Tonga: Civil Society and CEDAW

By Tait Brimacombe

A recent trip to Tonga to conduct research on civil society and gendered power structures coincided with a period of intense public debate around the country’s potential ratification of the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW). These CEDAW debates serve as a useful illustration of some of the broader issues at play within Tonga’s civil society sector.

Adopted by the UN General Assembly in 1979, CEDAW is recognised globally as a key human rights instruments. In addition to outlining what constitutes discrimination against women, CEDAW also contains provisions for parties to the convention to express reservations against articles that would be in direct conflict with particular cultural or religious beliefs.

Despite potential for a number of CEDAW’s articles to come into conflict with local laws and religious and cultural beliefs in many Pacific Island Countries, Tonga and Palau remain the only Pacific countries not to ratify the convention.

Tonga initially made moves to ratify CEDAW in 2006 and again later in 2011, but in both instances the process was suspended amid fears that the United Nations wouldn’t accept Tonga’s reservations to a number of articles. Since this time, numerous public consultations have been held throughout the country, with stakeholders deciding in February of this year to re-submit ratification to Cabinet. On March 6th, the Government of Tonga approved the commencement of the ratification process.

While this announcement has been welcomed by the UN, since the news has been made public it has resulted in vigorous public debate. On the one hand, a number of key women’s group and human rights advocates in the country have been aggressively campaigning for years about the ratification of CEDAW and liberalisation of Tonga’s laws in accordance with the convention. On the other hand, Tonga’s conservative majority are adamantly opposed to the ratification which is seen to violate the country’s inheritance and succession laws. There have also been a number of concerns raised about the potential for CEDAW to open up avenues to legalise abortion and same sex marriage, both of which are currently the subject of constitutional bans.

Despite announcing their intention a number of months ago, the Government of Tonga has yet to ratify the Convention, amidst ambiguity over the reservations process and community protest and petition. Proponents of CEDAW have suggested that the ratification process has been hampered by the Government’s use of terms such as abortion and same sex marriage, which are not directly referred to in the convention. In addition, misinformation and misconceptions about CEDAW’s articles and the ratification/reservation process have further fuelled conflict.

Through these debates, there has emerged a clear need for effective communication and information sharing. Despite efforts on the part of some of Tonga’s civil society to combat these misunderstandings and counter anti-CEDAW protests, they are facing an uphill battle – significantly under-resourced by comparison to conservative church and communities groups.

Furthermore, the competitive funding environment for civil society in Tonga has fostered an atmosphere of antagonism between key organisations in Tonga’s women’s movement. Suggestions by donors and funding partners that civil society groups should be more thematically specialist rather than opting for diversification, has resulted in conflict over thematic battle grounds, with multiple organisations endeavouring to be the sole ‘public face’ of particular campaigns. Arguments around CEDAW in Tonga are serving to bring these existing tensions and limitations within civil society to the forefront.

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