“What if I take my problem to the United Nations?” UK Government’s record on human rights up for review

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Charlotte Gage is a Policy Officer at the Women’s Resource Centre. She is working with a coalition of women’s and human rights organisations to raise the issues affecting women in the UK at an international level through CEDAW, and other United Nations human rights mechanisms.

Tomorrow the UK Government will be examined on its overall human rights record as part of a Universal Periodic Review (UPR), and in 2013 the UN CEDAW Committee will examine it on its women’s rights record.

Why should we care about these processes that are happening at an international level, miles away and in a language few of us understand? For me it is essential that we uphold and demand the implementation of international human rights standards because they are slowly slipping away. There is currently an ideological attack on human rights sweeping the world. It follows a neo-liberal agenda and is leaving a trail of privatisation, environmental destruction and human rights abuses in its wake.

It is now even more vital that the international human rights instruments, which the majority of states across the world have signed up to, are enforced and implemented and that our governments are not able to use ‘austerity’ as an excuse for by-passing their obligations. Human rights are indivisible core principles about how we should be treated and treat others and they must not be eroded.

In the women’s sector in the UK we are also finding that although on paper we have laws covering gender equality and the rights of women and other marginalised groups, these are not implemented, there is no redress for violations of equalities legislation and we are in fact seeing an unprecedented roll back of women’s hard won rights as the Government’s austerity measures disproportionately affect women.

It feels like we are running out of domestic remedies to ensure that women’s rights are upheld. As a result, increasingly we must turn to these overarching international mechanisms that our government has vowed to uphold, and to the international bodies that monitor them, for support. As long as the current domestic systems do not meet our needs, women’s rights cases will continue and even increasingly be taken to the European Court of Human Rights. The CEDAW Optional Protocol (pdf) may even start to be used as a last resort.

As in PJ Harvey’s song we hope that these up-coming examinations of the UK Government’s human rights record are an opportunity to shame the UK Government on a global scale and to highlight the current attacks on women’s rights in the UK with bodies such as the United Nations so that they will hold our government to account.

Using international mechanisms like the UPR and the CEDAW Committee can also be seen as an opportunity to create better links with our sisters around the world, who are facing similar attacks to their education, jobs, services and reproductive rights. We are stronger together and we must coordinate to develop alternatives to the prevailing system which has never supported women. The international declarations and conventions present an aspirational world where all are equal – let’s make this a reality!

So what can you do?

Education around human rights is key and knowledge is power, so when we know what we are entitled to, we can campaign for changes to be made. The British Institute of Human Rights, who made a submission (pdf) to the UPR, have some great resources that can help you to relate human rights concepts to your everyday life so that you can demand your rights and those of the people around you.

Information on women’s rights has already been submitted for this UPR examination and was included in this summary report (pdf). Keep an eye out for the UPR Committee’s recommendations which should be out by June 9th as they will suggest what changes the UK Government should make to deliver human rights to all. The recommendations can then be used for further lobbying to ensure that they are implemented.

The CEDAW examination meanwhile is in July next year. The Women’s Resource Centre is producing a comprehensive report on women’s rights in the UK which will go to the UN as our official submission. To find out more about this process and how you can get involved see – www.wrc.org.uk/cedaw

Image of the Women’s Resource Centre’s logo, used with permission.