Britain has always provided a fertile soil for worthy causes: we are indeed noticeably spoilt for choice. But with all such causes you have to read the small print quite carefully to see what you might be signing up to: witness recently Stonewall, with its increasing backing for extreme trans ideology, or BLM (at least the official organisation), whose aims include the dismantling of capitalism and the nuclear family.
Which brings us to a relatively new organisation now aggressively presenting itself to feminists on social media and elsewhere, and proudly claiming to provide an essential block in the construction of a culture of progressive sexual equality: namely, the CEDAW People’s Tribunal, or CEDAWPT for short. Founded in the summer of 2020, this group boasts a portentous website and an impressive line-up of successful lawyers backing it. It also, despite its promotion as a “grassroots organisation,” possesses a remarkable sense of its own importance. “The CEDAW People’s Tribunal,” a banner on its website proclaims, “will echo in eternity on the right side of history.”
CEDAWPT’s purpose is to “deliver an inquisitorial tribunal hearing” concerning the fact that the UK has not enacted as part of its law a UN human rights convention, the Convention for the Elimination of Discrimination against Women (known as CEDAW), despite having ratified it on the international plane over thirty years ago. CEDAWPT will, we are told, decide whether the UK has acted legitimately, and “make necessary recommendations as to how the Convention can be given full effect in the UK, advancing women in all aspects of society and recognising historic inequalities.”
Measures like these may be a good thing, but the decisions needs to be taken by politicians, not activists
Before you rush out to express your support for it, however, or recommend it to your friends, you should take a closer look. The words “People’s Tribunal” may suggest a kind of democratic independence, coupled with an appearance of legality, balanced views and solemn impartiality; there is, however, an unconvincing and at times slightly sinister air about the whole thing.
For one thing, it is not quite clear what kind of “inquisitorial hearing” the organisation intends to hold. The idea of a “People’s Tribunal” is not new. There have been a number set up in the past, but these have normally been in connection with alleged atrocities in countries where access is difficult, there is dispute over the facts, and sufferers and their relatives need to be heard (the latest is the Uyghur Tribunal which plans next year to take evidence about events in Xinjiang in China). But as regards CEDAW, there is no serious factual dispute. The UK is a party to the treaty, but has not enacted it as part of its law as many think it should. There is precious little for a tribunal, however grandiosely named, to do, apart from acting as just another pressure group trying to persuade the UK government to change its mind.
And indeed, if you look at the composition of the Tribunal, you get a strong suspicion that that is exactly what it is. Its panel of “independent judges” comprises a radical Australian feminist lawyer, a retired professor from the human rights circuit who doubles as a member of the left-wing Matrix Chambers, two other law professors specialising in violence against women and minorities and in women’s human rights, and a human rights barrister and director of Sisters for Change. This is not to question their distinction. But a group chosen for impartiality this is not. As for the other members of CEDAWPT, virtually without exception they are progressive or left-wing. Most are lawyers, many being drawn from yet another radical set of barristers’ chambers, Garden Court. There are also a few solicitors and other academics, a UN apparatchik and a few union officials, coupled with a group of law students of impeccably progressive outlook.
In other words, CEDAWPT looks in essence like a group of worthy activists masquerading as a tribunal because the latter looks classier. This, indeed, is something that might have been seen from its origin. It was founded by Joanne Welch as a continuation of an earlier organisation of hers, Back to 60, which was unashamedly a campaigning body; last year it brought (and resoundingly lost) legal proceedings to have millions of women paid back pensions allegedly lost as a result of an unfair change in the law. The funding of both organisations is unclear, but both have resorted to crowdfunding in a way that has raised eyebrows in certain far from conservative circles.
It would force the UK to “modify social and cultural patterns” and in schools require the “revision of textbooks”
Moreover, while the members of CEDAWPT are obviously there to root for women’s equality, this comes with a good deal of extra baggage which many moderate feminists may find rather uncomfortable.
One add-on is an apparent commitment to the promotion of trans ideology and a refusal to accommodate gender-critical thought: as pointed out here, for example, CEDAWPT when challenged by old-fashioned believers in women’s equality has pointedly failed to state its views on the gender question.
But quite apart from the gender question, the enactment of CEDAW in domestic law (referred to by CEDAWPT as a Women’s Bill of Rights) would — as might be expected from a UN-drafted treaty, where there is a habit of sneaking rather controversial matters into the verbiage — include a good deal more than equality. It would mandate as a matter of domestic law “social services to enable parents to combine family obligations with work responsibilities and participation in public life, in particular through promoting the establishment and development of a network of child-care facilities” and “access to health care services, including those related to family planning.” This is all very well, but words like this could be interpreted as requiring free universal childcare or ready access to abortion, neither of which is uncontroversial. More frighteningly still, it would oblige the UK government by Act of Parliament to take steps to “modify social and cultural patterns” to eliminate stereoypes and prejudices (Art.5 of CEDAW) and even in schools require the “revision of textbooks” to the same end (Art.10).
Now, measures like these may or may not be a good thing. But the decision whether to adopt one or more of them (or to repeal them) needs to be taken by politicians subject to electoral consequences. That they should be taken by unelected judges on judicial review applications – which would undoubtedly be the result were CEDAWPT’s proposals to succeed — would be a very disconcerting development. However enlightened you personally may think lawyers are, a further judicialisation of matters of important social policy is a distinct attack on democracy.
You have been warned. There is more to CEDAWPT than meets the eye. It is neither a tribunal, nor for what we can see much to do with the people: and it seems likely to call for measures that are to say the least undemocratic, and certainly thoroughly illiberal. By all means call for women’s equality: but be careful what institutions you give your approval to as a means to that end.
Enjoying The Critic online? It's even better in print
Try five issues of Britain’s newest magazine for £10Subscribe