Human Rights Clinic Fights For Gender Justice


In back-to-back trips last month to Washington D.C., four student members of Miami Law's Human Rights Clinic – along with the clinic's director, Professor Caroline Bettinger-López – pressed their advocacy of issues surrounding gender equality and justice.

The students' efforts were focused on the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, an organ created by the Organization of American States to promote the observance and defense of human rights in the Americas. The two trips were part of the Human Rights Clinic's ongoing work on gender justice issues related to the Jessica Lenahan case and violence against Aboriginal women and girls in Canada. The intent was to reiterate governments' obligations under international human rights standards to protect, investigate, and provide remedies in cases of violence against women.

Jessica Lenahan (Gonzales) v. United States was the first international human rights case brought by a domestic violence survivor against the U.S., and it resulted in a groundbreaking decision last summer from the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights that found the United States responsible for human rights violations against Lenahan, whose three daughters were killed in 1999 after police in Colorado failed to enforce a domestic violence restraining order against Lenahan's estranged husband.

The trip to Washington D.C. served as an opportunity to continue the clinic's work to implement the IACHR decision. Professor Bettinger-López, second-year student Michael Stevenson and third-year student Rashanda McCollum (who, along with second-year student Luis Ramos constitute "Team Lenahan") met with a Congressional staffer and held a meeting with representatives from the Department of Justice to discuss gender-biased policing – an issue at the heart of the Lenahan case. On March 24, the team participated in a "Working Meeting" at the IACHR regarding implementation of the Lenahan decision. The meeting enabled a dialogue between the Petitioner (represented by the Miami Law Human Rights Clinic, the American Civil Liberties Union and the Columbia Law School Human Rights Clinic) and the U.S. government (represented by the State Department and the Department of Justice) regarding current and future steps toward implementation of the decision.

Five days later, Professor Bettinger-López, second-year students Rachel Oostendorp and Amanda Darlington, and representatives of the Native Women's Association of Canada and the Canadian Feminist Alliance for International Action participated in a "thematic hearing" at the IACHR on the issue of missing and murdered Aboriginal women and girls in Canada. Over the past 30 years, more than 600 Aboriginal women and girls have disappeared or have been murdered in Canada. The Human Rights Clinic worked with both of the Canadian advocacy organizations to prepare documentation, including a briefing paper submitted to the IACHR, and testimony for the hearing. An IACHR thematic hearing allows for advocates to introduce a human rights issue and provide information to commissioners, and can help facilitate dialogue with the government involved.

The two trips provided opportunities for the students and advocates to make key connections between multiple forms of discrimination and violence.

"As a law student, you only typically think of how you can advocate in a traditional context," said Michael Stevenson, 2L, about his experience in Washington. "Engaging in multi-faceted legal advocacy on the national level was a tremendous experience that has a noticeable impact on changing government policies that affect human rights – policies that affect us all."

In Canada, many advocates believe that the issue of missing and murdered Aboriginal women and girls and the apparent impunity the surrounds those crimes are inextricably linked to society-wide racism and misogyny. During the thematic hearing, two leading Canadian indigenous women's advocates spoke of how the disappearances and murders must be understood within the context of historical colonization and the discrimination and socio-economic marginalization of Aboriginal women and girls.

The tragedy experienced by Lenahan – who claims Native American and Latina heritage – has highlighted similar links between violence and race, class, and gender in the United States. In its decision, the IACHR found the U.S. in breach of its international obligations of non-discrimination and underscored the fact that certain populations of women face higher rates of violence and non-enforcement of domestic restraining orders.

"Contextualizing the issue of violence against women, especially in countries such as the United States and Canada," Oostendorp said, "helps us to understand the problem not as isolated personal incidents, but as a widespread issue of human rights violations."