As promised, CEDAW:
CEDAW, the Convention on Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women, was adopted by the UN General Assembly in 1979. It has yet to be ratified by the United States. I spoke to Sarah Albert, co-chair of the working group for ratification of CEDAW, a non-partisan coalition of 200 groups. She told me about the history of CEDAW in the United States, and what her group is trying to accomplish.
CEDAW was first heard by the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in 1979, and signed by President Carter in 1980. There were Senate hearings in 1994 and 2000, but the treaty was never brought to the full Senate to ratify it by a vote. According to Sarah, President Carter's signature is still valid, and when and if the Senate votes on CEDAW, the United States would be a party to it.
As we've discussed before, CEDAW calls upon State parties to eliminate the discrimination of women by taking appropriate legislative action. One of the contentious points, for Americans, is that Article 12 includes access to family planning as a necessary component of a non-discriminatory health system. Other rights included are ones already fairly well entrenched in the US legal system, like access to education, other healthcare issues, and laws against domestic violence. There may still be gaps in our system, and the recent Supreme Court case regarding discriminatory pay shows that practices are not always in keeping with our idealistic laws. Nonetheless, a hearing by the Senate could highlight any changes the United States needs to make with regards to gender equity.
Further, as Sarah points out, ratifying CEDAW is most important as a foreign policy tool. Its value is mainly diplomatic, and I think we need all the help we can get when it comes to foreign diplomacy! Further, the fact that we haven't become a party to the treaty gives us somewhat less ground to stand on when attempting to point out the horrors of how other countries (parties or not) treat women. For example, Saudi Arabia, which does not allow women to drive, and requires them to be covered at all times, has ratified CEDAW. As a leader in human rights, the United States cannot demand other countries ratify or enforce the treaty in our current position. Sarah also points out that one of the first things the new Afghani government did was to ratify CEDAW (remember the first thing Bush did when he got into office?) Was CEDAW ratified by the United States, very little would change. The US would, as is its practice, attach reservations and understandings limiting the implications of the treaty.
Article 12 requires access to family planning, but that does not include the right to an abortion. In fact, the UN does not recognize abortion as a human right, although there is an argument that abortion rights implicate other human rights. Many countries that have ratified CEDAW, incluing Ireland, Burkina Faso and Rwanda, continue to prohibit abortion, generally.
The United States could have ratified CEDAW in the 1980s, which Sarah calls "a good time" to have done so. But women's issues always get mired in politics, even for something like this, which doesn't actually change domestic laws (unlike the ERA, which is a much stronger mechanism for women's rights, as it is a domestic law itself). However, CEDAW should not be a political issue, it is "a human rights issue" and has serious implication on the United States' influence abroad. For more on what you can do to help the US ratify CEDAW or for more information, see the coalition's website - www.womenstreaty.org.