Sources of International Law

last updated December 2014

In partnership with UN Women, The Advocates for Human Rights created the following sections for UN Women’s Virtual Knowledge Centre to End Violence against Women and Girls. This section, along with sections addressing other forms of violence against women and girls, may be found under Legislation at www.endvawnow.org.

Sources of international law

These international statements of law and principle provide a foundation for the right to be free from domestic violence.

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948) states, in Article 3, that “Everyone has the right to life, liberty and security of person”.  In Article 7, it states that “All are equal before the law and are entitled without any discrimination to equal protection of the law.” In Article 8, it declares that “Everyone has the right to an effective remedy by the competent national tribunals for acts violating the fundamental rights granted him by the constitution or by law.”

The International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (1966) prohibits discrimination on the basis of sex, and mandates states parties to “…ensure that any person whose rights or freedoms as herein recognized are violated shall have an effective remedy” Article 2.

The International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (1976) declares that states parties must “…ensure the equal right of men and women to the enjoyment of all economic, social and cultural rights set forth [therein]” Article 3.

The Convention of the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW), 1979, defines discrimination against women as:

"...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 agree to eliminate this discrimination by undertaking to adopt “…appropriate legislative and other measures, including sanctions where appropriate…” and 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).

In General Recommendation no.19, 1992, the Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women interpreted the term “discrimination” used in CEDAW to include gender-based violence by stating:

"The definition of discrimination includes gender-based violence, that is, 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. 

General Recommendation No. 19 also rejects customary or religious justifications for domestic 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)

Finally, the CEDAW Committee recommends that “states parties should ensure that laws against family violence and abuse, rape, sexual assault and other gender-based violence give adequate protection to all women and respect their integrity and dignity…” (Paragraph 24b).

The United Nations Declaration on the Elimination of Violence against Women, (DEVAW) 1993, acknowledged that the root cause of violence against women is the subordinate status of women in society, stating:

 “…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

Regional Treaties

The American Declaration of the Rights and Duties of Man (1948) states that:

“The American peoples have acknowledged the dignity of the individual, and their national constitutions recognize that juridical and political institutions, which regulate life in human society, have as their principal aim the protection of the essential rights of man and the creation of circumstances that will permit him to achieve spiritual and material progress and attain happiness…” Preamble

It declares that “every human being has the right to life, liberty and the security of his person.” Article I.  In Article V, it states that “every person has the right to the protection of the law against abusive attacks upon his honor, his reputation, and his private and family life.”  The Declaration also states that “Every person may resort to the courts to ensure respect for his legal rights.” Article XVIII.

The Inter-American Convention on the Prevention, Punishment and Eradication of Violence Against Women (1994) (Convention of Belém do Para) states that women have “the right to be free from violence in both public and private spheres.” Article 3  It declares that a woman has “The right to simple and prompt recourse to a competent court for protection against acts that violate her rights…”Article 4 (g)  States parties must exercise due diligence to prosecute, punish and prevent such violence, and “…include in their domestic legislation penal, civil, administrative and any other type of provisions that may be needed to prevent, punish and eradicate violence against women and to adopt appropriate administrative measures where necessary…” Article 7

The African Union's Protocol to the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights on the Rights of Women in Africa (The Maputo Protocol) was adopted in 2003 and came into force in 2005.  Article 4 mandates states parties to “…adopt such other legislative, administrative, social and economic measures as may be necessary to ensure the prevention, punishment and eradication of all forms of violence against women.” Article 4

The Association of Southeast Asian Nations adopted the Declaration on the Elimination of Violence Against Women in the ASEAN Region, (2004), includes this agreement by states parties:

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

The Council of Europe Convention on preventing and combating violence against women and domestic violence (hereinafter “the Istanbul Convention”) is the first legally-binding instrument in Europe on violence against women and domestic violence. It obliges states to reform laws, implement practical measures to aid victims, and, importantly, allocate adequate resources for an effective response to violence against women and domestic violence. In addition states must involve all relevant actors in the implementation of the Istanbul Convention, including national parliaments and institutions and non-governmental and civil society organizations. It was adopted by the Council of Europe Committee of Ministers on 7 April 2011. The Istanbul Convention will enter into force once ten countries have ratified it. Eight of the ten ratifying countries must be Council of Europe member states. An ongoing list of signatures and ratifications can be found here. The Istanbul Convention is available here in 28 languages.

See Council of Europe Fact Sheet, 12 Steps to Comply with the Council of Europe Convention on preventing and combating violence against women and domestic violence (the Istanbul Convention). 12 Steps to Comply with the Council of Europe Convention on preventing and combating violence against women and domestic violence (the Istanbul Convention).