Jessie Street & human rights

Commemorating the Universal Declaration of Human Rights
Elizabeth Evatt

It is an honour to be invited to this birthday party for Jessie. I did not know her personally, but her work in the United Nations, which connected her closely with my uncle, Bert Evatt, forms the basis of these remarks. Jessie, as we know, was committed to women's rights and to peace in the world. The opportunity to help design the post-war world was irresistible for her.

Jessie's Role

My favourite photo of Jessie shows her standing under the entry hatch of the RAAF bomber which carried the Australian delegation to San Francisco for the United Nations Charter conference in April 1945. You had to be tough to travel in those days - and Jessie was tough. It was still war time and they had to fly in darkness, in acute discomfort on makeshift seats, with no cabin service, island hopping across the Pacific. Jessie is shown clutching a sleeping bag. Jessie was the only woman member of Australia's delegation. In San Francisco, she quickly joined forced with the small band of women from other delegations. Their first victory was to have the equal rights of men and women recognised in the Preamble to the United Nations Charter.

Next, they wanted women to be able to work in the United Nations on equal terms. Some governments did not think it necessary to provide for this. But Jessie and the other women knew only too well that, when women are not mentioned expressly, they are likely to be excluded. They won the day. The UN Charter provides for conditions of equality in employment for men and women.

Their third goal was to secure a permanent United Nations body to deal with women's rights. Jessie wanted this to be an influential body, with its own secretariat. She wanted states to report to the body on how they had given effect to its resolutions on women's equality. The women argued that such a body was needed in addition to the proposed Commission on Human Rights, because historically rights had been enjoyed exclusively by men and had been denied to women.

They succeeded in getting a Commission on the Status of Women (CSW). But their original fears about the potential for neglect of women's rights were realised, when the CSW was given lower status and fewer resources than those given to the Commission on Human Rights.

Furthermore, the existence of a separate Commission for Women led to a real risk that women's issues would be overlooked by the Commission on Human Rights, when it began drafting the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, in 1947.

By that time, Jessie was Vice-Chair of the CSW. The CSW had won the right to be present when the Draft Declaration was being discussed; the aim was to ensure that women's rights were not overlooked.

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights has become a revered and authoritative document in human rights. It was drafted in 1947-48 by the Human Rights Commission, which was presided over by the equally revered Eleanor Roosevelt.

It is therefore startling to read that the first Draft of the Declaration sent out by the Commission for comment opened with these words: 'All men are brothers'. The rest of the draft was written entirely in the male person. These were the rights of 'man'; they were, as drafted, 'his' rights. There was no reference to 'woman' or to 'her' rights - except for one minor reference to mothers and children.

Jessie and her CSW colleagues sprang to the attack. Jessie wanted the language to be expressly inclusive of male and female, at every point. As she had always said, if you don't refer expressly to women, they will be excluded from rights. The CSW women found support from a member of CHR Mrs Hansa Mehta of India. They had partial success. The 'brotherhood' opening was dropped. In its place, Article 1 begins: 'All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights.'

But the victory was limited. Although some attempt was made in later drafts to introduce terms such as 'everyone' and 'all persons', and to mention women in a few places, the Declaration doggedly stuck to the male pronoun - 'he', 'him' and 'his rights' throughout. The impression this gives is not completely offset by the provision to the effect that rights were to be enjoyed without discrimination on the ground of, inter alia, sex.

Jessie and the CSW made an impact in some other areas. She wanted women to have not only the equal right to marry, but to have equal freedom of choice in marriage and equal rights during marriage and in regard to divorce. Those points were won, (Article 16), but she did not succeed in getting a provision that women were not deprived of their nationality by marriage, or a ban on polygamy. (Nationality, UDHR 15)

Jessie's arguments for a provision on equal pay regardless of sex were taken up in the next (Geneva) draft and remain in the final Declaration, (Article 23 (2)). Jessie wanted the Declaration to make express provision for widows to be entitled to social security. This principle is included in the final Declaration (article 25).

But some of Jessie's forward looking ideas were ignored. She argued for a provision in the Declaration recognising the right of women to freedom from violence. This idea, and others concerning the protection of the rights of prostitutes, were disregarded.

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights was adopted by the UN on 10 December 1948. Bert Evatt was presiding at the time as President of the General Assembly. When we celebrate the 60th Anniversary of the Declaration later this year, we can recall that, behind the scenes, the interventions of Jessie Street and the CSW helped to ensure that there was express provision for equal pay, equal rights in marriage and divorce, and social security protection for widows. And slightly more gender inclusive language.

What progress would Jessie find after 60 years?

Today is Jessie's 119th birthday. How should we report to her on the issues she fought so hard for in the United Nations? What progress has there been?

Jessie and her colleagues won equal conditions of employment for women working in the United Nations. But they could not guarantee that equality would be applied in appointments or promotions. In the male dominated bureaucracy of the UN, progress has been painfully slow. A few women have been appointed as heads of agencies, such as UNICEF and Refugees (Sadako Ogata). Two women have held the office of High Commissioner for Human Rights (Mary Robinson and Louise Arbour). But no woman has ever held the office of Secretary-General, even though there are many women who would be eminently capable. It was only last year, 2007, that a woman was appointed for the first time to the position of Deputy Secretary-General.

And, at other levels, the percentage of women in senior management in the UN is only 23 per cent, and in professional and higher categories it is 37 per cent.

Of course, we have done better in Australia, where women have held many high offices, on the High Court, as Deputy and Acting Prime Minister, as Ambassadors and very soon, as Governor-General. But, even here, there can be slip ups, as when the panel leaders for 20-20 summit were chosen. As Jessie always said, if you don't mention women expressly, they are likely to be overlooked!

When Jessie and her mates worked to have a separate Commission in the United Nations to deal with women's issues, they did not anticipate that it would be under-resourced, or that women's issues would be neglected by the mainstream human rights bodies. Unfortunately that was the outcome for some years.

Things started to change in the 1970s, with the impetus of the women's liberation movement and international women's year, which was led by the Commission on the Status of Women. These movements led to the adoption of the International Convention on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women in 1979. The Women's Convention, as I call it, mandates the removal of discrimination against women in all fields. It is now legally binding on 185 States parties. One of its many provisions guarantees women equal rights with men in regard to nationality, irrespective of marriage, thus giving effect to Jessie's proposals of 1947.

The Convention gives effect to another of Jessie's ambitions; namely, states should be required to report on the action they have taken to improve the status of women and to answer questions on this. The Women's Convention is the foundation of the Australian Sex Discrimination Act 1984, which makes sex discrimination and sexual harassment unlawful. Jessie would have loved the idea of bringing the international standards back home.

Jessie's efforts to get violence against women on to the international agenda finally bore fruit in 1993, when gender-based violence was treated as a serious human rights issue at the World Conference on Human Rights. Soon after, the UN General Assembly adopted the Declaration on the Elimination of Violence Against Women. A UN Special Rapporteur on Violence Against Women was appointed in 1994. Clearly, Jessie was years ahead of her time in recognising the significance of this issue for women.

Jessie fought for inclusive language in 1947 with mixed success. It was not until 1989 that the Convention on the Rights of the Child became the first major human rights instrument to use the inclusive language of 'his or her'. In Australia, the battle for gender neutral drafting was initially won in the states and the Commonwealth in the 1980s. After some years of recidivism under a conservative government, I read only last week that the Rudd government has resumed the rewriting of Commonwealth laws to make them gender neutral.

Jessie Street knew that whatever victories were won at the international level, whatever provisions were included in international instruments, these would not benefit women in their own countries unless member states took seriously their obligations to implement them. For example, the principle of equal pay was included in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948, but it was not achieved in Australia until the 1970s; and even now there is a wages and salaries gap.

Jessie knew the value of networks and she foresaw that the work of the UN human rights bodies would be assisted enormously by the support and co-operation of NGOS. We take for granted now that NGOs have an important role to play in taking home the principles agreed to at international conferences and putting pressure on governments to honour their commitments.

Being a fighter by nature, Jessie would not be entirely displeased to know that there are still battles to be fought for women to give full effect to international standards. It is amazing, for example, that Australia has declined for the last 25 years to be bound by the provisions of the Women's Convention which call for paid maternity leave. We are one of only a handful of countries in the world not to provide such leave, and it is a blot on our record.

Looking at the world as a whole, and in particular the developing world, the situation of millions of women is marked by poverty, by poor health, by violence, by trafficking and servitude, by high levels of maternal and child mortality, by lack of access to reproductive rights, including safe abortion, and by the increasing spread of HIV/AIDS, while religious and other leaders oppose or fail to support the use of condoms. Women now account for one-half of all new HIV infections worldwide.

The international networks of women, which have flourished under the UN umbrella, join forces to ensure that women's voices are heard in the international forums, but change is slow, too slow for many who live blighted lives. And it is a matter for regret that, here in Australia, one of the richest countries in the world, many indigenous women experience conditions comparable with those of women in developing countries. This must be changed. Like most of us, Jessie would be heartened at the recent commitments made by the new Commonwealth government on these issues. She would have been among the first to call for an apology to Australia's indigenous peoples for the wrongs done to women and children, and to insist on measures to ensure genuine equality in living standards and opportunities.

Supporting the UN

Jessie was always devoted to the cause of peace. She saw the principles of the UN Charter and its provision for human rights as furthering that cause. These days, people often express disappointment with the UN because it has been unable to stop some terrible conflicts involving genocide and crimes against humanity. Its promise of protecting human rights everywhere for everyone has not been fulfilled, in places such as Bosnia, Rwanda, Somalia, Congo.

Jessie herself observed that, after the early stages, states were moving away from their initial commitment to the principles of the Charter and were reverting to national interest as their dominant aim. She was aware, and we also need to remember, that the UN is only as good as the states, the governments which are its members, allow it to be. Like all international organizations, the UN is based on the sovereignty of each member state, and those states fiercely resist any intervention in their domestic affairs. Even where international peace and security seem threatened, the Security Council cannot always agree on intervention. One or another permanent member may block intervention, despite blatant and serious violations of human rights. For example, the UN would not intervene in relation to Darfur without agreement by Sudan. And even where intervention is agreed, states have sometimes failed to commit the forces needed to do the job.

Attempts are being made to reform the UN, to solve some of these problems. An important step forward was setting up the International Criminal Court and Tribunals which can bring the worst of perpetrators to justice. This gives warning to those who may be contemplating evil deeds in future. There is encouraging news in this for women, too. In 1998, the Rwanda Tribunal found that rape, which so frequently is a part of conflict, constitutes a crime against humanity and an instrument of genocide - the first such decision.

In 2000, the United Nations Security Council recognized the critical role of women in the resolution of conflict, thus giving states the signal that women, so often the major victims of conflict, should take a more active role in peace making. A group of women have set up an International Women's Commission to get the voices of Palestinian and Israeli women heard in the efforts to secure peace in the Middle East. It is a small ray of light in that bleak picture.

In the meantime, the difficulties frequently obscure the real achievements of the UN in areas such as refugees, health, development. These days, as much as ever, we are faced with problems on a global scale and we need a global approach based on co-operation to find global solutions to issues of environment, climate change, poverty, violence, HIV/Aids and other pandemics. To succeed, the United Nations needs the full support and commitment of member states.

In that regard it is good to hear that the new Commonwealth government has taken steps to reverse certain decisions of the previous government which appeared to disregard the United Nations and in particular to show contempt for the human rights bodies. For example, the government has recently opened up discussions with a view to ratifying the Protocol to the Torture Convention, allowing for random inspection of detention facilities, which the previous government rejected. It is also looking for ways to declare Australia's support for the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous People, despite the fact that under the previous government Australia was one of only four countries to vote against its adoption. This Declaration is a truly ground breaking achievement, reached over many years of discussion and negotiation.

Hopefully, the government will also look favourably on the provision in the Women's Convention for paid maternity leave and will reverse the earlier decision not to ratify the Optional Protocol to the Women's Convention, adopted in 1999, which gives individual women the right to complain to the CEDAW Committee about the violation of their equality rights.

Those steps would be good news indeed, for if we do not support the UN, if we fail to take our international human rights obligations seriously, then there is no use asking other countries to respect human rights and the views of the independent human rights treaty bodies. To make the UN work, individual States must give it their commitment and support.

I think Jessie would give a cheer for this, and so should we.


Elizabeth Evatt, AC, was Deputy President of the Australian Industrial Relations Commission (1973-76), the first Chief Justice of the Family Court of Australia (1976-1988) and President of the Law Reform Commission of Australia (1988-1994). She was a member of the United Nations Committee on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (1984-92), serving as Chair of the Committee from 1989 to 1991, and she served on the United Nations Human Rights Committee from 1993 to 2000. A niece of Dr H V Evatt, Elizabeth was Vice-President of the Evatt Foundation from 1982 to 1987 and is a Life Member. These are her remarks on the occasion of the annual Jessie Street Trust Lunch at NSW Parliament House on 18 April 2008.