A UN General Assembly committee has agreed on a landmark first resolution on women’s rights defenders such as Malala Yousufzai, despite a hard-fought campaign to weaken the measure.
A Norwegian-led coalition, which spent months preparing the resolution, deleted language that condemned “all forms of violence against women” to get the text passed by consensus on Wednesday.
African nations, the Vatican, Iran, Russia, China and conservative Muslim states had sought to weaken the resolution passed by the assembly’s human rights committee, diplomats and activists said.
The campaign for women’s rights defenders has been given a huge boost in recent months by the likes of Malala, the Pakistani teenager allegedly shot in the head by the Taliban for her battle for girls’ education, and Denis Mukwege, a doctor from the Democratic Republic of the Congo who was briefly forced into exile for his work helping women who had been raped.
Both were named as Nobel Peace Prize candidates this year.
The resolution calls on all states to publicly condemn violence against defenders of women’s human rights, amend legislation that hinders them and give activists free access to UN bodies.
“The international community has sent a clear message. It’s unacceptable to criminalize, stigmatize or curtail women’s human rights defenders,” said Geir Sjoberg, the Norwegian government’s lead negotiator on the resolution.
He added that the key aim now would be to make sure governments are held to commitments made in the text.
“There is a great mismatch between realities for brave women on the ground and what was agreed to today. The real work starts now,” Sjoberg added.
Fraught negotiations were held over the text.
African countries had insisted on highlighting respect for customs and traditions. Russia, Iran and China had called for language which insisted the rights defenders should follow national laws, diplomats and activists said.
In the end, Norway agreed to delete a paragraph which said states should “strongly condemn all forms of violence against women and women human rights defenders and refrain from invoking any customs, traditions or religious consideration to avoid their obligations.”
African nations in turn withdrew a proposed amendment which said human rights defenders had to fall in line with “local situations,” diplomats said.
More than 30 European countries withdrew as cosponsors of the resolution in protest at the concessions.
Iceland stayed as a cosponsor, but its UN ambassador Greta Gunnarsdottir called the concession “a low point” for the UN rights committee.
The Vatican led opponents to references in the draft to the risks faced by those working on sexual and reproductive health and gender rights, activists who monitored the talks said.
Rights groups said the UN committee should have stood firm against the changes.
Women’s human rights defenders often “challenge traditional religious and cultural values and practices which subordinate, stigmatize or restrict women” when they take up gender and sexual rights, said Eleanor Openshaw of the International Service for Human Rights.