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October 31, 2004

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Women's perspectives on International Law

Barrister 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?

International 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 of law.

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.

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.

International 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.

Another instance 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.

War & Women
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.

Professor 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.

Charlesworth underscores 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 existence.

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.

Some Dissenting Views
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.

Author is a former Bangladesh Ambassador to the UN, Geneva.



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