As part of the course work, I have had to read different treaties and agreements on human, civil/political and socio-economic rights. Tonight I have read the Universal Declaration on Human Rights; the International Covenant on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights; and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. All three are quite short reads and fairly repetitive, so if you want to have a look through them, I would recommend that you do.
What struck me to begin with is that these arguments are such blatantly male-centric documents, probably because they are written by men and for men. Remember, CEDAW - the Convention on the Elimination of all forms of Discrimination Against Women - came later, as it was widely viewed that women's rights were not sufficiently covered by these previous covenants.
And no wonder that UN, member states and women's rights groups felt the need to create a separate and complementary agreement referring specifically to women and women's needs after these, so called, universal rights documents had been produced. The covenants are literally teeming with male-centric language and rhetoric. In every single instance, when referring to an individual in the documents, "his," "him," "he" is used. Even if the use of the gender neutral plural pronouns were not widespread at the time, it would not have taken much energy and effort to add a corresponding female noun there to make sure that the female gender was represented as well. Although, it should be noted that this would probably not be accepted practice today anyway, as there are people who do not define as either gender and are thus not covered by these gendered nouns. Unfortunately, this thinking had not come as far in the 1948 when the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) was finalised, nor in 1966 when the two covenants were.
If it were not blatantly obvious in the way that any other genders but the male gender are excluded, it is certainly obvious in the very first article of the UDHR, which states
All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights. They are endowed with reason and conscience and should act towards one another in a spirit of brotherhood.The word 'brotherhood' implies that either we are operating under a male normative set of rules, i.e., all people, women, men, all human beings, should act and operate under the rules for something which is defined as 'brotherhood', implied by the name to be a set of rules set up by males for males. Even if this would be an inclusive set of rules, welcoming all genders, it would still be referring to a specific set of male normative rules. If it is not inclusive, then it means that all genders, apart from the male one, would not be included in this 'spirit of brotherhood', which is a human right. Women and other people not identifying as male, would thus be excluded from human rights. This is set out in the very first article of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
As if this was not enough, the sacrosanctity of heteronormative culture is also inscribed in the Covenant on Civil and Policial Rights (1966) in Article 23. I quote (my bold):
1. The family is the natural and fundamental group unit of society and is entitled to protection by society and the State.
2. The right of men and women of marriageable age to marry and to found a family shall be recognized.
3. No marriage shall be entered into without the free and full consent of the intending spouses.
4. States Parties to the present Covenant shall take appropriate steps to ensure equality of rights and responsibilities of spouses as to marriage, during marriage and at its dissolution. In the case of dissolution, provision shall be made for the necessary protection of any children.
There is so much wrong in this article, but let me just start out by saying the natural and fundamental group of society? In this part of a sentence, the UN and its signatories have assumed that the heteronormative family is a biological fact and that it shall not be threatened. By what? Gay marriage, probably. Assuming that blood bonds are very strong is not in itself a wrong, but not defining what they mean by 'family' is. I assume, however, that in the 1960s, when this covenant was agreed upon, it was quite self-evident what was meant with 'family,' as homosexuality was still illegal in many countries. Point 2, also indicates that this was the intention, as "the right of men and women of marriageable age to marry and found a family..." probably means to each other and not to whomever they so wish.
That fact, alone, should make all of us question the intention of universal human rights. Or shall I say universal as long as one conforms to the white male heteronormative society in which families are the untouchable cornerstones of society and women are not a part of being human to the extent that complementary agreements have to be made to ensure that they, too, are covered by human rights. (If you want more information on either of these topics, just look into the two of big debates within human rights 'are women human?' and 'are human rights Western?')
International debate and treaties made by international organs like the UN are riddled with gendered language. If there is one thing that I have learned while reading for my dissertation on the discourse around women in conflict, it is that. While there seems to be a will to mainstream gender into organisations, which essentially means making sure that gender has been taken into consideration at all times, there is a disconnect between that and the implementation of gender-neutral policies. Not to mention that gender mainstreaming as an approach has been severely criticised, among other things, for 'streaming' women away, neglecting women's particular concerns that may exist.
So when I am reading documents like these, the fundamentals of human rights, which are supposed to be universal, and women are supposed to be included, but the language is so blatantly male-centric, it is hard to believe that things will get better. The problem is that the entire framework within which, and upon which, human rights implementation, discourse and philosophy are based, is gendered. Regardless of what improvements we do in the future, there will always be the male-centric original documents that to a certain extent neglect or exclude women and other people who do not identify as male. Added to that, it also excludes LGBTQ groups that wish to exercise, what is supposed to be a universal right to marry whomever they wish.
As long as our rights are based on a male perspective, we will be excluded in one way or another - through implementation, in the rhetoric (which is a severe problem), in the discourse (which is slightly different from the rhetoric), in the philosophy, in the politics - in all aspects. Human rights cannot be universal until everyone is included, and according to the Western thought on human rights, they are. Human rights may be inalienable and universal, but the implementation and thought certainly do not ensure this. It could even be said to hinder the universality of human rights through its exclusionary nature. If human rights are to be universal, rhetorical issues like these need to be paid attention to. Ignoring gendered aspects of human rights is not benefiting anyone, apart from the white male.