Margaret Owen is the Director of Widows for Peace through Democracy (WPD). WPD works to make sure widows of all ages, irrespective of religion, class, or nationality, are protected from discrimination and violence and can enjoy their full human rights. Margaret is also a Patron of Peace in Kurdistan, a UK barrister and an international women’s human rights activist.
WPD has “ECOSOC status at the UN, which focuses on the human rights of widows and wives of the disappeared. She is also a founder member of GAPS-UK (Gender Action on Peace and Security) that addresses implementation of UNSCR 1325 and subsequent UNSCR gender-related issues in the Women, Peace and Security agenda.”
In a podcast interview, Margaret Owen criticised not only Boris Johnson’s government over its questionable stance – which represents a breach of CEDAW (the UN Convention on the Elimination of all forms of Discrimination Against Women) – but also previous UK governments for their own questionable stances.
Some of Margaret Owen’s concerns were expressed earlier this year in a letter to the Guardian: “Boris Johnson’s government betrays not just children (…) but also women and girls – not just here, but across the world – by its brutal cuts in aid to the communities that need it most, and by its breach of legal obligations under CEDAW.
“Its arms sales and trade deals to racist, misogynist and authoritarian regimes” – a subject that she addressed at length in an earlier podcast for Medya News, in particular with respect to its arms sales to Turkey – “whose wars create uncounted millions of widows of all ages, violate the UN’s arms trade treaty. Where rape and displacement are weapons of war, overcrowded camps for internally displaced people and refugees are full of impoverished widows. And now Covid-19 competes with armed conflict to be another supreme widow-maker.”
The UK government is in ‘violation of all’ CEDAW’s articles
In the podcast, Owen detailed her concerns about the present government’s policies as well as the policies of earlier governments: “I want to talk to you now about the UK government’s appalling, not just indifference to CEDAW, the UN Convention on the Elimination of all forms of Discrimination Against Women, but its violation of all its articles.
“We’re talking quite a lot these days – many of us who are lawyers, often labelled by this present government as ‘do-goodie lefties’ – about the UK government’s breach of its international obligations, whether it’s about the Refugee Convention or the way we halved our aid budget, what’s happening in Northern Ireland, but the breach of our international obligations started dramatically (…) 11 years ago when the Coalition – the Tories with the Lib Dems – got rid of the UK Women’s National Commission, the WNC.
“We have obligations under CEDAW and we have obligations which are not legal but we agreed to them under the Beijing Platform for Action that was agreed at the Fourth World Conference of Women, along with all the member states of the UN, to have an institutional mechanism for women’s rights. And that was when we had the Women’s National Commission.
“But the Tories, or the Coalition,” she noted, “got rid of it. And since then, we haven’t got an institutional mechanism for women which is based on statutes: we’ve set up something much looser, called a UK Women’s Alliance, but it has no basis in legislation.”
In this context, she emphasized that “there have been numerous, numerous examples of violations of our obligation under the CEDAW which have been taken up by the Committee for the CEDAW each time the government reports on its track record in relation to the Convention, because every four years, governments must go to Geneva and be questioned about what they have done to comply.
“But the UK government has been quite indifferent to the concluding remarks – for example, again and again the UK government has been asked by the Committee for the Convention to domesticate CEDAW – that is to say, to put all the articles in the Convention into our own domestic legislation. In some countries, (…) when a country ratifies an international treaty, it automatically becomes part of their national law. But in this country, that doesn’t happen. We have to legislate.
“But we’ve been told by the government that they have no intention ever of domesticating the CEDAW. They also asked that the government should look at the impact of the austerity cuts on women and girls because it is women and children – girls and boys – who actually bore the brunt of the impact of the austerity cuts. And we never did that.
“They were also asked to look at the impact of Brexit upon women and girls. And we never did that. And another example of our indifference to this UN Convention, which was developed [i.e., adopted] in 1979, the UK government ratified it in 1985, is that not once in over 42 years has this government ever nominated anyone from this country to even sit on that Committee of 26 members.”
The present government’s – as well as previous governments’ – indifference to CEDAW may be reflected by the lack of an institutional attempt to educate people in the UK about CEDAW and its significance and relevance in public and private life. Consequently, Owen noted: “Many people in this country, many women in this country, don’t even know about the existence of CEDAW, they’ve never heard of the UN Commission.
“They probably don’t even know about the work of UN women. And the Labour party” – the main party in opposition – “I’m afraid, has lost a huge opportunity. (…) If only they would come out and attack the present government for its appalling way in which it is treating gender equality and women’s empowerment and all sorts of different areas in respect of women’s lives in this country. (…) I have to say that the Labour Party in its manifesto had said that it would reinstate or fill the gap left by the Women’s National Commission, the WNC, and set something else up, although they have been extraordinarily silent about it in the last decade we’ve had this Tory government. (…)
“We’ve got more women in prison than any other country in Europe. We have masses of women in prison who should not be in prison. They’re there because of huge discrimination against women. (…) They should not be in prison. And then, the way we treat migrant women, refugee women, and detain them as well, is also a huge violation of our obligations under CEDAW and under the Refugee Convention.”
Margaret Owen also drew attention to other critical women’s concerns that are not being currently addressed: “We’ve just been hearing about the Sarah Everard murder, and rape, and how appalling both our police and Crown Prosecution Service has been and how Vera Baird QC, who is the Victim Commissioner, also talks about how few convictions there are even for rape and how women don’t even feel it’s even worth reporting rape to the police, because their track record of actually following up is so bad.”
And yet, despite several people and organisations and UK All-Party Parliamentary Groups raising all these concerns, Owen noted that “when we speak to our own government about what they are doing, and [ask], will they domesticate CEDAW, the answer from the Government Equality Office is, ‘Well, no, we’re not legislating, we’re not domesticating CEDAW (…) because we don’t find the articles legislable. And besides, (…) we’ve got the Human Rights Act. But the Human Rights Act (…) does not cover, is not focused, on women and women’s rights.
“And besides, we know that that Boris Johnson’s [government is] also threatening the Human Rights Act itself, and we’re worried also that they’re going to take away judicial review. So, we haven’t really got much time and I long, I beg, the Labour Party – the opposition – to actually prioritise women’s rights and [emphasise] the importance of CEDAW in order for this government to comply with its obligations. This is international law.”
Owen: Turkey and Liz Truss’ ‘most toxic combination of two portfolios’
Owen added: “What is extraordinary and I have to say this, (…) is that Liz Truss, who is now the Foreign Secretary, was previously the Minister for International Trade but at the same time, she was also Minister for Women and Equalities. And now, as Foreign Secretary, she is also still Minister for Women and Equalities. But this was a most toxic combination of two portfolios – that whilst she was actually Secretary for International Trade, she was signing massive trade deals with countries like Turkey” – which has disturbingly high femicide rates – “that came out of the Istanbul Convention, the [Council of Europe] Convention on preventing and combatting violence against women and domestic violence.”
The Turkish government “is a misogynist and racist regime, and there she is, as International Trade Secretary, and now she is Foreign Secretary. And again, is absolutely impervious, it seems, to the fact that the countries that she wants to work with are often countries which are extremely misogynist as well as racist.”
As Margaret Owen noted in her podcast interview with Medya News last week, “We have, since 2005, an international arms treaty in which over 153 UN members agreed that they would not sell arms to regimes that violated human rights.” Turkey is clearly violating human rights in an extreme fashion and yet the UK government continues to promote an arms trade with it and extend extensive diplomatic support to it.
Turkey is “conducting a genocide against the Kurds,” she stated. “And when it entered Syria, supported by NATO, that is questionable as Turkey was not being attacked by Syria. It went in rhetorically to fight ISIS. But, in fact, it went in to attack the Kurds. And there is much evidence of how it was actually supporting jihadist militias including ISIS.”
And “just in the last few weeks, we hear that Turkey, not only in Syria but in northern Iraq, is using chemical weapons, and is attacking Sinjar, the homeland of the Yazidis. (…) It is attacking schools and hospitals, the Maxmur refugee camp, home to 12,000 Kurdish refugees.” And yet, despite this, noted Owen, Turkey remains “one of the UK’s greatest allies. Extraordinary, with all the evidence of what Turkey has been doing both in southeast Turkey/northern Kurdistan, in Southern [Iraqi] Kurdistan (…) and in Syria, in violation of international law. Turkey is not even on the list of ‘countries of concern’ that the Foreign Office keeps.
“As for the arms trade, ever since Brexit, this government is keen to go anywhere to find countries that we can sign trade deals with and sell arms to. (…) It is unbelievable that we should be supporting” a government “which is so overtly misogynist, which is cracking down in Turkey on women’s NGOs, which is imprisoning women lawyers, women journalists, women’s rights organisations and we are silent even when it is going into northern Iraq.”
Owen: ‘The cutting of our aid budget … will have extraordinary, irrevocable impacts’ on the lives of women and girls’
Owen, in the podcast, noted the concerns that are being raised from several quarters in the country “not just about the impact of government policies on women and girls in this country, but the impact of our policies on women and girls all over the world – for example, the cutting of our aid budget from 7% to 5% will have extraordinary, irrevocable impacts on the lives of women and girls in some of the poorest countries in the world.
“Where we used to lead about girls’ education, about health care, about family planning,” the situation has changed, and, in a context in which widows are being increasingly marginalised in several parts of the world, the UK’s aid cuts will only exacerbate an already desperate situation for many: “Widows are of all ages, and their numbers are increasing [in an] unprecedented [fashion]. Not just anymore because of armed conflict but now because of Covid-19, because Covid-19 has become a massive widowmaker (…) and in many of the conflict afflicted countries, and the poorest fragile countries, the poverty of these widows has reached even worse proportions because under lockdown, the widows could not/cannot even find work outside the home.”
With remittances also down due to the impacts of the global lock-downs, in desperation and in order often to look after their children, many desperate widows have had to consider ever more dangerous work, “in domestic service, begging, even prostitution” or hard, manual “agricultural labour.”
“So the poverty of these widows is extreme,” she noted, and where outside help has “gone,” with a reduction in the UK’s aid budget and delivery, there has been “a terrible impact, particularly on the lives of women and children. And we [also] cut all of our grant to UNFPA [the United Nations Population Fund, a UN agency aimed at improving reproductive and maternal health worldwide], we cut our grant here to the IPPF [International Planned Parenthood Federation], (…) so this is a very, very challenging issue.”
The ‘tragedy’ of the collapse of the CEDAW Tribunal and the questionable subsequent use of ‘testimonies’
Given all these stated concerns, Owen noted that a special Permanent Peoples’ Tribunal (PPT) on CEDAW, examining the UK government’s stance on it, was organised this summer. The PPT, she observed, is “an extraordinary – really unique – and valuable contribution to the human rights architecture because these Peoples’ Tribunals can gather evidence from the voices that are so often not heard, voices from civil society, from the most vulnerable, from the most discriminated against, and they can gather evidence on a really quite massive scale that conventional courts have not got the capacity or the time to do – for example, just about a month ago, there was an amazing PPT on the Uighurs. (…) And of course, we’ve had a PPT about the Kurds and we had one about child abuse. (…) So, it was important to have one about CEDAW.”
Headquartered in Rome, the PPT “is an internationally recognised civil society human rights tribunal functioning independently of state authorities. It applies internationally recognised human rights law and policy to cases brought before it. The PPT is a descendant of the 1967 Bertrand Russell – Jean Paul Sartre Vietnam War Crimes Tribunal, and it hears cases in which prima facie evidence suggests abridgement of basic rights of ordinary people.
“Most PPT Sessions are similar to courtroom proceedings in which a complainant or class of complainants brings an action against a government or private party and asks that they be judged against legal standards. (…) The judges hear testimony from victims, witnesses and experts in various fields, hear arguments from prosecuting and defence attorneys, deliberate and in time issue findings and recommended remedies.
“The importance and strength of decisions by the PPT rest on the moral weight of the causes and arguments to which they give credibility, as well as the integrity and capability to judge of the Tribunal members. The goal of PPT Sessions is ‘recovering the authority of the Peoples when the States and the International Bodies failed to protect the right of the Peoples.’”
Margaret noted: “The tragedy was, it was in June. It went on for three days in June. And there were probably about 40 people giving testimonies to a body of judges who were giving their time pro bono (unpaid) to actually assess these testimonies. And I was the first person to open as a witness for the prosecution – being interrogated, cross-examined by one of the leading judges who is [Emerita] Professor of International Law, Christine Chinkin,” Professorial Research Fellow and Founding Director of the Centre of Women Peace and Security at the LSE.
Chinkin is a barrister, member of Matrix Chambers, a William C Cook Global Law Professor at the University of Michigan Law School and was a Scientific Advisor to the Council of Europe’s Committee for the drafting of the Convention on Preventing and Combatting Violence against Women and Domestic Violence (popularly known as the Istanbul Convention).
“And there were extraordinary testimonies,” Owen noted, “given particularly from migrant women, from LBT+ women, from refugee women talking about what was happening in this country in terms of discrimination against women and girls. (…) We heard appalling descriptions of discrimination against women happening in this country. (…)
“And then, unconscionably, [in an] unprecedented [fashion], for the first time in my knowledge, a People’s Tribunal has collapsed. The judges – it has to be as at a tribunal, at least three – and there were four judges, and they all [bar one] resigned. They resigned because the committee that set up this tribunal demanded that they give their verdict by August” this year – the Tribunal had only started hearing witnesses in June.
“They said they couldn’t do it until October, they would do a summary, one for them in August, and then the committee has told them their verdict would then go back to Garden Court Chambers and be ‘assessed’ again by some of the lawyers. Of course, this was absolutely – I mean it was insulting to the judges. When a judge gives a verdict, you don’t expect it to go back to the lawyers for them to ‘assess’ it. So the judges resigned.
“And we – there were about eight of the maybe 40 testimonies, I was one of eight people that supported the judges, were appalled by the way they had been treated, and understood why they had resigned. And we also wanted to know why this was happening. And we tried to get a joint Zoom meeting with the committee and they refused.
“We had given permission for our evidence to be used for the purpose of the Tribunal, but not for anything else and I’m afraid they now have used our evidence. One of the judges who didn’t resign, the Honourable Dr. Jocelynne Scutt” – a human rights lawyer and senior law fellow at the University of Buckingham – “I think she did a lone report, but it wasn’t a Tribunal report because the Tribunal has to have at least three judges. So, they’ve used our evidence in a way that was not what we agreed to. (…)
“We are saying that we own these testimonies and we did not agree that they should be used for anything other than for the Tribunal. But what has happened, without our permission, is that the committee that was in charge of the Tribunal have now gone to Number 10 [Downing Street, the residence of Prime Minister Boris Johnson] and delivered a report which was written by this one judge who did not resign, the Honourable Dr. Jocelynne Scutt, and they said they were promoting a UK Women’s Bill of Rights.
“But that is not what any of us NGOs asked for. We do not want a UK Women’s Bill of Rights. We want our government to comply with the UN Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination Against Women, which is international law.
“We don’t want something like that [i.e., a UK Women’s Bill of Rights]. So we are now, some of us are very (…) angry at the way we are being treated and we’re in battle, in a way, with the committee, and we are still arguing that we own the copyright of our own testimonies and at least it’s there, incredible testimonies are there, still to be used next year, when we can start again, and get a proper Peoples’ Tribunal on CEDAW.”
In this context, Owen concluded that this “Tribunal on CEDAW has been a complete catastrophe and a fiasco, and yet all their evidence is very, very important and we hope, maybe, that next year we can start afresh with a new lot of lawyers and new – maybe these – judges will come back and help us again. Because it’s really, really important that we make our government accountable for their violations of this very, very important Convention.
“And I finish by saying we’re deeply upset about what happened with the Tribunal because it didn’t happen. But I hope that next year, we can start again (…) and have a Tribunal for CEDAW for this country. And I hope that it will work. And it will be a model for other countries all over the world to have their own national Peoples’ Tribunals on their position with CEDAW because many, many countries ratify this Convention but actually they don’t comply with it.”
Owen also, in the podcast, detailed the reasons why people (including herself) are looking towards drafting a new Everywoman Treaty which she hoped “the UN will look at and adopt.”
Desmond Fernandes is a former Senior Lecturer in Human Geography at De Montfort University and the author of several books and articles focusing on human rights and gender rights related concerns.