Promoting parity in International Tribunals and monitoring bodies twenty years after Beijing

by Viviana Krsticevic, Executive Director for the Center for Justice and International Law
Thursday, 17 September 2015 15:11 GMT

* Any views expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author and not of Thomson Reuters Foundation.

On September 1995, Governments from across the globe expressed their commitment in Beijing, China to ensure the full and equal participation of women in accessing power and decision-making processes to build a better world for all through the Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action.

Twenty years later, however, women are underrepresented in International Tribunals and monitoring bodies that make critical decisions on issues of war and peace, commerce, international borders, migration, genocide and human rights. For example, only 4 out of 106 judges in the 70 year history of the International Court of Justice, also known as the World Court, have been women. Additionally, 19 out of a total of 52 United Nations Human Rights Council’s Special Procedures mechanisms—which includes Rapporteurs and Independent Experts charged with examining, monitoring, advising, and publicly reporting on human rights issues—have never been led by a woman. As two final examples, the Inter-American Court of Human Rights (I-A Court) currently has no women serving on the bench; and only 6.5 percent of commercial arbitrations involve women.

International Tribunals and monitoring bodies are the backbone of the efforts to shape a better world for all. They frequently find themselves at a powerful intersection of current affairs and outcomes that can possibly shape the future of humanity. However, the scarcity of women within international tribunals and monitoring bodies fails to tap into the diverse background and experiences many of them can bring to the table. Moreover, their absence erodes the legitimacy and impact of these entities.

Furthermore, on the month of the 20th anniversary of the Beijing Declaration, two questions necessarily linger in the wake of these disparities: Can International Tribunals and monitoring bodies make just decisions for all if women are underrepresented? And can women’s rights be adequately protected by these bodies?

Making parity real 

The dearth of women in international human rights bodies and tribunals weakens these institutions. Even if they advocate for equality, underrepresentation creates an appearance that they can’t walk the walk. The lack or dearth of women limits the reach of certain discussions within these bodies, diminishes their authority and consequently, their potential. 

While we can’t really say any woman chosen to serve a term within a tribunal will directly impact the outcome of a decision, we can agree that factors like life experiences, gender and race are important to spark healthy debates that enrich the conversation and reinforce the legitimacy of these decisions.

So how can parity for international tribunals and monitoring bodies become a reality? In order to seriously pursue equality, one viable strategy points to working to overhaul the nomination and selection processes of tribunals and bodies. 

In most cases, governments are responsible for nominating and voting for candidates, as well as for ensuring the equality and active participation of women to these entities. Curiously enough, these commitments don’t seem to permeate key aspects of State policies that deal with international tribunals and monitoring bodies. For example, only one female candidate was nominated to the four available positions at the I-A Court, a regional tribunal which makes decisions on serious human rights violations in the Americas, even though it’s currently composed exclusively by men. In June 2015, this candidate was successfully elected to the position and will begin serving her term in 2016. 

The emphasis on fixing nominations and voting processes is not meant to encompass or address all aspects of exclusion. However, it serves as an important leverage.  Moreover, given these disparities, hundreds of prominent women and men worldwide, including state representatives, practitioners, humanitarians, judges, among others, are beginning to establish an advocacy roadmap to address this challenge. Increasing awareness about the lack of gender parity in international human rights monitoring bodies and tribunals is one step along this journey. They are also mobilizing to urge States to make pledges to nominate and vote in parity, and promote the development and implementation of selection guidelines, mechanisms, or policies that guarantee gender parity across international tribunals and bodies. With energy and creativity, they are building a sustainable collaborative global effort committed to equality, justice and women’s rights. 

In the spirit of walking the path laid out by the Platform for Action two decades ago, we hope to contribute to significantly change the landscape for women. Adequate representation in International Tribunals and bodies is a corollary of the commitment to women’s empowerment and their full participation on the basis of equality in all spheres of society. It will bring women to a critical space for contributing to equality, development and peace. Certainly, equal access of women to international tribunals and bodies is a small act with global impact. 

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