In her recent report, Dr Dubravka Simonovic, Special Rapporteur on violence against women, its causes and consequences, examined the adequacy of the legal framework in preventing and addressing gender-based violence. Lisa Gormley considers the conclusions and recommendations.

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A new report from the Special Rapporteur on violence against women, its causes and consequences, on the adequacy of the international legal framework on violence against women is not a dry, technical report – it is a striking account of the dense tapestry of international treaties and case law showing the stories of women’s lives. As I read this report, I reflected on a number of questions. The most obvious being: why are we still asking for an end to violence against women, when international law has stated for 25 years – since the adoption of CEDAW General Recommendation 19 in 1992 – that we are entitled to this already?

I use the term “we” advisedly. One in three of us women and girls will experience gender-based and/or sexual violence, and we all experience the discrimination at the root of this violence. I have no doubt that all of us have supported someone we know, through our friendships and relationships with women and girls in our families and neighbourhoods, in coming to terms with rape, domestic violence and other forms of gender-based violence.

Are States’ legal obligations not taken seriously? Is the current international legal framework sufficient or do we need a new international treaty on gender-based violence?

To make this assessment, we need to consider what a treaty is and what a new one would do that is so special. A treaty is a political commitment – we have that in successive General Assembly resolutions and now the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). A treaty is also a legal commitment – we have that in the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW). Indeed, the CEDAW Committee’s General Recommendation 35 (GR 35) identifies gender-based violence as a breach of international customary law. This discriminatory violence has also been recognised as a violation of: the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, the Convention on the Rights of the Child and the Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment.

In the Americas, Africa and Europe, there are specific regional human rights treaties which address violence against women. While there is a lack of regional treaties in the Asia and Oceania regions – both on human rights generally and on combatting violence against women – the Council of Europe Convention on preventing and combating violence against women and domestic violence is open to accession by any state. Having taken part in the negotiation of that treaty, I am absolutely convinced the legal principles it reflects are global, not European, so that it would be effective and appropriate for any state to become a party.

Is the persistent failure on the part of States to eradicate violence against women down to the legal framework? What else is going on, to contribute towards, or obstruct, effective State actions? And what are the solutions that might make a difference?

What we need is, as the Special Rapporteur puts it “a dynamic State response which includes the necessary resources and political will to create change.” How do we get there – for each and every woman and girl in each and every State in the world? The Special Rapporteur makes a number of proposals, some drawn from the submissions received, some her own ideas.

Since the start of her term, the Special Rapporteur has proposed making the intersections of international and regional human rights accountability processes stronger and clearer, with the aim of better implementation. She has called for streamlining approaches, building on leadership from international courts, treaty bodies, independent experts, and international and regional political bodies – including the Security Council and the General Assembly, as much as the Human Rights Council.

This streamlining would result in a cumulative effect, consistently repeating and reminding every government of its obligations. Failures in prevention, investigation, prosecution and reparation in each national context should be taken up, scrutinised and measures taken, in terms of policy-making and allocation of resources, to remedy these failures.

The CEDAW Committee has a central role in this, which is a reason why the Special Rapporteur’s report and GR 35 are companion pieces. The CEDAW Committee is the global body monitoring implementation of the global legal obligation, which takes account of gender-based violence in the context of structural discrimination that women and girls face. It is vital to invest in its work.

But, like all UN human rights machinery, the CEDAW Committee is severely underfunded given the amount of work that it does. To monitor 189 States parties, the CEDAW Committee needs more resources and more time – more time for sessions, for Committee members to engage with State representatives and NGOs, and more staff to assist the members in carrying out their work.

The Special Rapporteur on violence against women, its causes and consequences, meets with Lisa Gormley and postgraduate students from the LSE Centre for Women, Peace and Security to discuss her report.

The Special Rapporteur’s report calls for a global implementation plan. This includes processes to assess the implementation of the SDGs, especially Goal 5 on gender equality and gender based violence, Goal 16 on peace, justice, and strong institutions, and Goal 10 on eradicating inequality within and between countries, including gender inequality. Gender equality is a cross-cutting principle, and the SDGs pledge to “leave no-one behind.” Yet, the Center for Economic and Social Rights expressed concern that this summer’s High Level Review “provided stark evidence of the shortcomings of these arrangements, showcasing official national reports of dubious rigor while civil society was offered only tokenistic opportunities to participate.” It is clear that the synergies between the SDGs and existing obligations under human rights law need to be drawn out, and the accountability processes made sharper and more tenacious.

The Special Rapporteur also recommends the creation of a global observatory, which could consolidate existing legal requirements and recommendations, appraise existing State initiatives, receive and assess shadow reporting and provide civil society analysis of victims’ perspectives. A global observatory should be staffed with enough experts to carry out year-round, long-term, profound engagement with all States. This is an exciting suggestion. Who could host this global institution? What would give this sufficient political clout, to ensure that States engage in good faith and with effectiveness?

Another suggestions is that States introduce or improve national action plans (NAPs) on gender-based violence. But lessons from NAPs on the implementation of the Women, Peace and Security agenda show they are ineffective unless backed by sufficient financial and human resources. Further, it is essential that women participate in drafting and monitoring of NAPs through vigorous civil society engagement. NAPs should include existing human rights accountability mechanisms’ guidance for change. An effective NAP would address one of the Special Rapporteur’s key concerns – that most States do not have coordinated legal and policy frameworks.

What was implicit in 1992 when CEDAW GR 19 was adopted, and is made explicit in GR35, is that this obligation to eradicate gender-based violence is an immediate obligation. It must be done “with all appropriate means and without delay” – and that delay cannot be justified on any grounds (paragraph 21, GR35). It has to be done now, and I hope it isn’t misusing the modern North American term to express impatience but it should have been done “already”.


About the author

Lisa GormleyLisa Gormley is a Research Officer in the Centre for Women, Peace and Security. She has a strong background in women’s human rights, including 14 years as legal adviser at Amnesty International’s International Secretariat, mostly specialising in women’s rights in international law. She is also the author of the ‘Women’s Access to Justice for Gender-Based Violence: ICJ’s Practitioner’s Guide’.