UN Conference Documents on Domestic Violence
last updated October 26, 2012
United Nations conference documents also address the issue of domestic violence. They are widely recognized as consensus documents—that is, documents that reflect an international consensus on the state of international law. While not legally enforceable, they are, as one writer states, "signposts of the direction in which international human rights law is developing and should influence states that have accepted a commitment of progressive development toward enhanced respect for human rights in their international conduct and domestic law."[1]

The primary organizer of the conferences has been the Commission on the Status of Women (CSW).[2] Established by the UN Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC) in 1946, the CSW is a policy-making body that focuses on gender equality and the advancement of women.[3] In addition to hosting expert group meetings[4] and annual sessions for UN representatives,[5] the CSW has also organized the world conferences on women. These world conferences, which include Mexico City (1975),[6] Copenhagen (1980),[7] Nairobi (1985),[8] and Beijing (1995),[9] represent important opportunities for policymakers and other interested parties to discuss on-going challenges, reaffirm foundational doctrines, set goals and create action points, and review progress in implementing the work of past conferences.

Conference in Copenhagen
In 1980 the Conference in Copenhagen adopted a resolution on “battered women and violence in the family,” making it the first time domestic violence was explicitly addressed at an official UN meeting.[10] The resolution raised violence in the home as “an intolerable offence to the dignity of human beings as well as a grave problem for the physical and mental health of the family as well as society” and recognized “that long-held attitudes that diminish the value of women have resulted in virtual immunity from prosecution of persons who commit acts of violence against members of their families.”[11] The resolution also recommended that member states consider establishing family courts and other measures to protect victims.[12] Finally, the conference’s Legislative Measures section advises, “Legislation should also be enacted and implemented in order to prevent domestic and sexual violence against women. All appropriate measures, including legislative ones, should be taken to allow victims to be fairly treated in all criminal procedures.”[13]

World Conference on Women in Nairobi
At the 1985 World Conference on Women in Nairobi, abused women, including victims of domestic violence, received significant attention as an “Area of Special Concern.”[14] Strengthening the language from the Copenhagen Conference, the final Nairobi report demands:
In addition to immediate assistance to victims of violence against women in the family and in society, Governments should undertake to increase public awareness of violence against women as a societal problem, establish policies and legislative measures to ascertain its causes and prevent and eliminate such violence in particular by suppressing degrading images and representations of women in society, and finally encourage the development of educational and re-educational measures for offenders.[15]

Second World Conference on Human Rights
In 1993, domestic violence was addressed again at the Second World Conference on Human Rights. Because this was a general human rights conference, not a forum dedicated specifically to women’s issues as the past conferences were, it indicates how domestic violence had risen as an issue of international importance. The Vienna Declaration and Programme of Action, which was adopted at the conference, stressed that the human rights of women “should form an integral part of the United Nations human rights activities” and highlighted “the importance of working towards the elimination of violence against women in the public and private life.”[16] The Vienna Declaration also urged the General Assembly (GA) to adopt the Declaration on Elimination of Violence against Women (DEVAW), which the GA responded to by adopting DEVAW later that year (see UN Resolutions).[17]

Fourth World Conference on Women
Violence against women, including domestic violence, was a major focus at the 1995 Fourth World Conference on Women in Beijing, China. The conference report, which includes the Beijing Declaration and Beijing Platform for Action, identifies violence against women as a "Critical Area of Concern" and included it in the "Human Rights" section.[18] The Platform for Action specifically addresses domestic violence, saying:
In many cases, violence against women and girls occurs in the family or within the home, where violence is often tolerated. The neglect, physical and sexual abuse, and rape of girl children and women by family members and other members of the household, as well as incidences of spousal and non-spousal abuse, often go unreported and are thus difficult to detect. Even when such violence is reported, there is often a failure to protect victims or punish perpetrators.[19]
The Platform also addresses cultural patterns and social pressures, lack of access to legal information, lack of laws to effectively prohibit violence against women, and inadequate educational efforts to address the causes and consequences of violence – all of which contribute to the continued prevalence of violence against women. The Platform outlined dozens of specific actions governments, nongovernmental groups and others should take to confront and combat violence against women, and committed to periodically review progress in these areas.[20]

Beijng Plus 5
A conference to review achievements and obstacles to the goals set out by the Beijing Conference has been subsequently held every five years. At Beijing plus 5, held in 2000, the final report detailed achievements in violence against women goals, including, among many other things, an “increased awareness of and commitment to preventing and combating violence against women and girls, including domestic violence, which violates and impairs or nullifies the enjoyment of their human rights and fundamental freedoms, through inter alia, improved legislation, policies and programmes.”[21] The report also acknowledged continuing obstacles, however, including a lack of comprehensive programs to deal with perpetrators and continuing sociocultural attitudes which are discriminatory. The report was also concerned that “[d]omestic violence, including sexual violence in marriage, is still treated as a private matter in some countries. Insufficient awareness of the consequences of domestic violence, how to prevent it and the rights of victims still exists.”[22] The report then recommended several actions to be taken to address these obstacles, including strengthening redress for violence against women through the criminal justice system.[23] Similar reviews were held at Beijing plus 10 (2005)[24] and Beijing plus 15 (2010).[25] These reviews include not only submissions by countries as to what they are doing to implement the Beijing Platform, but also a number of specialized resolutions that touch on issues such as the relationship between HIV/AIDS and domestic violence and domestic violence in Afghanistan. All of the Beijing follow-up documents, including individual country submissions, can be found on the UN Women website.[26]

UN Expert Group Meetings
The conferences have also been supplemented by frequent UN Expert Group meetings on topics relating to domestic violence. Topics for these meetings have included “Good practices in legislation on violence against women,”[27] “Indicators to measure violence against women,”[28] and “Violence against women: Good practices in combating and eliminating violence against women.”[29] The UN Secretary-General has also published reports on domestic violence that have contributed to these conversations, including “Domestic Violence” (1990).[30] All of the expert group meeting reports can be found on the UN Women website.[31]

[1] Rebecca J. Cook, The Elimination of Sexual Apartheid: Prospects for the Fourth World Conference on Women 29 (1995).
[2] “Commission on the Status of Women,” UN Women, http://www.un.org/womenwatch/daw/csw/index.html.
[3] Id.
[4] “Expert Group Meetings,” UN Women, http://www.un.org/womenwatch/daw/documents/egm.htm.
[5] Documentation for each session can be found at http://www.un.org/womenwatch/daw/csw/index.html.
[6] “Report of the World Conference of the International Women’s Year,” First World Conference on Women, Mexico City, UN Doc E/CONF.66/34, June 19-July 2, 1975, full report available at http://www.un.org/womenwatch/daw/beijing/mexico.html.
[7] “Report of the World Conference of the United Nations Decade for Women: Equality, Development and Peace,” Second World Conference on Women, Copenhagen, UN Doc A/CONF.94/35, July 14-30, 1980, full report available at http://www.un.org/womenwatch/daw/beijing/copenhagen.html
[8] “Report of the World Conference to Review and Appraise the Achievements of the United Nations Decade for Women: Equality, Development and Peace,” Third World Conference on Women, Nairobi, UN Doc A/CONF.116/28/Rev.1, July 15-26, 1985, full report available at http://www.un.org/womenwatch/daw/beijing/nairobi.html
[9] “Report of the Fourth World Conference on Women,” Fourth World Conference on Women, Beijing, UN Doc A/CONF.177/20/Rev.1, Sept. 4-15, 1995, full report available at http://www.un.org/womenwatch/daw/beijing/pdf/Beijing%20full%20report%20E.pdf.
[10] “Report of the World Conference of the United Nations Decade for Women: Equality, Development and Peace,” supra note 7, Resolution 5, pg. 67.
[12] Id.
[13] Id. at Legislative measures/65, pg. 20.
[14] “Report of the World Conference to Review and Appraise the Achievements of the United Nations Decade for Women: Equality, Development and Peace,” supra note 8.
[15] Id. at ¶288, pg. 70.
[16] “Vienna Declaration and Programme of Action,” World Conference on Human Rights, ¶¶18, 38, UN Doc. A/CONF.157/23, June 14-25, 1993, full text available at http://www.unhchr.ch/huridocda/huridoca.nsf/(Symbol)/A.CONF.157.23.En?OpenDocument.
[17] Id. at ¶38.
[18] “Report of the Fourth World Conference on Women,” supra note 9.
[19] Id. at ¶117.
[20] Id. at ¶¶124-130
[21] “Further actions and initiatives to implement the Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action,” ¶13, GA Res. S-23/3, UN Doc. A/RES/S-23/3 (Nov. 16, 2000), full text available at http://www.un.org/womenwatch/daw/followup/ress233e.pdf.
[22] Id. at ¶14.
[23] Id. at ¶21.
[24] “Commission on the Status of Women: Report of the 49th Session,” Economic and Social Council, UN Doc. E/2005/27-E/CN.6/2005/11 (2005), full text available at http://www.responsibilitytoprotect.org/files/CSW_Final_Report.pdf.
[25] “Commission on the Status of Women: Report of the 54th Session,” Economic and Social Council, UN Doc. E/2010/27-E/CN.6/2010/11 (2010), full text available at http://www.unhcr.org/refworld/pdfid/4e78b74b2.pdf.
[26] “Fourth World Conference on Women,” UN Women, http://www.un.org/womenwatch/daw/beijing/fwcwn.html.
[27] “Expert Group Meeting on good practices in legislation on violence against women,” UN Women (2008) http://www.un.org/womenwatch/daw/egm/vaw_legislation_2008/vaw_legislation_2008.htm.
[28] “Expert Group Meeting on indicators to measure violence against women,” UN Women (2007), http://www.un.org/womenwatch/daw/vaw/v-egms-ind2007.htm.
[29] “Good practices in combating and eliminating violence against women,” UN Women (2005), http://www.un.org/womenwatch/daw/egm/vaw-gp-2005/index.html.
[30] “Domestic violence,” Report of the Secretary-General, UN Doc. A/CONF.144/17 (1990).
[31] “Expert Group Meetings,” UN Women, http://www.un.org/womenwatch/daw/documents/egm.htm.