Strasbourg Observers

Inter-American Commission praises ECtHR in a landmark decision on domestic violence

September 08, 2011

The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights released its keenly anticipated merits report in the case of Jessica Lenahan (Gonzales) v United States a few weeks ago.  This was the first time a domestic violence survivor filed an international legal claim against the U.S.[1] The case has been extensively commented on elsewhere (see for example this article in the Harvard Human Rights Journal and this post on IntLawGrrls), so my aim with this post is just to flag the decision and note the extensive references to the case law of the European Court of Human Rights therein.

The facts of the case are horrifying.


On a night in June 1999, Simon Gonzales, the estranged husband of Jessica Gonzales (now Lenahan), abducted their three daughters, aged 7, 8 and 10. Ms Gonzales had a domestic violence restraining order against her estranged husband and called the police in her hometown eight times, in a desperate effort to get their help. Despite the existence of the restraining order, which mandated the arrest of Mr Gonzales if he violated it and which was the only means of protection available to Ms Gonzales at the state level, the police refused to act. They allegedly told Ms Gonzales to wait until Simon Gonzales brought the children home and even stated that it was “a little ridiculous” to freak the police out (merits report, para 30). At some time during the night, Simon Gonzales presented himself at the police station and started shooting. The police returned fire and killed him. They then found the murdered bodies of the three children in the back of his truck. The subsequent investigation into the deaths of the girls was grossly inadequate and Ms Lenahan still doesn’t know what happened exactly that night.

Ms Lenahan filed a federal civil rights suit, but her claim that the Due Process Clause of the 14th Amendment of the US Constitution was violated eventually got dismissed by the US Supreme Court in Castle Rock v. Gonzales. The Supreme Court held that the police was not required to enforce the restraining order of Ms Gonzales against her estranged husband. The Inter-American Commission, however, takes a very different view of things.  The Commission condemns the reaction by the police and establishes that the failures to protect Jessica Gonzales and her children constitute a breach of the American Declaration, under Article I (right to life), Article II (non-discrimination), Article VII (special protection of children), and Article XVII (right to judicial protection). The Commission also urges far-reaching reforms on the federal and state level in order to protect women and children from domestic violence.

The Commissions’ findings regarding the links between discrimination, violence and due diligence, are well-worth repeating: “Gender-based violence is one of the most extreme and pervasive forms of discrimination, severely impairing and nullifying the enforcement of women’s rights. The inter-American system as well has consistently highlighted the strong connection between the problems of discrimination and violence against women.” (para 110, references omitted) And further on in the report the Commission states that: “the States’ duty to address violence against women also involves measures to prevent and respond to the discrimination that perpetuates this problem. States must adopt the required measures to modify the social and cultural patterns of conduct of men and women and to eliminate prejudices, customary practices and other practices based on the idea of the inferiority or superiority of either of the sexes, and on stereotyped roles for men and women.” (para 126, references omitted)

In reaching these conclusions, the Inter-American Commission refers extensively to the Strasbourg Court’s case law on domestic violence and the States’ duty to protect individuals from violence by other private individuals (see para 131-135).  The Commission refers in particular Opuz v. Turkey, Kontrová v. Slovakia and Branko Tomasic and Others v. Croatia and praises the Strasbourg Court: “In the analysis of the cases referred to, the European Court of Human Rights has advanced important principles related to the scope and content of the State’s obligation to prevent acts of domestic violence.” (par. 134) One of these principles being that “a State’s failure to protect women from domestic violence breaches their right to equal protection of the law and that this failure does not need to be intentional.” (par. 134)

The Jessica Lenahan-case is part of an international movement that struggles to re-frame the issue of domestic violence in terms of human rights. The Inter-American Human Rights System and the European Court of Human Rights play an important role in that struggle.

[1] Caroline Bettinger-López, ‘Jessica Gonzales v. United States: An Emerging Model for Domestic Violence & Human Rights Advocacy in the United States’, 21 Harvard Human Rights Journal (2008) 183, at 189-190.

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