Allegations by Aid Workers Raise Questions About Sexual Harassment Protections in International Law

The U.S. legal system operates at several levels, some of which may overlap at times, and some of which remain wholly independent of each other. In New York City, an employee or job applicant who has experienced sexual harassment or another form of unlawful discrimination may be able to file suit under city, state, or federal laws, or some or all of these. When a harassment or discrimination claim involves parties from different countries, or when the alleged unlawful acts occur in another country, complicated questions may arise about jurisdiction and international law. Reports of sexual harassment and assault by aid workers, who work for American organizations in other countries, raise this sort of question. Several recent lawsuits have also addressed the issue.

Each country has sovereign jurisdiction over their own legal disputes. For example, the laws of the United States are the “law of the land” within U.S. territory. The same is true for Canadian law within Canadian borders, Mexican law in Mexico, and so forth. International law consists of treaties and therefore relies on the consent of each individual country. Organizations like the United Nations (UN) maintain and monitor treaties among member nations but have no inherent enforcement authority. Sexual harassment that occurs across an international border is subject to the laws of one or more countries. This could be the law of the country where it occurs, but in the case of Americans working in a foreign country for an American employer, U.S. law could still apply.

The UN issued General Assembly Resolution 48/104, entitled the “Declaration on the Elimination of Violence against Women,” in 1993. In Article 2(b), it includes “sexual harassment and intimidation at work, in educational institutions and elsewhere” in its definition of violence against women. The resolution has no direct legal force on UN member nations. Article 4(d) – (f) encourages member nations to develop their own legislative and administrative provisions to address the issue. Several other international agreements contain similar declarations, including the Beijing Platform for Action from 1995 and the 1979 Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW). The U.S. is not a signatory to CEDAW.

Sexual harassment and assault that occurs in another country may be subject to U.S. law when both parties are employed by an American company doing business abroad. This was the case in a heavily publicized but ultimately unsuccessful lawsuit brought by a former employee of a government contractor in Iraq in 2007. The plaintiff worked in Baghdad’s “Green Zone” in 2005, and she claimed in her complaint that she was subjected to ongoing “verbal, physical and abusive” harassment, culminating in sexual assault, and that the employer allowed this to continue “unchecked.”

The plaintiff filed suit in a U.S. court for sexual harassment and other causes of action under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. She claimed federal jurisdiction on the ground that the dispute “ar[ose] under the Constitution, laws, or treaties of the United States.” 28 U.S.C. § 1331. A jury found for the defendant in 2011, but some observers noted that merely getting the case all the way to trial was a major step forward.

Our team of skilled and experienced sexual harassment attorneys at Phillips & Associates advocates on behalf of job seekers, employees, and former employees in New York City, representing them in claims of sexual harassment, sex discrimination, and other employment violations. To schedule a free and confidential consultation to discuss your case, contact us today online or at (212) 248-7431.

More Blog Posts:

Sexual Harassment Allegations at New York City Jail Part of Larger Sexual Abuse Scandal, New York Employment Attorney Blog, January 5, 2017

National Park Service Employees Around the Country Allege Sexual Harassment by Supervisors, New York Employment Attorney Blog, December 22, 2016

Lawsuit Seeks to Hold Employer Accountable for Sexual Harassment that Turned Violent, New York Employment Attorney Blog, December 19, 2016

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