A paper presented by the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) to the Fourth Meeting of the Asia Pacific Forum of National Human Rights Institutions (APF) in September 1999 described the general problem as follows:
Equality is the cornerstone of every society, which aspires to democracy, social justice and human rights. In virtually all societies and spheres of activities, women are subject to inequalities in law and in fact. This situation is both caused and exacerbated by the existence of discrimination in the family, in the community and in the workplace. While causes and consequences may vary from country to country, discrimination against women is widespread. It is perpetuated by the survival of stereotypes and of traditional cultural and religious practices and beliefs detrimental to women.
(A Case Study on Trafficking in the Asia Pacific Region, OHCHR)
The World Conference on Human Rights in 1993 and the Fourth World Conference on Women held in Beijing, China in 1995 strongly urged relevant human rights organizations to take action to advance the human rights of women. More specifically, the Fourth World Conference on Women Platform for Action identified twelve Critical Areas of Concern for women - one of which related to the 'Institutional Mechanisms for the Advancement of Women'.
The promotion and protection of women's human rights fall squarely within the mandates of the individual national human rights institutions within the Asia Pacific region. These institutions have an obligation to demonstrate leadership in this area by actively and effectively exercising its mandate and by publicly articulating the rights of women within their own countries. Non-governmental organizations (NGOs) have played an active role in encouraging national institutions to pursue this course. For example, the international NGO, the Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative (CHRI) based in India, has actively lobbied regional national institutions, through the APF, to give a higher priority to women's issues within their own jurisdictions. It has also encouraged national institutions to examine their own internal policies, programs and resource allocations to reflect the interests and views of women as well as men.
The APF supports this view. As a regional organization, the APF has an important role to play in the cultivation and fostering of its member institutions towards the more effective promotion and protection of women's human rights at the national and regional levels. It can do this by providing a forum that will draw upon a diverse range of expertise and experience that will stimulate discussions, ideas, networks and practical activities. However it can only do this effectively with the continued support of the OHCHR.
Over the past several years the APF Secretariat, at the request of APF Members, has developed background papers on the rights of women for its annual meetings. In 1998 it produced the paper, 'The Role of National Institutions in Addressing Discrimination Against Women'. In 1999, it produced the paper, 'The Role of National Institutions in Advancing the Human Rights of Women'. At this meeting, the OHCHR tabled its paper on 'A Case Study on Trafficking in the Asia Pacific Region'. The OHCHR paper called upon member institutions of the APF to use their mandate and functions at the national level to give higher priority to the rights of women, particularly in relation to the issue of trafficking of persons. It also encouraged the APF to take up the issue of trafficking at the regional level. The Forum agreed to this recommendation and is currently in the process of working in conjunction with its member institutions and the OHCHR to develop a regional focal point network on trafficking. However, the APF also decided to hold a workshop in 2000 to further discuss ideas and develop practical activities that will advance the human rights of women.
The year 2000 is important for international human rights. The UN General Assembly will be convening a Special Session from 5-9 June 2000 in New York to review and assess the progress achieved in the implementation of the Nairobi Forward-looking Strategies for the Advancement of Women, and the Beijing Platform for Action five years after its adoption.
The APF Workshop on the 'Role of National Human Rights Institutions in Advancing the Rights of Women' will complement this international activity at the regional level. It is envisaged that it will also have a flow-on effect at the national institutional level. Given the broad and almost overwhelming number of issues that affect the human rights of women to be discussed at the international level, the APF decided to have a specific focus on the activities of national institutions in relation to women. This focus will provide a realistic framework for constructive discussion and practical outcomes. In addition, the Workshop's objective reflects the APF's commitment to encouraging the development of 'institutional mechanisms for the advancement of women' identified as a strategic objective in the Platform of Action. In accordance with this strategic objective, the APF with the support of the OHCHR aims to
· encourage governments to create or strengthen national machineries for the advancement of women;
· encourage governments to integrate gender perspectives in legislation, public policies, programs and projects;
· encourage NHRIs to generate and disseminate gender-disaggregated data and information for planning and evaluation.
Workshop recommendations will be referred to the 'Beijing +5' meeting for discussion and endorsement at the international level in June 2000, the OHCHR and to the APF's fifth annual meeting to be held in Rotorua, New Zealand, in August 2000.
Included in the Workshop program is an item on 'World Conference Against Racism, women and racism'. This is in preparation for the 'World Conference Against Racism' to be held in South Africa in 2001. The issue of racism is of great concern to national institutions. Members of the Forum look forward to independently presenting their work on this issue at the Conference next year. The Forum is particularly pleased to note the inclusion of 'national institutions: examples of good practice' and 'the problem of double discrimination based on race and gender' on the program of the 'Expert Seminar on Remedies Available to the Victims of Acts of Racism, Racial Discrimination, Xenophobia and Related Intolerance and on Good National Practices in the Field' held in Geneva in February 2000. The Forum firmly believes that gender discrimination and racism brings a unique set of human rights challenges that require concerted attention.
In particular the Workshop, to be held in Suva on May 5-7, 2000, will
· encourage existing national institutions to actively promote and protect the international human rights of women in addition to promoting the objectives of the Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action;
· encourage governments, with a special focus on those within the Pacific region, to develop independent national institutions in accordance with international human rights standards and the Paris Principles;
· promote and encourage more effective cooperation and collaboration between the OHCHR, other UN agencies, national institutions, international, regional and national NGOs on issues relating to the human rights of women, including trafficking.
· encourage established national institutions to, inter alia, systematically examine its gender representation at Commissioner and staff level, internal policies and resource allocations that reflect the interests and views of women. This also includes examining internal structures to directly and indirectly encourage and promote gender equality, including training for staff and members on gender issues.
The Workshop under the auspices of the OHCHR will primarily be organized and facilitated by the APF Secretariat with the assistance of the Fiji Human Rights Commission (FHRC). The FHRC will host the Workshop with assistance from the Institute of Justice and Applied Legal Services at the University of the South Pacific (IJALS). The FHRC was established in 1999 and in September 1999 became the APF's seventh member. The IJALS has long supported the establishment of a national institution in Fiji. In February 1998 it organized a one-day workshop at the University of the South Pacific on the 'Importance of National Human Rights Commissions'. Funding for the Workshop is also being sought from the New Zealand and Australian governments.
The participation of IJALS will ensure the active involvement of civil society in the development and implementation of the Workshop. It also gives effect to the APF's commitment, as outlined in the Kandy Program of Action: Cooperation between National Institutions and Non-Government Organizations, to work more cooperatively, and wherever possible, in partnership with NGOs in its activities.
The Workshop is unique because it represents the first major regional meeting of the APF to be held in the Pacific region. Previous meetings have been held in South and South-East Asia.
The two-day Workshop will include approximately 80 participants from Forum member institutions, NGOs, regional governments considering establishing a national institution and Pacific countries. It is anticipated that representatives from the OHCHR will also attend and actively participate in proceedings.
The Workshop will incorporate both plenary and working-group sessions, with an emphasis on exchanging knowledge and information. It will also have a practical output focus that will seek to develop concrete proposals for action at both the national and regional levels.
For more information, please contact: Ms Pip Dargan at the Asia-Pacific Forum of National Human Rights Institutions c/o Australian Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission Level 8 Piccadilly Tower, 133 Castlereagh Street, Sydney NSW 2000 Australia, ph (612) 9284-9644; fax (612) 9284-9825; e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org; website: www.apf.hreoc.gov.au