OTI Online
Fall 1998

America The World's Cop Is A Cop-Out
by Jennifer Tierney


A pioneer of the feminist movement in the sixties and seventies, Charlotte Bunch was the first woman resident fellow at the Institute for Policy Studies in Washington, D.C., and a founding member of D.C. Women's Liberation, The Furies, and Quest: A Feminist Quarterly. Now working in the global women's human rights movement - what she calls the "new incarnation" of the women's movement - Bunch is the founder and executive director of the Center for Women's Global Leadership, at Rutgers University.

OTI: The U.S. sees itself as the world's policeman, particularly on human rights, and yet we have failed to sign many international treaties on human rights. Why do we have such a dismal record?

Bunch: The U.S. is extremely hypocritical about human rights. On the one hand, we say that we are the defenders of human rights around the world. Yet, on the other, we are not willing to have the world hold us accountable. Quite recently, in April, there was the death penalty case of the man from Paraguay who was executed in Virginia. He had not been told of his right to contact the Paraguayan embassy, which is an international right.

Countries all over the world asked the U.S. not to go ahead with the execution of this man, and the Governor of Virginia replied: We won't let the world tell us what to do in Virginia.' This is very typical of the attitude that people in the United States have toward international law. It's seen only as something we use against other people.

The international women's rights treaty, CEDAW (Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women), has been used in some countries to fight discriminatory laws against rape victims. If the U.S. ratified CEDAW, which it has repeatedly failed to do, what would this mean to the average woman here?

CEDAW contains a number of articles dealing with issues of equal pay and women's economic rights that are much more progressive than any legislation we have in this country, more progressive even than was the Equal Rights Amendment. CEDAW spells out in detail the principles of equal rights for women, and covers all areas of non-discrimination, including rights within the family and girls' rights.

Encouragingly, in San Francisco recently the Board of Supervisors, or city council, passed CEDAW as the law locally. This means they have committed to having all the laws and ordinances in the San Francisco area reviewed in terms of their compliance with the CEDAW convention. This could be a model for all of us of what the CEDAW could mean in the United States.

Are there human rights abuses in the United States?

Obviously, in the United States a major issue is violence against women, yet people go on thinking that somehow our country is where human rights are respected. I don't know of any other nation in which young men go into schools and shoot young women who won't date them. I don't understand how these massacres have not been viewed as a feminist issue. It is so clearly an indication of the acceptance by so many people in the U.S. that men and boys have the right to demand of girls and women what they want.

Mai Lai Massacre and Tiananmen Square

Another instance of human rights abuse can be seen in the demonization of women of color on welfare. This is an issue that brings together both racial and gender discrimination and economics. Reproductive rights is, of course, an issue for American women. I always point out that it's in the United States that people are killed for defending the right to abortion. And those are human rights murders.

What about the state's complicity in the sexual abuse of women in U.S. prisons?

The UN's Special Rapporteur on Violence Against Women is currently in the U.S. examining sexual violence by their jailors against women in custody. In human rights terms we have succeeded in arguing that prison guards or policemen are agents of the government. Therefore, this constitutes American government torture.

Could you give OTI a report card on women's human rights?

To examine the progress of the women's human rights movement and the challenges ahead, you have to look at the history of this movement, which is the women's movement in another incarnation. In the late '80s and early '90s a number of women, myself included, felt that women's human rights were still viewed in male terms. And the issue that best demonstrated this male gendered bias was violence against women, which had been completely excluded from the human rights agenda. We needed to demonstrate that there is a specifically women's experience of human rights. We pointed out, for example, that women who are not allowed to leave their homes for various reasons, like different family codes, are victims of arbitrary detention. They are also being denied their freedom of assembly and their freedom of speech. At the Vienna World Conference on Human Rights in 1993, women's rights were recognized as human rights for the first time in history.

We've seen significant progress in areas like political asylum and refugee status. For instance, the guidelines for refugee camps now include a recognition of sexual harassment and rape. Ten years ago, this was the not the case. And gender-based persecution is beginning to be recognized, as in the 1996 case of a woman who successfully sought asylum in the United States based on the threat of female genital mutilation in her home country [see our article on page 23].

Mothers of the disappeared and teenage girls executed by right-wing death squads in El Salvador.

Ten years ago, when we talked about violence against women as an abuse of human rights, people laughed at us. Today it is quite different. Many of the major UN agencies have now taken up this issue. How much they are actually doing about it is another matter. But at least at the conceptual level, there's been a breakthrough in the understanding that what happens to women can be human rights abuse.

What are some of the challenges ahead?

The current global economy, with its ever-increasing trade and technology, is exacerbating the gap between the rich and poor, which means that more and more women are economically destitute. The ability to get the world's governments to recognize and do anything about economic and social rights is minimal right now. We have to have a global movement around workplace standards - for women and men.

And, as we saw at the 1994 Cairo conference on population and at the 1995 Fourth World Conference on Women in Beijing, the global backlash against women is focused mostly in the area of reproductive rights. I'm optimistic but I'm also realistic about the barriers we face, such as the traditional powers of religion and some aspects of the economy, which work to keep women under control.

The next few years are going to be very important as to whether this movement keeps going forward. The globalization of communications and the economy is probably the biggest challenge we face. How to organize and respond is a challenge for American women.

Why should globalization be a particular problem for U.S. women?

Because the U.S. women's movement is still hopelessly parochial. It does not see its issues as global ones. I'm always amazed at how little women in this country use human rights and international treaties as a frame in which to pose their issues. The American women's movement suffers from what all of us in the U.S. suffer from: a very nation-centric view. If there isn't feminism around the world, there won't be feminism in the United States, either.

South African blacks made homeless in 1986 during apartheid when government authorities demolished their homes.
South African blacks made homeless in 1986 during apartheid when government authorities demolished their homes.

How is the personal turned into the political in terms of human rights?

Violence against women is political in the same way that racial violence is political. The focus of the human rights community has been on the state that carries out such violence. But when a woman is tortured at the hands of her husband rather than by the state, it's still torture.

How, specifically, do laws tolerate, or even condone, violence against women?

Men kill their wives or girlfriends and then use the "honor" defense to escape prosecution. For example, in some Islamic countries, when her family kills a girl the legal defense is that the family has found out that the girl had sex without being married. Such "crimes of honor" go unprosecuted in many states. Or no effort is made to enforce the law.

Or they prosecute the victims, as in Pakistan, where women who report rape may be charged with having sex outside of marriage and jailed?

Yes. In Peru and Costa Rica, for example, if a rapist offers to marry his victim he is no longer charged with the rape. In most countries with such customs, legally a woman doesn't have to accept, but in community terms in many parts of the world, most women who have been raped are forced by their families to accept the rapist's offer of marriage. So a woman is not only raped once, she's raped for life.

What should the Universal Declaration of Human Rights mean to the average woman?

That declaration was an attempt by the UN in 1948 to establish international ethical standards. Our 1998 Global Campaign is trying to give a gendered interpretation of those principles, in areas such as economic and social rights, health and sexual rights, violence, etc. These documents are very important tools for political struggle, for legitimizing what we see as a vision for a better way to live - for trying to convince others. I would hope for women in the United States who are currently facing a difficult situation that we would see the use of the ethical standards in the declaration as articulating a starting point for what we stand for, and what needs to happen for women.


New York-based journalist Jennifer Tierney was formerly the Mexico correspondent for International Financing Review magazine. She has also written for The New York Times, The Financial Times of London, and UPL among others.


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