Do the right thing, Tunisia

A bit of good news, potentially (though it could be just window dressing, or good intentions, or doomed): Tunisia “has become the first country in the region to withdraw all its specific reservations regarding Cedaw – the international convention on the elimination of all forms of discrimination against women.”

This is an important step, Brian Whitaker continues.

It reverses a long-standing abuse of human rights treaties – especially in the Middle East – where repressive regimes sign up to these treaties for purposes of international respectability but then excuse themselves from some or all of their obligations.

Saudi Arabia, for example, operates the world’s most blatant and institutionalised system of discrimination against women – and yet, along with 17 other Arab states, it is also a party to Cedaw. It attempts to reconcile this position through reservations saying it does not consider itself bound by any part of the treaty which conflicts “with the norms of Islamic law”.

In effect, the Saudi government claims the right to ignore any part of Cedaw it doesn’t like.

Seriously crappy and infuriating thing to do – sign something agreeing to protect equal rights for the sake of the prestige while intending to let equal rights go to hell. It’s much like the pope and the Vatican talking impressive bullshit about their compassion and their deep anguish for everyone who has suffered from yak yak yak while in fact protecting the very people who cause the suffering. It’s much like a lot of things – impressive bullshit out front and brutal self-interested cruelty and indifference behind the scenes.

The point of international conventions such as Cedaw, though, is that they take precedence over local laws. Countries that sign up to them are expected to amend their local laws in order to comply with international standards, not exempt themselves from selected parts of the convention.

If you’re going to exempt yourself, don’t sign up. If you’re going to sign up, don’t exempt yourself.  Fair’s fair.

Tunisia hasn’t gone all the way though. You know what’s coming next…

One possible hiccup is that the government has retained one general reservation which says Tunisia will not take any legislative action which conflicts with Chapter 1 of the constitution. Chapter 1 includes a statement that the country’s religion is Islam – which could lead to some Sharia-based arguments for keeping the law unchanged – but Human Rights Watch suggests this is unlikely. Until now, Tunisia has not used Chapter 1 as an excuse for maintaining laws or practices that violate Cedaw.

Here’s hoping.

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