The Virtuous Spiral of Human Rights Treaties: CAPE’s International Human Rights Advocacy Seminar
Most aspiring human rights advocates would have, at one point or another, thought to themselves: “I want to join the United Nations and make the world a better place!” Yet, how exactly does one make a difference through the UN or international law?
On 6 March 2018, an audience of over 40 students and members of the public were treated to a sharing by some people who have done exactly that. Two staff from AWARE Singapore (Association of Women for Advocacy & Research) joined us at Yale-NUS College to share their experiences with the recent review of Singapore’s 5th periodic report on her obligations to the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) in October 2017. The Singapore government ratified CEDAW in 1995 and this means that it needs to submit progress reports once every four years to the CEDAW Committee.
Organised by CAPE, this event was organised as part of the Political Processes series which also comprises Parliament 101 with MP Louis Ng. CAPE stands for the Community for Advocacy and Political Education, and aims to increase political literacy and encourage civil participation among young people and citizens.
Prior to AWARE’s sharing, some of our members from CAPE also briefly discussed the concepts of human rights, treaties and Singapore’s approach to international law in line with CAPE’s political education goals to raise awareness on how different political processes work. We also wanted to make sure everyone in the audience had a basic understanding of how the international human rights treaty process works before learning about CEDAW as a case study. (If you missed this and want to find out more, we have put together this material into a handy booklet, which you can access here!)
Jolene Tan, who previously headed AWARE’s Advocacy team and participated in the CEDAW review process, then took the stage. She first shared briefly about the three key principles of CEDAW, which can find out about in more detail by clicking on them: (1) Substantive equality; (2) Non-discrimination; and (3) State obligation. She explained that in essence, CEDAW represents the radical defintion of feminism that women are human too.
She then talked about the CEDAW review process, which was described as a “virtuous spiral”. Essentially, the government should work towards improving the state of gender equality after each review in the follow-up over the four years before the next periodic report is due.
Jolene emphasised the role of non-state actors in this review process, noting how civil society and citizens are invited and strongly encouraged to participate in this process. This can be at the second stage, where non-state actors may share with the CEDAW committee what the list of issues should comprise and at the fourth stage in engaging in dialogue with the state party delegation.
She responded to a common criticism that some Singaporeans have levelled against NGOs and civil society activists: “Why do you want to wash your dirty linen in public and complain about the Singapore Government to outsiders?” She explained that if Singapore was not willing to be assessed on her human rights record, then the Government should not have ratified these treaties and put itself in the position in the first place. Since the government has decided to do so, the right thing to do then is to take the process seriously and participate in it.
Interestingly, Jolene noted that NGOs are given a total of 10 minutes to present to the CEDAW Committee while the state delegation has an entire day (around 8 hours) to engage the Committee in the constructive dialogue. This is all done in the same week that the particular country is reviewed. On Monday of that week, all the NGOS of that country will be given 10 minutes to make an oral statement to the CEDAW Committee on the treatment of women in the country.
Subsequently, on Tuesday, the NGOs are given another chance to speak with the CEDAW Committee during an NGO lunch briefing. She explained that this is usually to provide a more private space for NGOs to speak with the Committee members in a more confidential setting; this is especially important for human rights activists who may face retaliation back home.
Of note in the 2017 CEDAW review is the submission of a joint report by 13 different organisations. This was based on lessons from the 2011 experience, where NGOs realised the need for coalition and a more united front in participating in this process. The different NGOs also worked together to divide the time for the oral statement to ensure that different groups had a chance to voice their concerns and represent their stakeholders.
These efforts are aimed at ensuring that the particular issues of concern are raised at the constructive dialogue with the state delegation. This is because only issues raised at the dialogue will be addressed in the Concluding Observations, along with the recommendations. These are essential for NGOs to employ in subsequent years to advocate for those recommendations to be implemented.
Something that struck Jolene during the constructive dialogue was how everyone applauded after the representative from Project X, a group which advocated for the rights and welfare of sex workers, spoke. Jolene added that this is another important role that CEDAW plays: where else would there be a public forum where Singapore Government officials will be made to listen to and take seriously the concerns of minorities and marginalised groups like transgender sex workers and lesbian, bisexual, queer and transgender (LBTQ) women? It literally gives a voice and amplifies that voice which would otherwise be silenced.
Jolene made two other interesting observations: 1) Of those states that were reviewed in that week, Singapore was the only one asked by the CEDAW Committee about the involvement of NGOs and civil society in the preparation of the state’s report. 2) An entire section in the Concluding Observations focused on the treatment of LBTQ women and intersex persons, something quite unprecedented in CEDAW’s history.
The effectiveness of treaty processes
On the impact that CEDAW has made to improving the state of gender equality in Singapore, Jolene noted that while there is no real enforcement mechanism to force the government to adhere to the recommendations of the CEDAW Committee or to abide by its treaty obligations, the Singapore Government does seem to care about its treaty obligations.
For instance, since ratifying CEDAW, there have been some meaningful developments such as the change in citizenship laws. Previously, a child who was born overseas could acquire Singapore citizenship by descent only if their father was a Singaporean; this has since been amended to mothers as well.
Similarly, the Government abolished the medical school quota in 2004, a matter which was heavily criticised at CEDAW reviews about 10 years (or two reviews) after it ratified CEDAW. (It was shocking to some students to hear that it was only about 15 years ago that Singapore placed a quota on the number of women admitted to NUS Medicine.) While the Government has never expressly admitted that it has made these changes because of CEDAW or civil society advocacy, it is nonetheless clear that the work of advocacy groups like AWARE have clearly applied pressure on the Government to make these changes.
What we can do
Jolene ended with some suggestions on how young people and ordinary citizens can participate in the advocacy process.
- Familiarise ourselves with treaties that Singapore is a party to, and treaties that Singapore ought to be a party to (but have yet to ratify). Read the Concluding Observations for concrete steps that the State can do. You can check out the 2017 CEDAW Review’s Concluding Observations here.
- Assess laws, policies and programmes according to treaty standards and reflect on whether Singapore is adhering to international human rights standards.
- Write in and speak up on things that Singapore is supposed to do, but has yet to. Apart from participating in human rights treaty reviews, we can also take part in public consultations on legislative and policy changes. Jolene noted some upcoming opportunities for participating in treaty reviews as the review timelines for the Convention on the Rights of the Child and the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities are coming up. In addition, Singapore recently also ratified the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination (ICERD) in November 2017.
Interested to find out more?
If you’re interested to learn more about international human rights advocacy, check out our handy booklet on the treaty process, where you can also read our interviews with other human rights activists from Project X and HOME (Humanitarian Organisation for Migration Economics). Click here to access our booklet.
This event was organised as part of CAPE’s Political Processes series. We have two upcoming events from this series:
Daryl Yang is a founding member of CAPE. He co-founded and served as Executive Director of the Inter-University LGBT Network, a network constituted of five student-led organisations with the aim to foster safer and more inclusive campuses, and was previously Coordinator of The G Spot, Yale-NUS’s gender & sexuality alliance. He is a fourth year student reading a double degree in law and liberal arts at Yale-NUS College and the Faculty of Law at the National University of Singapore.