Washington – In a groundbreaking decision that affirms domestic violence as an international human rights issue, the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) has ruled that the US should do more to protect victims of domestic violence.
The ruling, officially made in July, was detailed in a report officially released to the public here on Wednesday.
The decision marks the first time that an international tribunal has found that the US violated the rights of a domestic violence survivor. It also specifically articulates that failure to respond to domestic violence can constitute a human rights violation by the US government.
When Jessica Gonzales called police in Castle Rock Colorado on Jun. 22, 1999 begging them to enforce a restraining order against her estranged husband and reporting he had abducted her three daughters, the police told her there was nothing they could do.
Even as Gonzales called in repeated pleas for help from local police, those calls went unanswered. Hours later, her estranged husband was killed in a shootout with police and the three girls were found dead in the back of his pickup truck.
In the years that followed, Gonzales, who now goes by Lenahan, took her complaint against local police all the way up to the US Supreme Court, which in 2005 ruled that, contrary to what Lenahan had been told by local authorities, Colorado state law did not actually require state police to enforce restraining orders.
Jessica Lenahan did not give up but instead took her case, with support from the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), to the IACHR, the international human rights tribunal of the Washington-based Organisation of American States (OAS), a 35-member international body.
The IACHR, in its ruling on Lenahan's case, found that the US failed to meet “international obligations” outlined in the American Declaration of the Rights and Duties of Man, a human rights declaration signed by the US
Human Rights Watch, a prominent human rights organisation, applauded the decision and issued a hope that the ruling would “spur domestic violence reform”.
“When the Supreme Court took [the case] up and decided that, as an individual woman, you don't have a constitutional right to have a restraining order, I think that sent a powerful message about how much women can count on these pieces of paper that are supposed to be providing them with protection,” Meghan Rhoad, a researcher in the women's rights division of Human Rights Watch, told IPS.
Rhoad said the IACHR case was critical because “it is about taking the next step in the struggle against domestic violence and moving from having those laws and procedures on the books and seeing them translated into effective protection in women's lives.”
Legal Momentum, a defence fund dedicated to protecting the rights of women and girls, urged “the US Government to adopt the IACHR's recommendations to ensure that local authorities protect victims of intimate partner violence and their children.”
The IACHR decision underlines a “historical problem” in the US with enforcing protection orders – a problem the tribunal says “has disproportionately affected women since they constitute the majority of the restraining order holders”.
In its report, the IACHR also underlined what it called numerous failures on the part of the state of Colorado, which it said was not “duly organized, coordinated, and ready to protect these victims from domestic violence” through effective and real implementation of the restraining order.
The commission also recommended that the US take legislative measures to enforce the “mandatory character” of restraining orders to better protect women and create more “effective implementation mechanisms”.
“I think the main thing that is needed is actual enforcement of the laws that are on the book,” said Sandra Park, an ACLU attorney who worked on the Lenahan case, told IPS. “We have some very strong laws that have been enacted by the states, but the key is making sure that they are actually enforced.”
Park said IACHR decisions have led countries to reform their laws on domestic violence in the past. A similar decision in 2000 on the Maria da Penha case in Brazil led that country to eventually completely reform its domestic violence policies. In 2006, Park said, Brazil “put into place a lot of protection and procedures regarding how the government responds to domestic violence” as a result of IACHR recommendations.
Park told IPS she believes the US could take similar steps, and that the key lies in creating stronger mechanisms of federal oversight for how police respond to domestic violence complaints. Although the issue of restraining orders falls under jurisdiction of individual US states, Park said there is a precedent for federal oversight of some police actions, such as cases that involve police brutality or racial profiling.
There are also cases in which the federal Department of Justice (DOJ) has investigated local communities' police responses to gender-based violence and sexual assault.
In March, the Department of Justice released its investigation into police action in New Orleans in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, which also looked at police response to domestic violence and sexual assault. The report included recommendations for how New Orleans police could respond to domestic assault and gender-based violence.
Park praised the work of the US in its investigation of New Orleans police and said she believed it was evidence that IACHR recommendations could be implemented.
“We hope this is a sign that they will continue to work with advocates and victims across the country to strengthen police response to domestic violence,” she said.