Human Rights At Home: D.C. Recognizes Freedom From Domestic Violence as a Human Right

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From left, with the Council’s formal proclamation, Claudia Cuccia (’13), Practitioner-in-Residence Natalie Nanasi, Michael Murali (’13).

Last year, in addition to representing survivors of domestic violence in court proceedings, WCL Domestic Violence Clinic students Claudia Cuccia (’13) and Michael Murali (’13), in collaboration with Elizabeth Lawrence, a student at Catholic University’s Families and the Law Clinic, worked to pass a resolution in the D.C. Council that recognizes freedom from domestic violence as a basic human right in the District. This effort came about as part of a nationwide response to the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights’ ruling in Lenahan vs. United States of America.

In 1999, Jessica Lenahan’s young daughters were murdered by her estranged husband, who had taken them in violation of a domestic violence restraining order, which the local police in Castle Rock, Colorado, had refused to enforce. Ms. Lenahan sued the police, alleging that by failing to enforce the restraining order, the police had violated her civil rights. The case went to the U.S. Supreme Court, which ruled that Ms. Lenahan did not have a constitutional right to have restraining orders enforced by the government on her behalf. Ms. Lenahan took her case to the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, which held in 2011 that the United States had violated its citizens’ human rights by failing to ensure the enforcement of restraining orders in domestic violence cases.

In response to the Commission’s indictment of U.S. human rights policy with respect to victims of domestic violence, advocates began asking individual cities to recognize a duty to protect their citizens from domestic violence. Cuccia, Murali, and Lawrence worked throughout the 2012-2013 school year with the D.C. Coalition Against Domestic Violence and other members of the District’s anti-domestic violence advocacy community to draft a resolution and lobby the D.C. City Council. On October 1, 2013, the first day of Domestic Violence Awareness Month, the Council adopted the resolution and declared that D.C. residents have the basic human right to be free from domestic violence.

Practitioner-in-Residence Natalie Nanasi notes that by acknowledging its duty to enforce restraining orders, the city has demonstrated its commitment to combatting the serious problem of domestic violence and decided to hold itself accountable to ensuring the safety and human rights of its residents. More broadly, by asking major cities to acknowledge their human rights obligations in this context, advocates nationwide are working to “bring human rights home” by change the overall culture of law enforcement and local governments and create a compassionate and effective response to domestic violence.

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