Law and Policy on "Honor" Killings and Crimes

Last updated November 2008

As discussed above, the U.N. General Assembly passed a resolution in 2004 that recognizes crimes committed in the name of "honor" as a violation of human rights. The resolution, entitled “Working towards the elimination of crimes against women and girls committed in the name of honour,” calls upon states to take various actions, such as: intensifying investigation, prosecution, and punishment of crimes of "honor"; raising awareness of the need to eliminate crimes of "honor" and promote gender equality; improving support services for actual and potential victims; and collecting and sharing data on the occurrence of these crimes.

Another U.N. body that has addressed the issue of killings committed in the name of "honor" in several instances is the CEDAW Committee. The Committee’s General Recommendation No. 19 on Violence Against Women states that legislation removing the defense of honor in cases of murder or assault of female family members is a “necessary [measure] to overcome family violence.” In 2007, fifteen years after General Recommendation No. 19 was promulgated, the Committee applied its advice specifically to Jordan in its Concluding Comments on that country’s combined third and fourth periodic report. The CEDAW Committee urged Jordan to eliminate reductions in punishment that can benefit perpetrators of "honor" killings and to replace protective custody (incarceration) with other measures to protect actual and potential victims without depriving them of their liberty. Also in 2007, the CEDAW Committee expressed concern that the enactment of a new law against crimes committed in the name of "honor" in Pakistan has not stopped hundreds of "honor" killings from occurring there each year.

In 2008, the United Nations Division for the Advancement of Women released an expert group report entitled "Good practices in legislation on violence against women", which includes legislation prohibiting so-called "honor" crimes.  (For the Russian version of the report recommendations, click here.)

On a regional level, the Council of Europe Parliamentary Assembly passed Resolution 1327 on "So-called 'honour crimes'" in 2003. This resolution calls upon member states to take specific actions in the areas of prevention, prosecution and protection. In addition to ensuring that "honor" crimes are effectively investigated, prosecuted and penalized, the resolution calls on member states to "amend national asylum and immigration law in order to ensure that...a woman has the right to a residence permit, or even to asylum, in order to escape from 'honour crimes.'"

Many efforts to eliminate killings committed in the name of "honor" have focused on making changes to domestic laws in countries that have previously failed to appropriately punish offenders. Unfortunately, there is evidence that many of these legal changes have not been enough to quell the violence.

In Pakistan, a new law that took effect in 2005 acknowledged for the first time that "honor" killing is a crime and attempted to stiffen penalties for these murders, even mandating the death penalty under certain circumstances. From: Mazna Hussain, Take My Riches, Give Me Justice: A Contextual Analysis of Pakistan’s Honor Crimes Legislation, 29 Harv. J. L. & Gender 223, 239 (2006). The new law has many shortcomings, notes Hussain, including allowing the victim or her family to “forgive” the perpetrator, failing to appoint the government—rather than a relative—to be the victim’s heir, and containing no provision to ensure that involved parties other than the actual killer are held responsible. Observers declared the law ineffective when there were 267 documented "honor" killings in the first eleven months of 2005. From: Rachel Bubb, Reform of the Pakistani Rape Law: A Move Forward or Backward?, 11 J. Gender, Race & Justice 67, 80 (2007). Bubb suggests that one possible explanation for the continuing violence, besides the aforementioned defects of the law, is that courts may be choosing to acquit defendants in "honor" killing cases altogether, rather than mete out the harsh punishments mandated by the new law.

In Turkey, several changes have been made to the Penal Code in recent years. From: Turkish Civil and Penal Code Reforms from a Gender Perspective: The Success of Two Nationwide Campaigns, Women for Women’s Human Rights—New Ways, February 2005. Some articles that were once used to reduce sentences for the perpetrators of "honor" killings have been removed. Two articles have been amended to specifically address killings committed in the name of "honor", but these changes have been criticized by women’s human rights groups for leaving loopholes. Article 29, which allows sentence reductions in certain circumstances, now states that it is not applicable to killings committed in the name of "honor"; however, it also specifically says that this may not be true for all "honor" killings. Article 82, which defines aggravating factors for homicide, now includes “killings in the name of custom.” Yet this change has been described as inadequate because “[t]he use of ‘custom’ instead of the internationally accepted term ‘honor killings’ limits the scope of the crime, as if it only exists in certain regions of Turkey where customs prevail, and fails to include different sorts of honor killings.” In addition, some observers believe that stiffer penalties are not deterring people from carrying out "honor" killings in Turkey, but only causing them to modify their methods. Rather than assigning the task of murder to a male relative under the age of 18, who before the new law would have been punished lightly because of his youth, families are now coercing women into committing suicide or killing them and disguising their deaths as suicidesFrom: Dan Bilefsky, How to Avoid Honor Killing in Turkey? Honor Suicide, New York Times, 16 July 2006.