UN Conference Documents
last updated 14 September 2007

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 first U.N. document to directly address sexual harassment was the Nairobi Forward Looking Strategies for the Advancement of Women, which was adopted at the Third World Conference on Women held in Nairobi, Kenya, in July 1985. This document places women's issues within the broader themes of peace, equality, and development. Therefore, the document discusses sexual harassment as a development issue, rather than as a human rights violation, a form of discrimination, or a form of violence against women:

The working conditions of women should be improved in all formal and informal areas by the public and private sectors. Occupational health and safety and job security should be enhanced and protective measures against work-related health hazards effectively implemented for women and men. Appropriate measures should be taken to prevent sexual harassment on the job or sexual exploitation in specific jobs, such as domestic service. Appropriate measures for redress should be provided by Governments and legislative measures guaranteeing these rights should be enforced. In addition, Governments and the private sector should put in place mechanisms to identify and correct harmful working conditions.

The document also treats sexual harassment as an area of special concern for young women: "Governments should recognize and enforce the rights of young women to be free from sexual violence, sexual harassment and sexual exploitation. . . . Young women should be educated to assert their rights. Particular attention should also be given to sexual harassment and exploitation in employment, especially those areas of employment such as domestic service, where sexual harassment and exploitation are most prevalent."

The Vienna Declaration and Programme of Action, 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 also contains language specifically addressing sexual harassment:

Gender-based violence and all forms of sexual harassment and exploitation, including those resulting from cultural prejudice and international trafficking, are incompatible with the dignity and worth of the human person, and must be eliminated. This can be achieved by legal measures and through national action and international cooperation in such fields as economic and social development, education, safe maternity and health care, and social support. In particular, the World Conference on Human Rights stresses the importance of working towards the elimination of violence against women in public and private life, the elimination of all forms of sexual harassment, exploitation and trafficking in women, the elimination of gender bias in the administration of justice and the eradication of any conflicts which may arise between the rights of women and the harmful effects of certain traditional or customary practices, cultural prejudices and religious extremism.

The Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action was adopted in 1995 at the Fourth World Conference on Women. The Platform includes sexual harassment in its definition of violence against women, and states that gender-based violence, whether committed in public or in private, is "incompatible with the dignity and the worth of the human person and must be combated and eliminated." The Platform describes sexual harassment as a problem in a number of different ways: sexual harassment is a form of discrimination that limits girls' access to education; the fear or threat of violence such as sexual harassment is an obstacle to the achievement of equality, a constraint on mobility, and restriction on access to resources; sexual harassment is "an affront to a worker's dignity and prevents women from making a contribution commensurate with abilities." The Platform calls on governments to enact and enforce laws against gender discrimination in the workplace, as well as calling on governments, trade unions, and community organizations to develop programs and procedures to eliminate sexual harassment in educational institutions, workplaces, and elsewhere. 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. In concluding the discussion of sexual harassment, the Platform states: "Effective implementation of the Platform will also require changes in the internal dynamics of institutions and organizations, including values, behaviour, rules and procedures that are inimical to the advancement of women. Sexual harassment should be eliminated."

Other United Nations conference documents also address sexual harassment. 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." 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."