CRSV under International Humanitarian Law

International Humanitarian Law (IHL) governs armed conflict contexts. The broad scope of IHL includes the Four Geneva Conventions of 1949 and their Additional Protocols (1977 and 2005).

IHL affords protection for women against sexual violence through specific provisions. The degree of legal protection is determined by a mix of factors that include the nature of the armed conflict, and the role of the woman affected – that is, as a combatant, a person deprived of freedom, a refugee, an internally displaced person, or a member of the civilian population. Broadly, IHL defines sexual violence as including rape, forced prostitution, sexual slavery, forced impregnation, forced maternity, forced termination of pregnancy, enforced sterilisation, indecent assault, trafficking, inappropriate medical examinations, and strip searches.


Specific provisions listed under the ambit of IHL that address conflict-related sexual violence are as follows:


Category 1: Women as Members of the Civilian Population

A. International armed conflicts

  1. Article 27 of the Fourth Geneva Convention: Women must be especially protected against any attack on their honour, in particular against rape, enforced prostitution, or any other form of indecent assault.

  2. Article 75(2)(a);(b) of Additional Protocol I to the Geneva Conventions: Prohibition of violence to the life, health or physical or mental well/being of persons, in particular torture of all kinds, whether physical or mental and prohibition of outrages upon personal dignity, in particular humiliating and degrading treatment, enforced prostitution and any form of indecent assault or threats thereof.

  3. Article 76 of Additional Protocol I to the Geneva Conventions: Women must be the object of special respect and must be protected in particular against rape, forced prostitution and any other form of indecent assault.

B. Non-international armed conflicts

  1. Common Article 3 of the Geneva Conventions: Prohibition of outrages upon personal dignity, in particular humiliating and degrading treatment in non-international armed conflicts.

  2. Article 4(2)(a);(e) of Additional Protocol II to the Geneva Conventions: The following acts against persons hors de combat are prohibited in non-international armed conflicts: violence to life, health and physical or mental well-being, in particular cruel treatment such as torture; outrages upon personal dignity, in particular humiliating and degrading treatment, rape, enforced prostitution and any form of indecent assault, and slavery.

Category 2: Women Deprived of their Freedom During an Armed Conflict

A. International armed conflicts

  1. Articles 13 and 14 of the Third Geneva Convention: Prisoners of war must be treated humanely at all times and are entitled to respect for their persons and their honour in all circumstances. Unlawful acts or omissions by a detaining authority causing the death or seriously endangering the health of prisoners of war are prohibited. Prisoners of war must not be subjected to physical mutilation or to medical or scientific experiments.

  2. Article 13 of the Third Geneva Convention: A Detaining Power must protect prisoners of war from acts of violence or intimidation and from insults and public curiosity.

  3. Article 14 of the Third Geneva Convention: Women prisoners of war must be treated with all the regard due to their sex and must in all cases benefit from treatment as favourable as that granted to men.

  4. Article 17 of the Third Geneva Convention: Prohibition of the use of physical or mental torture and any form of coercion in order to secure information of any kind from prisoners of war.

  5. Article 88 of the Third Geneva Convention: Female prisoners of war may not be sentenced to more sever punishment or be treated more severely when undergoing punishment than female or male members of the Detaining Power’s forces for a similar offence.

  6. Article 97 of the Third Geneva Convention; Articles 76 and 124 of the Fourth Geneva Convention; and Article 75(5) of Additional Protocol I: Women deprived of their liberty in relation to international or non-international armed conflicts must be placed under the immediate supervision of women.

  7. Article 97 of the Fourth Geneva Convention: A woman civilian internee must not be searched except by a woman.

  8. Article 117 of the Fourth Geneva Convention: Disciplinary penalties may not be inhuman, brutal or dangerous to the health of civilian internees and account must be taken of the internee’s age, sex and state of health.


B. Non-international armed conflicts

  1. Article 5(2)(e) of Additional Protocol II: The physical or mental integrity of persons deprived of their liberty for reasons related to a non-international conflict must not be endangered by any unjustified act or omission. It is prohibited to subject these persons to any medical procedure not justified by the state of health of the person concerned.

  2. Article 5(2)(a) of Additional Protocol II: Women deprived of their liberty in relation to international or non-international armed conflicts must be placed under the immediate supervision of women.