Other Contents of Section 8: General Comment 1

MODULE 24 (continued)


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The Committee on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women

The Committee on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) is the body that monitors the implementation and realization of the rights laid down in the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women.3

The Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women has sev­eral articles with a socioeconomic component.  According to the convention, governments are required to eliminate discrimination in a number of areas.  These include education (art. 10), employment (art. 11), health care and family planning (art. 12) and economic and social benefits (art. 13).  (See Module 4 for further information about the Women’s Convention and CEDAW.)

Apart from monitoring how governments have implemented the provisions of the conven­tion, the committee also makes suggestions and General Recommendations.  Suggestions are directed at the UN system.  The General Recommendations, like those of the other treaty bodies, are aimed at clarifying and elaborating on the broad provisions of the convention.  They are designed to assist governments, NGOs and others in interpreting the different arti­cles of the convention. As of June 2000, the committee had issued twenty-four General Rec­om­mendations.

The committee consists of twenty-three experts from different geo­graphical regions who serve a four-year term in their personal ca­pacity.

CEDAW has adopted guidelines for the submission of reports by state parties under the con­vention.4 Under article 18 of the conven­tion, each state party undertakes to submit a report on the legisla­tive, judicial, administrative or other measures that it has adopted to give effect to the provisions of the convention and on the prog­ress made in that respect.  It is possible for NGOs to contribute information when governments report under the convention.  (See box on pp. 473-74 of this module for an example of NGO ac­tivity around the meetings of the com­mittee.)

The following is an outline of the procedures followed by the committee in considering re­ports:

• Submission of the government’s report: The gov­ern­ment submits a report on the steps it has taken to im­plement the Convention.  The first report is due within a year of the entry into force of the Con­vention for the country concerned and re­ports are then due every four years.

• Pre-sessional working group: The country rap­porteur-a member of CEDAW with pri­mary responsibility for one country-prepares an analysis of the government’s report.  She sends her analysis to the pre-sessional working group.  The working group meets be­fore the formal meetings of the committee.  It also receives questions from other mem­bers of the committee and compiles a list of questions in writ­ing that is sent to the gov­ernment.  At this stage NGOs may submit material to the work­ing group and may be in­vited to attend in person to brief it.

• Public meeting with the government: The entire committee then meets with government representatives over a period of between one to three meetings (each meeting lasting about three hours).  During these meetings the government is expected to respond to the written questions of the committee and any additional questions posed by it.

• The adoption of concluding observations by the committee: Following the meeting with the government, the committee will adopt its Concluding Observations, a 3-5 page docu­ment that sets out the committee’s assessment of the progress made in implementing the convention, the major problem areas, and detailed recommendations of the steps it con­siders the government should take.  This document will be provided to the govern­ment at the end of the committee’s session and made public shortly thereafter. 

The Concluding Observations provide a lobbying tool for NGOs at the national level.  They can be used to influence government action and policy.  Sometimes the committee may request the government to provide additional information or a further report. 

General Recommendations

In addition to its Concluding Observations on states parties reports, the committee also for­mulates General Recommendations.  It is possible for NGOs to make an input into the for­mulation of these recommendations by lobbying members of the committee and also through the submissions they make before the pre-sessional working group.  The General Recom­mendations, by amplifying on the provisions of the convention, provide another effective lobbying tool.

Optional Protocol

In December 1999 the General Assembly adopted an Optional Protocol to CEDAW.  Once it comes into force, it will allow women discriminated against in their home countries to di­rectly petition the committee after they have exhausted local remedies.  It will also allow the committee to carry out inquiries into systematic or serious violations of the convention.  However, ratifying states may choose to opt out of this latter procedure.

The Committee on the Rights of the Child

The Committee on the Rights of the Child is the body that monitors the implementation of the Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC).  (See Module 5 for more discussion of the CRC.)  The committee consists of a body of ten independent experts.  In addition to its monitoring function, the committee has been given the mandate to garner international support and cooperation to help developing countries  promote children’s rights. 

The committee has laid down its own rules of procedure and has developed guidelines to help states parties in their reporting process.  A state party initially reports two years after rati­fication and then every five years.  The CRC specifically allows the committee to obtain "expert advice on the implementation of the Convention from specialised agencies, the United Nations Children’s Fund and other competent bodies.”   "Other competent bodies” has been interpreted to include NGOs.

The committee usually appoints one of its members to be the rapporteur when a country re­ports.  In addition, the pre-sessional working group identifies the issues to be raised with the government concerned.  Once the government report is submitted, NGOs are allowed to re­spond in writing.  Only those NGOs who submit written information are allowed to attend the sessions of the pre-sessional working group.  The NGO Group for the CRC facilitates the participation of NGOs in the proceedings of the Committee.

At the pre-sessional working group the country rapporteur (the committee member in charge of that country’s report) makes a short presentation on the report.  NGOs may intervene at this stage and make an oral presentation before the working group.  Normally members of the specialized agencies also make their observations at this point.

Based on the proceedings at the pre-sessional working group, the committee identifies a list of questions on which clarification is sought from the government concerned.  NGOs cannot participate in the formal sessions of the committee, but are permitted to observe the pro­ceedings.  After the meeting with government representatives, the committee issues its Con­cluding Observations, which are made public.

The Human Rights Committee

Some of the rights in the ICCPR have ESC rights dimensions, and the Human Rights Com­mittee has some­times recognized this.  The following articles of the ICCPR have been im­portant in this con­text:

  • Article 6, which protects the right to life
  • Article 8, which prohibits slavery, the slave trade, servitude and forced labor
  • Article 12, which guarantees freedom of movement and the freedom to choose one’s place of residence
  • Article 17, which offers protection against arbitrary or unlawful interference with one’s privacy, family and home
  • Article 18, which guarantees freedom of thought, conscience and religion
  • Article 22, which guarantees freedom of association and the right to form and join trade unions
  • Article 26, which guarantees equality before the law and equal protection of the law
  • Article 27, which guarantees to minorities the right to enjoy their culture, practice their religion and use their own language

(See Module 22 for illustrations of how some civil and political rights have been given a socioeconomic dimension through a process of interpretation.)

CEDAW and the Indian Women's Groups

India ratified CEDAW in July 1993, soon after the World Conference on Human Rights in Vienna. This was clearly an outcome of the pressure and influence exerted by women's rights groups at the world conference. CEDAW subsequently became a crucial component during the preparations for the Women's Conference in Beijing in September 1995. Several orientations on CEDAW were held. A comprehensive "shadow report" was prepared with contributions from women's groups throughout the country in anticipation of the Indian government's initial report to the CEDAW committee, which was due in August 1994.

The initial orientation workshops on CEDAW were difficult. Both resource persons and participants on each occasion found it hard to make CEDAW relevant to grassroots action. Over the years, the workshops became more "concept"-centered, with group work designed to link law and policy with local case studies. This helped transform CEDAW into a monitoring tool in community work rather than a piece of international law. In 1997, the International Women's Rights Action Watch (IWRAW) Asia Pacific undertook a project on CEDAW monitoring with some national partners. This, together with the long delay by the Indian government in preparing its initial report, gave space and time to popularize CEDAW and to design monitoring systems. During this period, the Supreme Court of India also passed landmark judgments citing CEDAW; this highlighted its relevance and potential to transform existing domestic norms and practices. Local groups too have translated CEDAW, citing CEDAW before district-level authorities to challenge practices and to assert their claims-successfully.

In 1999, when the Indian government submitted its initial report to the CEDAW committee, there was enthusiasm among women's groups to prepare an alternative or "shadow" report. A large number of groups who had been involved in preparing for and participating in the Beijing conference and appreciated both the relevance of lobbying the international system and the use of international law instruments came together in an effort coordinated by the National Alliance of Women (NAWO) and helped by IWRAW Asia Pacific. This coming together, however, does not mean that all women's groups in India-or even all the groups that participated in the alternative report writing-have complete faith in CEDAW or international processes. There continues to be skepticism about the relevance of international law. However, a large majority of the sixty organizations that came together felt it was important to use whatever avenues of lobbying are available to pressure the government.

A national-level workshop was organized in November 1999 with a view to discussing the modalities of preparing an alternative report. The objectives in preparing the report were:

1. To use the CEDAW framework and processes to pressure the government to take action in neglected areas concerning women's rights
2. To make the government accountable on the commitments made at the Beijing Conference
3. To use the alternative report writing as a process of learning, documenting and taking stock of the groups' work and existing gaps on the different issues women's groups are working on
4. To use international human rights law to promote women's issues and grassroots concerns

The workshop included government representatives from the Indian Department of Women and Child, a retired judge known for applying CEDAW in a landmark case, and two experts from the CEDAW committee. The meeting discussed different chapters prepared by different authors and made comments for improving them. Once the rewritten chapters were submitted, an editorial team worked to ensure a uniform format of presentation. An eleven-member team was sent to submit the alternative report to the CEDAW committee. The members of the team included those who wanted to learn about the committee and its working.

The following steps, undertaken once the team was in New York, directly impacted on the review of India's report:

• Organization of the information in the shadow report to correspond to the different articles of CEDAW
• A briefing meeting with the CEDAW committee members
• Preparation of a one-page briefing note highlighting the important aspects on the different chapters of the shadow report
• Preparation of questions to which the group wanted the Indian government to respond

The Indian NGO experience at the CEDAW review was extremely positive. The committee members made a special mention of the role of the Indian NGOs in assisting them and raised all matters brought to their attention with the Indian government delegation. This experience has reinforced the need for partnership with groups and systems at the regional and international level for successful monitoring of a state's performance of its obligations.5

The Commission on the Status of Women

The work of the Commission on the Status of Women (CSW) is also relevant for NGOs looking at the implementation of ESC rights.  The CSW was established as a functional commission of the Economic and Social Council in 1947.  Its initial mandate was to prepare recommendations and reports to the council on promoting women’s rights in the political, economic, civil, social and educational fields.  The commission was also required to make recommendations to the council on urgent problems requiring immediate attention in the field of women’s rights.  The mandate of the CSW has been consistently broadened.  In 1987 its mandate was extended to include the promotion of equality, development and peace, and the monitoring of the implementation of measures for the advancement of women.

After the Beijing Conference, the General Assembly mandated the CSW to integrate into its work a follow-up process to the recommendations contained in the wide-ranging Plat­form of Action adopted at Beijing.  Among the issues considered by the CSW in its March 1999 ses­sions were women and health, and national institutions for gender equal­ity.

NGOs are allowed to lobby the CSW at its annual sessions and time is set aside in the com­mission’s agenda to meet with NGOs.

The CSW, which began with fifteen members, now consists of forty-five members elected by ECOSOC for a period of four years. 

The UN Commission on Human Rights

The UN Commission on Human Rights is the UN’s primary body for the protection and promotion of human rights.  It played a significant role in the drafting and adoption of inter­national standards on human rights in a number of areas. 

The commission also addresses ESC rights and is open to lobbying by NGOs.  The commis­sion consists of fifty-three member governments elected by ECOSOC and reports to ECOSOC.  The commission normally meets once a year in Geneva.  From 1992 the commis­sion has also convened special sessions to respond to an emergency or a human rights crisis which required immediate intervention. 

The commission has set up a number of special procedures, which are of relevance for the realization of ESC rights.  These procedures are of two types:

  • Country specific procedures that are set up to examine, monitor and report on the human rights situation in a specific country or territory
  • Thematic procedures, set up to examine, monitor and report on specific types of human rights violations.

The special procedures consist of working groups, special rapporteurs, representatives or ex­perts.  They provide for a more flexible way of addressing human rights violations and the causes of those violations than is allowed in the commission’s meeting as a whole.  The per­sons appointed to working groups, or as rapporteurs, representatives or experts, act in their individual capacity and examine, monitor and publicly report to the commission on their mandates. 

As of June 2000 about fifty country and thematic mechanisms had been established by the Commission.  The following is a selection of those with a focus relevant to ESC rights: 

  • Internally displaced persons
  • Contemporary forms of racism, racial discrimination, xenophobia, and related intolerance
  • Effects of foreign debt on the full enjoyment of ESC rights
  • Effects of illicit dumping of toxic wastes and dangerous products on the
    enjoyment of human rights
  • Freedom of opinion and expression
  • Human rights and extreme poverty
  • Right to development
  • Right to education
  • Rights to housing
  • Right to food
  • Violence against women.

Certain special mandates are also entrusted to the Secretary General or his Special Repre­sentatives, both at the level of the Commission on Human Rights and at the level of the Sub-Commission on the Promotion and Protection of Human Rights.  These include:

  • Human rights in the context of HIV/AIDS
  • Human rights and mass exoduses
  • Rape and abuse of women in the areas of armed conflict in the former Yugoslavia

The Sub-Commission on the Promotion and Protection of Human Rights

The Sub-Commission on the Promo­tion and Protection of Human Rights is the main subsidiary body of the Commission on Human Rights; it also addresses ESC rights.  It was previously known as the Sub-Commission on the Prevention of Discrimination and Protection of Minorities; it was re­named in 1999.  Its main functions are:

1)   To undertake studies, particularly in the light of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and to make recommen­dations to the com­mission concerning the pre­vention of discrimination of any kind and the pro­tection of ra­cial, national, religious and linguistic minorities.

2)   To perform any other functions which may be entrusted to it by ECOSOC or the com­mis­sion.  The sub-commission is composed of twenty-six experts acting in their personal ca­pac­ity, elected by the commission with due regard to equitable geographical distribution.  Half the members and their alternates are elected every two years and each serves for a term of four years.

Until 2000 the sub-commission held an annual four-week session in Geneva.  From 2000 the Sub-Commission’s sessions were reduced to three weeks.  In addition to the mem­bers and alternates, it is attended by observers from states, United Nations bodies and spe­cialized agencies, other intergovernmental organizations and NGOs with consultative status with ECOSOC.  At present, the sub-commission has four working groups that meet between ses­sions:

  • The Working Group on Communications (which meets for two weeks after Sub-Com­mission sessions to consider complaints that appear to re­veal a consistent pattern of gross and reliably attested violations of human rights within its terms of reference, together with replies from governments, if any)
  • The Working Group on Contemporary Forms of Slavery (which meets several weeks prior to the Sub-Commission session)
  • The Working Group on Indigenous Populations (which meets just prior to the Sub-Com­mission session)
  • The Working Group on Minorities (which meets a couple months prior to the Sub-Com­mission session) 

The Sub-Commission has also established an intra-sessional Working Group on the Methods and Activities of Transnational Corporations, which is beginning to formulate human rights standards relating to companies. 

The following is a list of the focus of some relevant studies and special rapporteurs agreed upon by the sub-commission:

  • impunity concerning economic, social and cultural rights
  • human rights dimension of population transfers
  • human rights and income distribution
  • traditional practices affecting the health of women and girl child
  • systematic rape and sexual slavery during armed conflict
  • indigenous peoples and their relationship to land
  • rights of non-citizens
  • globalization and human rights

The International Labour Organization

The International Labour Organization, established by the Treaty of Versailles in 1919, has been one of the most active international organizations in the area of ESC rights.  As of May 2000 it had adopted 182 conventions and 190 recommendations in relation to social and eco­nomic rights.  The organization’s structure and process of work is based on the tripartite involvement of trade unions, employers’ organizations and member states.

The ILO consists of the ILO Conference, the Governing Body and its Secretariat.  The ILO Con­ference, which meets once a year, consists of two government representatives, one em­ploy­ers’ representative and one workers’ representative per member state.  The Governing Body, which is its executive arm, consists of 56 members, 14 each representing workers and em­ployers, and the balance of 28 representing member states.

Member states are required to submit conventions and recommendations adopted by the ILO for consideration by the state’s legislative body.  The states are required to report to the ILO on the response of the legislative body.  This process is unique to the ILO, and allows trade unions and other groups to lobby for the ratification of a new convention or the incorporation of the recommendation as part of state policy. 

Member states must also report on the measures they have taken to implement ILO conven­tions.  An important stipulation is that governments must send copies of their reports to na­tional organizations of employers and workers, thus providing the latter with an opportunity to comment on the reports.  These comments must be transmitted to the ILO by the govern­ment together with its report.  On important conventions, such as those dealing with human rights, governments are required to report every two years.  On others, member states must report every four years.  Reports are reviewed by the Committee of Experts on the Applica­tion of Conventions and Recommendations.  This Committee makes "observations” on any situation which it regards as not in conformity with the government’s obligations under the relevant convention and these form part of its annual report to the International Labour Con­ference.  It may also direct "requests” to governments, which gives the government an op­portunity to rectify situations that do not comply with its obligations under the particular convention without the matter becoming public.  Observations are adopted for more serious cases and are published in the report the Com­mittee of Experts submits.

The report of the Committee of Experts is placed before the Governing Body, which may then invite governments to respond when the committee has established that the provisions of a convention are not being complied with.  This allows an­other opportunity for trade un­ions and other groups to raise the issue of the lack of compliance with their governments. 

The ILO also has a process by which the Governing Body and the Committee of Experts re­views the status of conven­tions not ratified by member states.  In this process the ILO has tended to focus more on those conventions dealing with basic human rights.

There is a specific process within the ILO to look into allegations concerning the violation of the right to freedom of association.  Allegations may be submitted by workers’ groups, em­ployers’ organizations or governments.  They are investigated by a Fact-Finding and Con­ciliation Commission within the ILO.

Author: The author of this module is Mario Gomez.


3.   See also United Nations, Division for the Advancement of Women (DAW), Promoting Women’s Enjoyment of their Economic and Social Rights.  Report of an Expert Group Meeting held at the University of Abo Akemi, Finland, 1-4 December 1997.

4.The Committee for the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women, Sixteenth  session, 13-31 January 1997, CEDAW/C/7/Rev.3.

5.  "CEDAW and the Indian Women’s Groups” was written by Madhu Mehra.

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