This case serves as a reminder that the need for the US to engage with human rights is not an academic exercise. The human rights framework offers hope to women in this country, and indeed to everyone, that they have someplace to turn if they are denied help in their own country and that they can send a message to the government that it needs to do much more to protect basic human rights.
Seeking a New Ally to Curb Domestic Violence
By Meghan Rhoad
Jessica Gonzales called the police in Castle Rock, Colorado, seven times on the night in June 1999, when her estranged husband abducted her three daughters, ages 7, 8 and 10. For seven hours after he took them, she pleaded with the police to go after him, to enforce the restraining order she had against him.
They ignored her appeals. Then, at 3:20 a.m., her husband drove up to the police station in his pickup truck and began shooting. The police shot back, killing him. They found the bodies of the three girls in the back of the truck, slain by their father’s semi-automatic.
On Wednesday, Jessica Gonzales (now Jessica Lenahan) saw the United States called to account for its inaction when her case came before the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights. The hearing will determine whether the government’s failure to enforce the restraining order violated Ms. Gonzales’ rights under international human rights law. In turning to this body, she is trying to help domestic violence survivors across the country, and indeed throughout the hemisphere.
The commission, part of the Organization of American States, has taken up the subject of domestic violence before and ruled against Brazil in a similar case. But this is the first time it has taken a case from the United States. A ruling against the United States will place into sharp focus gaps in the protection it offers its citizens.
If the Inter-American Commission finds for Ms. Gonzales, it can order damages from the U.S. government, or recommend structural recommendations to avoid similar situations arising in the future. The Commission also generally engages in regular follow-up conversations with the government in question–here the U.S. government–to make sure its recommendations are duly considered and implemented. In addition, while the Commission’s decisions perhaps are not enforceable in the way we are used to think of enforceability–with police orders or ultimately jail–they carry significant moral weight.
Although the US has always considered itself a human rights leader, it has been reluctant to take part in some of the worldwide mechanisms promoting human rights. It is not a party to a number of important international human rights treaties, including the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women, the American Convention on Human Rights, and the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights.
But this case serves as a reminder that the need for the US to engage with human rights is not an academic exercise. The human rights framework offers hope to women in this country, and indeed to everyone, that they have someplace to turn if they are denied help in their own country and that they can send a message to the government that it needs to do much more to protect basic human rights.
Ms. Gonzales first brought her case in US courts, but the system did not offer a remedy for the grievous harm she had suffered. Her case wound its way up to the Supreme Court, which ruled in June 2005 that Ms. Gonzales did not have a constitutional right to the enforcement of the restraining order against her husband.
In contrast, under international human rights law, governments have a responsibility to protect against and provide a remedy for violence against women, as outlined in a friend-of-the-court brief in this case filed by Human Rights Watch and numerous women’s rights organizations. In finding this case admissible, the Inter-American Commission effectively acknowledged that it is the duty of the government to protect its citizens against domestic violence. Human Rights Watch has urged the Commission to find that the United States failed to fulfill that obligation when the police ignored Ms. Gonzales’ pleas for enforcement of the restraining order.
Beyond the realm of domestic violence, human rights law offers remedies and standards currently unavailable under domestic law. For example, international human right law recognizes a right to the highest attainable standard of health, which includes access to good quality health care. While polls indicate most Americans believe the government should guarantee health insurance, our legal system does not recognize such a right and millions of uninsured Americans go without care.
Opponents of US involvement in the international human rights mechanisms contend that the advanced legal system in the US precludes the need for involvement in international human rights treaties. They say that we should protect our sovereignty and not let other nations dictate our laws.
However, the failure of the legal system to provide a remedy to Ms. Gonzales points clearly to gaps in the US system, gaps that imperil women and indeed all of us. Engaging with the international system on these issues neither denigrates our system nor sacrifices our democratic process. On the contrary, when we withdraw from the international human rights framework and decline to participate in the international conversation on these issues, we are ceding opportunity to provide leadership and to assert our values.
As a start, the United States needs to ratify the international treaties it has thus far neglected and take an active role in international deliberations on human rights. But the United States also has a responsibility at home to make certain that our citizens have the basic rights and protections they need to enjoy our freedoms.
Source: Human Rights Watch http://hrw.org/english/docs/2008/10/23/usdom20056.htm