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 The 5th Anniversary of the II World Conference on Human Rights
Vienna: Reaping the Fruits

Five years ago, women's human rights were recognized internationally in the Vienna Declaration and Programme of Action. This document, the product of long and strenuous debate, was approved by 160 countries who accepted the United Nations invitation to participate in the II World Conference on Human Rights held in Vienna, June 14-25, 1993.

This year celebrates the five-year anniversary of the conference at Vienna, a meeting that achieved important changes in the situation of women's human rights and which takes on even greater meaning today with the fifty-year anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. What did the conference at Vienna mean for women, and what are it's most obvious achievements?

Originally, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights paved the way by confirming that "all human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights." This principle is extended in the Vienna Declaration and Programme of Action, which states that "the human rights of women and the girl-child are an inalienable, integral and indivisible part of universal human rights," and that "Gender-based violence and all forms of sexual harassment and exploitation, including those resulting from cultural prejudice and international trafficking, are incompatible with the dignity and worth of the human person, and must be eliminated."

In terms of concrete gains, the II World Conference on Human Rights permitted and proposed the creation of three important instruments that have increased the possibilities of action for NGOs and the women's movement in Latin America and the Caribbean. These instruments are the Declaration on the Elimination of Violence Against Women, drawn up by the United Nations General Assembly five months after the Conference at Vienna (December 1993); the naming of a Special Rapporteur on Violence Against Women by the UN Commission on Human Rights (March 1994); and the Organization of American States (OAS) approval of the Inter-American Convention on the Prevention, Punishment and Eradication of Violence Against Women, "Convention of Belém do Pará" (June 1994).

Background: The First StepsTop of Page

This long process started in 1985 after the III World Conference on Women in Nairobi. On this occasion, the UN Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC) agreed on a series of resolutions against violence and discrimination against women. In addition, several months before the Vienna conference, the committee suggested that the issue of gender discrimination be included in the discussions. Another branch of the United Nations system, the UN Commission on the Status of Women, also recommended that women's rights should be an integral part of the Conference program. The UN Committee to End Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) suggested that this Conference should stress that women's equality is an important human right's issue and should also evaluate the effectiveness of existing human right treaties in terms of the promotion of equality. These efforts of the United Nations system were complimented by the activism of women's movements and NGOs around the world that worked for three years preparing proposals for the Vienna Conference where they organized and lobbied government delegations and representatives from human rights organizations and international agencies.

Another important antecedent to the Vienna Conference was the San José Declaration on Human Rights which was issued from the Latin America and the Caribbean Regional Meeting held in San José, Costa Rica in January, 1993. In this meeting, in preparation for the Vienna Conference, participating governments stressed that the State should give priority to actions that contribute to the full recognition of women's rights.

The post-Vienna process is marked by the Declaration on the Elimination of Violence Against Women approved by the United Nations General Assembly on December 1, 1993, which classifies violence against women perpetrated by the State or others as a violation of human rights. This was the first time that the United Nations approved a declaration that affected the private sphere of the family. This resolution defines violence against women as "any act of gender-based violence that results in, or is likely to result in physical, sexual or psychological harm or suffering to women, including threats of such acts, coercion or arbitrary deprivations of liberty, whether occurring in public or private life."

Special Rapporteur in ActionTop of Page

One of the most effective results of Vienna was the creation by the UN Commission on Human Rights of the Special Rapporteur on Violence against Women. Radhika Coomaraswamy, a lawyer from Sri Lanka, was appointed to this position in June 1994. The concept of a Special Rapporteur on Violence against Women was demanded and obtained (achievement of) by the Latin American and Caribbean women's movement that attended this conference.

Coomaraswamy, whose three-year duty was extended in 1997 until the year 2000, has focused her efforts on obtaining information for the governments, investigating denunciations of human rights violations and recommending measures to put an end to these abuses. From the start, her work was endorsed by the UN Commission on Human Rights, as well as the UN Secretary General, who has requested that all governments collaborate with the Rapporteur and assist in her work.

In her first report to the UN Commission on Human Rights in 1995, Coomaraswamy made her position very clear when she observed that "perhaps the greatest cause of violence against women is government inaction with regard to crimes of violence against women. There appears to be a permissive attitude, a tolerance of perpetrators of violence against women... As a result, in most societies crimes of violence against women are invisible... In the context of norms recently established by the international community, a State that does not act against crimes of violence against women is as guilty as the perpetrators. States are under a positive duty to prevent, investigate and punish crimes associated with violence against women."

During 1996 and 1997, Radhika Coomaraswamy visited Eastern Europe, Asia and Africa, as well as some countries in Latin America and the Caribbean gathering information on situations of domestic violence, violence against migrant workers, trafficking in women and violence against women refugees. In this effort, she visited Brazil at the government's invitation. It should also be mentioned that Coomaraswamy's 1997 report focused on the issue of trafficking in women and forced labor, and was particularly sensitive to the human rights organizations and to the women's movement of our region. (In a separate section, we highlight some aspects of this document,)

In 1998, Coomaraswamy will dedicate her efforts to violence perpetrated or tolerated by the State: the situation in prisons and psychiatric institutions and the use of torture. Since poverty has been defined as economic violence against women, the Special Rapporteur will also include the situation of poverty in which thousands of women live due to the structural adjustment programs. Coomaraswamy has issued a special call for assistance to all women's organizations and NGOs of the region to aid in her efforts by submitting information on these issues.

The importance of this kind of monitoring and surveillance brings certain little-known or hidden situations to light. Such is the case of women migrants working in domestic service, an issue addressed in the Rapporteur's 1996 report. According to Coomaraswamy, the problem of violence in this sector is increasingly severe. She blames the silence surrounding the violence against these workers on the lack of documentation on this type of violence, on the economic benefits of migrant labor, and on the nations of origin as well as those of destination who are unwilling to admit their responsibility for these women. This situation is compounded by women’s isolation from their own communities and families, as well as the different forms of sexism, racism and classism that they must endure, which also worsen their situation.

One of a KindTop of Page

In terms of legislature, one important gain for women of the region after the Conference of Vienna is the Inter-American Convention on the the Prevention, Punishment and Eradication of Violence Against Women, also called the Convention of Belém do Pará because it was in this Brazilian State this Convention was unanimously sanctioned by the OAS. Approved in June 1994, this legal mechanism is one of a kind.

According to Argentine lawyer Susana Chiarotti, several aspects make this Convention "an exceptionally important instrument for working not only for the elimination of violence but also for the eradication of discrimination against women." Chiarotti, currently the coordinator of the Comité de América Latina y el Caribe para la Defensa de los Derechos de las Mujeres (CLADEM, Latin American and Caribbean Committee for the Defense of Women's Rights), explains that one of the Convention’s most significant aspects is that puts forth "the right of every woman to be free from all forms of discrimination and the right of women to be valued and educated free of stereotyped patterns of behavior and social and cultural practices based on concepts of inferiority or subordination." (Art. 6). A second meaningful aspect of the Convention is that it refers to State responsibility for acts of violence committed against women, either directly by agents of the State or indirectly by individuals, and not only for actions, but also for failing to take action.

The third and final element that Chiarotti indicates is the possibility of organizations and individuals to take their complaints of actions or omissions violating this Convention directly to the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights. This means that a women's organization or even a single woman can denounce the shortcomings and discrimination in existing laws and how they are applied. At this time, a total of 23 countries in the region have signed and ratified the Convention, which, according to lawyer and human rights activist Rhonda Copelon, is the "first treaty in the world that recognizes the right of women to live without violence and that creates international mechanisms to denounce the States’ failure to prevent, punish and eradicate gender-based violence."

Another equally important gain after Vienna is the proposal for an Optional Protocol to the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms Violence Against Women. This protocol is a mechanism for denouncing the failure to meet the obligations detailed in the Convention. This legal instrument is currently being discussed by a special commission named by the UN Commission on the Status of Women.

In sum, Vienna has made possible a number of important legislative changes and has given NGOs and women's organizations strategic instruments for taking action.

Source: Isis International Documentation and Information Center E-mail: isis@reuna.cl

Trafficking in Women: A Regional RealityTop of Page

Trafficking of women includes any act in which women are recruited or transported as workers or service providers within or across national boundaries by means of violence or threat of violence, abuse of authority or dominant position, debt peonage, trickery or other forms of coercion.

Trafficked women are, on average, between the ages of 18 and 45. However, some studies reveal that in Latin America these women are older, between 30 and 45 years of age, and have children.

Afro-Caribbean and Latin American women work in jobs which are the most poorly paid. Light-skinned black or Latin women are preferred to women with dark skin.

Women who are trafficked travel on a tourist or work visa. Some return to their country of origin after the visa expires, but others remain illegally or travel to other countries.

According to a survey by the Centro de Orientación e Investigación Integral (COIN, Comprehensive Research and Guidance Center) in the Dominican Republic, 19% of these women are recruited by traffickers and operational networks.

In 1991, some one thousand Peruvian women were taken to the Netherlands through pseudo-adoptions. The victims entered the country legally, but their "fathers" could force them to accept abusive working conditions.

It is estimated that nearly 50,000 Dominican women are working as prostitutes in the Netherlands and Germany.

According to recent calculations, close to 3,000 Mexican women have been recruited by Japanese trafficking networks and remain as prostitutes in this country.

Source:Latin American and Caribbean Regional Report on the Trafficking of Women and Forced Labor prepared for the Special Rapporteur on Violence Against Women by Yamila Azize (Puerto Rico) and Kamala Kempadoo (USA).


UNDP Against Violence Home Page

For more information, please contact Aparna Mehrotra, Focal Point for Women, Tel: (212)963-6828 Fax: (212) 963-9545, e-mail: mehrotra@un.org

Management and direction: Aparna Mehrotra
Website  design
: Lola Salas
Writing, editing& proofing: Aparna Mehrotra, Dana Burde, Rini Banerjee and Tanaz Pardiwala
Graphic: Joan Miró
(detail) from folder by Isis International