Geneva, April 6, 2001
Human Rights Watch is deeply concerned by the continuing failure of states to end impunity for so-called "honor" crimes. Honor crimes are acts of violence, usually murder, committed by male family members against female family members who are perceived to have brought dishonor upon the family. A woman can be targeted by her family for a variety of reasons including, refusing to enter into an arranged marriage, being the victim of a sexual assault, seeking a divorce -- even from an abusive husband -- or committing adultery. The mere perception that a woman has acted in a manner to bring "dishonor" to the family is sufficient to trigger an attack.
Honor crimes are not specific to any religion, nor are they limited to any one region of the world. Human Rights Watch has worked on this issue in the Americas, Asia, the Middle East, and North Africa. Although there is increased awareness of this issue, states remain reluctant to take the necessary steps to end impunity for honor killings. For example, although the Supreme Court of Brazil struck down "defense of honor" as a justification for murder of a wife in 1991, ten years later, courts still fail to prosecute and convict men who claim they kill their wives because of their alleged infidelity.
In Jordan, if a woman seeks protection from the police because she fears that her family wants to kill her, she will be held in indefinite detention in a local prison. It is important to note that once a woman has sought protection from the government and has been placed in prison, she is prohibited according to the government's policy from leaving the prison even though she has committed no crime. Ironically, women can only be released into the custody of a family member -- perhaps the very persons trying to kill them. If these women are killed, they are buried in unmarked graves and their very existence denied.
Honor crimes are a clear violation of women's human rights and states are bound to protect women from such violations. Nonetheless, in many countries, honor crimes are either condoned through government inaction or defended as legitimate cultural practices. As a result, police fail to investigate these crimes and prosecutions are non-existent. In the rare cases where a man in prosecuted, it is the woman's behavior that becomes the focus of the trial, not the culpability of the defendant. In the even rarer case that a man is found guilty, the man's claim that it was a crime committed to restore family honor allows the courts to reduce the sentence.
Human Rights Watch calls on the Commission on Human Rights to condemn all forms of violence against women and to uniformly reject all attempts by states to justify any acts of violence against women as legitimate or defensible. Human Rights Watch also calls on the appropriate special mechanisms to expose how pervasive discrimination against women creates the climate in which violence against women flourishes. Women who suffer from routine discrimination based on their sex that leaves them impoverished and illiterate are ill equipped to challenge the practices that allow honor killings to continue. It is the responsibility of states to end discrimination both in law and in practice. It is the responsibility of states to prevent violence against women, and when they have failed to prevent the violence, to ensure redress. But as women from around that world can testify, the violence continues.