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Sources of international law related to “honour” crimes and killings

United Nations:

A number of international instruments set standards relevant to the issue of “honour” crimes. Standards that address violence against women in general guarantee equality for women and prohibit discrimination against women and girls.

  • Under CEDAW, states are obligated to take appropriate measures to modify social and cultural patterns that discriminate against women, including customary and other practices “which are based on the idea of the inferiority or the superiority of either of the sexes or on stereotyped roles for men and women” (Art. 5(a)). The Committee on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women General Recommendation 19 states that “[t]raditional 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.” The Committee has also expressed concern over practices that uphold culture over eliminating discrimination. In its 1999 Concluding Observations on Nepal’s periodic report, submitted pursuant to CEDAW, the Committee expressed its concern over Nepal's Supreme Court prioritizing the preservation of culture and tradition when interpreting discriminatory laws. Also, the Human Rights Committee has drawn attention to minority rights that infringe upon the rights of women. In General Comment 28: Equality of rights between men and women, it stated, with respect to the  International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (hereinafter, ICCPR), that those “rights which persons belonging to minorities enjoy under article 27 of the Covenant in respect of their language, culture and religion do not authorize any State, group or person to violate the right to the equal enjoyment by women of any Covenant rights, including the right to equal protection of the law” (¶ 32).
  • Specifically, with regard to “honour” crimes and killings, CEDAW General Recommendation 19 states that measures necessary to overcome family violence include “[l]egislation to remove the defence of honour in regard to the assault or murder of a female family member” (¶ 24(r)(ii)). The United Nations General Assembly Resolution 55/66 “Working towards the elimination of crimes against women committed in the name of honour,” 2001, calls upon Member States to intensify legislative, educational, social and other efforts to prevent and eliminate “honour”-based crimes, including by involving public opinion leaders, educators, religious leaders, chiefs, traditional leaders and the media in public education; encourage, support and implement measures to increase the understanding of legal and health professionals of the causes and consequences of “honour”-based violence; establish, strengthen or facilitate support services, such as appropriate protection, safe shelter, counselling, legal aid, rehabilitation and reintegration into society, for actual and potential victims; create, strengthen or facilitate institutional mechanisms to facilitate safe and confidential reporting for victims and others to report “honour” crimes, and; gather and disseminate data on “honour”-based crimes (¶ 4). United Nations General Assembly Resolution A/RES/57/179 Working towards the elimination of crimes against women committed in the name of honour (2003) and United Nations General Assembly Resolution A/RES/59/165, Working towards the elimination of crimes against women committed in the name of honour (2005) both call upon Member States to take similar actions to eliminate “honour”-based violence. They also call upon states to investigate promptly and thoroughly, prosecute effectively and document “honour” crimes and punish the perpetrators; increase awareness-raising about the responsibility of men to promote gender equality and facilitate change to eliminate gender stereotypes; support the work of civil society working on this issue and strengthen cooperation with intergovernmental and non-governmental organizations, and; encourage the media to raise awareness on the issue. The Human Rights Committee’s General Comment No. 28: Equality of rights between men and women (Article 3) states that: “…The commission of so-called “honour crimes” which remain unpunished constitutes a serious violation of the ICCPR and in particular of articles 6, 14 and 26. Laws which impose more severe penalties on women than on men for adultery or other offences, also violate the requirement of equal treatment” (¶ 31).
  • In addition, the United Nations General Assembly A/RES/48/104, Declaration on the Elimination of Violence against Women (hereinafter, DEVAW) calls on states to “condemn violence against women” and notes that states “should not invoke any custom, tradition or religious consideration to avoid their obligations with respect to [the elimination of violence against women]” (Art. 4). DEVAW also exhorts states to “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” (Art. 4(c)). Further, DEVAW urges states to “adopt all appropriate measures, especially in the field of education, to modify the social and cultural patterns of conduct of men and women and to eliminate prejudices, customary practices and all other practices based on the idea of the inferiority or superiority of either of the sexes and on stereotyped roles for men and women” (Art. 4(j)).
  • The Beijing Platform for Action from the United Nations 1995 Fourth World Conference on Women calls upon states to “[t]ake urgent action to combat and eliminate violence against women, which is a human rights violation, resulting from harmful traditional or customary practices, cultural prejudices and extremism” (¶ 232(g)).
  • The UNESCO Universal Declaration on Cultural Diversity, 2001, also cautions against the invocation of culture or cultural diversity as a justification for human rights violations.  Article 4 of the UNESCO Declaration states “[n]o one may invoke cultural diversity to infringe upon human rights guaranteed by international law, nor to limit their scope.”
  • In cases where “honour” crimes target girls and young women, the Convention on the Rights of the Child also provides applicable standards. Article 19(1) of the Convention requires states parties to “take all appropriate legislative, administrative, social and educational measures to protect the child from all forms of physical or mental violence, injury or abuse, neglect or negligent treatment, maltreatment or exploitation, including sexual abuse, while in the care of parent(s), legal guardian(s) or any other person who has the care of the child.” Article 19(2) elaborates on such protective measures, noting that they should “include effective procedures for the establishment of social programmes to provide necessary support for the child and for those who have the care of the child, as well as for other forms of prevention and for identification, reporting, referral, investigation, treatment and follow-up of instances of child maltreatment described heretofore, and, as appropriate, for judicial involvement.”

Africa:

The Protocol to the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights on the Rights of Women in Africa similarly requires States Parties to adopt legal measures to prohibit and curb discrimination against women. Both treaties the Protocol and the Afrcian Charter obligate States Parties to provide for equality of women and men in their constitutions and other legal instruments. In particular, Article 5  of the Protocol calls for States Parties to take all necessary and legislative measures to eliminate harmful practices, including through public awareness initiatives, legal prohibitions and sanctions against such practices, support to victims, and protection of women at-risk for harmful traditional practices. The African Charter on the Rights and Welfare of the Child requires States Parties to take all appropriate measures to eliminate harmful cultural and social practices that affect a child’s “welfare, dignity, normal growth and development,” including customs and practices that are prejudicial to the health or life of the child or discriminatory on the grounds of sex or other status (Article 21).

Europe:

  • The Council of Europe Parliamentary Assembly’s Resolution 1327 (2003), so called "honour crimes"  on honour crimes sets out clear standards for its Member States. The resolution calls for Member States to amend immigration laws to allow women at risk of an “honour” crime to remain in the country; enforce the laws to punish all “honour” crimes and treat complaints of violence as serious criminal matters; ensure the effective and sensitive investigation and prosecution of “honour” crimes; exclude “honour” as a mitigating factor or justifiable motive in criminal proceedings; take steps toward implementation of honour crimes legislation and train policymakers, law enforcement and the judiciary on the topic, and; strengthen female representation within the legal sector.
  • Council of Europe Parliamentary Assembly Resolution 1681, Urgent need to combat so-called “honour crimes,” 2009 called upon Member States to develop national plans of action on violence against women, conduct education and training for all, engage in dialogue with religious leaders to facilitate cooperation, conduct awareness-raising campaigns across each sector and among the population, establish a helpline, establish a database for statistics gathering, train police and judges on “honour”-based violence, and support non-governmental organizations working on “honour” crimes and with immigrant communities.
  • Council of Europe Parliamentary Assembly Recommendation 1450, Violence against Women in Europe, 2000 generally addresses violence against women and makes recommendations to the Committee of Ministers and Member States to take certain measures. 
  • The Stockholm Platform for Action to Combat Honour Related Violence in Europe, 7-8 October 2004, (pages 108-09) sets forth several recommendations for EU Member States and the EU. Among them, it recommends the strengthening of victim support and rehabilitation services, including social, health, legal, educational support, adequate safe housing, shelters, support lines, counseling services and information campaigns. It recommends coordination among the European Police and other regional institutions, including legislation to protect European citizens at risk for “honour” crimes or killings in third countries and for the prosecution of perpetrators who flee to or commit these crimes in third countries. It also recommends gender persecution as a basis for asylum.
  • The Council of Europe Convention on preventing and combating violence against women and domestic violence, which has a number of signatories but, as of early 2013, has not yet received enough ratifications to enter into force, requires parties to “take all necessary legislative and other measures to exercise due diligence to prevent, investigate, punish and provide reparation for acts of violence” against women (Art. 5(2)). The Convention calls on parties to take a wide range of actions to combat violence against women, including: (1) promoting change in gender stereotypes, (2) conducting awareness-raising campaigns and public education about violence against women, (3) ensuring adequate provision of services to female victims of violence, (4) collecting relevant data, (5) supporting research on violence against women, (6) providing victims with civil remedies, (7) ensuring compensation for victims, (8) investigating and prosecuting violence against women, and (9) allocating adequate financial and personnel resources to implement the above-listed efforts. In regards to “honour” crimes specifically, Articles 12(5) and 42 of the Convention require states parties to ensure that culture, custom, religion, tradition, and “honour” are not considered as justifications for acts of violence against women, including “claims that the victim has transgressed cultural, religious, social or traditional norms or customs of appropriate behaviour.”

Americas:

The Inter-American Convention on the Prevention, Punishment and Eradication of Violence against Women (Belem do Para) affirms the right of women to be free from violence and requires states to impose penalties and enact legal provisions to protect women from harassment and other forms of violence. Article 6(b) affirms that a woman’s right to be free from violence includes her right “to be valued and educated free of stereotyped patterns of behavior and social and cultural practices based on concepts of inferiority or subordination.”