Domestic Violence Survivor Asks International Tribunal To Hold U.S. Responsible For Human Rights Violations

March 25, 2008 12:00 am

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NEW YORK – The American Civil Liberties Union and Columbia Law School’s Human Rights Clinic filed a merits brief with the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) detailing their charges that the U.S. broke international law in violating the human rights of a domestic violence survivor. The brief was filed on behalf of Jessica Lenahan (formerly Gonzales), whose three daughters were kidnapped by her estranged husband and killed, and whose domestic violence protection claims were rejected by the U.S. Supreme Court.

Lenahan’s case is the first individual complaint by a victim of domestic violence to be brought against the United States for international human rights violations.

“Jessica Lenahan was forced to turn to an international body because the U.S. legal system failed to provide her with even a bare modicum of justice,” said Araceli Martinez-Olguin, an attorney with the ACLU Women’s Rights Project. “We hope that this action will ensure that other domestic violence survivors in this country and all of the Americas have legal recourse when their human rights are violated by their governments.”

Last October the IACHR, an international human rights tribunal based in Washington, D.C., declared in a landmark “admissibility” decision that it had competence to examine Lenahan’s case, rejecting the U.S. State Department’s position that the American Declaration on the Rights and Duties of Man Declaration does not create positive governmental obligations. Instead, the decision holds the U.S. to well-established international standards on state responsibility to exercise “due diligence” to prevent, investigate, and punish human rights violations and protect and compensate victims of domestic violence. The IACHR also found that Lenahan had unsuccessfully exhausted all domestic legal avenues available to her.

The IACHR will decide whether the U.S. and the state of Colorado violated the rights of domestic violence victims and their children to special protections, as well as violated Lenahan’s and her children’s human rights – specifically the rights to life, non-discrimination, family life/unity, due process and to petition the government.

“Nothing can bring my children back,” said Jessica Lenahan. “But I hope that this petition will prevent the kind of tragedy my little girls and my entire family suffered from happening to other families.”

Lenahan was living in Colorado when her three young daughters, Rebecca, age 10, Katheryn, age eight and Leslie, age seven, were killed when local police failed to enforce a restraining order against her estranged husband. The girls were abducted by their father and although Lenahan repeatedly called the police telling them of her fears for the safety of her daughters, the police failed to respond. Several hours later, Lenahan’s husband drove to the police station with a gun and opened fire. The police shot and killed him, and then discovered the bodies of the three girls in the cab of his pickup truck.

Lenahan filed a lawsuit against the police, but in June 2005, the U.S. Supreme Court found that she had no constitutional right to police enforcement of her restraining order. In December 2005, she filed a petition with the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, saying that the inaction of the police and the Supreme Court’s decision violated her human rights.

“When countries fail to protect the rights of their own citizens, international tribunals are a means of holding them accountable,” said Caroline Bettinger-Lopez of Columbia Law School’s Human Rights Clinic. “The Inter-American Commission’s decisions carry international and moral weight.”

“The United States is not exempt from enforcing the international legal protections that domestic violence survivors are entitled to,” said Steven Watt, an attorney with the ACLU Human Rights Program. “We are confident that the court will find the U.S. accountable to its own and international law.”

The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights was created in 1959 and is expressly authorized to examine allegations of human rights violations by members of the Organization of American States, which includes the United States. It also conducts on-site visits to observe the general human rights situations in all 35 member-states of the Organization of American States and to investigate specific allegations of violations of Inter-American human rights treaties and other legal instruments. Its charge is to promote the observance and the defense of human rights in the Americas.

Lenahan is represented by Martinez-Olguin, Lenora Lapidus and Emily Martin of the ACLU Women’s Rights Program, Watt of the ACLU Human Rights Program and Bettinger-Lopez of Columbia Law School’s Human Rights Clinic.

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