Skip to main content area Skip to institutional navigation Skip to search Skip to section navigation

Simmons co-authors article demonstrating how countries self-reporting treaty compliance can enhance women’s rights

May 17, 2019

In a groundbreaking article, co-authors University of Pennsylvania Law School Professor Beth Simmons and University of Minnesota Assistant Professor Cosette D. Creamer marshal empirical evidence to demonstrate for the first time that self-reporting processes within international human rights treaty regimes actually generate positive domestic policy changes. The article, “The Dynamic Impact of Periodic Review on Women’s Rights,” appears in a recent issue of the Journal of Law and Contemporary Problems and challenges the conventional wisdom that the process of self-reporting on compliance with human rights treaties serves no useful purpose.

Simmons is the Andrea Mitchell University Professor in Law, Political Science and Business Ethics at Penn, and her research focuses on international affairs. Creamer’s research interests are at the intersection of international law and politics, and the empirical analysis of law.

In the article, Creamer and Simmons focus their study on the Convention on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW), a treaty that has been described as an international bill of rights for women. Core provisions call for nations to ensure women’s equality before the law, respect women’s rights to work and receive equal pay, prevent violence against women and sex trafficking, and more. Under CEDAW’s self-reporting regime, ratifying states “must submit reports every four years on the legislative, judicial, administrative, or other measures adopted to give effect to their women’s rights obligations.” The reports are submitted to the Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women (CmEDAW), which is “comprised of independent experts nominated and elected by states parties. CmEDAW then considers these reports in the presence of government representatives, acknowledges progress made, and identifies areas for improvement.”

Historically, several human rights treaties have called for self-reporting. However, “until the CEDAW, no treaty on women’s rights or issues contained an obligation for parties to self-report.” In terms of compliance with the self-reporting obligation, CEDAW has been relatively successful: “Of the 188 states parties to the CEDAW in 2016, only five countries had still not submitted their initial report,” Creamer and Simmons write.

As an initial step in their evaluation of the effects of self-reporting, Creamer and Simmonsread all 621 reports submitted to the CmEDAW from 1982-2014 and coded them along four dimensions: implementation, compliance, and data — which relate to report quality — and  responsiveness. “A report’s ‘quality score’ (an index of the three quality measures) is based on the states party’s willingness to recognize shortcomings in implementation or compliance, and to provide gender-disaggregated data. A report’s ‘responsiveness score’ is based on how well the report engages with the Committee’s previous concluding observations.” In reviewing the reports, they found that “the richer and larger a polity, the more likely it is to report in a given year.” They also found “some evidence that reporting is, at least initially, correlated with strong buy-in to the human rights treaty system in general. The higher percentage of major human rights treaties a state has ratified, the more likely it is to turn in its CEDAW reports, though this relationship is substantively not large.”

After examining the degree to which parties comply with CEDAW’s reporting obligations, Creamer and Simmons went on to evaluate whether compliance yielded measurable impacts on women’s rights within the reporting countries.

As they explain, scholars and policymakers have been skeptical of the utility of self-reporting. “The system of self-reporting as a whole continues to be criticized as inadequate, ineffective and even ‘in crisis,’” the co-authors write. “Some observers point to the professional inadequacies of the ‘expert’ committees. Others note that states — even resource rich, democratic ones — ignore what they are told to do by the experts.”

Using data from Latin American countries that have ratified CEDAW, Creamer and Simmons’ study found that self-reporting “encourage[d] domestic actors to demand and implement change” on women’s rights issues through three mutually reinforcing mechanisms: “mobilization of domestic civil society around reporting in the form of shadow reports; discussion of the reporting process in local media; and evidence that legislators begin to take note and consider how to improve treaty implementation through legislation.”

Shadow reports are generated and submitted to the CmEDAW by non-governmental civil society organizations (CSOs) that work on women’s rights issues. “CEDAW ratification has had an influence on domestic politics by stimulating formation of women’s organizations, at least in some cases,” Creamer and Simmons write. “When governments turn in their self-rendered reports, women’s groups regularly spring into action to correct, supplement, and criticize the official account of implementation progress.”

Creamer and Simmons closely examined the shadow reports from Latin American countries, and found that “[f]or the 182 state reports submitted between 2007 and 2014, CSOs provided [CmEDAW] with a total of 1,026 shadow reports,” about a third of which came from domestic—rather than international—CSOs. Thus, the data indicate that “domestic civil society actors are willing to point out the shortcomings in the state reports and explain to the CmEDAW exactly how the government has fallen short” in implementing women’s rights obligations. As such, the shadow reports represent “authentic and critical domestic efforts to hold governments accountable for implementation of their obligations under CEDAW.”

Looking to press coverage of the reporting process, Creamer and Simmons “searched the major local press outlets of fifteen Latin American countries for awareness and discussion of the reporting-and-review process.” While the findings varied from one country to another, in general they found that the reporting process was successfully generating public discussion of women’s rights issues.

Finally, since a number of CEDAW obligations — from criminalizing gender-based violence to prohibiting gender discrimination in public educational systems — depend on the implementation of legislation, Creamer and Simmons looked at evidence that countries’ legislative bodies took such obligations into account when drafting and passing laws. In Argentina, for example, following the country’s 2002 CEDAW review and 2004 follow-up, “the new government undertook a number of legislative reforms to further implement CEDAW obligations and to mitigate the effects of the economic crisis on women.” In the process, legislators frequently made reference to specific CEDAW provisions.

Legislative attention did not always correlate with improved conditions for women, however. In Mexico, they noted that although “Mexican legislators have referred to CEDAW obligations and Committee recommendations when legislating on women’s rights more frequently than others in the region, … in the first twenty years after ratifying CEDAW, discrimination and violence against women remained a persistent problem.”

Ultimately, Creamer and Simmons conclude, although the reporting system has weaknesses, the evidence suggests “that self-reporting and dialogue between state representatives and international experts indeed generates new ideas, advice, and domestic pressure for change in practice” on issues related to women’s rights.

“Far from finding that no one pays attention to this process outside the halls of Geneva,” they write, “it turns out that in Latin America at least the review process literally piques the media’s, and potentially the public’s, interest.”