United Nations and International Law Essay

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The World Health Organization, a specialized agency of the United Nations, identifies interpersonal violence as “violence inflicted by another individual or by a small group of individuals where there is no clearly defined political motive.” The World Health Organization separates interpersonal violence into two categories: (1) family and intimate partner violence and (2) community violence. Family and intimate partner violence is “violence largely between family members and intimate partners, usually, though not exclusively, taking place within the home.” Community violence is distinguished as “violence between individuals who are unrelated, and who may or may not know each other, generally taking place outside the home.”

The United Nations recognizes that interpersonal violence is a pervasive, complex problem. In 2000, approximately 520,000 deaths worldwide resulted from acts of interpersonal violence. Official statistics, however, do not fully capture the magnitude of the problem. Many interpersonal-violence deaths are wrongfully reported as the result of illness or other causes. Furthermore, for every death by interpersonal violence, countless more people are psychologically and physically injured. This essay discusses the UN’s response to interpersonal violence through international law, international courts, and specialized agencies and the future directions the United Nations is taking to address interpersonal violence.

International Law

Equality on the basis of gender and protection of children are fundamentals of international human rights law. The founding document of the United Nations, the UN Charter, recognizes the dignity and worth of the human person and guarantees the equal rights of men and women. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, and the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, core international human rights documents, guarantee the equal rights of women and men and acknowledge that children have rights and require special protection. For example, Article 3 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights states that “everyone has the right to life, liberty and security of person.”

The Rights Of Women

International instruments that specifically address the rights of women include the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women, the Optional Protocol to the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women, the Declaration on the Protection of Women and Children in Emergency and Armed Conflict, and the Declaration on the Elimination of Violence Against Women.

The Declaration on the Elimination of Violence Against Women, promulgated by the UN General Assembly in 1993, defines violence against women as “any act of gender-based violence that results in, or is likely to result in, physical, sexual or psychological harm or suffering to women, including threats of such acts, coercion or arbitrary deprivation of liberty, whether occurring in public or private life.” The declaration urges states to condemn violence against women and strive toward its elimination by taking actions, such as developing legislation to punish violence against women, allocating resources for special assistance to women and children who are victims of violence, conducting sensitivity training for law enforcement and public officials, and informing women of their rights.

International humanitarian and human rights laws grant increasing attention to the role of women as victims of armed conflict. Although previously categorized alongside children as civilians, women are being distinguished as uniquely subject to acts of interpersonal violence under circumstances of both internal and international armed conflict. The UN Special Rapporteur, appointed in 1993 by the Declaration to Eliminate Violence Against Women, investigates the causes and consequences of violence against women, including within the context of armed conflicts.

The Rights Of The Child

International documents that more specifically address the protection of children from violence and exploitation include the Hague Convention, the Convention on the Rights of the Child, the Optional Protocol to the Convention on the Rights of the Child on the Sale of Children, Child Prostitution and Child Pornography, and the Optional Protocol to the Convention on the Rights of the Child on the Involvement of Children in Armed Conflict.

The Declaration of the Rights of the Child proclaimed by the UN General Assembly in 1959 recognizes that children “shall be protected against all forms of neglect, cruelty, and exploitation.” The Convention on the Rights of the Child further mandates that state parties exercise appropriate measures to protect children from “all forms of physical or mental violence, injury or abuse, neglect or negligent treatment, maltreatment or exploitation, including sexual abuse, while in the care of parent(s), legal guardian(s) or any other person who has the care of the child.”

International Courts

The International Criminal Court

The International Criminal Court (ICC) was established in 2002 to prosecute serious crimes of international concern. The founding document of the ICC, the Rome Statute, recognizes “rape, sexual slavery, enforced prostitution, forced pregnancy, enforced sterilization, or any other form of sexual violence of comparable gravity” as a crime against humanity.

International Criminal Tribunals

Unlike the ICC, International Criminal Tribunals are established for a specific purpose and are not permanent courts. These courts have also addressed interpersonal violence. For instance, The UN International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia began to prosecute rape and sexual violence as war crimes against humanity, while the UN International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda prosecuted rape as genocide. The prosecution of sexual violence in International Courts as a form of genocide and/or torture demonstrates the criminalization of interpersonal violence against women, particularly in situations of armed conflict.


The UN system includes many specialized agencies. Several of these agencies address issues of interpersonal violence through research, advocacy, and prevention. These agencies include the following: International Labour Organization, UN Office for Drug Control and Crime Prevention, UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, UN Development Programme, UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, UN Population Fund, UN Human Settlements Programme, UN Office of the High Commissioner for Refugees, UN Children’s Fund, UN Interregional Crime and Justice Research Institute, UN Institute for Disarmament Research, UN Development Fund for Women, University for Peace, World Bank Group, and the World Health Organization.

Future Directions

Although international human rights law recognizes the rights of women and children and UN agencies are dedicated to the prevention of interpersonal violence, the United Nations acknowledges that more work needs to be done to more effectively address this dilemma. Increasing collaboration in research, prevention, and advocacy, and implementing common goals and strategies among agencies and with nongovernmental organizations and governments have been identified by the World Health Organization as especially important to improving the efficacy and efficiency of UN efforts to address problems of interpersonal violence.


  1. Convention on the Rights of the Child, G.A. res. 44/25, annex, 44 U.N. GAOR Supp. (No. 49) at 167, U.N. Doc. A/44/49 (1989), entered into force Sept. 2, 1990.
  2. Declaration on the Elimination of Violence Against Women, G.A. res. 48/104, 48 U.N. GAOR Supp. (No. 49) at 217, U.N. Doc. A/48/49 (December 20, 1993).
  3. Gardam, J. G. (1998). Women, human rights, and international humanitarian law. International Review of the Red Cross, 324, 421–432. Retrieved from https://www.icrc.org/eng/resources/documents/article/other/57jpg4.htm
  4. Injuries and Violence Prevention Department, Noncommunicable Diseases and Mental Health Cluster, World Health Organization. (2002). Guide to United Nations resources and activities for the prevention of interpersonal violence. Geneva: World Health Organization. Retrieved from http://www.who.int/violence_injury_prevention/violence/united_nations/un5/en/
  5. Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court UN Doc A/CONF 183/9 (17 July 1998).

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