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Swiss act to protect women's rights

An estimated one in three women is exposed to some form of violent or sexual abuse worldwide Keystone

High-level female politicians have joined together to call for an end to violence against women.

This content was published on March 16, 2004 - 10:14

The initiative was launched by the Swiss foreign minister, Micheline Calmy-Rey, and supported by 24 politicians attending the annual session of the United Nations Human Rights Commission in Geneva.

The women ministers issued a declaration condemning all forms of violence and abuse.

“Violence against women is unbearable and is a violation of human rights,” said Calmy-Rey. “It is rape, genital mutilation, poverty, death, psychological violence, trafficking of women and inequalities."

"As such, it is of political relevance and of importance to the external and internal security of nations,” she added.

Her comments came during a news conference on Tuesday, following an informal working dinner hosted by Switzerland at the start of the session on Monday.

Joint effort

Twenty-four of the world’s top female politicians - including the foreign ministers of Austria, Australia, El Salvador, Rwanda and South Africa – signed the statement.

Calmy-Rey said they had “really put their hearts into the declaration” and that they each planned to use their address before the Commission’s high-level segment to call attention to the problem.

She added that she hoped the issue of violence against women would be one of the main priorities for this year’s Commission, which began its annual six-week session against the backdrop of last week’s deadly terrorist attacks in the Spanish capital, Madrid.

The Spanish foreign minister, Ana Palacio Vallersundi, had accepted Calmy-Rey’s invitation to the event but cancelled her trip at the last minute, according to the Spanish Mission in Geneva.

“We are saddened that our colleague could not be here and for the victims of the bombings,” the foreign minister of El Salvador, Maria Eugenia Brizuela de Avila, told swissinfo.

“But we hope that the issue of terrorism, and the fight against it, won’t overshadow other important topics during the Commission, such as women’s rights.”

Universal problem

Many of the female politicians said they planned to highlight gender-related problems specific to their countries in their speeches to the UN’s top human rights body.

The secretary of foreign affairs of the Philippines, Delia Domingo Albert, highlighted the need to protect the rights of female migrant workers.

The German commissioner for human rights, Claudia Roth, pointed out that violence against women was a universal problem and said that the trafficking of women should be dealt with in the context of organised crime.

The Rwandan justice minister, Edda Mukabagwiza, called attention to women’s suffering during times of conflict, pointing to the systematic rape of women during the Rwandan genocide.

Calmy-Rey pointed out that this year marks the tenth anniversary of the establishment of a special expert post to examine the issue of violence against women. Yet the problem persists, with one in three women worldwide exposed to some form of abuse.

She added that the ministers had agreed to meet again later this year in New York, on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly meeting, to assess the impact of their initiative.

Counter-terrorism

Calmy-Rey later also stressed the importance of women’s rights during her address to the high-level segment of the Commission.

And she offered an outline of Switzerland’s priorities for this year’s session.

Switzerland is not an official member of the Commission, but is a major contributer to the discussions as an observer.

In light of last week’s bombings in Madrid, counter-terrorism is expected to dominate the Commission’s agenda this year.

Switzerland backs a Mexican proposal to establish a special procedure to examine the impact of anti-terrorism measures on human rights.

"The fight against terrorism must respect human rights and international humanitarian and refugee laws," Calmy-Rey told the Commission.

"We are particularly concerned to see countries introduce so-called security legislation that is used to justify arbitrary detention," she added.

The United States, Australia, India, Pakistan and Saudi Arabia oppose the idea of assigning a special examiner on counter-terrorism, while Germany, France and Great Britain support it.

But the UN’s acting human rights chief, Bertrand Ramcharan, has said the Madrid attacks made it less likely that countries would agree to such a move.

Swiss agenda

In addition to pushing for women’s rights, the Swiss plan to concentrate on vulnerable groups such as children and minorities during this year’s session.

Torture, summary executions, abductions and racism are some of the other topics at the top of their agenda.

Calmy-Rey said Switzerland would also try to garner support for a resolution on the death penalty.

"My country is convinced that this form of punishment does not serve any purpose in a society based on the respect for human rights," she told the Commission.

When it comes to reform of the Commission itself, Switzerland supports the creation of a "Human Rights Council" that would raise the body to the level of the UN Security Council and the UN Economic and Social Council (Ecosoc).

swissinfo, Anna Nelson in Geneva

Key facts

Switzerland is not a member of the UN human rights body but is one of the most active observers during the Commission, contributing to around 30 resolutions.
A motion on Swiss membership is currently before parliament, and the Swiss hope to be elected to the UN body in 2007.
The government is also considering the creation of a national human rights commission.

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In brief

A group of 24 female politicians has adopted a joint declaration calling for better protection of the estimated one billion women who suffer from some form of violent or sexual abuse.

Calmy-Rey hopes the initiative will put women’s rights higher up the global political agenda.

The meeting took place in Geneva on Monday at the start of the annual, six-week session of the United Nations Human Rights Commission.

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