By Thalif DeenUNITED NATIONS Mar 15 (IPS) - A U.N. body dealing with women's rights is seriously concerned at the growing list of formal reservations lodged by member states - even as they sign and ratify an international treaty to eliminate gender discrimination.
Of the 161 countries ratifying the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women, about 44 have said they will not implement certain provisions of the treaty on political, constitutional, cultural or religious grounds.
Some of the countries that have ratified the Convention have objected to Article 2 which compels them to enter into a contractual obligation with the United Nations to take all necessary measures to ensure equality of women.
''If a country enters a reservation on the very basis of the convention - which guarantees the general principle of equality - then it really becomes a matter of concern,'' says Salma Khan of Bangladesh, head of the U.N. Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW). ''So when you enter a reservation on Article 2, you are violating and nullifying the whole concept and sense of the Convention.''
Equally strong objections, she says, have also been raised against Article 16, which concerns equality in family life.
Angela King, U.N. Special Adviser on Gender Issues, says despite 161 ratifications, ''there was no cause for complacency since the Convention remained plagued by a large number of reservations'. Ratification, she points out, had not necessarily meant policy and legal changes in some states parties.
Under-Secretary-General Mary Robinson, U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights, said two of her priorities this year would be a campaign for the universal ratification of the Convention and the removal of substantive reservations.
Adopted by the General Assembly in December 1979, the Convention has been described as ''the most comprehensive, legally binding treaty on women's human rights.'' The first 16 Articles call on states to take appropriate measures to ensure women's civil, political, economic and cultural rights, and their legal equality.
The rights of women to take part in the political and public life of their countries, and to perform all functions at all levels of government are also guaranteed by the Convention. The treaty also calls for eliminating discrimination in the field of education, employment, health and other areas of economic and social life.
The 44 countries expressing ''reservations'' and ''objections'' to the some of the Articles in the Convention include Algeria, Argentina, Australia, Austria, Belgium, Brazil, China, Canada, Egypt, France, Germany, India, Italy, Malaysia, New Zealand, the Netherlands, South Korea, Singapore, Spain, the United Kingdom and Venezuela.
The United States, which signed the Convention in July 1980, has not ratified it because of right-wing Congressional opposition to a treaty what is virtually a Bill of Rights for Women. But there are several Middle Eastern countries, including Saudi Arabia, Iran, Oman, Qatar, Sudan, Syria and the United Arab Emirates, which have neither signed nor ratified the Convention. They have ignored the Convention -- in its entirety.
Khan said that some of the opponents of the treaty cite ethnic, cultural and religious reasons for their objections. Most of the Islamic countries, including Egypt, have said that they are only willing to comply with Article 2 ''provided such compliance does not run counter'' to Islamic Sharia laws.
Algeria has said it is prepared to apply the provisions of Article 2 ''on condition they do not conflict with the provisions of the Algerian Family Code.''
Australia has pointed out that it is presently not in a position to take measures, as required by the Convention, to introduce maternity leave with pay or with comparable social benefits throughout Australia.
Singapore says that in the context of its multi-racial and multi-religious society - ''and the need to respect the freedom of minorities to practise their religious and personal laws'' - it reserves the right not to apply certain provisions of the Convention where compliance with these provisions would be contrary to religious and personal laws.
India, while agreeing with the principle of compulsory registration of marriages, says that ''it is not practical in a vast country like India with its variety of customs, religious and level of literacy.''
The rash of reservations has evoked strong reactions from human rights and women's organisations. The 1995 Fourth World Conference on Women in Beijing reiterated the need for all 185 member states to ratify the Convention.
''We demand the universal ratification of the Convention and the removal of all limiting reservations, as the Beijing Platform directs, by the year 2000,'' a coalition of women's organisations said last week. The coalition, which included the Women's Right Division of Human Rights Watch and the International Federation of Women Lawyers, said that all governments must outlaw discrimination against women, ''in line with their international human rights obligations.''
The European Union said last week that it ''remains seriously concerned at the number of reservations'' by State Parties to the Convention ''which are incompatible with its object and purpose.''
Speaking on behalf of the EU, Britain's Joan Ruddock said that according to the Convention itself, ''such reservations are not permitted and should be withdrawn.''
''The European Union calls on states to formulate their reservations as precisely and as narrowly as possible, and in accordance with international treaty law,'' she told the U.N. Commission on the Status of Women which concluded a two-week meeting Friday. Furthermore, Ruddock said, member states should review the reservations they have made with a view to their early withdrawal. (END/IPS/td/mk/98)