International Women's Human Rights and Humanitarian Law

International Women's Human Rights and Humanitarian Law 

Women's Human Rights in the Context of International Law Research

Women's rights, in international law, emerges today as an exciting, rapidly-developing sub-field of international human rights protection. :

Treaties are … the international equivalent of "legislation" broadly stated, as the basic norm-creating text. The major multilateral treaties may occupy any one of a number of places in a hierarchy of legal authorities depending on the domestic law of the member state. A treaty may be on a par with domestic constitutional law, above it, somewhere between domestic constitutional law and domestic statutory law, or lack validity. In the last case, an enabling or implementing law of the jurisdiction must expressly declare a treaty to be a law of that country. These variations are true for member states of the UN and of the Council of Europe, parent bodies of the most widely-known human rights treaties.

A major step forward in the promotion and protection of international women's rights was the drafting and ratification of the United Nations Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women ( CEDAW ), 1249 U.N.T.S. 13, signed 18 Dec. 1979; entered into force 3 Sept. 1981. Currently there are 97 signatories and 165 parties, according to the status tables reported in Multilateral Treaties Deposited with the Secretary-General , ( this is now a fee-based service to which the library has a subscription; please contact a librarian for the password information).

II. CEDAW and its Optional Protocol

A. UNTS and Womenwatch

The text of CEDAW may be found as cited above in the print version of the United Nations Treaty Series ( New York [etc.] : United Nations, 1947-date) or its new updated electronic version. However, to see the document in a wider, more thoroughly-documented context, an excellent electronic source of background information is the WomenWatch project, which is maintained by the United Nations Division for the Advancement of Women. The Optional Protocol Homepage contains information on the history and current drafting process. The Open-ended Working Group of the UN Commission on the Status of Women (CSW) worked hard to establish an enforcement mechanism. Individuals and groups of women would be able to bring complaints under a communications procedure (similar to that already in place for the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) and a treaty-monitoring body or committee would be able to use an inquiry procedure to look into alleged abuses or treaty violations in a country that is a party to the Optional Protocol.

Also available at the Womenwatch site is the text of the Optional Protocol with an introductory summary, and a helpful hot-linked list of reports relating to the drafting and discussion of the protocol over the years . There is also a bibliography of literature on the protocol, but this should be supplemented by continuing research in periodical indexes.

The General Assembly adopted the Optional Protocol in October, 1999. It opened for signature in December, 1999. It entered into force 22 December 2002.

B. The Treaty-based and Charter-based Bodies Databases

The United Nations human rights system distinguishes between charter-based bodies, such as the Commission on Human Rights and the Sub-commission on the Promotion and Protection and of Human Rights, and the treaty-based bodies arising under the specific international instruments, of which the Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women is the one set up for CEDAW. The Commission has a broader and more basic set of extra-conventional mechanisms for setting up working groups and special rapporteurs for the whole field as a basic concern of the UN from its charter. The committees monitor states parties' compliance with a specific treaty by receiving and responding to reports from those countries and issuing reports on this activity. The UN documentation symbol system assigns E/CN.4 to the Commission and CEDAW/C… and other variations to the treaty body under consideration.

Even before the fully-ratified Optional Protocol was in place, the terms of CEDAW include reporting and monitoring functions which generate a considerable body of UN documentation in line with the standard requirements common to many of the human rights instruments operating under the UN system. To access most of these documents freely on the web, there is a database available through the Human Rights Document Research Guide listed under the Human Rights major section of the UN homepage,.Or, these documents may be viewed by treaty type as well as by country and several other options, including Reports of States Parties (under Article 18 of CEDAW), the Concluding Observations and Comments of the Committee, and General Comments the Committee upon reading a number of reports. .

III. Other Treaties and Instruments of the UN

Other instruments concerned with other aspects of women's rights have been sponsored by the UN. These include the Convention on the Political Rights of Women, New York, 31 March 1953; the Convention on the Nationality of Married Women New York, 20 February 1957; and the. Convention on Consent to Marriage, Minimum Age for Marriage and Registration of Marriages, New York, 10 December 1962. The text location and citation information is available on the treaties site at the UN Homepage

Another related guide in LLRX (Law Library Research Exchange, a webzine) is Marylin J. Raisch, International Family Law: A Selective Resource Guide . Many treaties and sites listed in the guide pertain to women's status, rights, and the relationship of their rights to children's rights.

The Womenwatch Page and the homepage of the Commission on the Status of Women, both cited above, provide numerous links to the various declarations and conferences devoted to the rights of women. These pages are linked one to another; as an example, the second "page" of Womenwatch, contains links to the intergovernmental and treaty bodies, the regional commissions, and the international instruments on women's rights and concerns. These are numerous, but two deserve special treatment: the Declaration on the Elimination of Violence Against Women (1993), and the Declaration on the Protection of Women and Children in Emergencies and Armed Conflicts (1974).

IV. Other Intergovernmental Organizations

(the International Labour Organization is dealt with separately, below)

Organization of American States

Home page:

Specific conventions relating to women's rights (the above URL applies to all of them):

  • Inter-American Convention on the Granting of Civil Rights to Women, (A-45)
  • Original text available only in Spanish)
  • Inter-American Convention on the Granting of Political Rights to Women, (A-44)
  • (Original text available only in Spanish)
  • Inter-American Convention on the Prevention, Punishment and Eradication of Violence Against Women "Convention of Belem do Para", (A-61)

Hague Conference

List of conventions

Specific conventions relating to women's rights:

Council of Europe

Council of Europe home page:

Council of Europe Conventions home page:

Specific conventions related to women's rights (the above URL applies to all):

  • Convention for the protection of human rights and fundamental freedoms (1950)

  • European social charter (revised 1996)

  • European code of social security (revised 1990)

V. Violence against Women

If one clicks on "General Information" at the second page of the large Human Rights section of the overall UN Homepage, one discovers that "Women and Violence" is a topic that merits separate treatment there. This is a helpful summary of UN activity and response in the area and discusses the work of the Special Rapporteur . Documentation exits throughout the UN system, but most readily available through Womenwatch.

VI. Global Conferences

Again, Womenwatch is probably the best "one-stop shopping" for the documents of the Fourth World Conference on Women held in 1995 as well as the "Beijing + 5" follow-up held in June, 2000. The Conference's Final Report as well as The Beijing Platform for Action and the Nairobi Forward-Looking Strategies for the Advancement for Women of 1985. may be also be found on this site.

"Directory of UN Resources on Gender and Women's Issues" also appears on the Womenwatch site.

UN conferences in general are often preparatory to the drafting and eventual ratification of treaties and as such are considered as part of the "travaux préparatoires" of conventions. Many of them are in the UN document symbol series A/CONF.(number) or E/CONF.(number). Every conference gets a historically unique number. A list of these can be found in the UN's International Law Guide or on its Un-I-Que database. Many documents of a general nature are free from the UN Homepage directly if one clicks on the "UN documents and Maps" button and selects the appropriate major body (General Assembly, Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC), Security Council). Bear in mind that the Human Rights Commission reports annually to the ECOSOC, while the major treaty bodies such as the Human Rights Committee for the ICCPR and others would report to the General Assembly. These Official Records are part of the larger UN documentation you can obtain at a depository library or online in the ODS or Official Documents System of the United Nations ( a fee-based subscription service; see a librarian to use it).

VII. Humanitarian law and women

The cases of the international tribunals of the former Yugoslavia and Rwanda are available at the respective websites of the ICTY and ICTR.

But these are not searchable in the kind of expansive, full-text way that Lexis, Westlaw or QL could provide.

For this and many topics on women, periodical indexes and bibliographic databases will be of use. The Index to Legal periodicals and Books, Index to Foreign Legal Periodicals and LegalTrak, all available on CD-ROM , will facilitate such searches. In the larger university catalogue, links to WorldCat, a huge bibliographic database, will locate books, including those not held locally.

The catalogues of other libraries not on the web are also available.

VIII. Women and development as a related topic

The UN databases from the United Nations Development Programme include gender as a "focus area," and there is information there such as the United Nations Inter-Agency Campaign on Women's Human Rights in Latin America and the Caribbean.

IX. Enforcement of Women's Human Rights

A. Jurisprudence

1. Under the treaty bodies In addition to the UN Treaty Bodies database listed and described under section II. B. above, there are other sites which organize the decisions and views of the United Nations and Council of Europe European Human Rights systems analytically by party, country, or subject, including some search engines able to isolate decisions arising under specific articles. Two currently operational but still being developed fully include

2. At the national court level

Searching national case law without a major research library print collection can be difficult, and translations of even the supreme or highest court cases, even constitutional court cases (where they exist) are not usually available.

Lexis provides case law for the U.S., Canada, United Kingdom, as well as Australia, the European Court of Justice and the European Court of Human Rights, Ireland, Malaysia, Mexico, New Zealand, Singapore, and South Africa. Some of these databases are rather selective under license from a publisher. A wonderful internet site to explore for a few free and searchable (and more fee-based) case law databases from foreign jurisdictions would be NYU's site, "Guide to Foreign and International Legal Databases"

This site lists numerous legislative and judicial databases, many of which are free in whole or part. Columbia maintains a foreign constitutional case law database .

X. The European System for the Enforcement of Human Rights, and the EU

Please refer again to Marylin J. Raisch, International Protection of Human Rights Research Guide in this series for discussion of sources for the European Convention for the Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms (commonly called the European Convention on Human Rights) under the Council of Europe. Both in that court and even in the employment discrimination and labour context of the European Union, cases on gender discrimination exist with implications for the enforcement of international standards.

XI. The International Labour Organisation (ILO)

ILO standards for the employment of women are important and are embodied in recommendations and instruments to which many countries are parties. The ILO website is excellent, and its NATLEX database contains many national labour laws.

Home Page:

ILOLEX: Database of International Labour Standards: Conventions:

ILOLEX: Database of International Labour Standards: Recommendations :

Specific conventions and recommendations relating to women's rights:

XII. Women's Human Rights Resource Page and Selected Journals

The Bora Laskin Law Library Women's Human Rights Resources Page and the Yale United Nations Scholars' Workstations are two more sites with reliable and comprehensive aims for coverage of specific secondary material on women and on the United Nations, respectively.

Journals to watch for as you update your status information on a wide variety of instruments include International human rights reports , (Nottingham, England : Human Rights Law Centre, University of Nottingham, 1994-) (contains reports, communications, general comments on UN treaties); Human rights law journal : HRLJ ( Kehl am Rhein [West Germany] ; Arlington [Va.] : N.P. Engel, 1980)(updates the status of treaties in January of each year); and the various separate human rights journals published by law schools and universities.

This guide presumes knowledge of, or familiarity with, legal periodical indexes and incorporates references to more specialized indexes in the three guides cited in the first paragraph of this presentation. Lexis, QL, and Westlaw materials are similarly referenced as potential sources using topical and Boolean search approached within those fee-based systems, as appropriate. However, of particular interest for web-based searching may be the following free web sites, particularly for staying abreast of developments in international criminal law: the Scout Report for the Social Sciences, lists and evaluates new sites for substantial research.

JSTOR, indexes and provides full text access to the American Journal of International Law and several other publications.

RAVE, a site at the university at Duesseldorf, Germany, produces a bibliography of Public International Law and European Law articles and links to full text where possible.

The "Virtual Institute" of the Max Planck Institute for Comparative Public Law and International Law in Heidelberg , provides a kind of online encyclopaedia of public international law similar to the print counterpart.