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Ascension Island/Bermuda/St. Helena/Tristan da Cunha/United Kingdom: Convention on Women Extended to Overseas Territories

(May 10, 2017) The Government of the United Kingdom recently extended the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women to some of its overseas territories, namely Ascension Island, Bermuda, St. Helena, and Tristan da Cunha. (Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women, opened for signature Mar. 1, 1980, entered into force Sept. 3, 1981, 1249 U.N.T.S. 13 United Nations Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights website.)  This extension provides international protections against discrimination to over 35,000 women in these jurisdictions. (Press Release, Foreign & Commonwealth Office et al., UK Extends Women’s Rights Protections to Bermuda and St Helena (Mar. 16, 2017).)

The Treaty defines the nature of discrimination against women is and provides a bill of rights for women and a framework for addressing gender inequality.  The overseas territories to which the Treaty has been extended must ensure that women’s rights are protected by adopting such measures providing equal rights for women to enter contracts, purchase property, and receive education, and stopping trafficking and the exploitation of women in prostitution.  (UK Extends Women’s Rights Protections to Bermuda and St Helena, supra.) 

The Treaty Extension Process 

Overseas territories of the UK do not have the ability to become parties to a treaty without express authorization from the UK government.  (Guidelines on Extension of Treaties to Overseas Territories, Foreign and Commonwealth Office website (Mar. 19, 2013).)  Instead, the UK enters into treaties in accordance with its constitutional conventions and laws and has the authority to extend treaties that it has signed to its overseas territories.  (Sir William R. Anson, II The Law and Custom of the Constitution, 131 Pt. II (4th ed. 1935); R v. Earl of Danby, 2 Show 335 (1685); and House of Commons, Second Report: Parliamentary Scrutiny of Treaties, 1999-2000, HC 210.)

The UK Parliament consults with the governments of British overseas territories during the negotiation of a treaty, or if accession to or the extension of a treaty is being considered. The UK government has stated that its “practice [is] to provide information on any consultation with the Overseas Territories and/or Crown Dependencies in the Explanatory Memorandum.”  (MINISTRY OF JUSTICE, et al., THE GOVERNANCE OF BRITAIN WAR POWERS AND TREATIES: LIMITING EXECUTIVE POWERS, 2007-8, Cm. 7239, ¶ 129.)

The UK cannot compel overseas territories to have a treaty extended to them. Instead, it encourages them to request a treaty be extended to them at the same time the UK enters into it or shortly afterwards.  For treaties that involve international human rights, the UK government has stated that its “long-standing practice in this area is to encourage the Territories to agree to the extension of UN human rights conventions that the UK has ratified, but to extend these to the Territories only when they are ready to apply them.”  (FOREIGN AND COMMONWEALTH OFFICE (FCO), THE OVERSEAS TERRITORIES: SECURITY, SUCCESS AND SUSTAINABILITY, 2011-2012, Cm. 8374 at 53.)   

The FCO provides advice to the overseas territory as to how urgent it is that the treaty be extended to them and about the process.   The relevant UK government department responsible for negotiating the treaty is also responsible for working with the overseas territories to ensure that these jurisdictions will be compliant with any obligations imposed by the treaty and that they have any national laws in place that might be required. (Extension of Treaties to Overseas Territories, GOV.UK (last visited May 10, 2017).)

The Responsibility for Treaty Obligations

While the UK government acts on the international level for overseas territories, the local governments of these territories have a duty to ensure national legislation complies with and meets any obligations imposed by an extended treaty. (Id. at 53.)  It is important to the UK that any overseas territory that has a treaty extended to it is able to meet the obligations imposed, as

The UK is responsible under international law for the due performance of treaty obligations undertaken in respect of the Territories. The UK must make sure not only that a Territory is willing to accept particular treaty obligations, but also that those obligations can be fulfilled by the Territory. If they cannot, the UK bears ultimate responsibility. (Id. at 2.)