Prevalence of "Honor" Killings and Crimes

Last updated November 2008


Crimes committed in the name of "honor" represent a clear-cut violation of several fundamental human rights. In 2004, the U.N. General Assembly passed a resolution recognizing "that crimes against women committed in the name of honor are a human rights issue and that States have an obligation to exercise due diligence to prevent, investigate and punish the perpetrators of such crimes and to provide protection to the victims, and that the failure to do so constitutes a human rights violation." In other words, states have an affirmative duty to take measures to keep women safe from this type of violence, even though it is committed by private actors rather than the government. Specific treaty provisions that may be implicated by crimes committed in the name of "honor" include Article 6 (the right to life) and Article 7 (freedom from torture and cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment) of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. Both the right to life and freedom from torture and cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment are also contained in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (Articles 3 and 5, respectively), and both have become international customary law or jus cogens, from which states may not derogate under any circumstances.


The number of "honor" killings each year may be as high as 5,000, according to the United Nations Population Fund. The U.N. General Assembly has noted that crimes committed in the name of "honor" occur “in all regions of the world.” Specifically, countries where these murders have occurred include Bangladesh, Brazil, Ecuador, Egypt, India, Israel, Italy, Jordan, Morocco, Pakistan, Sweden, Turkey, Uganda, the United Kingdom, Iran, Lebanon, Syria, Yemen, Germany, and France.


As stated by the U.N. General Assembly, "crimes committed in the name of honour...take many different forms." In the Pakistani province of Sindh, "honor" killings may take the form of Karo-Kari killings, which refer to the murders of a man (Karo) and woman (Kari) who have brought dishonor to their families. Often the woman is killed first, so that the man hears about the murder in time to escape. In Jordan and Turkey, a family may assemble to select a murderer or an individual may act without family input, sometimes in response to comments from other members of the community. In Brazil, men who kill their wives after discovering their alleged adultery are often acquitted by juries who view this type of murder as a legitimate defense of honor. In fact, many countries’ legal systems allow such a defense, and even though it has been banned from jury instructions in Brazil, juries continue to acquit.


According to the U.N. Special Rapporteur on Violence Against Women, killings committed in the name of "honor" are becoming more common as the concept of honor broadens and the types of behavior understood to damage it become more numerous. Economic and social issues are also factors in the increase in "honor" killings. Amnesty International has pointed to “the progressive brutalization of society due to conflict and war, increased access to heavy weapons, economic decline and social frustration.”


Although crimes committed in the name of "honor" are often associated by popular media with Muslim communities, they are not unique to Muslim-majority societies and Islamic leaders have condemned "honor" killings and said they have no religious basis according to The State of World Population 2000—Lives Together, Worlds Apart: Men and Women in a Time of Change, written by the United Nations Population Fund in 2000. Some scholars suggest that "honor" killings in the Middle East can be distinguished from those in other parts of the world by their characterization less as uncontrolled, excusable crimes of passion and more as inherently just acts in defense of men’s honor and society’s values. From: Rana Lehr-Lehnardt, Treat Your Women Well: Comparisons and Lessons from an Imperfect Example Across the Waters, 26 S. Ill. Univ. L. J. 403, 418 (2002). Others argue that the distinction between "honor" killings and crimes of passion is convoluted and causes these killings to be considered a cultural or racial issue rather than part of a global pattern of violence against women, a problem whose seriousness is not fully recognized by any society. From: Sherene H. Razack, Imperilled Muslim Women, Dangerous Muslim Men and Civilised Europeans: Legal and Social Responses to Forced Marriages, 12 Feminist Legal Studies 129, 151 (2004).