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Eliminating violence against women: individual approaches, or a group concern?


Today, 25 November, marks the International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women. Considering the decades the international community has had to identify and working to resolving the problems of gender-based violence, why is it still such a prominent global problem in 2017? And how are women identified as rights-holders as individuals and as part of a uniquely vulnerable group?


The international community has recognised the discrimination women face and the violence they are subjected to through a number of conventions, declarations, and international agreements. The 1979 UN Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women recognised that systematic violence against women was hindering the achievement of equality between the sexes, and that this had serious consequences for women’s abilities to realise their human rights. The Convention affirmed that individual women are rights holders in their own right – for example by affirming that women’s citizenship should be held by them and should not be dependent on the citizenship of their husbands. This Convention served as a reminder that women’s contributions to their societies are often not recognised and pointed out that the achievement of equality between the sexes would not be achieved in the absence of a re-evaluation of men and women’s traditional gender-based social roles.

The 1993 Declaration on the Elimination of Violence against Women, meanwhile, went further by identifying violence against women as a ‘social mechanism’ whose purpose was to keep women in a subordinate position vis-à-vis men. It recognised that ‘violence’ encompasses sexual and psychological harm as well as physical damage to women and that, around the world, gender-based violence takes place in domestic environments as well as the public sphere. The Declaration explicitly embedded violence against women in gender-based inequality, pointing out that violence against women is a particular manifestation of a long history of subjugation. The implication of this is that gender-based violence cannot be resolved simply by identifying acts of violence against women as criminal activities and prosecuting them alone: instead, each society needs to address the legal and cultural roots of gender based inequality wholesale. Gender-based violence cannot be fully addressed if it is addressed in a vacuum which does not take the wider socio-cultural context into account.


If gender-based violence is a manifestation of the historical treatment of women as an insubordinate group, is it useful to see women as a group whose rights should be specially protected in domestic and international law? This situation can be complex, especially as human rights as often seen as accorded to individuals instead of groups. Group rights have often been controversial among theorists who conceive of human rights as a doctrine to protect individuals from the power wielded by groups; for some thinkers group rights actually pose a threat to human rights as conferred to individuals. In addition to the tension between collective and individual human rights, the granting of collective rights to different groups can sometimes be contradictory; for example, where cultural or ethnic groups may hold the right to continue certain cultural or traditional practices, this can be in conflict with age or gender-based group rights held by some members of the group.

Are women’s rights and needs best served by understanding them as individual rights holders who can be protected through legislation which applies to all individuals (for example, criminal laws prohibiting assault), or should they be recognised as a group with a strong common identity, with specific vulnerabilities arising out of that identity, who should be protected by specific laws and, in some cases, elevated rights? When we identify women as a group with a common identity and common interests based on gender, it is also important to remember that, unlike some ethnic or cultural groups with defined rights, women are not a minority – protecting the rights of women ensures the protection of 50% of all humanity.


Adding further complexity to the idea of women as group rights holders, the Declaration on the Elimination of Violence against Women observes that women can belong to certain other groups which can exacerbate their vulnerability to violence; membership of some of these groups can cut across their gender identity and is shared with men (for example, minority and indigenous women or refugee women or age-related group membership).

The theme of 2017’s International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women is ‘Leave No One Behind’ and is a reminder that ‘women’ are not simply a universal category facing identical experiences but that gender intersects with other social realities, including race, class/wealth, and sexual orientation, resulting in particular women being especially vulnerable, not just to violence, but to seeing their attackers treated with impunity. The campaign to eliminate violence against women also encompasses transgender and intersex women, highlighting the particular risks these women face, which may be heightened by cultural and legal barriers which prevent transgender women from securing legal recognition of their identity.

In the midst of these reminders that the vulnerabilities of groups are not uniform and that there are hierarchies of vulnerability within groups, it should not be forgotten that any woman can be subject to gender-based violence, and that violence against women is not merely the outcome of individual criminal behaviour, but is deeply embedded, and implicitly and explicitly coded as acceptable, across societies.

The Human Rights Consortium’s MA in Understanding and Securing Human Rights covers topics of contemporary relevance in human rights, including issues surrounding group and individual rights. The degree is now also offered by distance learning with the University of London’s International Programmes.

Freedom of the press: an essential cornerstone of human and civil rights


Today is the International Day to End Impunity for Crimes Against Journalists, an outcome of a 2013 United Nations General Assembly resolution on the safety of journalists and the issue of impunity. Drawing on a range of resolutions and human rights treaties, including the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which affirms the right to freedom of expression, the General Assembly recognised the importance of a free media to the upholding of democracy, peace and good governance. However, the General Assembly also noted with concern the fact the journalists’ work often puts them at risk of harm, and that protection of journalists is compromised by impunity for their attackers. Four years on from the initial adoption of this resolution, which followed the 2012 UN Plan of Action on the Safety of Journalists and the Issue of Impunity, is the world safer for journalists?

What is freedom of the press?

Freedom of the press is a manifestation of the freedom of expression, often considered a cornerstone of other freedoms; as civilians, journalists are exercising their rights to freedom of expression in the course of their day-to-day work. Attacks on journalists therefore constitute a major threat to freedom of expression more generally, and indeed violence against journalists is often accompanied by other attempts to thwart communication by and between citizens.

The Institute of Commonwealth Studies has established a project on Media Freedom in the Commonwealth to examine, analyse and draw attention to threats to freedom of the media in the 52 countries which make up the Commonwealth, to consider the links between different ways in which the media is silenced, and to develop ideas for how the Commonwealth Secretariat can support the upholding of the right to freedom of expression in member states.

One way of supporting journalists is challenging impunity for their attackers. Impunity for crimes against journalists can be deeply entrenched. The Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) has published its Global Impunity Index, Getting Away with Murder, annually since 2008: eight countries have appeared on this list since it was first published. Since 1992, only 13% of murder cases against journalists have resulted in prosecutions. Impunity was identified as a major challenge to media freedom across the Commonwealth by several speakers at a conference in April 2017 which launched the Media Freedom in the Commonwealth project. In some countries the only possible challengers of violence against journalists are journalists and media workers themselves, who therefore place themselves at further risk by speaking out against attacks on their colleagues.

There are some early signs that the Commonwealth Secretariat is taking threats to the freedom of the media across the Commonwealth seriously. Delivering a keynote speech at the April conference, the Secretary-General of the Commonwealth, Patricia Scotland, called for greater co-operation between civil society and the Commonwealth Secretariat to realise a shared vision on media freedom. This, she hoped, could become the foundation for a doctrine on media freedom and good governance similar to the Latimer House Principles, which govern issues around separation of powers in Commonwealth countries.

The picture in 2017

Photograph courtesy of Anna M Weaver

So far, the CPJ has recorded 11 murders of journalists where the motive for killing was a direct reprisal for their work. Five of these murders occurred in Mexico alone, largely related to the journalists’ coverage of organised criminal activities. (Latin America and the Caribbean was the second-deadliest region for journalists in 2014-15, accounting for 24% of all murders of journalists globally in this period). A further 15 journalists have died in 2017 as a result of being caught in crossfire and combat, most in Iraq and Syria. Unsurprisingly, as print media declines and online news outlets become more prominent, the number of online journalists murdered is rising. This is accompanied by a trend of violence against citizen journalists and bloggers – and sometimes even users of social media. While a by-the-numbers approach suggests the picture is improving slightly for journalists – 2015 was one of the deadliest years for journalists in the last decade, for example, with 115 journalists being killed – a complacent view of the right to freedom of expression is not yet warranted.

Threats to media freedom and freedom of expression go beyond physically attacking, harassing and killing journalists: governments exercise a range of techniques to silence news organisations, including through internet shutdowns, such as those which occurred during the Ugandan elections of 2016, or through restrictive laws ranging from libel and defamation to sedition to anti-cyber crime. Such attacks on the media’s ability to challenge governments serve to highlight both the fragility of democratic institutions and the hugely important role a responsible media plays in underpinning democracy by challenging corruption, monitoring elections and acting as a barometer for freedom of expression more widely.

The Human Rights Consortium’s MA in Understanding and Securing Human Rights covers topics of contemporary relevance in human rights, including issues surrounding freedom of expression, assembly, and the interactions between securing human rights and strengthening democracy. The degree is now also offered by distance learning with the University of London’s International Programmes.

Eradicating poverty, achieving human rights: the links between development and human rights goals


Today, 17 October, marks the 25th International Day for the Eradication of Poverty. The reduction and eradication of poverty and achievement of development goals is often closely linked to human rights rhetoric – but how, and why, are they connected?

To explain the important links between the eradication of poverty, development and achievement of human rights goals, we spoke to Camilla Silva Fløistrup, Senior Legal Adviser at the Danish Institute for Human Rights (DIHR), an independently operating state institution which holds the legal mandate as a National Human Rights Institution (NHRI). DIHR has a 20-year track record in human rights development work around the world, as well as a highly acclaimed research department combining academic research with the practical experiences derived from working with partners on the ground. In addition, the DIHR applies a human rights-based approach and has built analytical and practical capacity in a wide range of human rights fields, including the linking of sustainable development goals and human rights.

The DIHR is leading a module on Human Rights and Development for the Human Rights Consortium’s MA in Understanding and Securing Human Rights by distance-learning, equipping students to understand the conceptual, legal and practice-based links between human rights and development.

How are the reduction and/or eradication of poverty and the achievement of human rights goals linked?

Reduction/eradication of poverty is closely connected to development and human rights provide norms that serve to couch policy goals and orientations in development efforts.

As noted in Human Rights and Development in the New Millennium: Towards a Theory of Change (eds: Paul Gready, Wouter Vandenhole)*, “Human rights values are often invoked in development or changing social norms contribute to human rights value changes that affect development practices and organizations […] Actors invoke values to legitimize action, and the perpetual reference to human rights may also serve to reinforce the role of rights in development.”

Human rights principles overlap with good governance criteria. This is the case for the principles of participation and accountability. The human rights principles agenda drives accountability citizenship as part of operational policies. Nonetheless, many development actors still need to use human rights principles connected to non-discrimination, inclusion and equality to reach the most disadvantaged groups of society. By using human rights, we ensure that the most vulnerable in each society can be reached.

Why is it useful to conceptually link together human rights and social justice?

Human rights is also about changing social structures and transforming the power dynamics to ensure that all in society have access to all human rights.

Human rights is also about changing social structures and transforming the power dynamics to ensure that all in society have access to all human rightsEven though, many times the human rights discourse might have been closer connected to individual rights connected to trials or elections, it is the work on Human Rights Based Approach that actually looks into changing the power dynamics of societies, like social justice work does.

Human Rights and Development in the New Millenium notes that “Human rights-based approaches do have a positive impact on equality and poverty reduction. Examples of situations where human rights has been integrated into development policies, and where human rights integration results in positive change can be found in gender policies, social sectors, behaviour change, migration policies, land rights, and private sector engagement with surrounding communities and societies.”

Human rights-based approaches have a positive impact in development because: a) human rights contributes to empowerment and social protection of marginal groups; b) human rights reinforces work on non-discrimination and equality, raising a demand for disaggregated data; and c) human rights brings attention to legal approaches.

What are the connections between human rights, decolonisation, and international development aid?

The international human rights agenda gains force in the 1950s and 1960s, at the same time as decolonisation processes in the world gain power. Many former colonies used human rights discourse, mostly the initiatives connected to equality and non-discrimination. In the 60s, developing countries that had recently become independent were champions in advocating for the adoption of international human rights conventions and asking that the human rights agenda be disconnected from Cold War politics. Development aid had its own agenda for some decades, but from the 1980s, with the adoption the UN Declaration on the Right to Development, the two fields started to converge and human rights and development have started focus more on similar issues. Human rights has become part of development. UN agencies, bilateral donors, international NGOs, and local partners are using human rights to tackle development issues. In the poorest countries and in middle-income countries, human rights has guided different approaches and initiatives in order to improve people’s lives and a human rights-based approach has set focus on the relationship between the state and its citizens.

How are the UN Sustainable Development Goals linked to international human rights law and to securing human rights in national frameworks?

In September 2015, the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) adopted the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). The SDGs are critically important as most international development efforts, from 2016 until 2030 —including those of donors, major development institutions, national governments and civil society—will likely be directed toward achieving these goals. The seventeen goals address poverty eradication, food security, education, gender equality, health, work, and other areas of human development, as well as economic growth, natural resource governance, and environmental protections. Each SDG is implemented via specific targets as well as indicators to measure progress toward each target.

The 2030 Agenda, which contains the SDGs, is explicitly grounded in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and international human rights treaties. The commitment to non-discrimination and to “leaving no one behind” is a reflection of this foundation in human rights. Additionally, the commitment to human rights is reflected throughout the goals and targets. The implementation of the Agenda 2030 lends itself to a HRBA, as it in many ways is based on HRBA principles for its implementation. Inclusion is a concept, which has become more prominent with the HRBA and is now strongly grounded in the SDGs goals and targets.

Human rights instruments and the 2030 Agenda are tied together in a mutually reinforcing way. Human rights offer guidance for the implementation of the 2030 Agenda, while the SDGs in turn contribute substantially to the realization of human rights.

*see working papers and policy briefs related to this work in the Human Rights Consortium’s SAS-Space collection.