The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights has clarified the standard for assessing states’ compliance with human rights obligations. According to the Commission, states must use due diligence to protect people’s human rights, prevent human rights violations, and investigate and redress the violations that occur.
This came as part of the Commission’s decision in the case of Jessica Lanahan (formerly Gonzales) v. United States, released by the Commission today. The Commission determined that the United States had failed to meet its obligation to protect Ms. Lanahan and her daughters’ human rights under the American Declaration of the Rights and Duties of Man. The Declaration lays out fundamental human rights that must be protected by members of the Organization of American States, including the right to non-discrimination and equal protection under the law, the right to life, the right to special protection for children, and the right to judicial protection.
In 1999, Ms. Lanahan’s estranged husband kidnapped their three daughters in violation of a restraining order. She repeatedly sought help from local police over a 10 hour period, but the police department failed to investigate or issue an arrest warrant for her husband. After her husband appeared at the police station, began shooting and was killed in a shoot-out with police, the bodies of her daughters were discovered in her husband’s truck. The ensuing police investigation failed to determine the time or cause of death of the girls. Ms. Lanahan sought vindication in federal court, but the Supreme Court determined that she had no constitutional right to protection and the failure of police to enforce the restraining order did not violate any constitutional provision. Ms. Lanahan then turned to the Inter-American Commission.
The Commission noted the numerous international authorities explaining that gender-based violence is a form of discrimination, and that systemic failures of governments to adequately address gender-based violence, particularly domestic violence, and to protect women from this harm not only constitute discrimination but fuel further societal discrimination and violence. The Commission stressed that all states must act with diligence to protect women and children from domestic violence, and to not only prevent arbitrary deprivations of life but also to affirmatively protect peoples’ right to life. And when acts of domestic violence do occur, a state must conduct a thorough and meaningful investigation of those violations.
According to the Commission, Ms. Lanahan’s and her daughters’ rights were violated by the police department’s failure to enforce the restraining order and the insufficient investigation into her daughters’ deaths, and by the failure of the U.S. government to investigate any aspect of these incidents.
This important decision does more than just vindicate Ms. Lanahan’s rights. It also makes clear that the U.S. must do more than merely pass laws or create nominal policies protecting human rights; those laws and policies must actually be enforced, procedures must be in place to adequately respond to people seeking protection of their rights, and failures of protection must be genuinely addressed lest they contribute to societal acceptance of human rights violations and perpetuate those very violations.
Human Rights USA welcomes this landmark decision and is proud to be among the signatories to amicus briefs supporting Ms. Lanahan’s case. Our congratulations and thanks go out to Ms. Lanahan’s attorneys at the University of Miami School of Law Human Rights Clinic, the Columbia Law School Human Rights Clinic, and the American Civil Liberties Union.