- The Washington Times - Sunday, August 11, 2002

Lawyers and judges attending an American Bar Association conference in the District yesterday called on the United States to ratify a U.N. treaty that they said would be used to override American laws and policies based on assertions of sex discrimination.
Senate ratification of the treaty would help produce a "real remedy for real women at home" who face inequality in the workplace and other injustices, said Karima Bennoune, professor of international women's rights at the University of Michigan Law School.
"I'm not saying there should be wholesale changes in U.S. laws, but addressing women's rights in the United States is very much about what happens here," she said at a bar panel to promote ratification of the treaty.
Conservative and pro-family groups have criticized the treaty, formally called the Convention for the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women. Among their complaints: The United Nations' implementing committee has told other countries that compliance with the treaty requires eliminating laws restricting abortion and prostitution.
The bar association is using a grant from the U.S. Agency for International Development to train feminist activists to challenge such "sexist" laws worldwide. Participants at the conference yesterday said they want to bring that agenda to the United States.
"There are glass ceilings all over the place, unequal pay and discrimination" against women in many areas, said Justice Karla Moskowitz of the New York Supreme Court, who also is president of the National Association of Women Judges.
"Even though there has been a recognition of these problems in the courts, these problems still exist," Justice Moskowitz said. "We see a big gap in the laws in the United States, and we think [the treaty] would help close that gap." Treaties are the "supreme law of the land" under the U.S. Constitution, with domestic laws and court decisions.
Once ratified, the treaty's requirements would become binding on all levels of government. The panel's participants said the treaty would be used in court to challenge state and federal laws and policies deemed discriminatory.
"As an African-American woman, I can tell you how important this treaty is as a standard and a tool to reinvigorate the movement for equal rights in the United States," said Gay McDougall, president of the International Human Rights Law Group in Washington.
"The promises of this convention have not been realized. In many countries, these rights remain a piece of paper," said Miss McDougall, also a member of the U.N. Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination.
Ratification by the United States "can be a catalyst for change," she said, and the treaty "is not just meant to be for women in other countries."
"It needs force and salience in U.S. laws and states, our laws here, our rights here at home," Miss McDougall said.
The bar association's Central and East European Law Initiative, backed by taxpayer funds from the Agency for International Development, also has developed an "assessment tool" to be used by feminist lawyers in the United States and abroad to evaluate countries' compliance with the treaty's requirements.
The document quotes the United Nations Secretariat on the treaty: "The convention is not confined to the respect of equal rights per se, since these are guaranteed under the International Convention on Social and Cultural Rights. The convention thus is conceived as an affirmative-action program requiring measures by states parties to ensure that internationally recognized human rights are equally applied to women."
The 210-page document consists of a series of questions covering all provisions of the treaty, known as CEDAW.
"If the principle of equality exists in the national constitution or other appropriate national legislation, have any cases been brought to court challenging violations of this principle?" the assessment tool asks.
Other questions include: "Has this principle of equality been integrated into all legal codes relevant to CEDAW? Is CEDAW directly applied and given effect in courts as part of national law? What training programs exist to educate judges and other legal professionals about CEDAW's precedence over national laws?"
Joe Fredericks, spokesman for the Agency for International Development, did not respond to several inquiries over the weekend about the agency's funding of the project.
Bar association officials and members at the conference said they did not know how much the agency had contributed or how the grant was channeled. However, the cover page of the bar association's assessment tool says it was "funded by U.S. AID."
The treaty was signed by President Carter in 1980 but languished unratified in the Senate. The Senate Foreign Relations Committee recommended ratification last month, but the treaty faces stiff opposition from conservative and pro-family organizations that say it would undermine U.S. sovereignty in the name of human rights.
"The guts of the document is a leftist utopian wish list: the government wage-setting embodied in comparable worth, paid maternity leave, a national network of child care, free maternity-related health care, gender-blind military service and quota-determined political parity for women," said Charmaine Yoest, a Bradley research fellow at the University of Virginia who has done a study of the treaty for the Independent Women's Forum.
The bar association's assessment tool spells out "in black and white the logical consequences of signing on to this treaty," said Wendy Wright, policy director of Concerned Women for America. "They want to bypass and circumvent the debate locally and impose this in the states.
"Treaties and national law trump state law; all our family law, laws against prostitution, laws regulating abortion are state laws. Those are the areas they're most interested in," said Miss Wright, who attended yesterday's bar association session at the Mayflower Hotel in Washington.
The U.N. implementing committee, which gives instructions to signatory countries in response to periodic compliance reports, has told Ireland it must strip its national constitution of its anti-abortion provision to comply with the treaty.
The panel also said China's law banning prostitution was a violation. The committee told Germany, which legalized prostitution, that its laws must apply the same health care and labor laws to prostitutes as to other workers.
The committee instructed countries to establish a quota of equal numbers of women and men in publicly appointed positions and the workplace. Several reservations being considered in the Senate, which would exempt the United States from some treaty provisions, were criticized at the bar association meeting.
One reservation states that Americans would retain "freedom from interference in private conduct," such as marriage and family life. Others reject the treaty's mandate requiring women in military combat units, paid maternity leave and "comparable worth" between the pay scales in male-dominated and female-dominated jobs.
Reservations by countries reduced the treaty "to a kind of Swiss cheese with huge gaps and holes," said the University of Michigan's Ms. Bennoune, a treaty advocate.
The proposed private-conduct reservation "reduces the convention to being pretty meaningless, really," she said. "We urge the United States to ratify with no reservations or as few as possible."

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