whelan.

Other committees also deal specifically with issues of gender inequality or discrimination based on sex in their various functions.

Achieving Gender Parity: Challenges and Recommendations

As we probe the problem of underrepresentation of women on Treaty Bodies, it is evident that one basic reason gender parity has not been achieved is that States have not nominated a sufficient number of women experts as candidates for the committees. State Parties nominate candidates for election to Treaty Bodies in response to an invitation by the Secretary-General to submit nominations. Members are elected by the States that are party to the relevant treaty. Regrettably, in many countries, such nomination processes are rarely formal or transparent which often results in qualified women candidates not knowing about vacancies.

If gender parity is not prioritized by the State Parties in their nomination processes, it has an  adverse effect on the effectiveness and credibility of the Treaty Body system. Treaty Bodies are expected to uphold the principles of gender equality and non-discrimination based on sex when, in fact, the process of selecting expert members  may be influenced by discriminatory practices. The underrepresentation of women on Treaty Bodies also tends to lead to inadequate consideration being given to key gender issues and intersectionality. Further, State parties may be less inclined to implement a treaty body’s recommendations to ensure gender parity in domestic public and political life, or otherwise prohibit discrimination on grounds of gender or sex, when the composition of the Treaty Body itself lacks gender balance. 

Further, current prerequisites for the selection of experts under  UN human rights treaties do not mandate the consideration of gender parity during nominations or elections. Sadly, this is the case even where the treaties explicitly refer to the importance of adequate gender balance among expert membership. Therefore, it is imperative that the process for selection of expert members of Treaty Bodies be revamped to make gender balance a priority. There are various options for how this could feasibly be done. As a start, States could replace the informal selection process with a public, transparent, and merit-based one which explicitly considers gender balance as a key factor. This would also be more generally beneficial to help ensure that expertise and experience of members are paramount in selecting Treaty Body members.

Illustratively, Canada’s public call for application for membership to the CRPD provides an option for women to self-identify as a member of an equity group based on their sex. An open process has also been followed by Switzerland.

The Report considered by the Human Rights Council offers a range of sound recommendations and promising practices which have strong potential to hasten progress toward gender parity on the Treaty Bodies. Some of these useful steps are summarized below.

For States:

  • Proactively identify women candidates for Treaty Body membership, and where appropriate, give women preference over male candidates.
  • Work with civil society organizations such as women’s associations to collect profiles of qualified women and widely publicize vacancies including to these groups. Here, I would like to applaud civil society organizations such as GQUAL for their compelling advocacy for gender parity in UN mechanisms including Treaty Bodies.
  • Incorporate gender as an explicit feature in nomination processes; establish benchmarks for nominating women for each Treaty Body.
  • Lobby in support of women candidates.
  • Promote research to help overcome the barriers to achieving gender parity on Treaty Bodies.
  • Monitor and ensure compliance with relevant gender parity measures.
  • Report to the UN Human Rights Council on the progress or difficulties experienced in implementing report recommendations.

For the Secretariat (Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights)

  • Broadly advertise upcoming elections for Treaty Bodies and collaborate with relevant women’s networks.
  • Regularly track the number of women and men holding positions as independent experts on the Treaty Bodies. Make this information public in a format similar to the UN Secretariat Gender Parity Dashboard. Here, I would add that calls for nominations of members for a particular Treaty Body could clearly inform State parties of the current gender balance/gap on the Committee concerned (See: Figure 2).
  • Assist States and the Human Rights Council in designing mechanisms to achieve gender parity on UN bodies including during the nomination and election processes;
  • Promote research to identify, analyse and overcome barriers to achieving gender parity on the Treaty Bodies and report on national best practices.
  • Report periodically on existing nomination policies and mechanisms, highlighting best practices.

Figure 2: Suggested UN Treaty Body Gender Parity Dashboard

The right to full and equal participation of women in all aspects of society is a fundamental human right as provided in Articles 7 and 8 of the CEDAW Convention. And yet, even in 2021, we continue to struggle to ensure that this right is respected, protected, and fulfilled in relation to UN Treaty Bodies. With the clear acknowledgment of the lack of gender balance across the Treaty Bodies, we have taken a first, constructive step. As of May 2021, women chair five of the ten Treaty Bodies and hold 18 out of 41 leadership positions (Chair, Vice-Chair and Rapporteur). The increased representation of women in these roles may directly and indirectly inspire steps toward gender parity across Treaty Bodies. The call of the hour is for State parties and the Secretariat to increase their efforts and actively undertake the measures outlined in the Report so that, by 2025, half of those who occupy seats as experts on each Treaty Body are women.  

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