The International Bill of Human Rights (the Universal Declaration on Human Rights, International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights) provides the universal standards and framework for the protection and promotion of human rights around the world. These instruments acknowledge the equal worth of all human beings and proclaim that everyone – regardless of sex – is entitled to the equal enjoyment of human rights and fundamental freedoms without distinction of any kind.
The foundation document of the United Nations, the Charter of the United Nations, identified as its purpose: to promote and encourage respect for human rights and for fundamental freedoms for all without distinction as to sex, as well as race, language, or religion (Article 1(3) and Article 55). This non-discrimination clause was repeated in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Early in the life of the United Nations, various issues relating to the vulnerability of women to violations of their rights because of their gender were identified, particularly inequalities in the law due to women’s marital status. To remedy the insufficient protection and promotion of women’s human rights, the UN Commission on the Status of Women (CSW) and advocates undertook work to define non-discrimination in the application of internationally agreed rights through a gendered lens. Through recommendations to the UN General Assembly, CSW called for immediate action to secure women’s equal rights. The Convention on the Political Rights of Women (1952), the Convention on the Nationality of Married Women (1957) and the Convention on Consent to Marriage, Minimum Age for Marriage and Registration of Marriages (1962) marked the beginning of women’s-specific treaties targeting discrimination. However, the success of these Conventions in achieving equality for women were limited by the narrow scope of their provisions. In 1966, the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) and the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR) were adopted. These treaties repeated the requirement on states to implement rights without discrimination, including on the grounds of sex (Article 2(1). Furthermore, both treaties emphasised the non-discrimination clause, a requirement for states to “undertake to ensure the equal right of men and women to the enjoyment of all […] rights set forth in the present Covenant” so that women’s equality of enjoyment civil, political, economic, social and cultural rights is guaranteed.
However, women’s equality in the enjoyment of human rights was not achieved in practice. To provide a more comprehensive framework for dealing with gender inequality, the UN General Assembly called on CSW to draft an international instrument to define the equal rights of women and eliminate discrimination against women (see UNGA Resolution 1921 XVIII). The result was the Declaration on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women (adopted in 1967, UNGA Resolution 2263 (XXII)). Five years later, the CSW considered creating a legally binding treaty to give force to the provisions in the Declaration. At its twenty-fifth session in 1974, CSW assembled a working group to begin the drafting process. The result was the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms is Discrimination against Women.