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Advancing Women’s Equality: The International Human Rights Law(yer) Imperative

By Prof. Obiora Chinedu Okafor

York Research Chair in International and Transnational Legal Studies

Osgoode Hall Law School, York University, Toronto, CanadaUN Independent Expert on Human Rights and International Solidarity

Prof. Obiora Chinedu Okafor

Do international human rights law(yers) have a duty and role to ensure that women’s equality matters? Does this sub-discipline have a duty and role in reversing here and now, as well as over the long duree, the discrimination, disadvantage and dispossession to which women the world over have long been subjected, including by various formations and matrices of (male) power, by various normative and institutional forces?

Law, including international human rights law, has been well said to be “congealed politics” according to Thomas Franck and Mark Munansangu[i], with less shaky, less undefined, less unstable, and less malleable, parameters than the politics that shapes it and that it often encodes. Resort to law tends to signal a seriousness of intent at a level that politics does not always convey.[ii] Law is also a relatively more disciplined tradition within which more credible claims against the status quo can often be made.[iii]

These are important reasons why departments of the law such as international human rights law have a crucial role in the struggle against gender inequality (especially as it relates to women), or to paraphrase Judith Butler, in the struggle against the apparently “ungrievable” character of the lives of vast populations of women around the world. These are also some of the reasons why international human rights lawyers bear an important duty, and are very well positioned, to play a significant role – within each of their abilities and capacities, and in tandem with a rich, experientially-derived and just praxis that is being driven by women themselves – in the struggle against a persistent and indefensible gender inequality that continues to dog state and society the world over.

Thus, male international human rights lawyers also bear a duty to imagine, express and enact a praxis that is in solidarity with this struggle, in as much measure as they are able to, and with as much modesty as is required.

For the struggle to render women’s lives much more grievable, far less unequal, much less violated, and fare more fulfilled than they have historically been, requires not just the enactment of a just international human rights law praxis, but its enactment in concert with the men who have tended to dominate the ranks of this sub-discipline.

This effort to advance gender equality through the more concerted and effective deployment of international human rights law should be well within reach. For, that sub-discipline has long provided us with a repertoire of normative and institutional resources which can be usefully mobilized to enact such a just praxis.


[i] “The New International Economic Order: International Law in the Making?,” UNITAR Policy and Efficacy Studies No. 6 (1982). [ii] Beth Simmons, “International Law and State Behaviour: Commitment and Compliance in International Monetary Affairs” (2000) 94 The American Political Science Review 819-835. [iii] Richard Falk, The Status of Law in International Society (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2016).


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