A landmark UN treaty on women's rights, which will be 30 years old next week, is in danger of being politically undermined by a slew of reservations by 22 countries seeking exemptions from some of the convention's legal obligations.
"A reservation must not defeat the object and purpose of a treaty," Ambassador Palitha Kohona, a former chief of the UN Treaty Section, told IPS.
If a state has intrinsic difficulties with a treaty, it has the right not to become a party, he said. "To become a party and then defeat the object and purpose of the treaty is unacceptable," said Kohona, currently Sri Lanka's Permanent Representative to the United Nations.
The Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW), which will commemorate its 30th anniversary on Dec. 18, has been described as "an international bill of rights for women" and has been ratified by 186 member states.
But 22 member states, ranging from Algeria and Australia to the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and the United Kingdom, have exercised their right not to implement certain provisions of the treaty, even though they have signed and ratified CEDAW.
Algeria says it is prepared to apply the provisions of the treaty as long as they do not conflict with the provisions of the Algerian Family Code.
The government of Australia, on the other hand, says it does not accept the application of CEDAW in so far as it would require alteration of the country's defence force policy - which excludes women from combat duties.
The UAE points out that it will not enforce one of the provisions of CEDAW because the provision violates the rules of inheritance established in accordance with the precepts of Shariah, the Islamic law.
Yasmeen Hassan, director of programmes at the New York-based Equality Now told IPS that lack of implementation of CEDAW is exacerbated by countries' reservations to the treaty.
"Many countries, including most Muslim countries [with the exceptions of Afghanistan and Yemen], have significant and broad reservations to CEDAW that nullify their commitment to gender equality," she added.
However, even in these cases, "the positive is that they are obligated to report on the situation of women which gives us a platform to advocate and push for change," she explained.
Kohona said that human rights treaties tend to attract a noticeable number of reservations.
Some treaties, Kohona explained, may prohibit reservations. However, "states having the sovereign right to lodge reservations to treaties in the generality of cases when they become party, have exercised this right extensively," he said.
Others, he pointed out, "have surreptitiously sought to achieve the same objective by crafting clever declarations of understanding."
Consisting of a preamble and 30 articles, CEDAW defines what constitutes discrimination against women and sets up an agenda for national action to eliminate such discrimination.
According to the United Nations, the CEDAW treaty has triggered wide- ranging action in favour of women's rights worldwide.
These include: new constitutional guarantees for women in Thailand; land- owning rights for women in Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan; changes to the law of evidence benefiting women in the Solomon Islands; reproductive health rights in Colombia; and a new "Magna Carta" for women's equality enacted in the Philippines.
But the United Nations complains that the Convention's implementation is uneven, with seven countries still holding back ratifications: Iran, Nauru, Palau, Somalia, Sudan, Tonga and the United States.
However, 186 other states have ratified CEDAW - making it one of the most widely subscribed-to international treaties in existence.
Hassan of Equality Now said that although States' implementation of CEDAW, and their commitment to rights enshrined therein, has been spotty, the convention has been an important tool for women's rights activists all over the world.
"This instrument articulates the standards that we aspire to and can be used in holding governments accountable," she noted.
Women's rights groups have, with success, brought up State failures in complying with this treaty before the CEDAW Committee, and the Committee has issued recommendations that reflect such concerns, Hassan said. "Women's groups can then use these concluding comments to push the government into action."
Although CEDAW has not resulted in States automatically putting their houses in order with respect to women's rights, it is an important advocacy tool to reach the ultimate goal of realisation of gender equality, she declared.
Asked about the status of women in his own country, Kohona told IPS that women's rights have always been respected in Sri Lanka, given that it produced the world's first elected woman prime minister - Sirimavo Bandaranaike, in 1960.
Sri Lanka has not expressed any reservations on the full implementation of CEDAW.
"Women have competed as equals in the job market in Sri Lanka and have overtaken men in the key professions like medicine, law, teaching, nursing, etc," Kohona said, adding that Sri Lanka was ranked 12th in the world in the 2008 UN equal opportunity index.