These international statements of law and principle provide a foundation for the right to be free from sexual assault.
"...any distinction, exclusion or restriction made on the basis of sex which has the effect or purpose of impairing or nullifying the recognition, enjoyment or exercise by women, irrespective of their marital status, on a basis of equality of men and women, of human rights and fundamental freedoms in the political, economic, social, cultural, civil or any other field." Article 1
State parties to CEDAW must eliminate this discrimination by adopting “…appropriate legislative and other measures, including sanctions where appropriate…” and must agree “To establish legal protection of the rights of women on an equal basis with men and to ensure through competent national tribunals and other public institutions the effective protection of women against any act of discrimination…” Article 2
1. Each State Party shall ensure that all acts of torture are offences under its criminal law. The same shall apply to an attempt to commit torture and to an act by any person which constitutes complicity or participation in torture.
2. Each State Party shall make these offences punishable by appropriate penalties which take into account their grave nature.
“…violence that is directed against a woman because she is a woman or that affects women disproportionately. It includes acts that inflict physical, mental or sexual harm or suffering, threats of such acts, coercion and other deprivations of liberty. Gender-based violence may breach specific provisions of the Convention, regardless of whether those provisions expressly mention violence.” Paragraph 6
Paragraph 7 states: “Gender-based violence, which impairs or nullifies the enjoyment by women of human rights and fundamental freedoms under general international law or under human rights conventions, is discrimination within the meaning of Paragraph 1 of the Convention,” and goes on to enumerate these rights and freedoms, including:
(b) The right not to be subject to torture or to cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment;… and
(d) The right to liberty and security of person;
In Paragraph 9 the Committee declared that “Under general international law and specific human rights covenants, States may also be responsible for private acts if they fail to act with due diligence to prevent violations of rights or to investigate and punish acts of violence, and for providing compensation.”
It also rejects customary or religious justifications for gender-based violence:
“Traditional attitudes by which women are regarded as subordinate to men or as having stereotyped roles perpetuate widespread practices involving violence or coercion, such as family violence and abuse, forced marriage, dowry deaths, acid attacks and female circumcision. Such prejudices and practices may justify gender-based violence as a form of protection or control of women. The effect of such violence on the physical and mental integrity of women is to deprive them the equal enjoyment, exercise and knowledge of human rights and fundamental freedoms.” Paragraph 11
The Committee recognized the dangers presented to women where there is war or conflict in Paragraph 16: “Wars, armed conflicts and the occupation of territories often lead to increased prostitution, trafficking in women and sexual assault of women, which require specific protective and punitive measures.”
Finally, the Committee recommended that “States parties should ensure that laws against family violence and abuse, rape, sexual assault and other gender-bases violence give adequate protection to all women and respect their integrity and dignity…” 24(b)
“…violence against women is a manifestation of historically unequal power relations between men and women, which have led to domination over and discrimination against women by men and to the prevention of the full advancement of women, and that violence against women is one of the crucial social mechanisms by which women are forced into a subordinate position compared with men…” Preamble
DEVAW also links violence to especially vulnerable women:
“…some groups of women, such as women belonging to minority groups, indigenous women, refugee women, migrant women, women living in rural or remote communities, destitute women, women in institutions or in detention, female children, women with disabilities, elderly women and women in situations of armed conflict, are especially vulnerable to violence…, Preamble
It exhorts states to action in Article 4: “States should condemn violence against women and should not invoke any custom, tradition or religious consideration to avoid their obligations with respect to its elimination. States should pursue by all appropriate means and without delay a policy of eliminating violence against women…” including, inter alia:
(c) Exercise due diligence to prevent, investigate and, in accordance with national legislation, punish acts of violence against women, whether those acts are perpetrated by the State or by private persons;
(d) Develop penal, civil, labour and administrative sanctions in domestic legislation to punish and redress the wrongs caused to women who are subjected to violence; women who are subjected to violence should be provided with access to the mechanisms of justice and, as provided for by national legislation, to just and effective remedies for the harm that they have suffered; States should also inform women of their rights in seeking redress through such mechanisms;…
(f) Develop, in a comprehensive way, preventive approaches and all those measures of a legal, political, administrative and cultural nature that promote the protection of women against any form of violence, and ensure that the re-victimization of women does not occur because of laws insensitive to gender considerations, enforcement practices or other interventions;…
(i) Take measures to ensure that law enforcement officers and public officials responsible for implementing policies to prevent, investigate and punish violence against women receive training to sensitize them to the needs of women…”
The United Nations Security Council has addressed sexual violence against women in conflict situations by enacting specific resolutions:
The UN Secretary-General appointed the first Special Representative on Sexual Violence in Conflict in 2010. The second Special Representative on Sexual Violence, Zainab Hawa Bangura, of Sierra Leone, was named in 2012. The Special Representative on Sexual Violence in Conflict serves as the United Nation’s spokesperson on conflict-related sexual violence. Her mandate is: (1) to end impunity for conflict-related sexual violence, (2) to empower women to seek redress, (3) to mobilize political ownership, (4) to increase recognition of rape and (5) to harmonise the UN's response.
PeaceWomen, Women, Peace and Security Handbook: Compilation and Analysis of United Nations Security Council Resolution Language 2000-2010, provides a compilation and gender analysis of United Nations Security Council resolutions adopted between 2000 and 2010. The analysis covers 432 resolutions related to 20 country-specific situations, and reviews the resolutions in the framework of 13 core themes outlined in SC Resolution 1325, including sexual exploitation and abuse, and sexual violence. The handbook highlights good practices for each thematic area and proposes recommended actions for inclusion in future resolutions to advance the women, peace and security agenda. Available in English.
International Statutes and Jurisprudence on Sexual Violence
The Tribunal considers that rape is a form of aggression and that the central elements of the crime of rape cannot be captured in a mechanical description of objects and body parts…Like torture, rape is used for such purposes as intimidation, degradation, humiliation, discrimination, punishment, control or destruction of a person. Like torture, rape is a violation of personal dignity, and rape in fact constitutes torture when it is inflicted by or at the instigation of or with the consent or acquiescence of a public official or other person acting in an official capacity. Para 687
The case also included a comprehensive definition of sexual violence. See: Case Study on Prosecutor v. Akayesu.
(See: Gender-Based Violence Laws in Sub-Saharan Africa (2007).)
Regional Treaties (selected examples)
“States Parties shall adopt and implement appropriate measures to ensure the protection of every woman’s right to respect for her dignity and protection of women from all forms of violence, particularly sexual and verbal violence.” (Article 3)
The Maputo Protocol also mandates states parties to “enact and enforce laws to prohibit all forms of violence against women including unwanted or forced sex whether the violence takes place in private or public…” Article 4(a) It offers special recognition of the vulnerability of women in situations of armed conflict in Article 11, including the following:
“States Parties undertake to protect asylum seeking women, refugees, returnees and internally displaced persons, against all forms of violence, rape and other forms of sexual exploitation, and to ensure that such acts are considered war crimes, genocide and/or crimes against humanity and that their perpetrators are brought to justice before a competent criminal jurisdiction.”
“To enact and, where necessary, reinforce or amend domestic legislation to prevent violence against women, to enhance the protection, healing, recovery and reintegration of victims/survivors, including measures to investigate, prosecute, punish and where appropriate rehabilitate perpetrators, and prevent re-victimisation of women and girls subjected to any form of violence, whether in the home, the workplace, the community or society or in custody…” Section 4