Special Rapporteur
last updated 14 September 2007

In 1994, the Commission on Human Rights appointed Radhika Coomaraswamy, a human rights activist from Sri Lanka, as the first Special Rapporteur on Violence Against Women, Including its Causes and Consequences. Ms. Coomaraswamy held this position until July 2003 when the Commission appointed Yakin Ertürk, a women's human rights expert from Turkey, to the position.

According to the Commission, the mandate of the Special Rapporteur is to "see and receive information on violence against women, its causes and consequences, from Governments, treaty bodies, specialized agencies and other special rapporteurs . . . [and] recommend measures, ways and means, at the national, regional and international level to eliminate violence against women and its causes, and to remedy its consequences . . . ." U.N.C.H.R. Res. 1994/45 (ESCOR 1994). Rapporteurs are seen as one of the most effective tools within the United Nations to monitor human rights violations.

Many of the reports issued by Ms. Coomaraswamy during her tenure touch on the issue of sexual harassment. In her 1995 Report, she describes sexual harassment as a form of violence in the community, a form of sex discrimination, and an assault on female sexuality that served to perpetuate women's subordinate position in society. She also notes that sexual harassment lacks a clear definition, and suggested that any definition encompass conduct in the workplace, education institutions, or elsewhere, that is unwelcome or unwanted, or offensive or threatening to the recipient. In her 1997 Report she uses stronger language to describe sexual harassment, and expanded her discussion of sexual harassment to include harassment that takes place on the street:

It is a personal attack on women's minds and bodies, instilling fear and violating a woman's right to bodily integrity, education and freedom of movement. It is utilized as a powerful mechanism of control and intimidation, through which women's subordinate social status is maintained. Sexual harassment frequently occurs on the street, in the workplace, in educational institutions and on public transportation. The more pernicious form, however, is sexual harassment in the workplace or in educational institutions. Sexual harassment strikes at the heart of women's economic self-sufficiency, disrupting women's earning capacity by forcing them out of the workplace or school. Women are nine times more likely than are men to leave their jobs as a result of sexual harassment.

In response to this problem, Ms. Coomaraswamy recommends that states criminalize sexual harassment. She also urges states to reexamine their rules of evidence from a gender perspective in order to make sure that these rules do not discriminate against women by, for example, requiring corroboration where the victim is a woman or allowing discussion of a woman's sexual history where it has no relevance to the case at hand. She further recommends that institutions develop provisions for combating sexual harassment, and work to ensure that victims of sexual harassment receive a proper hearing with due process of law.

Ms. Coomaraswamy's 2003 Report is a broad review of developments in the area of violence against women from 1994 to 2003. The report discusses two forms of sexual harassment: "Eve teasing" and sexual harassment in the workplace. "Eve teasing" consists of unwelcome advances in public places and has been criminalized in many countries. Laws on sexual harassment in the workplace hold employers accountable for quid pro quo harassment and for "verbal or physical conduct of a sexual nature has the purpose or effect of unreasonably interfering with an individual's job performance or creating an intimidating, hostile or offensive work environment." The Special Rapporteur concludes her discussion of sexual harassment by noting that rules and regulations controlling behavior and speech must "be sensitive to the implications for free speech and association."

The addendum to this 2003 report contains a detailed assessment of regional and national developments in the area of sexual harassment, including the adoption of criminal and civil legal prohibitions of such conduct, the creation of gender equality or equal employment opportunity institutions by national governments, and the publication of reports and media coverage concerning the prevalence and experience of sexual harassment in the workplace. The appendix also notes which countries have failed to adopt specific prohibitions of sexual harassment or remedies for such conduct. This country by country assessment conducted by Ms. Coomaraswamy is primarily the result of site visits she made to investigate national and local conditions relating to all forms of violence against women during her appointment as Special Rapporteur.

At the end of her 2003 Report, Ms. Coomaraswamy makes a series of general policy recommendations concerning violence against women. She notes that although progress has been made, particularly in setting standards and raising awareness, women still lack equal access to judicial protection, and as a result, "very little has changed in the lives of most women." Therefore, she recommended that the next decade of work in this area focus on implementation, compliance, and monitoring to "ensure that the prohibition against violence is a tangible reality for the world's women." In order to achieve this goal, the discussion of violence against women must move from the international level to the community level. States should ratify the relevant instruments prohibiting violence against women, exercise due diligence in its prevention, and work to address the root causes of violence against women.

Yakin Ertürk has continued Ms. Coomaraswamy’s work, issuing several individual country reports, annual reports and special reports.  See http://ap.ohchr.org/documents/dpage_e.aspx?m=106, for access to all of the Special Rapporteur’s reports and documents.  Although she has not issued a comprehensive update on sexual harassment, instead touching upon it generally in various reports, Ms. Ertürk has issued a report on the due diligence standard as a tool for eliminating violence against women.  She notes that many states have attempted to discharge their due diligence obligation to prevent violence against women – including sexual harassment -- through the adoption of specific legislation, the development of awareness-raising campaigns and the provision of training for specified professional groups.  However, she also emphasizes that “there is little information or follow-up in relation to law enforcement or the impact of legislation in curbing violence against women.  In some jurisdictions, legislation ostensibly adopted for the purposes of preventing and punishing violence against women has been drafted or applied in ways that further violate the rights of women.”  

She concludes that “the application of due diligence standard, to date, has tended to be State-centric and limited to responding to violence when it occurs, largely neglecting the obligation to prevent and compensate and the responsibility of non-State actors,” and that “if we continue to push the boundaries of due diligence in demanding the full compliance of States with international law, including to address the root causes of violence, against women and to hold non-State actors accountable for their acts of violence, then we will move towards a conception of human rights that meets our aspirations for a just world free of violence.”   See, The Due Diligence Standard as a Tool for the Elimination of Violence Against Women (2006).