perspectives on International Law
Harun ur Rashid
In recent years,
there is an interesting debate among academics on whether current international
law reflects women's perspectives. While women scholars find international
law is deficient in this respect, some male academics contest the position
of women authors.
Most of women authors
and scholars have argued that existing international law is male-focused
and fails to take account women's perspectives. They have advanced the
view that for centuries, legal system including international law, has
been shaped, moulded and enforced almost exclusively by men. As a result,
the existing legal system, both domestic and international, remains
insensitive to many concerns of women.
The same group of
women scholars accuses men of formulating international law from their
point of view, ignoring the views of women. They make out a case that
"men's perspectives" are built into the body structure of
international law, ignoring women concerns and this is one of the flaws
found in international law.
Women authors question
that why will international law be immune to female gender perspective?
Law & Women
The central argument is that international law has produced an inadequate
legal system for women in general because of the absence of contribution
of women in its development and codification. It has been further argued
that existing international laws are principally product of men. As
a result, international law has provided principally the male version
If one runs through
the development of international law since the days of Grotius ( 1583-1645),
the father of modern international law, there is hardly any name of
women authors of international law in the standard books on the subject.
As a result, one may reasonably conclude that international law has
been viewed by men writers and not by women.
experts claim three factors for such one-sided development:
(a) processes of formulating international law virtually excluded women,
(b) content of international law is male-centred, and
(c) international law has consistently ignored the concerns of women.
According to them,
since we live in a male-dominated society, hardly the concerns of women
are taken into account in the corpus of international law. Women scholars
believe that patriarchal system (opposed to matriarchal system) is the
cause of absence of formulating international law from women's point
of view. Under patriarchal system, men dominate women and therefore
women's concerns are submerged with men's interests. The same approach
is prevalent in the development of international law.
law affects both men and women. Often it may affect more women than
men. For instance, in refugee or internal displacement situations, women
have to move with their children to safe areas from armed and personal
violence. A glance of TV footage of current Darfur humanitarian crisis
in Sudan demonstrates that refugee camps in the neighbouring state,
Chad, are mostly crowded with women who were victims of "ethnic
cleansing" by Arab Janjaweed militia, allegedly supported
by the Khartoum government.
may be cited when the Taliban regime in Afghanistan perpetrated gross
breaches of human rights on women (a girl over age of nine could not
get out of the house to school during the period), no international
organisations took responsibility for such egregious violations of human
rights of women. Some women scholars argue that no single organisation,
even not the UN, has come forward to assist the oppressed women as each
organisation considered the situation in Afghanistan as "outside
its mandate". They argue that this example demonstrates the deficiency
of international humanitarian law with regard to women's oppression
by an orthodox regime.
A major debate in international law pertains to women in the context
of war and peace. Women are naturally averse to wars, partly because
they are peace loving and partly because motherhood (nurturing and raising
children) and deaths of human beings in wars are opposed to each other.
Some say if women run the states, there would be less wars and inter-states
disputes would be settled peacefully through negotiation and other peaceful
means as contemplated in Article 33 of the UN Charter.
Hilary Charlesworth of Australian National University in her book "
The Boundaries of International law" (2000) explains that
there is a considerable empirical evidence that women are affected by
wars in ways men are not. In her view, rape has become as one of the
spoils of war, designed to humiliate the enemy. Globally, she argues
that women constitute 2% per cent of regular army personnel, but they
suffer most from wars.
the fact that armed conflicts, say Iraqi war, in fact have gendered
effects, that is, wars/armed conflicts affect men and women differently.
However, existing international law does not take into account this
fact and is based on a system on men's lives. There is a palpable absence
of recognition of international law from women's perspectives, she argues.
Another group of
women scholars argue that wars are designed to benefit the defence industries
and the corporate world is run again by men The defence industries receive
billion dollar contracts for producing "killing machines"
( lethal weapons). For example, the Iraqi war has provided a spectacular
boost to the US moribund defence industries and they made billions of
dollars from the Iraqi war. They don't bother the impact of these lethal
weapons on innocent civilians.
The effects of war
are devastating for women. The sufferings of women and children are
immense when they lose their husbands or brothers or sons in a war.
Apart from their deep psychological trauma, if their male relatives
are either seriously wounded or lost their limbs, women have to endure
the suffering caring them throughout their lives. They lose their source
of income and it takes years before women restore their life to an acceptable
There is a view
that men do not hesitate to wage wars to settle scores against each
other. To some men, war is equated with bravery and heroism. Men often
have argued that war is permissible on the basis of "just war"..
Women in general do not subscribe to this hawkish view and believe that
war can never be "just" because it invariably kills human
beings. There are no moral reasons for war.
Very few women have
been elected to head a government in democratic countries. Although
the US is a vibrant democracy, not a single woman has either been elected
or nominated as President from the mainstream parties for more than
200 years of its existence.
As for the UN, not
a single woman has become the Secretary General until today for the
last almost 60 years of its existence. There are many women who are
eminently suitable for the highest position in the UN. They are either
ignored or sidelined by men-politicians. The reasons are not far to
seek for such gross discrimination for women.
Many have argued
that if world affairs would be in charge of women, the world order would
be more caring for the poor and will be more peaceful and harmonious.
Mostly male scholars do not agree with the views argued by women authors
on international law. Professor Tenson says that international law is
a vast field and most of the topics are gender- neutral and argues against
the view that existing international law ignores the concerns of women.
It is not the law itself but the practitioners of law who are at fault
for not doing enough for women, he argues.
It appears that there is merit in the arguments advanced by women authors
that the existing norms of international law, in particular laws of
war, refugees, migrants and displaced persons, have not adequately reflected
the interest of women.
It is argued that
the inadequacy can be rectified by incorporating women in the 34-member
of the UN International Law Commission, which is entrusted by the UN
Charter to "undertake progressive development of international
law and its codification".
Law is dynamic and
is never static. The same applies to international law and it is necessary
to seriously consider in what ways the existing international law can
become "user friendly" to women.
is a former Bangladesh Ambassador to the UN, Geneva.