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I. Introduction

“Women’s rights are human rights.” The failure of the United Nations human rights system to address adequately the concerns of women became a rallying point at the 1993 World Conference on Human Rights (Vienna Conference). For the first time ever, the international community openly acknowledged that the body of international laws and mechanisms established to promote and protect human rights had not properly taken into account the concerns of over half the world’s population. In the final document of the Vienna Conference, states formally recognized the human rights of women to be “an inalienable, integral and indivisible part of universal human rights.” 1 They further demanded that “the equal status of [End Page 283] women and the human rights of women . . . be integrated into the mainstream of United Nations system-wide activity” 2 and “form an integral part of the United Nations human rights activities.” 3 These calls were repeated, in stronger terms and in greater detail, some two years later at the 1995 Fourth World Conference on Women (Beijing Conference). 4

While the Vienna Conference may be considered a landmark in terms of public recognition of the existence of a problem, concern over the place of women’s human rights within the wider system has been expressed from many quarters for many years. 5 Some critics have sought to highlight the inequalities that exist between the “women’s mechanisms” and the so-called “mainstream” 6 mechanisms. Others have criticized the way in which the international human rights system as a whole deals with (or ignores) matters of fundamental concern to women. Increasingly, the issue of women and the “mainstream” is being conceptualized as part of a broader feminist debate on the capacity of international human rights law, as presently structured, to secure the fundamental rights of women to life, liberty, [End Page 284] security, and dignity. 7 These differences in approach and emphasis have not prevented a near-unanimity amongst women’s human rights activists that “specialization” has become “marginalization”—that women and their concerns remain on the sidelines of United Nations activity for the protection and promotion of human rights.

Considerable work has been undertaken since the Vienna Conference—both within and outside the United Nations—to bridge this acknowledged gap between women and the mainstream. At the political level, the General Assembly, 8 the Commission on the Status of Women, 9 the Commission on Human Rights, 10 and its Sub-Commission 11 have all passed resolutions supporting and encouraging the integration of women into the general human rights work of the United Nations. In 1994, the Commission on Human Rights appointed a Special Rapporteur to address the problem of violence against women. 12 As a group, the various investigatory bodies—Special Rapporteurs, Independent Experts, and other “extra-conventional” [End Page 285] procedures—have met for the purpose of discussing how they can incorporate a gender perspective into their work. 13 Several of the committees established to oversee implementation of the major human rights treaties have revised their methods of work and issued gender sensitive guidelines to states for use in the compilation of reports. 14 Even the much derided institutional divide between the High Commissioner/Centre for Human Rights (secretariat to the “mainstream”) and the Division for the Advancement of Women (secretariat to the “women’s mechanisms” or “periphery”) may be coming to an end with the development of joint work plans and persistent rumors of merger. 15 In July 1995, these internal initiatives culminated with a meeting of high-level experts, organized by the United [End Page 286] Nations, to draft guidelines on incorporating a gender perspective into the international human rights system. 16 Outside the United Nations, the major international nongovernmental organizations—long accused of complicity in the marginalization of women’s human rights—have, over the past few years, demonstrated an increased willingness to deal with this issue and to persuade others to do likewise. 17

One tangible result of these various activities has been a significant evolution in objectives and methodology—at least on the part of advocates of reform. 18 At the time of the Vienna Conference, “mainstreaming” was [End Page 287] widely viewed as...

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