Time to Practice What We Preach: Using Human Rights in Domestic Violence Policy

In April, a domestic altercation made headlines in Seattle when it turned deadly. The perpetrator shot his girlfriend, two neighbors, a police officer, and ultimately himself. In the same month, in Cleveland, a man who kidnapped three young girls turned out to also have a history of partner abuse. These shocking and violent events shed public light on what is an all too common occurrence in the United States: domestic violence.

Our laws and policies have failed to stop domestic violence or adequately address its widespread impact. One in four women and one in seven men will experience domestic violence in their lifetime, enduring a violation of their dignity and human rights. Domestic violence has ongoing and destabilizing effects on individuals, families and communities. It also has an enormous fiscal impact, estimated to cost the United States approximately 12.6 billion annually.

Yet, within the U.S. numerous barriers exist to preventing domestic violence and holding perpetrators accountable.

Simply reporting domestic violence can lead to harsh consequences, threatening access to basic services, such as housing. A growing number of cities are adopting local ordinances that punish landlords and tenants by imposing fines if police respond to multiple domestic disturbances in a given period. These "nuisance ordinances" deter outreach for help and hinder domestic violence prevention, rather than facilitate it. Gender bias in policing can further exacerbate the harm women already experience.

Female domestic violence victims also face a severe lack of legal representation in court, whether seeking orders of protection or custody of their children. Despite the fact that basic needs are at stake in these proceedings, there is no constitutional right to counsel in civil cases. This is significant because having a lawyer vastly improves case outcomes (having a lawyer doubles the chance of success in obtaining an order of protection). Further, even women who obtain orders of protection have little recourse because there is no constitutional right to enforce them. There is also no federally recognized right to a remedy for women who experience domestic violence.

Human rights standards provide a roadmap for filling these gaps in protection for victims of domestic violence. The foundational due diligence principle requires that countries take proactive measures to prevent violence against women and girls, investigate instances of violence and punish acts of violence, whether the perpetrator is a government official or private actor. Due diligence also requires that governments provide individuals with access to court and to an adequate and effective remedy when their rights are violated. The human rights framework also calls for government to create conditions where basic needs such as adequate housing are met on an equal basis for all people. This is important as safe and affordable housing is essential to many women's ability to leave a violent relationship. Further, human rights treaties have been interpreted to include a right to counsel.

Given the United States' willingness to underscore the human rights dimensions of addressing violence against women abroad, you would expect to see human rights language and standards in our domestic policies. Just last year, the Obama Administration created a broad-based interagency initiative to help protect women's human rights in other countries, based on the belief that "gender-based violence... is a human rights violation or abuse" that impacts individuals' "safety, dignity... and human rights" as well as "the public health, economic stability, and security of nations."

Yet, U.S. lacks any coordinated mechanism to translate human rights into domestic policy and existing protections to address domestic violence, which vary state by state and city by city, fall short of human rights principles.

On the world stage, the U.S. has pledged to improve access to justice and reduce violence against women, including domestic violence fatalities.

As a number of U.S. groups have emphasized that human rights norms provide a valuable foundation for fulfilling this pledge and creating permanent and sustainable human-rights based solutions at the federal, state and local levels. Effective policies must empower victims and place their dignity and well-being at the fore. In line with due diligence, meaningful and effective avenues to obtain and enforce orders of protection, as well as law enforcement training focused on violence prevention, are needed. Women facing domestic violence should have access to adequate services and support to enable them to leave violent circumstances without putting basic needs at stake. Legislation should also ensure remedies for domestic violence survivors, and provide legal representation where basic needs are at stake.

And these groups are not alone in recognizing the need for human rights standards as a baseline for effective policies.

Local governments in Albany and Buffalo, New York, in Baltimore, Maryland, in Cincinnati, Ohio, as well as in Montgomery, Alabama and Miami-Dade County, Florida, have recognized freedom from domestic violence as a fundamental human right in local resolutions and proclamations.

Numerous international human rights experts have also called on the U.S. to improve human rights compliance in the arena of domestic violence. Just this April, the U.N. Human Rights Committee asked the United States what steps the federal government is taking to respect and protect the rights of domestic violence victims and, in particular, how the U.S. is ensuring adequate housing, necessary child care and legal representation in conformity with its human rights commitments.

The United States will need to provide answers this fall, when the government participates in the fourth review of its compliance with the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, a treaty the U.S. ratified under George H.W. Bush. (The review will also cover a broad range of civil and political rights, including racial profiling, the death penalty, juvenile justice, national security, and voting rights).

During the review the United States will take the world stage to describe its efforts to prevent, combat and investigate domestic violence and hold perpetrators accountable, as well as to ensure victims of domestic violence have their basic needs met. This is a prime opportunity for the U.S. to showcase ways to incorporate human rights into federal policy and foster and encourage federal, state and local governments to respect and ensure the human right to be free from domestic violence. A basic starting point is educating all government officials about their authority and obligations to implement human rights.

Women who face the threat of domestic violence expect -- and deserve -- to hear about the concrete steps being taken to ensure that rights of domestic violence victims are respected, protected and fulfilled.

To learn more about the U.S. human rights record on domestic violence: see the landmark decision by the Inter-American Commission in the Jessica Lenahan (Gonzales) case. Additional International Expert perspectives on violence against women can also be found in the Report of the U.N. Special Rapporteur on Violence Against Women and recommendations by the U.N. Committee on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination.