UN Conference Documents

last updated June 15, 2006

United Nations conference documents address the issue of sexual assault. United Nations conference documents 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." From Rebecca J. Cook, The Elimination of Sexual Apartheid: Prospects for the Fourth World Conference on Women 29 (1995).

The Report of the World Conference of the United Nations Decade for Women: Equality, Development and Peace, Copenhagen, July 1980, U.N. Doc A/CONF.94/35 (80.IV.30), explicitly addresses sexual violence. The Legislative Measures section states:

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.

At the 1985 Third World Conference on Women in Nairobi, Kenya, violence against women, including sexual assault, received significant attention. The final conference report acknowledged that:

Violence against women exists in various forms in everyday life in all societies. Women are beaten, mutilated, burned, sexually abused and raped. Such violence is a major obstacle to the achievement of peace and the other objectives of the Decade and should be given special attention. Women victims of violence should be given particular attention and comprehensive assistance. To this end, legal measures should be formulated to prevent violence and to assist women victims. National machinery should be established in order to deal with the question of violence against women within the family and society.

It further called on governments to "undertake effective measures, including mobilizing community resources to identify, prevent and eliminate all violence, including family violence, against women and to provide shelter, support and reorientation services for abused women and children." Report of the World Conference to Review and Appraise the Achievements of the United Nations Decade for Women: Equality, Development and Peace, held in Nairobi, July 1985, including Nairobi Forward-Looking Strategies for the Advancement of Women, U.N. Doc. A/CONF.116/28Rev.1 (85.IV.10).

The Vienna Declaration and Programme of Action (A/CONF.157/23), adopted at the 1993 World Conference on Human Rights, recognizes that "[t]he human rights of women and of the girl-child are an inalienable, integral and indivisible part of universal human rights." The Programme declares that gender-based violence, which includes sexual assault is “incompatible with the dignity and worth of the human person, and must be eliminated.”  The Programme also acknowledges and condemns the particular harm caused by systematic rape as a weapon of war.

The Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action was adopted in 1995 at the Fourth World Conference on Women. The Platform states that gender-based violence, including sexual assault, is "incompatible with the dignity and the worth of the human person and must be combated and eliminated" whether committed in public or private. "Violence against women both violates and impairs or nullifies the enjoyment by women of their human rights and fundamental freedoms." It addresses violence against women as a separate "Critical Area of Concern" and includes it under the "Human Rights" section. The Beijing Platform outlines many specific actions governments, nongovernmental groups and others should take to confront and combat violence against women. The Platform also points out that the absence of clear data and statistics on gender-specific violence creates a problem in implementing meaningful changes. It therefore calls on all levels of government, as well as the U.N., to develop gender-disaggregated and age-specific data on the victims and perpetrators of violence against women.

Five years later, at the United Nations' conference, Beijing plus 5: A Special Session on Women 2000: Gender Equality, Development and Peace for the Twenty-First Century, the final document included sexual assault as an obstacles for women:

14. Obstacles. Women continue to be victims of various forms of violence. Inadequate understanding of the root causes of all forms of violence against women and girls hinders efforts to eliminate violence against women and girls. There is a lack of comprehensive programs dealing with the perpetrators, including programs, where appropriate, which would enable them to solve problems without violence. Inadequate data on violence further impedes informed policy-making and analysis. Sociocultural attitudes which are discriminatory and economic inequalities reinforce women's subordinate place in society. This makes women and girls vulnerable to many forms of violence, such as physical, sexual and psychological violence occurring in the family, including battering, sexual abuse of female children in the household, dowry-related violence, marital rape, female genital mutilation and other traditional practices harmful to women, non-spousal violence and violence related to exploitation. In many countries, a coordinated multidisciplinary approach to responding to violence which includes the health system, workplaces, the media, the education system, as well as the justice system, is still limited. Domestic 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. Although improving, the legal and legislative measures, especially in the criminal justice area, to eliminate different forms of violence against women and children, including domestic violence and child pornography, are weak in many countries. Prevention strategies also remain fragmented and reactive and there is a lack of programs on these issues . . . .

69. (a) As a matter of priority, review and revise legislation, were appropriate, with a view to introducing effective legislation, including on violence against women, and take other necessary measures to ensure that all women and girls are protected against all forms of physical, psychological and sexual violence, and are provided recourse to justice;

(b) Prosecute the perpetrators of all forms of violence against women and girls and sentence them appropriately, and introduce actions aimed at helping and motivating perpetrators to break the cycle of violence and take measures to provide avenues for redress to victims;

(c) Treat all forms of violence against women and girls of all ages as a criminal offence punishable by law, including violence based on all forms of discrimination;

(d) Establish legislation and/or strengthen appropriate mechanisms to handle criminal matters relating to all forms of domestic violence, including marital rape and sexual abuse of women and girls, and ensure that such cases are brought to justice swiftly . . .

In 2005, the Commission on the Status of Women adopted a declaration reaffirming the Beijing Platform for Action and the Beijing plus 5 final document. The declaration calls upon “the United Nations system, international and regional organizations, all sectors of civil society, including non-governmental organizations, as well as all women and men, to fully commit themselves and to intensify their contributions to the implementation” of these documents.

 Other United Nations conference documents also address sexual assault. The Cairo Program of Action, which was adopted at the International Conference on Population and Development in 1994, calls on countries to "take full measures to eliminate all forms of exploitation, abuse, harassment and violence against women, adolescents and girls." This need was emphasized again in the Cairo plus 5 document, the Programme for Action, from the second International Conference on Population and Development (ICPD) in 1999. The Copenhagen Declaration on Social Development from the 1995 World Summit for Social Development in Copenhagen also calls on governments to take effective measures to combat and eliminate all forms of violence against women. A similar message was expressed in the United Nations Millennium Declaration, adopted at the 2000 Millennium Summit: "We resolve . . . [t]o combat all forms of violence against women and to implement the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women."