2016 is shaping out to be a big year for the United Nations. Not only is the race for the next Secretary General underway, but 6 out of the 10 UN human rights treaty bodies will experience leadership transitions. Additionally, several UN Special Procedures, and many of the tribunals and bodies that make up the international and regional justice systems, will also gain new appointments.
But while questions regarding the gender of the next UN Secretary General are reverberating in the press, we have not taken similar efforts to talk about the severe under-representation of women in international tribunals and bodies.
Inspired by the call to build a 50-50 Planet by 2030, we should use this International Women’s Day to do exactly that: let’s talk about gender parity in international justice.
In our globalized world, decisions made at an international level impact our daily life, the functioning of our communities, and the relationship between our nations. We trust international bodies with decisions that we care about, including how we protect the environment, how we deal with migration and refugee situations, how we regulate trade and how we define the scope of our human rights. It should seem obvious that women, who make up more than half of the world’s population, should not be absent from these decisions.
Yet, current data shows this is in fact the case: women are woefully underrepresented in these important spaces. For example, in its 70 years of existence, the International Court of Justice has had only four female judges out of 106; the Human Rights Committee, the oldest UN Treaty Body, has 18 members and only 5 are women; 19 of the 52 UN Special Procedures have never been held by a woman, including those in charge of Freedom of Expression, Torture, Racial Discrimination and Health. The International Criminal Court, a tribunal with a sophisticated selection process that takes gender into account, recently regressed from parity to having a third of women. Clearly, more needs to be done not only to achieve equal representation, but also to sustain it.
Equal representation matters
International Women’s Day reminds us of our human right to equality. The UN Charter, the Convention Against All Forms of Discrimination Against Women, the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and other instruments, protect the right of women not to be discriminated against and mandate states to promote equality, including in international representation. That alone should compel us to seek a 50/50 representation in international bodies. But there also other compelling reasons: diversity and equal representation of women lends greater depth, breadth and legitimacy to decisions made by institutions. One need only to look at the impact that gender diversity on corporate boards is having on the corporate world.
Additionally, women of diverse backgrounds have different experiences, and with it, they bring perspectives that enrich the debate and lead to better justice. Who can forget Judge Navanethem (Navi) Pillay’s role within the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda. As the only woman judge at the time, Ms. Pillay was responsible for developing jurisprudence that defined rape and sexual violence as genocide. Likewise, Judge Elizabeth Odio is praised for her role in defining rape as torture at the International Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia.
Bearing these reasons in mind, a group of people concerned with improving international justice created GQUAL, a campaign for gender parity in international representation. GQUAL was launched with a Declaration that highlights three strategies. The first one is to get Governments to pledge to nominate and to vote for international positions considering gender parity. The second one is to work with international bodies and organizations to develop standards, guidelines, and mechanisms so that selections processes promote gender equality and diversity. The third strategy is to generate more debate, by promoting research and global advocacy. This pathway to a more equal representation in international bodies has been supported by more than 800 distinguished women and men, including Vice-presidents, Foreign Ministers, Nobel Peace Prize Laureates and an array of international jurists, academics, lawyers and activists.
GQUAL is one voice among many blazing a trail for greater representation of women across different areas of life. This also falls within the post 2015 sustainable development agenda, since sustainable development goal 5.5 is about achieving gender equality, with an understanding that promoting women’s equal participation in all aspects of human life is not only an obligation, but also a fundamental solution to the inequalities of our world.
As we celebrate International Women’s Day, we should think on all the pictures that need to be changed so that women achieve equal representation. Getting to 50/50 in international bodies, hopefully before 2030, is an achievable goal that can take us a long way.
This post was part of a blog series produced by The Huffington Post in conjunction with International Women’s Day, celebrated on March 8, 2016. A What’s Working series, the posts address solutions tied to the United Nations’ theme for International Women’s Day this year: “Planet 50-50 by 2030: Step It Up for Gender Equality.” To view all of the posts in the series, click here.