International human rights conventions are legally binding instruments which define our human rights under international law and set out the obligations of States parties to ensure that human rights are respected, protected and fulfilled. The international human rights conventions ratified by the UK can be used to hold the UK Government to account when its actions or omissions fall short of what is required to properly respect, protect and fulfil the rights of women and girls. This page lists key human rights conventions and standards aimed at eliminating discrimination and violence against women and girls.
The Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW or the Women’s Convention) was adopted by the UN General Assembly in 1979 and came into force in 1981. It has been heralded as an international bill of rights for women, defining international standards for women’s rights across the world, within both the public and private spheres. CEDAW requires States to pursue by all appropriate means and without delay a policy of eliminating discrimination against women (Article 2) and to take all appropriate measures, including legislation, to ensure the full development and advancement of women, for the purpose of guaranteeing them the exercise and enjoyment of human rights and fundamental freedoms on a basis of equality with men (Article 3).
The Optional Protocol (OP) establishes two complaint procedures for the Women’s Convention. The communications procedure allows individual women, or groups of women, to submit claims of violations of rights protected under the Convention to the CEDAW Committee. The inquiry procedure enables the CEDAW Committee to initiate inquiries into situations of grave or systematic violations of women’s rights. For either of the complaint procedures to apply, States must be party to both the Convention and the Protocol.
Under the Optional Protocol to CEDAW, individuals and groups of individuals from States that have ratified CEDAW and the OP, can submit communications to the Committee. Communications can also be submitted on behalf of individuals (for example, by NGOs), with their consent. Communications may be submitted in any UN language (English, French, Russian, Arabic or Chinese).
Communications must concern a violation of one or more Convention right and may only be submitted if all available domestic remedies have been exhausted. Once the submission setting out the complaint has been received by the Committee, it will be sent to the State Party concerned, which has six months to respond. The Committee may request additional relevant information from the parties before making a decision. The Committee will first decide on the admissibility of the Communication (i.e. whether the complaint meets the procedural requirements under the OP). If the complaint is deemed to be admissible, the Committee will then consider the merits of the case.
The Committee will publish its decision on whether there has been a violation of Convention rights and if so, will set out recommendations for the State Party which must submit a written response detailing the action it has taken to follow the recommendations within six months.
The CEDAW Committee issues General recommendations (GRs) from time to time regarding the interpretation or application of the Convention. GRs provide guidance for States parties on how to comply with their obligations under the Convention to better respect, protect and fulfil the civil, political, economic, social and cultural rights of women and girls. The GRs that have been issued by the CEDAW committee can be found here.
The GRs cover a wide range of issues, including the use of temporary special measures (GR5), the core obligations of States under the Convention (GR28), State obligations to combat violence against women and girls (GRs 19 and 35), the gender-related dimensions of refugee status, asylum, nationality and statelessness of women (GR32); women’s access to justice (GR33); and the rights of rural women (GR34).
General Recommendation 19 acknowledges gender-based violence as a serious and harmful form of discrimination that inhibits women’s enjoyment of rights and freedoms. It defines gender-based violence as 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.
GR35 updates GR19, adopting the term ‘gender-based violence against women’ to make explicit the gendered causes and impacts of violence. GR35 strengthens the understanding of violence against women ‘as a social rather than an individual problem, requiring comprehensive responses beyond those to specific events, individual perpetrators and victims/ survivors’.
Below are a selection of the most recent reports and related documents submitted in respect of the UK’s CEDAW reporting obligations. Access to the full library of reports relating to the UK can be found here.
As part of the CEDAW reporting process, NGOs can submit ‘shadow reports’, which offer an opportunity to submit additional information to the CEDAW Committee. Sisters For Change has submitted a shadow report to the CEDAW Committee in relation to the consideration of the UK’s 8th Periodic Report, which can be accessed below.
This is a non-exhaustive list of cases setting out the views adopted by the CEDAW Committee. A full library of recent cases considered by the CEDAW Committee can be found here.
The applicant had been convicted of the homicide of her abusive husband but claimed that her actions had been lawful and necessary to defend herself. The CEDAW Committee found that the State authorities had failed to address the issue of ongoing domestic violence, including failing to collect evidence and to conduct a proper investigation, and had failed to protect the applicant from domestic abuse in breach of their due diligence obligations.
The Committee found that Timor-Leste was in violation of CEDAW Articles 2(c), (d) and (f) and 15, read jointly with CEDAW Article 1 and CEDAW GRs 19, 28, 33 and 35.
This case concerned a child custody dispute. The CEDAW Committee found that the judicial process had perpetuated negative gender stereotypes in breach of the Convention by applying discriminatory notions in the context of domestic violence. The Committee found that the courts had treated what appeared to be a repetitive pattern of unilateral violence by the applicant’s husband as a disagreement between parents, dismissing the importance of the husband’s criminal conviction and awarding custody of a child to a violent man.
The Committee found that Finland was in violation of CEDAW Articles 2(a), (c), (d) and (f); 15(a); and 16(1), (d) and (f), read jointly with CEDAW Article 1 and CEDAW GR35.
The State’s failure to properly investigate and prosecute a crime of femicide constituted a failure to protect and punish and a failure to meet the required due diligence standards.
The Committee found violations of CEDAW Articles 2(b) and (c) and Article 5, read in conjunction with Article 1.
The State’s failure to investigate domestic violence and abuse, in part based on gender stereotypes, constituted a failure to protect and a failure to meet due diligence standards.
The Committee found that Russia was in violation of CEDAW Articles 1, 2 (b)–(g), 3 and 5(a).
The State’s failure to investigate allegations of domestic abuse, including physical and sexual violence, had resulted in the failure to adequately protect the applicant and her children from violence and had violated the due diligence obligation.
The Committee found violations of CEDAW Articles 2(b)-2 (f), in conjunction with Articles 1 and 5(a) and CEDAW GR19.
This case acknowledges the impact of negative gender stereotyping on the right to a fair trial. In this case, the domestic court had taken the failure of a woman with a disability to resist or escape her rapist as an indication of her weak credibility as a witness.
The Committee found that The Philippines was in violation of CEDAW Articles 2(c), (d) and (f), read in conjunction with Article 1 and CEDAW GRs 18 and 19.
The CEDAW Committee held that the murder of the applicant’s daughter at the hands of her violent father had been foreseeable and the State had failed to meet its due diligence obligations to protect both the applicant and her daughter.
The Committee found violations of CEDAW Articles 2(a-f); 5(a); and 16(1)(d), read jointly with Article 1 and CEDAW GR19.
The Committee found the failure to investigate allegations of domestic violence constituted a failure to effectively prevent violence and protect the victim as required by the due diligence obligation.
The Committee found Bulgaria in violation of CEDAW Article 2(b), (c), (d), (e) and (f); Article 5(a); and Article 16(c), (d) and (f), read in conjunction with Articles 1 and 3.
This case sought to challenge the legality of a manifestly lenient sentence given to a man convicted of sexual assaults against a child. The CEDAW Committee held that the Bulgarian authorities had failed to exercise due diligence to protect the young girl from sexual assault, failed to provide an effective remedy and failed to provide protection from the perpetrator.
The Committee found that Bulgaria was in violation CEDAW Articles 2(a), (b), (c), (e), (f) and (g), read together with Articles 1, 3 and 5(a) and (b), Article 12 and Article 15(1).
This is a key case on gender stereotyping by criminal justice authorities. The CEDAW Committee held that the judge in a rape case had based his decision on a number of discriminatory stereotypes and on the personality and characteristics of the rape victim, rather than on the substance of the allegation.
The Committee found violations of CEDAW Article 2(c) and (f) and Article 5(a), read in conjunction with Article 1 and CEDAW GR19.
Both cases involved domestic homicides that had been committed in the context of a prolonged period of abuse. The CEDAW Committee held that failure to take sufficient action against the perpetrators and failure to prevent the deaths of the two victims constituted a violation of the due diligence obligation.
In both cases, the Committee found violations of CEDAW Articles 2(a) and (c)–(f) and Article 3, read in conjunction with Article 1 and CEDAW GR19.
This case confirmed that gender-based violence (in this case, domestic violence and abuse) is a form of discrimination within the definition of CEDAW Article 1 and held that States can be responsible for private acts of violence if they fail to take steps to prevent and protect.
The Committee found violations of CEDAW Articles 2(a), (b) and (e) and Article 5(a), in conjunction with Article 16.
The 1993 Declaration on the Elimination of Violence Against Women (DEVAW) was the first international instrument to explicitly address violence against women. DEVAW sets out a broad definition of violence against women as ‘any act of gender-based violence that results in, or is likely to result in, physical, sexual or psychological harm or suffering to women, including threats of such acts, coercion or arbitrary deprivation of liberty, whether occurring in public or in private life’.
The Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) was adopted by the United Nations on 10 December 1948. It is a landmark document in the history of human rights which sets out for the first time the rights and freedoms to which all human beings are entitled. The UDHR outlines a common standard of human rights, based on the principles of universality, indivisibility and interdependence.
The International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) was adopted by the United Nations on 16 December 1966 and came into force on 23 March 1976. To date, 172 countries have ratified the ICCPR, and a further six States have become signatories. Together, the UDHR, ICCPR and the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (see below) are considered the International Bill of Human Rights. The ICCPR is a key international human rights treaty giving legal force to a range of civil and political rights and freedoms, including the right to life (Article 6), freedom from torture and cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment (Article 7), freedom from slavery (Article 8), the right to liberty (Article 10), the right to respect for privacy and family (Article 23) and the rights to equality before the law and the equal protection of the law (Article 26). The UK ratified the ICCPR in 1976.
The First Optional Protocol to the ICCPR (OP1) establishes the complaints procedure for the ICCPR, empowering the Human Rights Committee to receive and consider individual communications concerning violations of the ICCPR. Complaints can only be made against a State party that has ratified OP1 – currently 116 of the 172 States parties.
The UK has not ratified the First Optional Protocol to the ICCPR.
The Second Optional Protocol to the ICCPR (OP2) concerns the abolition of the death penalty and obliges States parties to refrain from using execution and to take all necessary measures towards the abolition of the death penalty in their jurisdictions. To date, 86 countries, including the UK, have ratified OP2.
The International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR) was adopted by the United Nations on 16 December 1966 and came into force on 3 January 1976. The ICESCR has been ratified by 169 countries. The ICESCR reflects the commitments adopted after World War II to promote social progress and better standards of life and protects a wide range of economic, social and cultural rights, including the right to work and to just and favourable conditions of work (Articles 6 and 7); the right to form and join trade unions and the right to strike (Article 8); the right to social security including social insurance (Article 9); the right to an adequate standard of living for oneself and one’s family, including adequate food, clothing and housing and to the continuous improvement of living conditions (Article 11); the right to the highest attainable standard of physical and mental health (Article 12); and the right to education. The rights contained in the Covenant are exercisable without discrimination. The ICESCR also protects communal rights, such as the prohibition of depriving a people of its own means of subsistence and the right of all peoples to freely dispose of their natural wealth and resources based upon the principles of mutual benefit and international law.
The UK ratified the ICESCR in 1976.
The Optional Protocol to the ICESCR was adopted on 18 July 2008 and came into force on 5 May 2013. It establishes both an individual complaint procedure and an inquiry procedure in cases of grave and systematic complaints.
The UK has not ratified the Optional Protocol to the ICESCR.
The Convention against Torture (CAT) was adopted on 10 December 1984 and came into force on 26 June 1987. It defines torture as any act by which severe pain or suffering, whether physical or mental, is intentionally inflicted on a person for the purpose of obtaining a confession, as a means of punishment, in order to intimidate or coerce, or for any reason based on discrimination of any kind, when such pain or suffering is inflicted by, at the instigation of or with the consent or acquiescence of a public official or any person acting in a public capacity. The CAT establishes universal jurisdiction for the offence of torture and Article 22 establishes an individual complaints procedure.
The UK ratified the CAT in 1988.
The Optional Protocol to the CAT was adopted in 2002 and came into force in 2006. The OP establishes a monitoring mechanism with a mandate to visit places of detention.
The UK ratified the Optional Protocol to the CAT in 2003.
General Comment 2 concerns the implementation of Article 2 of the CAT by States Parties. It specifically makes reference to the application of the CAT to States parties’ failures to prevent and protect victims from gender-based violence such as rape, domestic violence, female genital mutilation, and trafficking.
The Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination (CERD) was adopted on 21 December 1965 and came into force on 4 January 1969. It obliges States parties to pursue with all available means and without delay a policy of eliminating racial discrimination in all its forms. In accordance with Article 14 CERD, States parties may declare their recognition of the competence of the Committee on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination to accept individual complaints.
The UK ratified CERD in 1969.
The Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD) was adopted on 13 December 2006 and came into force on 3 May 2008. The Convention defines disability as any long-term physical, mental, intellectual or sensory impairment and obliges States parties to ensure and promote the full realisation of all human rights and fundamental freedoms for all persons with disabilities without discrimination of any kind on the basis of disability. The CRPD emphasises the need to promote a gender perspective in efforts to promote the full enjoyment of human rights and fundamental freedoms by persons with disabilities.
The UK ratified the CRPD in 2009.
The Optional Protocol to the CRPD establishes an individual complaints procedure. The UK ratified the OP in 2009.
The International Covenant on the Protection of the Rights of All Migrant Workers and Members of Their Families was adopted in 1990 and came into force in 2003. One of the key concerns of the Committee that monitors implementation of the IMCW is the rights of women migrant workers, who dominate sectors such as domestic work and who are particularly affected by sexual and physical abuse and harassment in the workplace.
The UK has not ratified this Convention.
The special procedures of the UN Human Rights Council are independent human rights experts with mandates to report and advise on human rights from a thematic or country-specific perspective. Special Rapporteurs and Independent Experts conduct country visits, act on individual cases and concerns of a broader, structural nature by sending communications to States, undertake research and contribute to the development of international human rights standards.
Working groups on thematic issues such as arbitrary detention can investigate individual complaints and may make declarations and recommendations, although their decisions are not legally enforceable. UN Commissions of Inquiry and Fact-Finding missions play a vital role in the gathering of evidence and documentation of serious and widespread human rights violations which may later be used by courts and tribunals.
The role of the UN Special Rapporteur on violence against women, its causes and consequences (Special Rapporteur on VAW) was established in 1994. In 2014, following her mission to the UK, the UN Special Rapporteur on VAW published a report which found that domestic violence is one of the most pervasive forms of violence against women in the UK. Concerns identified by the Rapporteur included the increase in the number of reported cases of sexual violence, the UK Government’s refusal of permission for the Special Rapporteur to visit Yarl’s Wood Immigration and Removal Centre, cuts to legal aid and their impact on women’s access to justice, and regressive measures – including the move towards gender-neutral services and austerity policies – which have impacted on the provision of services in the violence against women and girls sector.
The UN Special Rapporteur on Extreme Poverty and Human Rights visited the UK in November 2018. His statement emphasised the prevalence of poverty in the UK and highlighted the disproportionate impact of poverty on women, noting concerns with the rollout of Universal Credit and implementation of the policy of making single payments, which entrenches gendered dynamics within relationships and risks giving control of payments to abusive partners within family units where there is domestic abuse. Professor Alston also recorded the risk of exploitation of migrants with ‘No Recourse to Public Funds’.
The European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR) is the Council of Europe Convention for the Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms. States or individuals can bring complaints under the Convention before the European court of human rights.
The case law of the European court of human rights is available in a freely accessible database which can be found here.
ECHR Protocol 12 sets out a general prohibition of discrimination for all public authorities regarding the application of Convention rights. The UK has not yet signed or ratified Protocol 12.
The European Convention for the Prevention of Torture and Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment is a Council of Europe convention based on Article 3 of the ECHR, with the focus of preventing torture and inhuman or degrading treatment. It was ratified by the UK in 1988.
This Council of Europe Convention was adopted in 2011 and came into force in 2014. The Istanbul Convention focuses on the prevention, protection and prosecution of acts of violence against women. The UK signed the Istanbul Convention in 2012 but is yet to ratify it. In 2017, the UK Government passed the Preventing and Combating Violence Against Women and Domestic Violence (Ratification of Convention) Act 2017 which sets out the UK’s commitment to ratification.
The Istanbul Convention is based on the understanding that violence against women is a form of gender-based violence that is committed against women precisely because they are women. The Convention sets out State obligations to address gender-based violence by taking measures to prevent violence against women, protect victims of violence and punish perpetrators.
The Group of Experts on Action Against Violence Against Women and Domestic Violence (GREVIO) is the independent expert body responsible for monitoring the implementation of the Istanbul Convention by States parties. GREVIO has the mandate to publish reports on implementation by States parties, to initiate inquiries in respect of allegations of grave and widespread violations of the Istanbul Convention and to adopt general recommendations. GREVIO’s country reports and related information can be found here
The Preventing and Combating Violence Against Women and Domestic Violence (Ratification of Convention) Act 2017 obliges the secretary of state to report to parliament annually (in November) with progress updates regarding the steps taken and actions still required to enable the UK to ratify the Istanbul Convention.
The first report was published in November 2017 and includes the publication of a cross-Government violence against women and girls (VAWG) Strategy and National Statement of Expectations in 2016 as examples of the positive progress made towards achieving compliance with the provisions of the Istanbul Convention. The report acknowledges that there are a number of outstanding issues to be addressed, including the introduction of primary legislation to ensure the extra-territorial jurisdiction of all VAWG offences and the introduction of non-legislative measures to improve victims’ experiences of the criminal justice system.
The 2018 progress report stated that the necessary legislative measures for England and Wales will be included in the draft Domestic Abuse Bill and notes the government consultation on domestic abuse launched in March 2018. The report pledged that the response to the consultation and the draft Domestic Abuse Bill would be published by the end of the current parliamentary session (summer 2019). The government published its response to the consultation and a draft Domestic Abuse Bill in January 2019.
Keep up to date with Sisters For Change activities by subscribing to our newsletter below, and following us on Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn.