Symposium on Gender Representation: Making the Case for Gender Balance at UN Human Rights Institutions

Symposium on Gender Representation: Making the Case for Gender Balance at UN Human Rights Institutions

[Diego Ruiz Gayol is a Mexican diplomat. Until August 2021 he was a delegate of Mexico to the United Nations Human Rights Council in Geneva. He was one of the delegates in charge of drafting the Human Rights Council resolution on “Elimination of discrimination against women and girls”.]

All States have agreed that gender equality is one of the pressing global issues that need to be addressed by 2030, as reflected in Sustainable Development Goal number 5. The promotion of gender equality and the empowerment of women and girls has been acknowledged incontestably as one of the fundamental vehicles to achieve sustainable social and economic development, and peace and security.

The UN Secretary General has repeated in several occasions that gender inequality may be the “greatest human rights challenge in the world“, and that deep-rooted patriarchy and misogyny have created a “yawning gender power gap“.

However, despite all these acknowledgements, gender inequality prevails not only in marginalised contexts and in situations with weak rule of law. Underrepresentation of women remains an issue within the United Nations human rights system, the very system that is supposed to promote gender equality and the rights of women and girls around the world, in all aspects of life. For example, from the 10 treaty bodies that monitor the implementation of core international human rights treaties, only four have achieved gender parity: the Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW), the Committee on the Rights of the Child (CRC), the Subcommittee on Prevention of Torture (SPT), the Committee on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD), and the last two only did it in the last 7 years.

The problem of gender imbalance is not only an issue of numbers, but also of distribution of topics in which men and women usually engage. For example, the representation of women in bodies dealing with “women’s issues” or “soft issues” such as CEDAW or CRC is disproportionately high when compared to other bodies (91% for CEDAW and 55% for CRC).

Gender imbalance is the result of suboptimal practices of States when nominating, electing and appointing candidates. These practices are influenced by deeply rooted patriarchal biases and gender stereotypes that are entrenched in bureaucracies.

There is a similar picture in the system of UN special procedures created by the Human Rights Council. Since 1980, only 36% of mandate holders have been women, with a significantly lower participation of women for country specific mandates (18.5%).

In the face of the very worrying situation in terms of gender imbalance in human rights mechanisms, which has been thoroughly documented by the GQUAL Campaign, in 2019 the delegation of Mexico to the Human Rights Council decided to address this issue in one of the periodic Council resolutions entitled “Elimination of discrimination against women and girls”. This action was framed in Mexico’s feminist foreign policy, which promotes government actions to reduce and eliminate structural differences, gender gaps and inequalities, in order to build more just and prosperous societies.

The 2019 resolution (41/1) addressed the fact that regrettably women remain underrepresented, especially in management positions, in several United Nations bodies and mechanisms responsible for developing international human rights norms and standards and monitoring their implementation.

In the past, the Human Rights Council resolution on “Elimination of discrimination against women and girls” addressed different forms of gender inequality in various aspects of life, identifying structural patterns that allow it, such as patriarchal stereotypes and deep-rooted gender biases and misogyny. It also has made recommendations to States on how to achieve structural changes in legislation, policies and in cultural, traditional and religious dynamics in order to achieve gender equality.

The 2019 resolution recognized that balanced gender representation is an essential step towards bringing about structural change needed to advance substantive gender equality, in line with the UN Secretary General’s system-wide strategy on gender parity.

In order to promote gender parity in UN human rights organs and mechanisms, through the above-mentioned resolution, the Human Rights Council requested the Advisory Committee to prepare a report on current levels of representation of women in human rights organs and mechanisms. This proposal, made by the delegation of Mexico, was welcomed in general terms, although it also faced some resistance because some delegations stressed that the gender criteria should not supersede other considerations in the nomination and appointing process of experts, such as qualifications of the candidate and equal geographical distribution.

It is interesting to note that when equitable regional distribution in UN organs is discussed, very rarely it is linked to the natural and obvious requirement of competency, because in certain contexts it could come across as neo-colonialist or even racist. However, it still seems to be politically correct to argue that gender equality is acceptable as long as the women who will occupy decision-making positions are qualified enough, despite the deeply sexist assumption underpinning this claim. In any case, after negotiations and slight modifications to the original proposal, the Human Rights Council decided by consensus to mandate the UN Advisory Committee to conduct research on the current levels of representation of women, and to provide recommendations on how to improve gender balance.

How Can the Report of the UN Advisory Committee Contribute to Address the Imbalance of Representation of Women in UN Human Rights Mechanisms?

The Advisory Committee has done important contributions to mainstreaming a gender perspective into the implementation of its mandate, and has produced a reflection paper entitled “Mainstreaming gender equality and ensuring gender parity in the Advisory Committee”.

Upon the request of the Human Rights Council, the Advisory Committee further developed this initiative in order to provide a deep insight on current levels of representation and, most importantly, on good practices by States in nominating, electing and appointing candidates to ensure balanced gender representation. The report was developed in close cooperation with the Working Group on Discrimination Against Women and Girls and CEDAW, in order to benefit from the expertise of these organs.

The report of the Advisory Committee is the first one within the UN system addressing how States can improve their practices in nominating, electing and appointing candidates to ensure balanced gender representation.

Most of the recommendations aim to transform the way in which States perceive the equal participation of women in the organs that are created through treaties or other intergovernmental negotiated documents. For example, the Advisory Committee recommends that, when negotiating and drafting new or existing treaties, statutes, mechanisms or guidelines, States should pursue the inclusion of processes that ensure gender parity in the composition of the relevant monitoring bodies.

The Advisory Committee also recommends to develop nomination procedures that include gender parity as a specific selection criterion, and that such procedures should be adopted formally, in an open, public and participatory manner. In order to measure the impact of these measures, data and statistics on the gender composition of UN human rights mechanisms should be published and discussed systematically. 

By providing recommendations and guidelines on how to address gender biases and stereotypes in these processes, the UN Advisory Committee will contribute to increasing the representation of women at the UN, which is beneficial for all, men and women, boys and girls. However, in order to ensure the desired impact, these recommendations should be replicated in other mechanisms, such as the Universal Periodic Review (in particular targeting States that rarely present female candidates), the reviews conducted by treaty bodies, specially CEDAW, and the recommendations issued by Special Procedures. The Human Rights Council could also consider the possibility of including some of these recommendations in its future resolutions, in which the Council could call upon States to take specific measures.

Achieving gender parity at the UN can have a profound and positive impact on how international organizations discharge their duties and on their legitimacy. For this reason the implementation of the recommendations of the Advisory Committee should be monitored closely. The case for gender balance at UN Human Rights Institutions has already been made in a very clear way. Now it is fundamental to press for implementation of the legal and political commitments that States have made in order to advance gender equality.

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