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International human rights law

Last edited: July 03, 2013

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  • International human rights law is a set of international rules that reinforce the rights and dignity of all human beings – women, men and children –without discrimination. It evolved following the adoption of the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UNDHR) and is now supported by a number of universal and regional instruments such as the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR) and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR). Other specialised treaties include:
    • International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination
    • Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women
    • Convention Against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman, or Degrading Treatment or Punishment
    • Convention on the Rights of the Child
    • Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities
    • International Convention for the Protection of All Persons from Enforced Disappearance
  • According to international human rights law, when States become ‘parties’ to these treaties (by signing on to them) they must refrain from interfering with the exercise of the rights outlined in the treaties, take positive steps to protect them, and restore them when they have been violated. In addition, States have a duty to ensure that non-state actors do not impede citizens in the realization of these rights. (See Geneva Academy of International Humanitarian Law and Human Rights).
  • Actors working to promote women’s equality and to end violence against women should remind States that they are required to ensure women’s right to freedom from violence. It is also important for VAWG advocates and programmers to become familiar with the United Nations’ judicial and quasi-judicial bodies that oversee the implementation of the treaties, particularly those that are directly accessible to individuals claiming to have suffered violations of their rights. These bodies can issue binding decisions requiring the respondent States to terminate the violation and, where appropriate, to make reparations. See a list of these bodies.
  • The table below presents some of the major international milestones regarding human rights and violence against women (not including the Security Council Resolutions, presented below).






What it says/Why is it relevant to GBV


Universal Declaration of Human Rights

The first effort made by governments to commit to the expression of rights to which all human beings are entitled, which later served as the blueprint for many international treaties and laws focused on human rights.


Geneva Convention (IHL)

Established standards in international law for humanitarian treatment of victims of war and defined the basic rights of those captured during a military conflict and established protections for civilians in and around a war zone, noting that “Women shall be especially protected against any attack on their honour, in particular against rape, enforced prostitution or any form of indecent assault.” (§.27)


UN Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees (and the 1967 Protocol)

Defined who is a refugee, and sets out the rights of individuals who are granted asylum and the responsibilities of nations that grant asylum.   Originally limited to protecting European refugees after World War II, the 1967 Protocol removed the geographic and time limits of the original Convention.




International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights


Granted economic, social, and cultural rights (ESCR) to individuals. It also established rights to health, education, labor and an adequate standard of living and “equal rights of men and women.” (§3)



Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW)

It established an agenda of action for putting an end to sex-based discrimination, which led to the creation of the international bill of rights for women. “States ratifying the Convention are required to enshrine gender equality into their domestic legislation, repeal all discriminatory provisions in their laws, and enact new provisions to guard against discrimination against women.”



UN Guidelines on the Protection of Refugee Women

“Women and girls have special protection needs that reflect their gender: they need (...) protection against ( ) sexual and physical abuse and exploitation, and protection against sexual discrimination in the delivery of goods and services.” (§.3)    



CEDAW General Recommendation No.19  on Violence Against Women

“GBV, which impairs or nullifies the enjoyment by women of human rights and fundamental freedoms ( ) is discrimination ” (§9

– “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.” (§16.)




Vienna Conference

- Vienna Declaration and Programme of Action

- Declaration on the Elimination of VAWG (UN Res 48/104)

The second global conference to focus exclusively on human rights.  Asserts a human rights perspective regarding violence against women, obliging governments to respect and fulfill women’s human rights on an equal basis with men’s rights.

- The human rights of women and of the girl-child are an inalienable, integral and indivisible part of universal human rights (...) (§.18)

– “Violations of the human rights of women in situations of armed conflict are violations of the fundamental principles of international human rights and humanitarian law. All violations of this kind, including in particular murder, systematic rape, sexual slavery and forced pregnancy, require a particularly effective response” (§.38)



International Conference on Population and Development (ICPD) Cairo

 Developed the Programme of Action, which served as the steering document for the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA). Established sexual and reproductive rights are human rights

“ (...) [Reproductive health] services should be particularly sensitive to the needs of (...) women and children (...) with particular attention to those who are victims of sexual violence.” (§.7.11)

 “(...) All necessary measures should be taken to ensure the physical protection of refugees – in particular, that of refugee women and refugee children – against sexual exploitation, abuse and all forms of violence.” (§.10.24)



Fourth World Conference on Women Beijing

FWCW, Platform for Action, Beijing, 1995:

Chapter D: Violence against Women: particular vulnerability of war affected women and girls to violence

Chapter E: Women and Armed Conflict: attention to sexual violence and other forms of GBV.



ICC Rome Statute

The treaty that established the International Criminal Court (ICC). “Rape, sexual slavery, enforced prostitution, forced pregnancy, enforced sterilization, or any other form of sexual violence of comparable gravity” are: crimes against humanity (§.7.1.g) and war crimes (§.8.2.e.)



UN Guiding Principles on Internal Displacement

“Special attention should be paid to the health needs of women, including access to female health care providers and services, such as reproductive health care, as well as appropriate counseling for victims of sexual and other abuses.” (§.19.2)



CEDAW General Recommendation No.24 on Women and Health

“Special attention should be paid to the health needs of women, including access to female health care providers and services, such as reproductive health care, as well as appropriate counseling for victims of sexual and other abuses." (§19.2)



World Summit 2005

Millenium Development Goals



World Summit 2005 MDGs: Several strong references to ending violence against women and the girl child in situations of armed conflict:

• violation of human rights of women and girls

• sexual violence against women and girls

• reporting, preventing and punishing GBV.


Agreed conclusions of the 57th Commission on the Status of Women

With violence against women and girls as the priority theme, the outcome document includes strong condemnations to violence against women and girls in all contexts, including conflict and post-conflict contexts, and calls on States to refrain from invoking religion, tradition, and custom to avoid obligations with respect to addressing VAWG. There are specific references to gender-related killings and femicide, women’s human rights defenders, and especially vulnerable populations, and commits states to respond holistically and comprehensively to prevent and respond to violence against women and girls.

Source: adapted from GBV AoR. 2010. Handbook for Coordinating Gender-based Violence Interventions in Humanitarian Settings, Annex 2, referencing Bossman, M., Material for Training Course:  Coordination of Multi-Sectoral Response to Gender-Based Violence in Humanitarian Settings, Ghent University, November 2008.  For a useful timeline of international policy commitments and international agreements, also see

Additional Resources

For a list of documents related to gender, peace and security, see Gya, G. 2011.Listing of Gender, Peace and Security Documents – May 2011.” ISIS Europe.