Discussion paper: Gender equality and human rights

The principle of equality is a central commitment in international human rights instruments. However, the right to equality is generally defined in open-textured terms. The central covenants simply refer to an obligation on States to ensure human rights without ‘distinction’, ‘discrimination’, ‘exclusion’, or ‘restriction’ or ‘on the basis of equality’ as between men and women. The open-textured nature of this principle has been elaborated through the concluding observations, general recommendations, general comments and case law of the treaty bodies, as well as through the reports of experts operating under the special procedures of the Human Rights Council.

This paper, by Sandra Fredman and Beth Goldblatt, aims to draw out the evolving understandings of equality in order to articulate a clear standard by which to evaluate social and economic policies and thereby to ‘make the economy work for women’ (the purpose of the broader Progress of the World’s Women report). We show that in the context of women, these understandings are best conceived as an elaboration of the principle of substantive equality. Traditionally, equality has been understood in formal terms, requiring simply that likes be treated alike. In the United States, this traditional understanding is known as the ‘anticlassification’ principle, which requires individuals to be treated on their own merit, regardless of their race, or other equivalent characteristics. 

Download the PDF here.