Landmark human rights case handled by Bahamian advocate at the UN

Landmark human rights case handled by Bahamian advocate at the UN
The United Nations building in Geneva, Switzerland.

GENEVA, SWITZERLAND — Bahamian UN CEDAW member, human rights expert and attorney, Marion Bethel, played a pivotal role in a landmark ruling for Filipina sexual slavery victims during the 84th session of the United Nations Committee on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women.

Marion Bethel

Bethel served as one member of five of the Working Group on Communications under the Optional Protocol of the CEDAW Convention. This working Group was responsible for examining the complaint filed by 24 Filipina nationals. Bethel was also the Case Rapporteur for this particular complaint, according to a press release.

While The Bahamas is a signatory to CEDAW, it has not ratified the Optional Protocol. The Optional Protocol allows women whose rights may have been violated by a State to petition the Committee as individuals. In this circumstance, CEDAW sits as a quasi-judicial body to consider the complaints and may even recommend payment of compensation. 

On 23 November 1944, the complainants of this case, commonly known as “Comfort Women” were forcibly taken to the Bahay na Pula (Red House), the Japanese headquarters in San Ildefonso, Pampanga. They were detained in the Red House for one day to three weeks, where they were repeatedly subjected to rape, other forms of sexual violence, torture and inhumane detention conditions.

According to the press release, the women have since then endured long-term physical, psychological, social, and economic consequences, including physical injuries, post-traumatic stress, permanent damage to their reproductive capacity, and harm to their social relationships in their community, marriage, and work.

The Committee ultimately found that the Philippines failed to provide reparation, social support, and recognition commensurate with the harm perpetrated against the women by the Imperial Japanese Army during the Second World War. It requested that the Philippines provide the victims with full reparation, including material compensation and an official apology for the continuing discrimination.

Bethel said: “This is a symbolic moment of victory for these victims who were previously silenced, ignored, written off, and erased from history in the Philippines. The Committee has duly recognized the agency and voice of these women in seeking social justice and redress for the violation of their human rights. The Committee’s Views not only respect the right of the victims to full reparation inclusive of an apology, they pave the way for the restoration of their dignity, integrity, reputation, and honour.” 

“This case demonstrates that ignoring or trivializing sexual violence against women and girls in war and conflict situations is, indeed, another egregious form of violation of women’s rights. We hope that the Committee’s Decision serves to restore human dignity for all of the Filipina victims, both deceased and living,” Bethel said.

Further, the Committee also reviewed a complaint filed by a Spanish national who underwent premature labour, induction and a cesarean section without her consent. The Committee ruled that the traumatized mother was subjected to obstetric violence and requested that Spain provide full reparation inclusive of an apology for the damage that she suffered to her physical and psychological health. Obstetric violence includes mistreatment as well as verbal and physical abuse.

Bethel continued: “If doctors and nurses had followed all applicable standards and protocols, it might be possible that the victim would have given birth naturally without having to go through a series of procedures that dehumanized her and left her without agency and dignity during childbirth.

“This case calls on us in The Bahamas to reflect on and address our own protocols and standards concerning the treatment of women in health care facilities in compliance with the human rights standards of dignity, respect, and autonomy,” she said.

The Committee also requested Spain take action to combat gender-stereotyping and gender-based violence against women that was widespread, systematic in nature, and ingrained in health systems. This included providing obstetricians and other health workers with adequate professional training on women’s reproductive health rights, and specific training for judicial and law enforcement officials.  

The experts on women’s rights also requested that Spain respect women’s autonomy and ability to make informed decisions about their reproductive health by providing them with complete information at every stage of childbirth and by requiring that their free, prior, and informed consent be obtained for any invasive treatment during childbirth, as well as to develop, publicize and implement a charter of patient’s rights.

The Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) is the only international human rights treaty that focuses explicitly on the rights of women.

Bethel was the first Bahamian national to be elected to a UN Human Rights Treaty Body when she started her first term in 2017.