by Ms. Gladys Acosta Vargas, Chairperson, Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW Committee)
I would like to begin by saying that I feel honoured to be here with you today at this opening. It is a good moment to express my admiration for Shanthi Dairiam, a great friend of mine. She has been a mentor to me. She has also been a member of the CEDAW Committee. Her wisdom has always been appreciated by the global women’s human rights movement.
Thank you, Shanthi, for continuing to fight for women’s and girls’ rights.
Let me highlight the importance of tribunals of conscience as part of our activism in favour of women’s human rights.
I was involved in 1993 in the organisation of the first Tribunal on violence against women (VAW) to influence the [Second] UN World Conference on Human Rights in Vienna. All the UN delegates were highly impressed by the testimonies presented by the Tribunal and, finally, one of the main issues adopted was the recognition of violence against women as a human rights violation, in opposition to those who said that VAW was a private issue out of the hands of the State.
We always need to hear the voices of women on critical issues that affect their lives. To understand the suffering behind the violation of human rights of women and girls, we need to open spaces. All the judges in the Vienna Tribunal presented arguments on the basis of human rights international law. CEDAW was a central Treaty on these developments.
Social consciousness is, in my opinion, the first step to confronting all forms of discrimination against women, including gender violence, which is the most pervasive and grave form of discrimination in the lives of women and girls. More than ever, we need gender justice. We need international law recognised at the national level, not only formally but in practice.
A critical analysis of the judicial system functioning is a key element for advancing gender justice. This Tribunal will express the frustration that women live when their complaints are not heard by the judicial system. This is part of the institutional violence against women and girls. All of the CEDAW’s States Parties should take into account [the CEDAW Committee’s] General Recommendation 33 on access to justice, under articles 1 and 2.
As UN Women has said, unhindered access to justice for women is a critical pathway for the achievement of gender equality. Justice ensures the protection of economic assets, bodily integrity, and political voice; and provides redress when such protections are violated or compromised. Respect for and protection of human rights can only be guaranteed if effective domestic remedies are available. Legal rights are meaningful only if they can be asserted. Access to justice is therefore an essential component of the rule of law, and a means for women to actively claim the entire range of human rights, including those articulated in the CEDAW Convention.
General Recommendation 33 is founded on notions of inclusiveness and comprehensiveness. It stresses the importance of women’s access to justice in diverse legal systems and all areas of law for all women, irrespective of economic or social status, political or cultural background, geographical location, disability, sexual orientation, or gender identity. It encompasses all justice settings (formal, informal, or semi-formal), sources of law (common law, civil law, religious law, customary law, or mixed legal systems), and the full range of legal domains (criminal, civil, family, administrative, and constitutional).
To access this justice for all women and girls, we need concrete forms of activism, like this Tribunal. All the rights of women and girls are included in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights but we need to take action at the national level to promote substantial changes in judicial systems. We need to give the example of how to do it.
I would like to thank all your efforts to put under the eyes of the public, the scope of women’s human rights violations in all spheres of social life. Now we are in front of more serious violations in the middle of the COVID-19 pandemic. More violence, more isolation, more abuses, more exploitation. It is important to understand that structural discrimination produces individual damages in women, and affects their families and communities too.
This Tribunal will allow us to access the truth, acknowledge and condemn human rights violations, and develop public awareness. It will also foster solidarity in front of oppressive paradigms and, most importantly, the Tribunal will advocate for immediate and substantive change.
On behalf of the CEDAW Committee, allow me to declare open this Tribunal of Conscience in Malaysia.