Law and Policy

last updated 28 May 2009


International, regional and national institutions have addressed acts of sexual assault with treaties prohibiting such acts which are applicable in peacetime and during armed conflict, by publishing reports concerning the experience and prevalence of sexual assault, and through the development of policies and protocols for the prevention of sexual assault and the treatment of individuals who have suffered sexual violence. 


During times of peace, national governments can be held accountable for sexual assault if it rises to the level of a violation of international human rights principles or treaty obligations.  For example, sexual assault may violate the international prohibition of torture if an individual is sexually assaulted while in the custody of governmental authorities.  Sexual assault may also be viewed as a form of discrimination against women in violation of international law. During armed conflict, the sexual assault of combatants and civilians is prohibited under international humanitarian law as it is expressed in treaties and in the case law of international tribunals.  The U.N. Special Rapporteurs on Violence Against Women and Torture, the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees and the World Health Organization have been critical to efforts to raise awareness about sexual assault, articulate state responsibility for sexual assault, and identify strategies to combat sexual assault. In 2008, the United Nations Division for the Advancement of Women released recommendations in its expert group report called "Good practices in legislation on violence against women", which included sexual assault.  For the Russian version of the recommendations to the report, click here.

Regional institutions such as the European Union and the Council of Europe have taken significant steps to combat sexual assault against women, particularly the sexual assault of refugees and individuals in the custody of government authorities.

On the national level, as well, significant advancements have been made through the drafting and passage of sexual assault laws and the creation of policies and protocols altering the law enforcement, judicial, prosecutorial, or medical response to sexual assault. These laws and protocols vary considerably; some sexual assault laws, for example, criminalize sexual assault, others create civil remedies, and still others do both. Despite their diversity, these laws can serve as useful models for new legislative and policy reform efforts. In addition, the successes and failures of these laws and protocols in other jurisdictions can be an invaluable resource in the effort to evaluate the appropriateness of adopting a particular policy or law and to anticipate any unintended negative effects the law or policy may have on victims of sexual assault.