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Women: UN Special Rapporteur

Volume 711: debated on Tuesday 9 June 2009


Asked By

To ask Her Majesty’s Government whether they will support the establishment of a post of United Nations special rapporteur for women.

My Lords, we want the United Nations to be the most effective instrument it can be in improving the lives of women across the globe. We think that the best way to do this is to support the United Nations in its discussions on reform of the UN gender architecture. We will consider any idea that promotes gender equality. However, we must be convinced that it adds value to existing UN organisations that are designed to promote gender equality.

My Lords, I thank the noble Lord for that very helpful Answer. Would the Government consider appointing a rapporteur and follow the example of Ireland, where they have appointed a rapporteur for UN Security Council resolution 1325? Given that women are still considered to be the booty of war and that they are attacked, raped and violated in situations of conflict, someone needs to be there immediately to deal with it on behalf of the international community.

My Lords, I do not want anything that I say now to detract from the importance we attach to the United Nations contribution on this very important topic. However, rather than adding a rapporteur to the existing responsibilities in the field of eliminating violence against women and all forms of discrimination, we believe that the establishment of the United Nations agency that is being proposed, with the officer possibly at Under-Secretary-General level, is the right way to tackle this. There are already two people, in the committee and a person, in those roles. What we need is an overarching committee, which is suitably staffed at a high level. We are therefore not persuaded that an additional rapporteur is the answer to the UN’s position.

My Lords, am I right in thinking that the United Nations Commission on the Status of Women, on which I represented this country, followed by my noble friend Lady Gardner, acts as a representative body of women on the United Nations, or has it packed up?

My Lords, we are discussing the question of executive action and how the United Nations can act effectively in this area. It will not surprise the House to learn that the rapporteur is a proposal from the French, from President Sarkozy. It has not won a great deal of support at the United Nations, because the United Nations has been concerned in recent months to create a fresh structure that will give real executive authority at a high level to the necessary actions to promote the equality of women.

My Lords, following on from the answers that the Minister has just given, a week ago the noble Lord, Lord Malloch-Brown, said that he spent a large portion of his last period at the UN working on just the structure that the Minister is talking about: trying to set up a strong and effective organisation for women to promote the rights of women within the UN. What is the nature of the backing from the UK Government for that proposal?

My Lords, I am happy to say that my noble friend’s efforts are, we hope, bearing fruit. The United Nations is involved in serious consideration of the structure necessary to promote effective action in this area. The ideas that my noble friend was involved in developing are being taken forward, and the British Government back that structure fully.

My Lords, does the Minister agree that by far the most successful form of organisation that really represents the voices of the individual nations is one where there is a committee on the ground in that country? I am thinking specifically of UNICEF, which has been an extremely effective organisation for children. Does he agree that that sort of organisation would make sense in what the Government are now discussing?

My Lords, certainly the advantage of UNICEF is that it is world-renowned in the contribution that it makes on behalf of the United Nations. We want a similar development for women. Progress thus far has clearly not been adequate. We are all aware that discrimination and violence against women is an all too common feature of all too many countries.

My Lords, we know that the United Nations is a weak organisation. Human rights are women's rights, but to this day, the United Nations has not taken that very seriously. It sits in committee and it refers this to the member states. We as a senior country must go with other countries to the United Nations to say that it must take a much stronger line on the question of the Congo and Darfur, where women are raped daily while people talk about the issue, and on the whole question of trafficking—I am involved in that issue too—where the United Nations sits back. We have to take a very strong line on that.

My Lords, of course I agree with the points that my noble friend raises. The issue is how effective action is to be mounted. As I said, the United Kingdom is playing a very full part in the development of an agency that will give greater effect to this than past efforts—I recognise that my noble friend’s criticism of past action or inaction is justified.

My Lords, does the Minister not realise that the United Nations Commission on the Status of Women has been an effective body, developing connections between women in all parts of the world? The United Kingdom was the first country to bring many things that are now being dealt with, such as violence, into the public domain. Since then, a great deal has been done in many countries, but there is still a conflict in getting the other countries which have different views on the subject to go along with the recommendations. I understand that the noble Baroness, Lady Gould of Potternewton, is the current representative for the United Kingdom.

My Lords, the noble Baroness is right that there are very different perspectives on the role of women in different parts of the world, but our commitment to human rights and to the equality of women behoves us to make every effort that we can to ensure that victimisation of and violence against women are greatly reduced. The important thing is that the United Nations should be equipped with a body that can take effective executive action; the UK Government are supporting that proposal.