UN Conventions
last updated 14 September 2007

Sexual harassment is a violation of fundamental principles of international human rights. Although the International Bill of Human Rights, which consists of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR), adopted by the United Nations General Assembly in 1948, and its implementing covenants, the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), and the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR) (both entered into force in 1976), does not explicitly mention sexual harassment, it does contain provisions that apply to sexually harassing conduct. Sexual harassment is a form of invidious discrimination that violates the equal protection or antidiscrimination provisions in these agreements. The International Bill of Human Rights protects rights "without discrimination of any kind as to race, colour, sex, language, religion, political or other opinion, national or social origin, property, birth or other status." Sexual harassment also violates the right to "just and favorable conditions of work." In addition, the failure to provide a remedy to victims of sexual harassment violates the right to an effective remedy for the violation of fundamental human rights.

The Convention for the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (Women's Convention), which entered into force in 1981, does not include language on violence against women or sexual harassment. However, it does prohibit discrimination in employment and also guarantees the right to protection of health and safety in working conditions. In 1989, the Committee on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW), the UN committee charged with monitoring the Convention, adopted General Recommendation No. 12, which recommends that states' reports to the Committee "include information about legislation in force to protect women against the incidence of all kinds of violence in everyday life (including . . . sexual harassment at the work place)."

In 1992, CEDAW adopted General Recommendation No. 19, explicitly interpreting the Women's Convention to prohibit violence against women as a form of discrimination against women. The recommendation notes that "gender-based violence is a form of discrimination that seriously inhibits women's ability to enjoy rights and freedoms on a basis of equality with men," and that "[e]quality in employment can be seriously impaired when women are subjected to gender-specific violence, such as sexual harassment in the workplace."

The Recommendation also describes sexual harassment as including:

such unwelcome sexually determined behaviour as physical contact and advances, sexually coloured remarks, showing pornography and sexual demand, whether by words or actions. Such conduct can be humiliating and may constitute a health and safety problem; it is discriminatory when the woman has reasonable grounds to believe that her objection would disadvantage her in connection with her employment, including recruitment or promotion, or when it creates a hostile working environment.

In addition, the Recommendation notes that the Convention applies both to "violence perpetrated by public authorities" and private acts of violence where states fail to exercise "due diligence to prevent violations of rights."

Finally, General Recommendation No. 19 recognizes that sexual harassment may also "constitute a health and safety problem."

The Optional Protocol to the Convention on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women was adopted in 2000. It provides a mechanism to hear the complaints of individuals whose rights under the Women's Convention have been violated.