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Realizing the UDHR Requires Ending Violence Against Women

Lenora M. Lapidus,
Former Director,
Women's Rights Project, ACLU
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December 9, 2008

The 60th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) is an opportunity to remind our government, particularly the incoming new administration and Congress, of its duty to protect the human rights of its people — an obligation it signed up for when it voted for the UN General Assembly’s adoption of the UDHR’s 30 articles in 1948.

Arguably the most basic and fundamental right outlined in the Declaration is Article 3: Everyone has the right to life, liberty and security of person. And yet victims of gender-based violence across the country (and throughout the world) are denied this right on a daily basis: every day more than three women are killed by their intimate partners in the United States, and many more are assaulted, raped, trafficked, stalked, and otherwise abused. Clearly, the government cannot prevent every act of violence committed by individuals, but it must do everything in its power to protect women’s safety.

Unfortunately, the government has abdicated much of its responsibility for the human rights violations women suffer in the form of violence — and that is why advocates must turn to the UDHR and other international human rights mechanisms to remind the United States that it has an affirmative obligation to ensure that everyone can enjoy the right to life, liberty and security of person.

This is exactly what Jessica Lenahan (formerly Gonzales) did in 2005 when the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the police of Castle Rock, CO had done nothing wrong when they refused, despite her repeated pleas for help over a ten-hour period, to enforce the court-issued protective order she had obtained against her estranged husband. Jessica’s husband kidnapped their three daughters in violation of the court order and, after no effort by the police to locate them, the night ended tragically with the deaths of all three girls. Not accepting the Supreme Court’s decision as the end of the line, Jessica and her advocates petitioned the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) to find that her human rights had been violated by both the police’s inaction and the courts’ denial of a remedy. The IACHR’s governing document, the American Declaration on the Rights and Duties of Man, like the UDHR, holds the government to a higher standard of accountability for protecting women from gender-based violence than does U.S. domestic law. Jessica has given testimony at two hearings before the IACHR, and the Commission is expected to issue its findings and recommendations in 2009.

Sixty years ago the United States government adopted the UDHR, and yet it continues to turn a blind eye to human rights abuses occurring every day within its borders. Women, children, immigrants, people of color, and poor people in particular have been neglected by the government, often with the dismissive attitude that the government is not responsible for ensuring their rights. But we cannot let the government forget that it endorsed the rights set forth in the UDHR, and that it is obligated to uphold them or those rights will become meaningless. On this 60th anniversary, we must hold the U.S. government to its highest aspirations and ensure that the rights set forth in the UDHR are fully realized.

Celebrate the UDHR at 60 with the ACLU. Visit and sign the ACLU’s petition calling on the government and newly elected president to recommit to the UDHR. On December 10, the ACLU’s efforts will culminate in the online launch of an exclusive publication about the importance of the UDHR.

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