Recognizing Freedom from Domestic Violence as a Human Right

In a groundbreaking decision, the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) in Jessica Lenahan (Gonzales) v. United States (2011), found the U.S. in violation of its human rights obligations in the context of domestic violence. In 1999, Jessica obtained an order for protection from a court in Castle Rock, Colorado against her estranged husband, Simon Gonzales. In violation of that order, Simon abducted their three young daughters. When Jessica contacted the police for assistance, officers not only failed to respond to her calls, but insisted that her children were safe because they were with their father. Later that night, Simon was shot and killed when he opened fire on police after driving his truck to the police station. Jessica's daughters were found dead in the truck. To this day, it is still not known whether they were killed by their father or in the crossfire with the police.

Jessica filed a lawsuit against the Castle Rock police for failing to enforce her protection order. The language of the order ("shall enforce") seemed to make it clear that police were obligated to enforce. However, when the case reached the U. S. Supreme Court in (2005), the Court ruled 7-2 against Jessica's claim. Writing for the majority, Justice Scalia stated: "We do not believe that these provisions of Colorado law truly made enforcement of restraining orders mandatory."

For most people, defeat at the Supreme Court would be the end of the story. Jessica, however, took her case to an international forum, claiming that her human right to protection from domestic violence was violated by the failure to enforce the protection order and the legal system's failure to give her a remedy. This represented the first case brought by a survivor of domestic violence against the U.S. before an international human rights tribunal, the IAHCR. The IACHR, an independent body of the Organization of American States whose mission is "to promote and protect human rights in the American hemisphere"* found that the United States violated the human rights of Jessica and her children in their failure to enforce a valid protection order. The decision underscored that the U.S. is failing in its legal obligation to protect women and girls from domestic violence. Although the IACHR has no authority to mandate specific changes to U.S. law or court rulings, the result highlights the ongoing struggle domestic violence victims face when seeking safety for themselves and their children.