One of the greatest victories for the post-modern feminist movement in the arena of International Law was the Convention on Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW, hereinafter, the Convention). Often termed as the harbinger of an alternative understanding of the feminist cause going beyond the Human Rights regime, the Convention heralded the greatest possible change in the Status of women, recognized internationally. Often regarded as the International Bill of Rights for Women, CEDAW is a comprehensive treaty on the rights of women and establishes legally binding obligations on the State Parties to follow the legal standards set by it to end discrimination against women by achieving equality between men and women. (Tackling Violence against Women, London School of Economic Blog)
Despite the theoretical attempts at establishing an equal society, for most part of the World, the coverage of the Convention is minimal. This is mostly because of the ‘reservations’ made by member States in the name of personal laws often originating in their religious set up. The personal laws in their very inception are rooted in the ideas of patriarchy, dominance of men, and lesser roles for women. Many instances from the sources of these personal laws would prove that men are in charge of women and hence can direct their personal spheres. These discriminatory personal laws are protected even in the most advanced constitutional setups either through a document or a bill of rights within the purview of Right to Religion. As a consequence, many countries in order to show their neutrality towards the concept of Religion and to establish the beautiful ideals of secularism tend to overlook the discrimination these religious laws preach.
In the current Article, the researcher provides an analysis as to what kind of reservations are permitted under the CEDAW, and how Bangladesh completely misunderstood its qualified right of Reservations, as an absolute right and established an anomaly, which doesn’t merely contradict its international commitments but also the fundamental principles of the Constitution of Bangladesh.
Concept of Reservations to Treaties
The existing ambiguities in the treaty reservations law have often led to irregularities and illegalities in law. In 1969 the Vienna Convention on the Law of Treaties was adopted to codify practice and provide legal guidance on the meaning of reservations and a uniform procedure for entering them. The Vienna Convention provides that reservations may not be made that are “incompatible with the object and purpose of the treaty.” (Vienna Convention on the Law of Treaties (23 May 1969), Entered into force 27 January 1980. United Nations, Treaty Series, vol. 1155, p. 331.) This provision raises as many questions as it answers, as the Vienna Convention does not define “object and purpose,” nor does it indicate what body has the power to determine validity. The Vienna Convention also provides for state parties to object to a reservation within twelve months of its entry. However, objections do not dispose of the question of validity, although some states have objected to reservations to CEDAW on the ground of invalidity. In 1994,M. Alain Pellet, the Special Rapporteur on Reservation to treaties, addressed various aspects of the reservation issues. The most significant for purposes of dealing with CEDAW and other human rights treaties is his discussion of reservations to “normative” treaties. The international human rights treaties differ from most other treaties in that their implementation is monitored by bodies that are established by the terms of the respective treaties. (Human Rights Committee, General Comment No. 24 on Reservations, CCPR/C/21/Rev.1/dd.6 (November, 1994), republished as HRI/GEN/1/Rev.6.) Despite establishments of treaty bodies, within the framework of treaties, who hold authority to judge any reservations on its merits, all these bodies have had issues with reservations.
The Convention permits ratification subject to reservations. Some state parties that enter reservations to the Convention do not enter reservations to analogous provisions in other human rights treaties. A number of states enter reservations to particular articles on the ground that national law, tradition, religion or culture are not congruent with Convention principles, and purport to justify the reservation on that basis. (Reservations to CEDAW, Available at: http://www.un.org/womenwatch/daw/cedaw/reservations.htm, accessed on 6/10/2019).Article 28 (2) of the Convention adopts the impermissibility principle contained in art. 19 (c) of the Vienna Convention on the Law of Treaties. The impermissibility principle states that any reservation which is incompatible with the object and purpose of the treaty shall be invalid. The CEDAW Committee considers art. 2 as the core provision of the Convention. The Committee holds the view that art. 2 central to the objects and purpose of the Convention and as a consequence its importance cannot be neglected. States parties which ratify the Convention do so because there exists an agreement between all the states that any form of discrimination against women in all its forms should be condemned and that strategies set out in art. 2, should be implemented by States parties to eliminate it. How far the traditional, religious or cultural practice, incompatible domestic laws or other policies can justify violations of the Convention, needs some thorough scrutiny.
Fundamental Rights under the Constitution of Bangladesh
Article 7 of the Constitution of Bangladesh, 1972 refers to Supremacy of Constitution and all powers to be exercised in consonance with the same, as it manifests the will of the people of the Republic. The Constitution also guarantees various fundamental rights to its citizens and explicitly states than any law inconsistent with the Fundamental Rights shall be void. The Constitution also promotes equality (art. 27, Constitution of Bangladesh) and prohibits any form of discrimination against women in all spheres of state and in the public life (art. 28(2) Constitution of Bangladesh). Despite these provisions proclaiming equality and non-discrimination against women in the law of the land, Bangladesh holds reservations against art. 2 of the Convention, which, as already discussed above is crucial for the objects and purposes of the Convention. The ground, as repeatedly claimed by Bangladesh, for such reservation is that these provisions contradict the Sharia Law based on Holy Quran and Sunnah. As a response to this, neither the Committee nor any State party has belaboured the issue. Bangladesh withdrew the reservations to Articles 13(a) and 16 (1) (f) of the Convention in 1997 but has not withdrawn the Article 2 and Article 16 (1) (c). The Committee has continued to press on the question of withdrawing the remaining reservations, however mostly unsuccessfully.
Periodic Committee Reports at a glance
Soon after the ratification of the treaty, in 1996 the Ministry of Women and Children’s Affair constituted an inter-ministerial committee to review the reservations to the Convention. The report of the Committee reaffirmed the supremacy of the law, and stated that Bangladesh doesn’t have Sharia Law as such rather certain provisions have been codified into legislation. Also, the report suggested that the provisions of Sharia are not immutable and hence can be reinterpreted as per need of time. (Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women, Third and Fourth Report of State Parties: Bangladesh, CEDAW/C/BGD/3-4 p 26 (April 1, 1997)).
Again in 2004, during the 31st session of the CEDAW, in its fifth report the Bangladeshi representative asserted their intention to withdraw all the reservations. The Committee was gratified to hear that Bangladesh intended to withdraw its reservations to the Convention in the near future. In doing so, it would ensure the effective implementation of the Convention and send a significant message to other Muslim nations. (Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women, Fifth Report (Continued), Summary Record of 654 Meeting, CEDAW/C/BGD/5, para 61, (July 9, 2004))
Regarding the optional protocol, Dubravka Šimonović, Special Rapporteur on Violence against Women, observed, although Bangladesh had ratified the Optional Protocol to the Convention, its reservations to articles 2 and 16.1 (c) effectively meant that the Optional Protocol was not applicable regarding certain rights provided for in the Convention. She remarked that the Bangladeshi delegation had stated that the Government was gradually taking steps to implement the equal rights guaranteed to men and women under the Constitution, and she would appreciate knowing why that was the case, since those rights should be granted, not on a gradual basis, but immediately. (Convention on Elimination of All forms of Discrimination Against Women, 5th Periodic Report: Bangladesh, Summary Records CEDAW/5/SR.653 (12th August 2004)) The fifth periodic report also focused on the ongoing role of NGOs and other Civil Societies stating their lobbying efforts and advocacy attempts to remove reservations from the Article 2 and 16.1 (c).
Most recently, the 8th Periodic Report submitted in 2016, recalled the importance of Law Commission (hereinafter, LC) reports, which is a statutory body empowered to recommend enactment, amendment or repealing of laws relating to fundamental rights and values of society. Since 2009, the LC has suggested reform of laws for the promotion of human rights, including prevention of sexual harassment in educational institutions and workplaces, prevention of violence against women, protection of victims and witnesses to grave offences, reform of Hindu family laws and the withdrawal of reservation on the two Articles (2 and 16.1(c) of CEDAW. (Convention on Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women, 8th Periodic Report: Bangladesh, May 2015) In the report, the Bangladeshi representative submitted that the Government is aware about the potential movements by the Islamic fundamentalist groups against the withdrawal of the reservations. Therefore, cautious steps are being taken so as not to jeopardize application of the principles of CEDAW. Partnership and cooperation with civil society is essential to create a positive environment for the withdrawal of reservation.
The abovementioned constitutional provisions and periodic reports show that despite being an equal society, at least constitutionally, the abovementioned reservations appear highly mis-founded as they can essentially have only two understandings- first, Sharia is inherently discriminatory against women; Second, Bangladesh has wrongly appreciated and understood Sharia, which has misguided such reservations. While the first one could not be agreed for most of its part, as 29 out of 57 members of Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC), with Sharia law in force, have ratified the treaty without any reservations. When it comes to Second observation, then it can be affirmatively said that the Bangladeshi reservation is rooted in the wrong conception of its own religious conceptions and practices. Various reports suggest that the Sharia is not immutable and such changes can be made as per the needs of time. This can be regarded as one of the most important times where call for such amendments in the Bangladeshi understanding and interpretation of Sharia Law as the crime against women in the South Asian region is on all-time high. (See Media Report)
In light of the above-mentioned facts it becomes imperative to understand the prospects of such reservations both in law and in practice along with the methods of tackling the existing obstacles in the implementation of women centric legislations. While Bangladesh has accepted the irregularity of its reservations to the CEDAW in every periodic report submitted to the CEDAW, yet any action for the withdrawal of the same is still an implausible idea because of the pressure on the Government exerted by fundamentalist groups active in Bangladesh. As the reservation contradicts various provisions of the Constitution of Bangladesh like Articles 26, 27, 28, 29, etc, they are inherently invalid. But despite the vehement oppositions from various NGOs and civil societies to the reservations, no such remark has yet been made by the judiciary of Bangladesh. Along with reiteration of supremacy of constitution over sharia law, it is necessary for the courts to remove the divide between public and private spaces. While private spaces are completely untouched by the State, it is imperative that the manifestations of such personal practices which become social factors should be regulated. Alternatively, reading the reservation invalid within the purview of Sharia Law can be another plausible task that the Government can undertake. Taking into consideration the examples of other Islamic nations, which have no reservations against the CEDAW, can also be beneficial to the withdrawing of reservation procedure. These exemplified and exalted examples of law in other Islamic nations which don’t have reservations can help Bangladesh cope up with the resistance to the withdrawal by the fundamentalist forces.
Regarding reservations of Bangladesh, it can be concluded that they are highly misplaced because of inherent problem in their conception. States are required to be proactive in adopting laws and policies to eliminate discrimination against women and in attempting to modify or abolish discriminatory “customs and practices.” As the article lays out the fundamental requirement to comply with all articles of the Convention in the State party’s constitution, statutes, and policies, it is imperative for Bangladesh to withdraw the same.