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Women's Rights are Human Rights

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"If there is one message that echoes forth from this conference, let it be that human rights are women's rights and women's rights are human rights, once and for all."

These words were spoken by then First Lady Hillary Clinton 15 years ago in Beijing, China at the United Nations' Fourth World Conference on Women, where Mrs. Clinton served as the honorary chair of the official United States delegation. In 1994, she used her position as First Lady, as well as her life-long commitment to women's rights, to underscore the need for women's human rights to be taken seriously both at home and abroad. Together with then U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Madeleine Albright, Mrs. Clinton's presence and voice demonstrated just how seriously the Clinton Administration took the issue of women's human rights. They helped to represent the United States as one of 189 countries that gathered in Beijing to declare, "women's rights are human rights."

Now, as we celebrate Women's History Month fifteen years since the Beijing conference, the United States has set its own milestones in its demonstrated commitment to women's human rights. Madeleine Albright went on to be named the first woman Secretary of State and served in that capacity under the Clinton Administration. In 2009, Clinton followed in Albright's footsteps, using her position to reiterate the commitment to women's human rights she articulated in Beijing almost two decades earlier. Recently, New York City hosted the fifty-fourth session of the United Nations Commission on the Status of Women. The Commission's agenda included a fifteen-year review of the implementation of the Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action. As participants shared the lessons learned since 1994 and move forward over the next 15 years, Secretary of State Clinton, U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Susan Rice and other U.S. representatives will have a mixed record to explain.

The presence of women as high-level representatives of the U.S. government must be assessed against the backdrop of our inability to translate the rhetorical commitment to women's human rights into reality. As was the case fifteen years ago, the United States has yet to ratify the International Convention on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women. In addition, the United States has not fully implemented ratified treaties such as the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination, which requires that the different ways in which women and men experience racial discrimination be accounted for and addressed.

Furthermore, the United States lacks a human rights infrastructure through which compliance, enforcement and implementation of our domestic human rights obligations can be coordinated, monitored and fully met. While Executive Order 13107 established an Inter-Agency Working Group on Human Rights Treaties in December of 1998, this initiative was significantly altered during the eight years of the Bush Administration and ultimately dissolved. At a minimum, this Inter-Agency Working Group should not only be reconstituted, but also strengthened so as to function as the central point of coordination for the Executive departments and agencies that are responsible for the day-to-day efforts to meet our domestic human rights obligations. The work of groups such as the Campaign for a New Domestic Human Rights Agenda, the American Civil Liberties Union, and the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights demonstrates both the demand and the need for this type of comprehensive and coordinated approach as a first step to making good on the Obama Administration's human rights promises and commitments. Such an approach is essential to putting this country on the path to leading by example and disavowing the exceptionalism that, for far too long, has marked our country's view of itself and its obligations to respect, protect and fulfill the human rights of women and men alike.

When we think only of human rights abuses abroad, we remove ourselves and our struggles from the discussion -- and from any possible action. Today, we urge Secretary Clinton and the Obama Administration to add a new component to the common understanding of human rights, and begin to think about how human rights are parts of our daily lives.

Lisa A. Crooms chairs the steering committee of the Campaign for a New Domestic Human Rights Agenda.