Preliminary Examination of so-called "Honour Killings" in Canada

1. Introduction

Premeditated killings of family members, primarily women, who are thought to have brought shame or dishonour to their family by engaging in certain behaviours considered unacceptable (e.g. pre-marital or extra-marital sexual relationships, or relationships with boys not approved by the family), are often referred to in media reports as "honour killings". This paper examines three questions – what is an "honour killing", in order to establish the definition used in the paper; where does it occur, looking at reported incidents in Canada; and why does it occur, examining the psychopathology involved in such criminal acts committed in the present day.

Many studies have documented a perception among some families in communities outside of Canada that, in order to restore the family's honour, a family member must kill the person who allegedly brought shame or dishonour to the family vis-à-vis the larger community.Footnote 1 Although the term "honour-based killing" is widely recognized,Footnote 2 it should be noted at the outset that the term is also controversial. For instance, some authors have expressed concern that use of the term is often associated with only a few specific ethno-cultural communities and can be used to obscure the unfortunate reality that family homicides occur in all communities.Footnote 3 To some, this term may also open an avenue in which offenders may seek to use dishonour to justify their actions during court proceedings in hopes of receiving a reduced punishment.Footnote 4 On the other hand, there are some unique aspects to killings committed in the name of honour that are useful to distinguish from a descriptive and analytical perspective. These unique aspects also have practical implications for victim protection as well as elements of psychopathology, including premeditation and complicity.

One author has indicated that honour killings are distinct from domestic violence for three reasons:Footnote 5

Honour killings are planned in advance, often at a family conference. The perpetrator's family may repeatedly threaten the victim with death if she dishonours her family.
Family complicity
Honour killings can involve multiple family members in the killing, such as parents, brothers and cousins.
Perpetrators of honour killings often don't face negative stigma in their families or communities.

In 2000, the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) estimated that there were at least 5,000 honour killings world-wide annually, which may be an underestimate because many cases go unreported or are falsely reported as suicides.Footnote 6 Although this practice is currently primarily associated in media reports with certain Arab cultures, variations of harmful cultural practices toward women involving violence based on notions of honour have been known in many cultures world-wideFootnote 7 and in many historical times.

In recent years, several situations of alleged so-called "honour-based" killings have also arisen in Canada. In 2009, the Ontario Superior Court found a young Ottawa man guilty of the murder of his sister and her fiancé.Footnote 8 The Court stated that the murder was based on a "twisted sense of values." The accused allegedly considered the murder justified on the grounds that his sister had refused to seek her father's permission for her engagement, which cast dishonour upon the family. In considering the case, the Court decided to admit expert evidence on the cultural phenomenon of honour killings and its reality in Afghanistan, the country of origin of the accused's family. Also in 2009, Mohammed Shafi, his wife Tooba, and their son Hamed, were each charged with four counts of first-degree murder and four counts of conspiracy to commit murder in the death of the couple's three teenage daughters and Rona Amir Mohammed, the father's first wife. The four victims were found dead in a submerged car near Kingston, Ontario. Family members in Europe alleged that the killings were honour-based because one of the daughters was rebellious and seeing a boy who was unacceptable to the father.Footnote 9 This paper will provide a preliminary overview of the apparent incidence of honour-related killings in Canada through a summary of reported case law and media reports.

The paucity of scientific research and the growing exposure of such violent acts are important reasons why research in this area is crucial. By examining the motives and epidemiological trends of honour killings, one may be able to gain insight into the role of socio-cultural attitudes and psychopathology in such homicidal acts. This paper therefore examines the psychopathology involved in such criminal acts committed in the present day.

2. Apparent Modern-Day Incidence Outside of Canada

Over the past decade, human rights groups have given more exposure and coverage to honour-based killings. Honour killings can occur within a wide range of communities of varying cultural, religious and ethnic backgrounds and have been reported around the world, including in Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Brazil, Egypt, India, Iran, Israel, Jordan, Lebanon, Nigeria, Pakistan, Palestine, Peru, the United States of America, Turkey, the United Kingdom, Italy, Norway, Sweden and Germany.Footnote 10 While honour killings take place in many regions of the world, laws in some countries also reflect socio-cultural attitudes that underlie such killings.

A number of countries have or recently had penal code provisions that applied to justify or excuse the killing of a wife, female ascendant, descendant or sister in order to restore the family honour.Footnote 11 Such provisions reflect traditional honour systems whereby the family of origin, primarily the father and brothers of the female relatives, must bear the responsibility of punishing the woman or girl whose actions brought shame to the family honour in the eyes of the community.Footnote 12

Experts have distinguished between countries where the penal codes provide a specific exemption or justification for murder when conducted in the name of "honour", such as Iraq and Iran (effectively condoning the killings),Footnote 13 and countries that provide a reduction of penalty for honour-based killings, such as Kuwait and Egypt (partially excusing the murders).Footnote 14

However, even in countries that have specifically abolished "honour-based" defences, such as Pakistan, Lebanon and Jordan, sentences for offenders may still be diminished due to the "provocation/heat of passion" or "fit of fury" defence.Footnote 15 Many countries provide reduced penalties specifically for men who kill their wives on the grounds of adultery,Footnote 16 including until recently some American States.Footnote 17

The United Nations (UN) has studied the issue of honour killings and, in 2001, the UN General Assembly adopted the first specific resolution (55/66) related to the elimination of crimes against women committed in the name of honour. The adoption of this resolution recognized that women continue to be victims of various forms of violence, especially in the name of honour, and that to eliminate this practice, there was a need to urge the nations of the world to implement effective laws and to address the problem in collaboration with the UN.Footnote 18

In 2002, the UN Secretary General reported on measures taken by member States towards the elimination of crimes against women committed in the name of honour (A/57/169). According to the report:

Canada indicated that honour crimes, including killings, were extremely rare in Canada, but such crimes would be investigated and prosecuted as offences under the Criminal Code, and such crimes as assault, aggravated assault or sexual assault and murder, which could occur in the execution of an honour crime, were covered by that Code.

With regard to resolution 55/66, the report went on to state that Canada indicated that it was "pleased that honour crimes had been included in resolutions in the Commission on Human Rights on the elimination of violence against women, which had been adopted by consensus."

The 2002 Report also pointed out progress reported by a number of other countries. For example, it noted that in Egypt, "Egyptian legislation had criminalized all acts referred to in General Assembly resolution 55/66." In Belarus, "such crimes were not typical in the country" but would be dealt with in accordance with the general criminal law. Malaysia and Monaco were also dealing with all such crimes under the existing criminal law. Brazil was dealing with honour killings through domestic-violence measures, including shelters, progressive educational measures and specialized police precincts. In Jordan, a national human rights campaign had been successful in reducing such crimes. Furthermore, many states have since undertaken initiatives to more seriously follow the spirit of the resolution.Footnote 19

The UN General Assembly also took note of honour crimes in adopting resolutions 55/111 and 55/68, calling upon governments to investigate such crimes and to deal strictly with them. At its sixty-eighth session, in 2000, the Human Rights Committee adopted general comment 28 on article 3 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, in which it stated that "The commission of so called 'honour crimes,' which remain unpunished constitutes a serious violation of the Covenant," and that "Laws which impose more severe penalties on women than on men for adultery or other offenses also violate the requirement of equal treatment."Footnote 20

The Council of Europe's Committee of Ministers on April 30, 2002 adopted the recommendation "on the protection of women against violence, which made specific recommendations to member states regarding killings in the name of honour."

The Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe has also studied the issue of honour killings. In a report of the Committee on Equal Opportunities for Women and Men, issued March 7, 2003, it commented that:

Most of the reported cases of so-called "honour crimes" within Europe have been amongst Muslim or migrant Muslim communities. The paradox is that Islam itself does not support the death penalty for misconduct related to honour and many Islamic leaders have condemned this practice on the grounds that it has no religious basis.Footnote 21

The Assembly also noted that only some Muslim communities practice honour killings based on a cultural mind-set that is not supported by the religion.

The Assembly called on member States of the Council of Europe "to amend national asylum and immigration law in order to ensure that immigration policy acknowledges that a woman has the right to a residence permit or even to asylum in order to escape from so-called 'honour crimes' and is relieved of the threat of deportation or removal if there is, or has been, any actual threat of a 'crime of honour'". It also requested member countries "to provide support to the victims of failed so-called 'honour crimes' and also to potential victims, including personal protection, legal aid and psychological rehabilitation."

Following some high-profile honour killings, a number of European countries have established action plans or strategies to prevent honour-based violence. Some examples in the United Kingdom are the 'Honour' Based Violence Strategy (2008) of the Association of Chiefs of Police Officers of England, Wales and Northern Ireland (ACPO); the Crown Prosecution Violence Against Women Strategy and Action Plan (2008); and the Home Office National Cross-Government Public Consultation Paper, "Together We Can End Violence Against Women and Girls" (2009).Footnote 22 Other European examples include Sweden's 2007 "Action plan for combating men's violence against women, violence and oppression in the name of honour and violence in same-sex relationships" and Denmark's 2007 "Strategy for Police Action Against Honour-Related Crime."Footnote 23