By Susan Yoshihara, PhD

NEW YORK, September 29, 2006 ( -Â Leading scholars on both sides of the abortion debate agree that the push to make abortion an international human right has shifted from the UN General Assembly, where treaties are negotiated, to the inner-workings of UN compliance committees, where treaties are monitored.

In an article in Human Rights Quarterly, “Feminist Influences on the United Nations Human Rights Treaty Bodies,” law professor Rachael Lorna Johnstone found that the committees responsible for monitoring human rights treaties have successfully adopted the feminist agenda. Countries that have ratified human rights treaties are required to report to the treaty bodies every few years. While the bodies have no power to enforce their recommendations, the format of the process is like that found in a court in which the country is judged by the committee and their “recommendations” and comments are handed down like decisions.

Proof that the treaty bodies are now promoting the feminist agenda, Johnstone said, is that members of the treaty monitoring bodies are taking states to task on issues that are not addressed in the actual treaties that the country ratified.“State action that the HRC [Human Rights Committee] noted as failing to respect human rights included the criminalization of abortion,” she said. In fact, abortion is not mentioned in any of the human rights treaties. Johnstone also noted that the committee for the Convention on the Rights of the Child is pressuring states to use primary education to push gender sensitivity, change attitudes about girls’ sexuality, and promote population control.Â

Johnstone said that while the treaties that nations ratify do not change, the monitoring bodies are constantly changing the way they interpret the treaties, under the influence of NGOs and other unelected officials in the UN system. Examples of terms that the committees are reinterpreting include the meaning of “the right to life,” she said. Increasingly, Johnstone notes, “The concerns of the committee reach well into the private sphere.”

Andrew C. McCarthy, a constitutional lawyer and former chief federal prosecutor, noted these trends with alarm in a recent article in Commentary magazine. He had grave concern that the agenda “erodes the concept of consent that undergirds international legal arrangements” and threatens to create “the NGO dream of supranational tribunals that will supersede national court systems”. McCarthy identified “interlocking networks” of powerful judges, international organizations, NGOs, law professors, and bureaucrats that translate the controversial agenda into national social policies that bypass representative government and national sovereignty. Noting the importance of these networks, Johnstone said, “The work of the human rights treaty bodies is the foundation for discourse in the language of rights…. If feminists refuse to engage with this language, we can be assured that those oppos d to our claims will.”

The divergence of views is not just academic. In Geneva, the new Human Rights Council is in its second week of a three-week meeting. The Council’s politicized predecessor was disbanded after it lost the confidence of the General Assembly. On the agenda this week are reports including the controversial issues of a “right to health,” and sexual orientation.


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