When the 1993 UN Conference on Human Rights declared that 'human rights are women's rights', and 'women's rights are human rights', many of us unschooled in international law heard a great new motto, and little more. Again, in 1995 when Hillary Clinton captured world attention by making the same declaration in her now famous Beijing speech, it seemed the motto had definitely caught fire and was here to stay. The immense power and significance of that declaration, however, was still lost on many of us.
Because, far from being just a catchy motto, enjoining women in the human rights framework has provided the most solid legal platform we have to date for asserting women's rights to protection and justice, and for mandating law enforcement's duty to provide them.
The power of welding of women's rights and human rights derives its strength from the following;
- By 1993 international human rights law had already constructed a firm legal foundation of a government's duty of 'due diligence' in responding to human rights violations. The obligation of 'due diligence' means governments must prevent, protect, investigate, punish, and compensate human rights violations. The 'due diligence' obligations apply whether the human rights violation is perpetrated by government actors or, most significantly for women, by private citizens. This legal foundation requiring 'due diligence' is solidly anchored in four decades of treaties, conventions, and international case law.
- The definition of gender based violence against women as a human rights violation is pivotal, as it immediately applies the strength of the 'due diligence' obligations to women. International treaties, conventions, and incresingly case law also provide the basis for defining gender based violence against women as a human rights violation. But it was the declaration of the 1993 UN Human Rights Conference that breathed life into the linkage.
- The power of this linkage also derives from the fact that human rights law is international law. As such, the 'due diligence' obligations apply to every government in the world and cover every woman and girl on earth.
This is powerful stuff. At this time, there is no broader nor clearer legal statement on earth in support of a woman's rights to proper law enforcement response to violence against women. No better legal framework exists for responding law enforcement's claims to unfettered discretion. The 'due diligence' language requiring governments and its law enforcement agents to prevent, protect, investigate, punish, and compensate victims of human rights violations hits the nail on the head.
Theoretically, any woman, anywhere on earth, any time she gets mistreated or pushed back by officials when she resports violence against women, can stand on this human rights platform. In fact, there are now a number of cases around the world where women have done just that. Standing on the strength of this human rights law, these women have dragged their countries into international court to answer to the charges that their country's law enforcement has failed them. And in resounding declarations from the international courts, the women have won, and further solidified these rights.
For links to these cases and their supporting documents, and for guides to using the human rights framework, see the Resources at the end of this section.
But before thinking our problems are solved, understand that the human rights framework also has some serious limitations:
- One obvious limitation to the human rights framework is that the international court system in which these cases are heard is not easily accessible, to say the least. The physical courts themselves are few and far between, at impossible distances for most any woman to travel. The dockets are crowded and limited, and the process moves at a snail's pace. And women's rights cases are barely beginning to be heard.
- Another serious limitation of the human rights structure for women can be seen in the recent Campo Algodonero case. Even if you win a case in international court against your government's law enforcement, how do you get your government to comply with the sentencing?
The Campo Algodonero case was brought before the Inter-American Human Rights Court on behalf of three Mexican women whose slain bodies had been found in the Campo Algondonero in Juarez, Mexico. Charges were brought against the Mexican government for failing its 'due diligence' obligations to the women, as evidenced by the indifference and contempt with which Mexican police dealt with the cases. In the court's 2010 ruling in favor of the women, the court rendered one of the strongest findings to date on a government's obligations to respond effectively to violence against women. The court also laid out a monumental sentencing order to the Mexican government. The sentence not only ordered Mexico to compensae the victims' families, but also outlined multiple and specific remedies Mexico must apply to fix it's future law enforcement responses to Mexican women. Up to this point, Mexican women couldn't have hoped for more.
And then comes the problem. At this writing, just over a year since the international court handed down its sentencing, Mexican women are still having to fight, protest, and pressure their government, attempting to get compliance, item by item, to the sentencing terms.
- Another problem is that women's knowledge of the rights under the human rights framework is virtually non-existent. It's difficult to even get women interested in these rights because they seem so abstract. And, in fact, there's no apparent and immediate ways for women to assert these rights.
Nonetheless, the human rights framework has given women what we have never had before and we don't have anywhere else. The human rights framework has given us the first clear and actionable legal right to protection and justice from law enforcement. 'Actionable' means we can hold law enforcement to account in a court of law when law enforcement violates their obligations to investigate, prosecute, and punish gender based violence against women. The human rights framework has given us a beacon of hope, a platform to stand on, and a blueprint for establishing these rights closer to home.
Resources in English:
** The Application of International Law to Systemic Intimate Violence (2010)
A good overview
** Human Rights and Domestic Violence:
An Advocacy Manual
Together with Columbia Law School’s Human Rights Clinic, the Sexuality & Gender Law Clinic developed an extensive, cutting-edge guide to train advocates to use human rights arguments in domestic violence cases in the U.S. The Clinic’s contributions focused specifically on arguments that can be made in contexts where domestic violence is targeted at individuals who are trafficked and/or are gay, lesbian, bisexual and/or transgender.
** Amici Brief (Supplement) to the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights in the case of Jessica Gonzales vs. the United States (2008)
This is a tight summary of the history and human rights legal foundations framing due diligence obligations and duty to protect.
** THE DUE DILIGENCE STANDARD AS A TOOL FOR THE ELIMINATION OF VIOLENCE AGAINST WOMEN (2006)
Report of the Special Rapporteur on violence against women, its causes and consequences, Yakin Ertürk
** Inter-American Court rules against Mexico on gender violence in Ciudad Juárez (2010)
(includes summary of sentencing)
** Simple Guide to the UN Treaty Bodies - Guide (2010)
Recursos en espanol:
** Simple Guide to the UN Treaty Bodies - Guide (2010)