"Women's rights are human rights and human rights are women's rights." This was the theme set by Hillary Clinton at the United Nations Fourth World Conference on Women held in Beijing, China in September. It has been estimated that there were between 35,000 and 50,000 persons, mainly women, at the confer ence, making it by far the largest gathering of women in history. While there were less than 300 organizations represented at the last women's confer ence held in Nairobi in 1985, there were over 3,000 organizations represented in China.
At the China Conference, I represented the Association International de Droit Penal (AIDP), the International Association of Penal Law. The workshop which I gave was on rape as a war crime, and the necessity of establishing tribunals to punish those who commit atrocities, especially during wartime. Currently, there are two courts which have been established by the Security Council of the United Nations, one for punishing crimes committed in the former Yugoslavia and a second one to punish the genocide which has occurred in Rwanda. The ongoing work now is towards establishing a permanent treaty-based Interna tional Criminal Court which would have ties with the United Nations. AIDP members and leadership have been key to the establishment of the Ad Hoc Tribu nals mentioned. The tribunal to punish atrocities committed in the former Yugoslavia is currently set to begin its first trials. The ad hoc tribunal in Kigali is also being organized, although the ongoing unrest and refugee situation in Rwanda makes the situation there tense and difficult.
Currently, the AIDP is working with many other groups including Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, the Womens International League for Peace and Freedom, Parliamentarians for Global Action and many other groups, including United Nations organizations, towards establishing a treaty-based International Criminal Court. The treaty will be based upon the draft statute compiled by the International Law Commission of the United Nations.
My work involves assisting in the writing of the elements of the crimes which have been included by the United Nations in the various War Crimes Tribunals and in the Draft for an Interna tional Criminal Court, and helping to set criminal law standards for a criminal code for these courts. For example, those statutes make violations of the Grave Breaches of the Geneva Conventions a crime. Those crimes include torture as well as inhuman treatment, which need to have definitions and standards for criminal prosecution.
The theme of my workshop was that the crime of rape in many if not most circumstances in war violates the Grave Breaches found in the Geneva Conventions. The crime of rape, particularly aggravated rape, constitutes torture or inhuman treatment. The Chief Prosecutor of the Yugoslavian War Crimes Tribunal, Richard Goldstone, agrees with this. It was the purpose of my workshop to discuss this thesis with other scholars and lawyers at the conference. (I am also the Chair of an American Bar Association group [part of a task force] doing much the same work.) Attending my workshop were a group of German women lawyers from the Deutscher Juristinnenbund. They carried with them a resolution on the prosecution of the Mass rapes in the former Yugoslavia. Their goal was to amend the Geneva Conventions so as to explicitly list rape among the grave breaches subject to universal jurisdiction and to mobilize women to support this amendment. Amending these old and venerable human rights conventions is a major undertaking.
There were also two representatives from the International Red Cross. Their goal was to insist that the platform of action written at the Fourth World Conference include rape as a war crime. People attending my workshop parted determined to raise consciousness and find a way to make rape a war crime punishable under international standards. The platform, as it ended up, did include a provision that "the systematic rape of women in wartime is a war crime and, like other war crimes, must be subject to punishment by an international tribunal." This was both a win and a loss. It was a win in that it focused attention on establishing tribunals to punish war criminals and recognized that rape is a war crime. It was a loss in that the wording included the word "systematic", which may be difficult to prove and which makes the designation of that crime dependent upon whether there are enough rapes to consider the commission of a particular rape "systematic."
During the conference I met with four members of the AIDP who are law professors and affiliated with the China Law Society in China. Yu Shutong, Senior Adviser to the China Law Society, is also a vice-president of the international AIDP, and he arranged the meeting in Beijing. The China Law Society is a very large group consisting of lawyers. It has ties with the American Bar Association. Law is taught as an undergraduate major in China, as it is in many countries in the world. Students beginning law studies are young. Since these four professors all taught criminal law we enjoyed an afternoon drinking tea and discussing current topics. Hillary Clinton had chastised the Chinese the day before during the beginning of the official governmental conference, about the abuse of human rights involving women. Notably, she discussed the methods of population control and the plight of unwanted baby girls. The Chinese English-language newspaper had responded in typical Chinese fashion by carrying almost nothing about the speech. My hosts, likewise, made only the most passing reference to her talk.
At the Governmental Conference in Beijing, I was an official observer from the AIDP. The Non-Governmental Organizations (NGO's) hold their own conference which is parallel to the official governmental conference. I was a delegate from my organization to that NGO Conference. It was held in Huairou, a resort town about 30 miles from Beijing. Originally, I had planned to attend the conference with a friend, but she was unable to obtain her visa. There were many thousands of women who wanted to attend the Conference but who were unable to obtain visas. At the last moment, when I had my Visa and my friend did not, I switched my travel plans to go with a group.
My roommate who I met there was Parvin Darabi, an American citizen, an engineer, who had grown up in Iran of Iranian parents. She has written a book about her sister and about modern day Iran [to be published next year] and has now dedicated herself to the eradication of discrimination against women.
There were a lot of Iranians at the Conference. One group was composed of dissidents and refugees from around the world who had been imprisoned, raped, and tortured for opposing the repressive regime in Iran, before leaving Iran. They, along with Parvin, were there to make certain that the platform continued the theme, begun in Vienna, that women were entitled to equal rights with men. A second group was the official Iranian women delegates who were there to support a change in the platform which would change the word "equal" to "equity". They believe that human rights are not equal between men and women, but that women have different rights. The universality of human rights was a critical issue at the conference. My belief is that the human rights of women are not to be subjected to cultural peculiarities. Although, usually, the theme of a Conference such as this United Nations Conference is to extend rights, there was considerable pressure at this particular Conference to limit rights which had been earlier declared.
There were certain groups there to insist that the term equality not be used in relation to women. The platform coming out of the Conference, however, maintained the belief in equality, recognizing that human rights are the birth right of all human beings. The declaration condemned repressive government practices which result in human rights abuses and discrimination against women in Iran. Women there are subjected to certain strict dress codes which include covering the hair and body. They are not allowed to wear make-up or to go to social events at which men are present. Early marriage is common. Women cannot be judges.
This is in part what Parvin wrote about her only sister, Dr. Homa Darabi, an American citizen and child psychiatrist who killed herself by self-immolation in the square in Iran:
Homa was born, two months premature, to Eshrat Dastyar, a child bride, married at 13 to a man twenty years her senior Following the completion of her studies at the University of Tehran, Dr. Darabi came to the United States to further her education in Pediatrics. She later specialized in Psychiatry and then in Child Psychiatry and was licensed to practice medicine in New Jersey, New York and California. She became a naturalized citizen of the United States in mid 1970'sShe returned to Iran in 1976 and was appointed as a professor at the university of Tehran School of Medicine. She was the first Iranian who was able to pass the board in Child Psychiatry in U.S. and was the one who established the Psychiatric Clinic of Shahid Sahami in TehranIn 1990, she was fired from her position as a professor at the School of Medicine at Tehran University due to her non-compliance to the Islamic rules of hijab (Covering up of Women). She was later harassed in her practice for the same reason. She finally had to close down her practice and become a housewife for the first time in her life.Among the reasons contributing to Dr. Darabi's death was that she could not leave the country although she wanted to, and her mother and sister both wanted her to, as she could no longer practice her profession or teach at the University. Only a man could sign to allow her to leave the country, and that was not forthcoming.
A month prior to her death, a 16 year old girl was shot to death in Northern Tehran for wearing lipstick. Dr. Darabi could no longer handle the guilt she felt about her favorable involvement in the Iranian Revolution, and the treatment of women in Iran. She protested the oppression of women by setting herself on fire in Northern Tehran, on February 21, 1994. Her last cries were:
Death to Tyranni
Long Live Liberty
Long Live Iran
During the time the conference was going on, the clouds above Huairou tried to drown out the convention. There was a lot of rain and mud. It was as if I were in a James Bond movie peopled by burly Chinese security officials with cellular phones, Iranian women, who were doctors and other professionals sent as official delegates from their government clothed from head to foot in the ubiquitous chadar and this group of active, mostly young Iranian women, speaking together, with Parvin Darabi, in Farsi. There was a third group, of young Iranian women, who defied the convention by wearing the chadar in such a way as to reveal just a tuft of their hair. One such woman gave me a broad wonderful smile as she handed out her literature.
The United States has not ratified the United Nations Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women, and it should do so. One of the outcomes of the Conference was that all participants were asked to urge the ratification of the Convention and urge the elimination of all forms of discrimination against women. Equal rights for women cannot be achieved until discrimination against women is eliminated. The Convention has been signed and implemented by many countries, and it is now time for the United States to give its considerable prestige to this Convention. Also, since the human rights of women have been compromised in so many other countries, that leadership is most important.
The elimination of all forms of violence against women must be de manded. In Lansing, Denise Brown, Nichole Brown's sister, spoke at a fundraiser for the Lansing Council Against Domestic Assault a short while ago. As Professor Steve Sheppard, my daughter Carol, and I were leaving the Lansing Sheraton Hotel, a woman was coming into the hotel, crying, and with blood covering her face and hands and dripping down onto her coat. We turned and went to comfort and assist her. We told her that she was safe and an ambulance and the police were called. She could not believe that she was safe. She had been knocked down and then dragged down the street. The back of her head was covered with thick blood. She cried out, "How could he do this to me if he loved me." As we walked outside we could see her boyfriend who had been arrested by the police. As Hillary Clinton stated: "It is a violation of human rights when a leading cause of death worldwide among women ages 14 to 44 is the violence they are subjected to in their own homes." We can make it stop and we must.
Return to the Index of Synapse 34, Winter Solstice 1995