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Gender equality, justice in law and practice: Essential for sustainable development

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Young girls in Gumam primary school, Kassala state, Sudan. Photo: UNICEF/Sari Omer

Fundamentally linked to human development, gender justice requires ending inequality and redressing existing disparities between women and men, according to a high-level United Nations forum on the situation in Arab States.

Laws that promote gender equality “will help the Arab region move forward on the issue of justice and equality for women”, Jordan Ambassador to the UN Sima Bahous, told UN News after chairing the forum centered around the study with the same name: Gender and Law Justice, Evaluation of Laws Affecting Gender Equality in the Arab States.

Gender equality is achieved when both sexes enjoy the same rights and opportunities across society, including access to justice and to economic and social gains. The study stressed that sustainable development goals cannot be achieved without ensuring gender equality in law and practice.

On 14 March, on the margins of the 63rd session of the Commission on the Status of Women (CSW), the UN Development Programme (UNDP), the Economic and Social Commission for West Asia (ESCWA), Population Fund (UNFPA) and the Women’s Fund (UNIFEM) organized the conference, which discussed discrimination and criminal, personal status and labour laws across 18 Arab countries.  

“Human development means expanding opportunities for women and men to improve their lives and education, and create better opportunities”, Ms. Bahous explained.  

Room in Arab region for women’s equality

Gender justice relies on accountability and equality.  

Salma Al-Nemes, Secretary General of the Jordanian National Committee for Women, spoke about the forum’s importance, saying that it aims to “emphasize that there is still room in the Arab region to achieve women’s equality.”  

She stressed that problems can only be solved if they are recognized, and that countries can benefit “from the experiences of the Arab and Islamic countries that have achieved equality and build on this by adapting it to national reality.”  

Because national and local contexts differ, Ms. Al-Nemes acknowledged that “we must examine how to meet these challenges in an appropriate context so that we can achieve equality not only in legislation, but in practice as well”. 

For her part, Naziha el Obaidi, Minister of Women, Family, Childhood and the Elderly of Tunisia, told UN News about her Government’s decree that “when considering the appointment of a senior official in the country, four biographies of candidates, two for women and one for men, should be submitted.” 

Also in Tunisia, the law of ‘horizontal equinoxes and vertical equinoxes’ states that if an electoral list is headed by a woman, a man must hold the second position, and vice versa. Ms. el Obaidi credited this with women’s participation nearly 48 per cent of municipalities, noting that this law will also be implemented in the legislative elections. 

Honour crimes

Because gender-based violence is a major barrier to gender justice, Gender justice and the law closely examines its various forms, including sexual, physical and psychological and economic violence, assessing laws and policies that affect gender equality and protect against gender-based violence.

For example, the penalties for committing so-called honour crimes – which include murder, wounding and beating – vary, depending on the country.

In Algeria, Bahrain, Morocco, Qatar, Syria and Yemen a sentence can be reduced if a “spouse” is caught in an act of adultery.

Whereas in Djibouti and Sudan there are no specific provisions identified in the Penal Code to reduce penalties for these crimes.

Leniency for perpetrators of honour crimes against women in Saudi Arabia is not codified in the law, so men are sentenced at the court’s discretion.

Meanwhile, the Penal Code in Egypt spells out that if a husband kills his wife committing adultery, he and the man with whom she was with would receive reduced penalty not to exceed three years in prison.

Should “a person” kill a wife, daughter or sister, or her sexual partner, in the sudden heat of rage after finding her in a sexual act in Somalia, the penal code requires a reduced sentence.

If a man kills his wife or one of his female relatives while engaging in the act of adultery in Iraq, he would be incarcerated for no more than three years. In Libya the sentence would not exceed eight years.

At the same time, some countries repealed reduced sentences for honour crimes, such as Lebanon in 2011, Oman in 2001 and Tunisia in 1993.

While the penal code in Jordan was amended in 2017 to prevent reduced penalties for honour crimes, the original mitigated penalties for murdering a spouse caught in the act of adultery has yet to be removed. Similarly, mitigation of penalties for honour crimes in the Occupied Palestinian Territories were repealed in 2011 in the West Bank and 2018 in Gaza, however, the Government there has not applied the reforms. 

Honour crimes are just one of the topics addressed in the study. Violence manifest itself in many ways, including rape, sexual harassment, child and forced marriage, female genital mutilation/cutting and other harmful traditional practices – all of which the study covers.  

It is worth mentioning that the UN Commission on the Status of Women is responsible for developing global policies to promote gender equality and women’s empowerment. The annual session, which drew to a close on 22 March, provides an opportunity to review progress and identify difficulties, challenges and policy formulation. 

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ICJ orders Pakistan to review death penalty for Indian accused of spying

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In a ruling delivered on Wednesday, the International Court of Justice (ICJ) ordered Pakistan to review a death sentence handed down in the case of a former Indian Navy officer accused by Pakistan of spying, finding that the country’s authorities acted in breach of the Vienna Convention, which lays out rules for diplomatic relations between countries.

Kulbhushan Jadhav, said the Court, had not been informed of his rights by the Pakistani authorities, and that the Indian Government has been deprived of “consular access”: the right to communicate with him.

During the hearings, the ICJ had directed Pakistan not to carry out the death sentence until the Court’s final ruling. On Wednesday, the Court ordered a “continued stay of execution”, as a “indispensable condition for the effective review and reconsideration of the conviction and sentence”.

Mr. Jadhav was arrested three years ago by Pakistani authorities, who say that he was in the restive Balochistan province, which is home to a separatist insurgency that Pakistan accuses India of backing. The charges levelled against Mr. Jadhav were of “espionage and sabotage activities against Pakistan”.

Although a video was released shortly after Mr. Jadhav’s arrest, in which he was shown admitting involvement in spying, India has always questioned the alleged confession, saying that it was extracted under duress. The Indian authorities also deny that Jadhav is a spy and say that he was kidnapped in Iran, which borders the province, which he was visiting on business.

Following Pakistan’s pronouncement of the death penalty, in April 2017, India filed a case with the ICJ, calling the trial, which took place in a military court, “farcical”, and asked for a stay of execution and consular access to Mr. Jadhav. Pakistan countered that Mr. Jadhav was not given consular access because he is a spy who illegally entered the country in order to create “unrest and instability”.

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Moratorium call on surveillance technology to end ‘free-for-all’ abuses

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Surveillance technology should be banned immediately until “effective” national or international controls are put in place to lessen its harmful impact, a UN-appointed independent rights expert said on Tuesday.

David Kaye, who’s the United Nations Special Rapporteur on freedom of opinion and expression, made the appeal as he prepared to present his latest report to the Human Rights Council in Geneva.

He highlighted that while States were largely responsible, companies appeared to be “operating without constraint” too, in a “free for all” private surveillance industry environment.

“Surveillance tools can interfere with human rights, from the right to privacy and freedom of expression to rights of association and assembly, religious belief, non-discrimination, and public participation,” the Special Rapporteur said in statement. “And yet they are not subject to any effective global or national control.”

Surveillance linked to detention, torture, extrajudicial killings

According to Mr. Kaye’s report, the surveillance of journalists, activists, opposition figures, critics and UN investigators can lead to arbitrary detention.

It has also been linked to torture and possibly to extrajudicial killings, the Special Rapporteur said, citing various ways that States and other actors monitor individuals who exercise their right to freedom of expression.

These include hacking computers, networks and mobile phones, using facial recognition surveillance and other sophisticated surveillance tools to shadow journalists, politicians, UN investigators and human rights advocates.

Among the Special Rapporteur’s recommendations is an appeal to States to adopt domestic safeguards to protect individuals from unlawful surveillance, in line with international human rights law.

In particular, Mr. Kaye calls for the development of publicly-owned mechanisms for the approval and oversight of surveillance technology.

In addition, countries should strengthen export controls and provide assurances of legal redress to victims.

“It is imperative that States limit the uses of such technologies to lawful ones only, subjected to the strictest sorts of oversight and authorisation,” he said. “And that States condition export of such technologies on the strictest human rights due diligence”.

Companies operate in ‘free-for-all’ snooping environment

Addressing the issue of corporate responsibility, Mr. Kaye insisted that companies should adhere to their human rights responsibilities, as they “appear to be operating without constraint”.

To remedy this, firms should disclose data transfers, conduct “rigorous” human rights impact assessments, and avoid transfers to States unable to guarantee compliance with human rights norms, the Special Rapporteur said.

“The private surveillance industry is a free for all,” Kaye noted, “an environment in which States and industry are collaborating in the spread of technology that is causing immediate and regular harm to individuals and organisations that are essential to democratic life – journalists, activists, opposition figures, lawyers, and others.

“It is time for governments and companies to recognise their responsibilities and impose rigorous requirements on this industry, with the goal of protecting human rights for all,” Mr. Kaye said.

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Globalisation: How the EU’s trade policy helps to promote human rights

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Globalisation and international trade can affect human rights, so the EU’s trade policy include tools to protect them. Find out how.

International trade and globalisation have great potential to create jobs in the EU and beyond. Yet, growing global competition can endanger human rights by for example leading to worker exploitation. As human rights are a priority of its foreign policy, the EU uses its trade policy to promote and protect human rights in non-EU countries through preferential trade deals, as well as unilateral trade restrictions.

Preferential trade access

One of the EU’s main tools to protect human rights and labour rights in non-EU countries is the  Generalised System of Preferences (GPS). This scheme grants 90 developing countries preferential trade access to the EU market. However, this depends on them respecting human rights. Access can be withdrawn when systematic violations occur.

The EU’s strategy is to encourage gradual progress through dialogue and monitoring. Sanctions are used only in extreme cases. Suspension of GSP preferences has occurred three times: with Myanmar in 1997, Belarus in 2007 and Sri Lanka in 2010.

While the scheme has led beneficiary countries to make legislative and institutional changes to promote human rights, implementation has been slower in a number of countries.

Trade restrictions

The EU can also impose unilateral trade restrictions or set due diligence obligations for importers to ensure that money from trade with the EU is not being used to fund conflict and human rights violations in these countries.

The EU also has strict rules to prevent the use of European goods and technologies for unethical intentions elsewhere, for example medical substances that could be used in executions..

Imports of items whose production is related to human rights violations are also restricted, including conflict minerals and objects that can be used for torture.

Import ban on conflict minerals

The EU has taken steps to ban the import of conflict related minerals.

In 2002, after recognising the impact international trade in diamonds has on human rights, the EU adopted rules that ban all imports of rough diamonds without a certificate of origin. Similarly, minerals, used in the production of, for example high-tech devices, often stem from countries afflicted by conflict. The revenue gained from minerals exported to the EU often sustained armed revolts.

To prevent the international trade in minerals from funding conflict and human rights violations, MEPs adopted in 2017 rules obliging EU importers of tin, tungsten, tantalum and gold to carry out due diligence checks on their suppliers. The regulation will be fully in force from 2021.

Export ban on torture goods

EU rules ban any trade in goods and services that may contribute to torture or execution.

Since 2004, an export control system is in place, which checks and prohibits goods that may be used to treat people badly. Authorisation is necessary for items that have legitimate purposes but that can also be used for human rights violations, such as medicinal substances.

The rules also include a ban on the marketing and transit of equipment used for cruel, inhumane and degrading treatment that have no other practical use than execution or torture, such as electric chairs or automatic drug injection systems.

Export control for trade in items that can be used to violate human rights

The EU has rules to ensure that products and technologies originally produced for civilian use in Europe cannot be used to violate human rights. Dual-use items are goods, software, or technology that, besides their original purpose, can be abused. Examples of other uses include developing weaponry, committing terrorist attacks, spying on people, or infiltrating computer systems, hacking computers, or intercepting mobile phones.

An update of the rules is being discussed featuring stricter export controls, brokering, transit and transfer of dual-use items and taking into account technological developments. Export controls are facilitated by a common EU list of dual-use items.

EU rules to prevent worker exploitation

In 2017, Parliament adopted a resolution calling for EU rules obliging textile and clothing suppliers to respect workers’ rights. It proposed a due diligence obligations system, meaning investigation into the standards of human rights before entering a trade agreement. Non-EU countries would have to comply with EU norms to produce sustainable and ethical textiles. Parliament also wants the EU and member states to promote International Labour Organisation standards on wages and working hours with partner countries in the garment sector.

Child and forced labour

A 2016 Parliament resolution calls for ways to trace evidence of forced and child labour. Measures include labelling child-labour-free products, giving trade preferences to countries that meet certain labour standards and prohibiting the import of products made by child labour.

The implementation of an effective traceability mechanism would steer towards a complete ban on such products. The resolution also calls for the combating of forced and child labour to be included in the trade and sustainable development chapters of EU agreements to promote human rights through international trade.

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