General Assembly Inches Toward Redefining Gender as Social Construct

By | November 7, 2019

NEW YORK, November 8 (C-Fam) Nations clashed over a proposed UN treaty on crimes against humanity at UN headquarters last week. If adopted, the new treaty would change the definition of gender in international law to include more than 100 genders.

“While the term ‘sex’ is used to refer to biological attributes, ‘gender’ is now more expansively used in recognition of the variety of gender identities and expressions—man or woman, both or neither—which may or may not align with the gender typically or socially associated with a person’s sex,” said the delegate of Canada, expressing gratitude for the decision of the International Law Commission to scrap the definition of “gender” as it appears in the 1998 Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court.

The International Law Commission proposed a draft treaty on the investigation and prosecution of crimes against humanity that drops the definition of gender from the Rome Statue. The 1998 treaty defined gender as “man and woman in the context of society.” The General Assembly must now decide if they want to adopt the treaty, and whether to modify it or not.

Nordic countries praised the decision to drop the definition of gender as man and woman in international law. Others, mostly from Africa, opposed the change and some were adamant that abandoning the definition of gender would prevent their accession to the treaty.

Speaking through Norway, Nordic countries said the change reflected “the current realities and content of international law” and “the social construction of gender, and the accompanying roles, behaviors, activities and attributes assigned to women and men, boys and girls.”

Norway explained that they preferred an explicit definition of gender stating that it is a social construct. Nevertheless, they counted the omission of a definition of gender altogether as a victory because “this allows the term to be applied for the purposes of the present draft articles based on an evolving understanding as to its meaning.”

Other delegations similarly praised the move, including the United Kingdom, Slovenia, Estonia, and Argentina.

New Zealand said the absence of a definition “reflects the diversity of concepts of gender identity across the world.”

Several delegations expressed their objections also.

A delegate from Senegal characterized the “suppression” of the definition of gender as “one of the major obstacles in the elaboration of the convention.”

The Egyptian delegate said dropping the definition of gender was a “violation of the terms of reference” of the International Law Commission, which had promised the General Assembly it would not change any of the definitions of the Rome Statute.

A delegate from Belarus suggested it would be best “to use internationally agreed-upon wording to ensure the universality of a future convention.” Another delegate, from Uzbekistan, also made this point about unanimity, as did the delegation from Togo.

The Holy See said the definition of gender from the Rome Statute “is an integral part of the definition of the crimes as agreed during the Rome Conference.”

The General Assembly debated also the process that would lead to adopting the new treaty. Countries seemed to lean in favor of a conference of parties to negotiate and adopt the treaty. The United States proposed waiting until the year 2021 before taking up the treaty and assigning a “working group” of states for this purpose. A smaller number of nations, including China, maintained the treaty was not necessary.