UN Commission on Human Rights
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UN Commission on Human Rights
Statement by H.E. the
Federal Minister for Foreign Affairs
of the Republic of Austria
Ms. Benita Ferrero-Waldner
Geneva, March 16, 2004
The issue of violence against women has been very close to my heart throughout my work as the first woman State Secretary for Foreign Affairs and then the first woman Foreign Minister of Austria. I therefore welcome wholeheartedly the initiative to place this issue prominently before us at the Commission on Human Rights today. I am confident that this debate can make its contribution to improve the lives of those many women who are threatened in their human rights and in their human security. I would like to highlight the following ten points, which I believe are essential in this regard.
- · First, Gender-based violence is, as Secretary General Kofi Annan rightly put it, perhaps the most shameful human rights violation. As long as it continues, we cannot claim to be making real progress towards equality, development and peace. It is our responsibility to strengthen, but in particular to effectively implement, the standards which protect women from such violence. These standards are not only contained in the relevant international or regional treaties but also in other instruments, like the Guiding Principles on Internal Displacement or Security Council Resolution 1325 (2000).
Second, it is a sad fact that women suffer domestic violence in everyday life on all continents, in all cultures and in all segments of society. One in four women in Europe falls victim of domestic violence. On an almost daily basis, we are confronted with reports about the tragic results of acts of domestic violence while most of these acts still remain in the dark. In Austria, we have taken a number of far-reaching steps to counter this heinous phenomenon. We have realized that it is crucial to approach victims directly in order to break the vicious cycle of violence and silence. For this purpose, we have put into force a federal law on protection from violence in 1997. Under this law, we have established "family intervention centres": upon information from police or doctors these multi-disciplinary centres get in touch directly with victims who might not dare to contact the authorities themselves. Victims then receive assistance through personal crisis plans. Abusive husbands or partners can be barred from their homes until a battered woman is able to either move into a women’s shelter or initiate legal proceedings against her abuser. In Austria, it is the abuser who has to leave the house, and not the victim. I believe that setting up specific institutions at regional, national and local levels to protect women in need, to give them shelter, but also counsel and medical attention, is a successful model.
Austria would be more than happy to share our experience with other countries and in a number of partner countries we are already helping setting up similar institutions, like a centre in Kosovo for legal counsel and psychological care for women and children who have fallen victims to domestic violence or who are traumatized.
Third, knowing ones rights is the first step in removing injustices and discrimination. Here I would like to draw attention to the importance of human rights education, a longstanding priority of Austria’s human rights policy. This commitment prompted me as Chair of the Human Security Network to initiate a manual on human rights, called "Understanding Human Rights", which also includes a specific module on the human rights of women. I now reiterate my request and offer to all relevant international organisations, governments and non-governmental organisations to put this manual into practical use. We need to educate men and women alike about women’s rights. It is important to train, for example, military and civilian personnel to know and to respect the human rights of women, but also to be better able to help them. In Austria, for example, sensitising police officers to the problem of violence against women has become an integral part of their basic training. Of equal importance is the training of women themselves, so that they are more aware of their rights and better able to defend themselves. I have learned with great interest of the proposal for a Convention on Human Rights Education. Such a Convention could indeed contribute to make human rights education a concrete reality worldwide. I personally would support it.
Fourth: Sometimes human rights are only seen as one set of ethical or moral values with other values having equal or even higher relevance. Let me simply point out that no State can hide behind the notion of traditional practices when it comes to guaranteeing the respect for and the protection of human rights and fundamental freedoms. I do understand, that standing up against harmful practices often requires courage and I welcome wholeheartedly the efforts undertaken by African women to fight the practice of Female Genital Mutilation and the respective initiatives led by the First Ladies of the African States. In Austria, we take these issues very seriously. Female Genital Mutilation is always considered a crime under Austrian law, even if the victim agrees with the procedure. In addition, gender-specific violence and persecution is implicitly recognized as reason for being granted asylum in Austria.
Fifth: Women and justice is an equally sensitive issue. I have personally initiated actions among female foreign ministers at the margins of the General Assembly to draw attention to specific cases of women who were sentenced to death by stoning after bearing a child outside marriage. This particularly cruel form of execution cannot be justified under any circumstances. It was a happy day not only for me but I am sure for everyone here when the case of Amina Lawal came to a positive end with her release. In this context, let me emphasise that in a declaration adopted last November in Vienna at an international symposium on the occasion of the 10th anniversary of the Vienna World Conference specific recommendations were made to support the independence, impartiality, competence and integrity of judges, recommendations which are also of importance when it comes to dealing with women before the courts.
Sixth: It is a truism that women and girls are particularly affected by the consequences of armed conflict and terrorism because of their status in society as well as their sex. During conflict, many women become the only bread-winners for their families, single parents, and sole carers for the injured, elderly and children. Often forced to leave their homes, property and community behind, women become particularly vulnerable to violence, disease and food scarcity. Women and children make up the vast majority of refugees and of the more than 25 million internally displaced. In times of transition from conflict to democracy, the human rights of women are often threatened, too. The problems for women usually don’t end with the end of hostilities: daily violence and discrimination restrict their security and scope of action in the creation of a new and democratic society. Denying or even rolling back these rights to appease political, ethnic or religious factions can never provide the basis for a stable society.
Seventh: Systematic rape has been used as a weapon in many conflicts over the ages. Austria, together with her EU partners, strongly supports the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court under which the persecution of women and girls, their systematic rape and other acts of sexual violence may constitute crimes against humanity. As Chair of the Human Security Network a year ago I have ensured that the particular vulnerability of women and girls is highlighted in the "Support Strategy for Children Affected by Armed Conflict", adopted by the ministers of the Network at their meeting last May in Graz.
Eighth: Following the landmark adoption of Security Council resolution 1325 on women, peace and security, the Secretary General recommended stronger measures to integrate women in all steps of peace-keeping, peace-making and peace-building. Yet, being present at the peace table alone is insufficient. What needs to be ensured is women’s effective participation in all aspects of post-conflict reconstruction and institution-building, in short, in the entire process of building a democratic and prosperous state, from political level all the way down to the grass roots’ level.
Ninth: I would like to commend the UN-agencies for the work they are carrying out together with national and international NGOs in post-conflict situations like Afghanistan. I have insisted that the largest share of Austria’s contribution for this country’s reconstruction is earmarked for the women of Afghanistan. Numerous studies have taught us that no tool for development is more effective than the education of girls and the empowerment of women. No other policy is as likely to raise economic productivity, to lower infant and maternal mortality, or to improve nutrition and health, including through the prevention of HIV/AIDS. When women are fully involved, the benefits can be seen immediately: families are healthier; they are better fed; their income, savings, and reinvestment goes up. We are therefore called upon to strengthen the participation of women in the political and economic processes of our societies. The secret of undermining women’s exclusion is to demonstrate the qualifications and successes of women in key positions.
Tenth: there is another growing problem we witness today: the trafficking of human beings, many of them women and girls who end up in prostitution or as cheap labour. Austria has been actively committed to combating trafficking in women nationally and internationally and to provide support for the victims. In a special protection facility in Austria, victims receive advice on health and legal matters. Austria also supports other countries to deal with the problem and has contributed to establishing women’s shelters and counselling centres in a number of partner countries. One example is a shelter in Belgrade for women who have been trafficked. An important tool in the fight against trafficking is the recent Protocol to the UN Convention on Transnational Organised Crime. I hereby call upon all governments to sign and ratify this important instrument.
In closing, I believe we have to continue this debate in as many fora as possible. Also during this session of the Commission, we should make it an issue in all relevant resolutions. We will do so in the three resolutions introduced by Austria this year, on internally displaced persons, on minorities and on juvenile justice. The issue of violence against women should no longer be taboo. We need to bring it into the limelight of public attention in order to win the fight.