UN Treaties on Domestic Violence
last updated October 26, 2012
Domestic violence is recognized in international law as a violation of human rights. Although early international treaties only provided protection against domestic violence implicitly, in the 1990’s domestic violence began to receive more explicit attention with the passage of the General Comment No. 19 by the Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women (1992) and the Declaration of Elimination of Violence Against Women (1993). The past two decades have also seen numerous resolutions from the UN General Assembly on violence against women, including one that specifically addressed domestic violence. This section will review the international treaties and resolutions impacting domestic violence, with a focus on three primary ways that domestic violence violates human rights: as a violation of basic freedoms such as the right to life and security of person, as a violation of the right to equality, and as a violation of the prohibition against torture.
The Right to Life, Liberty and Security of Person
Although early human rights law enacted by the United Nations did not specially mention violence against women, it is still relevant to domestic violence. In 1948, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) was adopted by the United Nations General Assembly.[1] Although this document was not originally binding on member states, it has received such wide acceptance as an outline of foundational human rights principles that it has been recognized as a binding expression of customary law and an authoritative interpretation of the UN Charter itself.[2] Article 3 of the UDHR states, “Everyone has the right to life, liberty and security of person.”[3] This right was reaffirmed in by the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (1966), which protects the right to life (Article 6) and the right to liberty and security of person (Article 9).[4] These rights, as well as others in the UDHR, ICCPR, and the International Covenant on Social, Economic, and Cultural Rights (ICESCR),[5] such as the right to equal protection under the law[6] and the right to the highest standard of physical and mental health,[7] are implicated in domestic violence cases. Therefore, States that are parties to these instruments have an implicit obligation to protect women from domestic violence as part of their obligations.
The Right to Equality and Freedom from Discrimination
Like the earlier human rights instruments, the main text of the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW), entered into force in 1981, did not explicitly include language on violence against women or domestic violence.[8] However, CEDAW’s primary focus, in which State Parties agree to “condemn discrimination against women in all its forms,”[9] was interpreted as covering violence against women. As described by Rashida Manjoo, the current UN Special Rapporteur on Violence against Women, “States must acknowledge that violence against women is not the root problem, but that violence occurs because other forms of discrimination are allowed to flourish.”[10] This view of violence against women as the most extreme manifestation on a continuum of discrimination led the Committee on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women, the monitoring body of CEDAW, to adopt General Recommendation Number 19.[11] This recommendation explicitly included gender-based violence as a form of discrimination covered by CEDAW, saying:
The definition of discrimination includes gender-based violence, that is, violence that is directed against a woman because she is a woman or that affects women disproportionately. It includes acts that inflict physical, mental or sexual harm or suffering, threats of such acts, coercion and other deprivations of liberty. Gender-based violence may breach specific provisions of the Convention, regardless of whether those provisions expressly mention violence.[12]
Recommendation 19 also specifically addressed domestic violence as a form of discrimination against women, stating:
Family violence is one of the most insidious forms of violence against women. It is prevalent in all societies. Within family relationships women of all ages are subjected to violence of all kinds, including battering, rape, other forms of sexual assault, mental and other forms of violence, which are perpetuated by traditional attitudes. Lack of economic independence forces many women to stay in violent relationships. The abrogation of their family responsibilities by men can be a form of violence, and coercion. These forms of violence put women's health at risk and impair their ability to participate in family life and public life on a basis of equality.[13]
In 1999, the General Assembly adopted the Optional Protocol to the Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination against Women.[14] The Optional Protocol created two procedures to monitor compliance with CEDAW. First, it established a communications procedure for individual women, or groups of women, to submit claims of violations of CEDAW after exhausting domestic remedies.[15] Second, the Optional Protocol created an inquiry procedure which enables the Committee to investigate situations of “grave or systematic violations” of women’s rights.[16] The decisions for such communications and inquiries are published on the UN Women website.[17] Both procedures can only be used in cases where the State is a party to the Convention and the Optional Protocol. Currently 104 countries are parties to the Optional Protocol.[18]
The Right to Be Free from Torture
CEDAW Recommendation 19 also states that violence against women is a violation of the right not to be subject to torture or to cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment, as protected by UDHR Article 5 and ICCPR Article 7.[19] In recent years, the view has been affirmed by the Committee Against Torture, which is the monitoring body of the Convention Against Torture (CAT).[20] The Convention Against Torture, which has been ratified by 151 states, strictly prohibits torture of any kind, with torture defined as any act by which severe pain or suffering, whether physical or mental, is intentionally inflicted” for purposes such as obtaining information, punishment, intimidation or coercion, or any reason based on discrimination.[21] Although such acts generally must be inflicted by a public official, the State can also be responsible if it acquiesces to the act.[22] In clarifying State responsibility for torture by non-state actors, the Committee specifically cited “States parties’ failure to prevent and protect victims from gender-based violence, such as rape, domestic violence, female genital mutilation, and trafficking” as a violation of CAT.[23] In reviewing country compliance with CAT, the Committee and the Special Rapporteur on Torture routinely request information on the prevalence of domestic violence in a country. In particular, concern about torture in the form of domestic violence has been raised in recent Committee review for Bosnia and Herzegovina,[24] Turkey,[25] Azerbaijan,[26] Moldova,[27] and many others.[28]

[1] Universal Declaration of Human Rights, G.A. res. 217A (III), U.N. Doc A/810 at 71 (1948), available at http://www.un.org/en/documents/udhr/index.shtml.
[2] See Antonio Augusto Cancado Trindade, “Universal Declaration of Human Rights,” Audiovisual Library of International Law, http://untreaty.un.org/cod/avl/ha/udhr/udhr.html (“The Universal Declaration, moreover, is today widely recognized as an authoritative interpretation of human rights provisions of the Charter of the United Nations itself, heralding the transformation of the social and international order to secure the enjoyment of the proclaimed rights.”).
[3] Universal Declaration of Human Rights, supra note 1, Art. 3.
[4] International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, G.A. res. 2200A (XXI), 21 U.N. GAOR Supp. (No. 16) at 52, U.N. Doc. A/6316 (1966), 999 U.N.T.S. 171, entered into force Mar. 23, 1976, available at http://www2.ohchr.org/english/law/ccpr.htm.
[5] International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, G.A. res. 2200A (XXI), 21 U.N. GAOR Supp. (No. 16) at 49, U.N. Doc. A/6316 (1966), 993 U.N.T.S. 3, entered into force Jan. 3, 1976, available at http://www2.ohchr.org/english/law/cescr.htm.
[6] ICCPR, supra note 4, Art. 14.
[7] ICESCR, supra note 5, Art. 12.
[8] Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women, G.A. res. 34/180, 34 U.N. GAOR Supp. (No. 46) at 193, U.N. Doc. A/34/46, entered into force Sept. 3, 1981, available at http://www.un.org/womenwatch/daw/cedaw/text/econvention.htm.
[9] Id.at Art. 2.
[10] Rashida Manjoo, “Statement to the General Assembly,” 3 (Oct. 10, 2011), available at http://www.un.org/womenwatch/daw/documents/ga66/RAPPORT_on_VAW.PDF.
[11] Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women, General Recommendation 19, Violence against women (Eleventh session, 1992), U.N. Doc. A/47/38 at 1 (1993), reprinted in Compilation of General Comments and General Recommendations Adopted by Human Rights Treaty Bodies, U.N. Doc. HRI/GEN/1/Rev.6 at 243 (2003), available at http://www1.umn.edu/humanrts/gencomm/generl19.htm.
[12] Id. at ¶ 6.
[13] Id. at ¶ 23.
[14] Optional Protocol to the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women, 2131 U.N.T.S 83, UN Doc. A/RES/54/4, entered into force Dec. 22, 2000, available at http://www.un.org/womenwatch/daw/cedaw/protocol/text.htm.
[15] Id. at Art. 2, 4.
[16] Id. atArt. 8.
[17] “Decisions/Views,” Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination of Violence against Women, http://www.un.org/womenwatch/daw/cedaw/protocol/dec-views.htm. See also “Optional Protocol to CEDAW,” http://opcedaw.wordpress.com/communications/by-decision-type/.
[18] Signatures and Ratifications, Optional Protocol to the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women, http://treaties.un.org/Pages/ViewDetails.aspx?src=TREATY&mtdsg_no=IV-8-b&chapter=4&lang=en.
[19] General Recommendation 19, supra note 11, at ¶ 7.
[20] “Committee against Torture,” Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, available at http://www2.ohchr.org/english/bodies/cat/members.htm.
[21] Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment, Art. 1,
G.A. res. 39/46, annex, 39 U.N. GAOR Supp. (No. 51) at 197, U.N. Doc. A/39/51 (1984), entered into force June 26, 1987, available at
[22] Id.
[23] Committee against Torture, General Comment No. 2, ¶ 18, UN Doc. CAT/C/GC/2 (Jan. 24, 2008), available at http://www2.ohchr.org/english/bodies/cat/comments.htm.
[24] Committee against Torture, Report of the Committee against Torture (2011), ¶ 48(13), UN Doc. A/66/44 (May 2011), available at http://www2.ohchr.org/english/bodies/cat/docs/A.66.44.pdf.
[25] Id. ¶ 53(20).
[26] Committee against Torture, Report of the Committee against Torture (2009), ¶ 50(19), UN Doc. A/65/44 (May 2010), available at http://www2.ohchr.org/english/bodies/cat/reports.htm.
[27] Id. ¶ 53(23).
[28] A complete collection of the Committee’s annual reports is available at http://www2.ohchr.org/english/bodies/cat/reports.htm.