On December 11, 2010, members of the Illinois State Bar Association Assembly had the opportunity to vote on an ISBA Resolution in support of the U.S. ratification of the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW). CEDAW, which was adopted in 1979 by the U.N. General Assembly, is described by the United Nations as an “international bill of rights for women. . .it defines what constitutes discrimination against women and sets up an agenda for national action to end such discrimination.”
At this time, 186 countries have ratified CEDAW but the U.S. is one of the few countries that have not yet ratified CEDAW, joining countries such as Iran, Somalia and Sudan. As stated by Amnesty International, the U.S. has the “dubious distinction of being the only country in the Western Hemisphere and the only industrialized democracy that has not ratified this treaty.” This is particularly troubling since, as they state, CEDAW “provides a practical blueprint to achieve progress for women and girls and an opportunity for policymakers and advocates to work together on how best to end discrimination and ensure women’s full equality.”
While the United States originally signed the treaty in 1980, it has not yet taken the further step of ratification. In fact, the issue had remained dormant in the U.S. Senate since 2002. However, in November, 2010, the Senate Subcommittee on Human Rights and the Law, chaired by Senator Richard Durbin (D-Ill.), finally held hearings on the ratification of CEDAW.
Mark Wojcik, Secretary of the ISBA Board of Governors and professor at John Marshall law school, drafted the ISBA Resolution and formally presented the Resolution to the ISBA Assembly. Prior to the Assembly meeting, the Resolution was circulated to ISBA section councils and committees requesting comment and support. Many section councils and committees supported the Resolution including General Practice, Government Lawyers, Human Rights, International and Immigration Law, Labor Law, Mental Health, Real Estate, Women and the Law, Racial and Ethnic Minorities and the Law, Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity, Diversity Leadership Council, Tort, Traffic, Elder Law and Family Law.
During a heated Assembly discussion lasting an hour, some opponents of the Resolution noted that it might not be appropriate for a state bar association to take a position on matters of international treaties, particularly when the treaty lacked specific enforcement mechanisms. However, many Assembly members spoke in favor of CEDAW and urged others to pass the Resolution. Proponents noted that the U.S. is among a small minority of countries which have not yet ratified CEDAW. In the end, the Assembly passed the Resolution supporting U.S. ratification of CEDAW by a large majority.
The ISBA has taken a lead as one of the few bar associations to pass a formal resolution in support of CEDAW. Perhaps more bar associations will follow, but in the meantime you might ask what you, as an individual, can do to further support U.S. ratification of CEDAW. The next step toward ratification is for Senator John Kerry (D-Mass.) to hold a vote in the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. If CEDAW is approved there, it would then finally be brought to a full vote on the Senate floor. There are many organizations that offer simple ways for individuals to support ratification efforts. Amnesty International recommends the following:
• Urge Senator John Kerry to introduce and pass CEDAW in the Senate Foreign Relations Committee
• Urge all Senators to vote in favor of the ratification of CEDAW and to place a statement in the Congressional record in support of CEDAW
The ACLU has an online letter which you can easily complete and then e-mail to your senator. This can be found at <. Amnesty International has a model letter and a petition which you can download at < >. The National Organization for Women has an online petition directed to President Obama which you can electronically sign. This is located at < .
Through our efforts, both collectively and individually, we can ensure that the U.S. ratifies CEDAW. In doing so, we can look forward to a day when the rights of women are seen not as optional but as a universal imperative. ■