This blog post about the John Sumner Stead Annual Lecture on International and Comparative Law was written by Nicholas Martin, Class of 2021. Nick is treasurer of the International Law Society, a 2L representative to the Environmental Law Society, and the SBA representative to the Bar Association of Baltimore City.
This year’s Stead Annual Lecture presenter, Dean Monica Pinto, is a world-renowned figure in international human rights. In her Oct. 23 lecture, she provided a concise overview of human rights in the Inter-American system, and showed how women’s issues intersect with the system in a variety of ways.
The development of women’s rights in international law is a relatively recent phenomenon. Although keeping women’s rights salient in international law is a continuing struggle, Pinto provided encouragement by discussing a number of women’s rights victories in the Inter-American system.
One example she discussed is the infamous case of Jessica Lenahan (Gonzales) v. United States. Lenahan, a Colorado resident, was the victim of repeated abuse by her violent husband. In 1999, in violation of a restraining order against him, he absconded with their three children and murdered them before committing suicide. She promptly called the police when the children were taken, but it took them 10 hours to arrive at her home. She was told there was nothing they could do and that everyone was probably fine anyway.
After the tragedy, Lenahan subsequently sued her local police for failing to act with the appropriate urgency. Every U.S. court, up to and including the Supreme Court, ruled against her by saying the police sufficiently performed their duty in her circumstance. Having exhausted her domestic options, Lenahan took her case to the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights. The commission’s 2011 opinion favored Lenahan and cited the Convention on the Elimination of all forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW). They found that the actions by the United States, through the police as its agents, violated human rights according to CEDAW.
Pinto used this case to reveal a contrast between the values written into American law and the values that have percolated up to an international agreement to which almost every country has signed on. While Lenahan’s case is tragic, it is encouraging that an international body was willing to vindicate her by citing a widely accepted international agreement.
Pinto discussed some other novel developments in women’s rights at the international level. For instance, one case before the Inter-American Court of Human Rights compelled the court to consider whether rape amounted to a human rights violation by analyzing it under the legal definition of torture. Placing rape in the context of torture is unheard of to American legal ears, but is a thought-provoking development at the international level that could indicate changing attitudes towards rape and/or violence against women generally.
Although these subjects are bleak, Pinto showed that there is hope for improving the strength of women’s rights, and that much progress has been made over the past few decades. Improving women’s rights internationally is an ongoing struggle, but it is important to recognize the victories already achieved and to build on those successes.