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Carol Hunt: We must tend to our issues on the home front


Caroline Bettinger-Lopez pictured for Carol Hunt interview.  Picture;  GERRY MOONEY.   23/5/13

Caroline Bettinger-Lopez pictured for Carol Hunt interview. Picture; GERRY MOONEY. 23/5/13

Caroline Bettinger-Lopez pictured for Carol Hunt interview. Picture; GERRY MOONEY. 23/5/13

'Bringing Human Rights Home' is the theme of Caroline Bettinger- Lopez's advocacy work as a human rights lawyer.

It's prescient that she is in Ireland in the week when Amnesty International's 2013 report reveals a stark contradiction in Irish attitudes to human rights. While internationally we are seen as a strong supporter of the rights of both sexes, at home we are, to put it kindly, a little more reticent about the rights of the female half of our population. Most appallingly, we are still one of the very few European countries that has not signed the Council of Europe Convention on Violence Against Women and Domestic Violence. Do we still view domestic violence as a private, unfortunate problem between troubled couples, rather than as a human rights issue? It would seem so.

As well as being a crusading human rights lawyer Bettinger-Lopez (Carrie) is also, on the chilly morning in Dublin when I catch up with her, an exhausted young mother of a seven-month-old girl. She's looking well for a woman who hasn't had a wink of sleep the previous night. Her husband is back at the hotel minding the baby while she gives a round-table talk about the human rights decision – she was the main lawyer/activist involved – which has changed how domestic violence is viewed in the US.

Last year, the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights issued this landmark decision, finding the United States responsible for human rights violations suffered by Bettinger-Lopez's (team's) client, Jessica Lenahan (Gonzales) and recommended changes to US domestic violence law and policy.

It was a moral victory for a woman who had previously been told by the US Supreme Court that constitutionally, the state was not obliged to protect her, or her daughters, from domestic violence.

A brief synopsis: on June 22, 1999, Jessica Lenahan (Gonzales) called the police nine times – seven times by phone and twice in person – to report that her husband had taken their children. They refused to take her worries about the welfare of her daughters seriously. They weren't concerned that there was a restraining order in place on her violent husband – Simon Gonzales – or that he had effectively kidnapped the girls from their front lawn.

Less than 12 hours after the girls disappeared, Simon Gonzales engaged in a fatal shoot-out with the local cops of Castletown, Colorado. The three girls were then found dead in the back of his van. The US Supreme Court ruled that enforcement of the restraining order was not mandatory under Colorado law, thus arguing that it wasn't worth the paper it was written on.

It wasn't until 2012, 13 years after the murder of the three children, that the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights made its judgement on the case; ruling that Lenahan's human rights had indeed been violated: the state had a due diligence obligation to protect victims of domestic violence and their children.

The problem is that cases of domestic abuse are repeatedly viewed as personal problems rather than issues of human rights.

As Bettinger-Lopez says of the Gonzales case, "The media headlines were all about 'the troubled family', rather than the state's responsibility to protect women from domestic violence. But..." she is adamant, "women's rights are human rights."

Ireland seems to have a similar reluctance to recognise women's rights to freedom from violence in their own country.

Last year Safe Ireland revealed that nearly 8,000 women and more than 3,000 children received support from domestic violence services last year – an increase of 56 per cent since comprehensive records were first compiled five years ago. But funding for organisations dealing with violence against women is being eviscerated. Our domestic violence legislation is inadequate and the 2002 Sexual Abuse and Violence in Ireland report is seriously out of date. Are we taking the escalating problem of violence against women seriously?

Amnesty Ireland head Colm O'Gorman said last week: "Ireland's strong international track record of working to reduce and prevent violence against women and girls is not replicated at home. One in five women in Ireland who have been in a relationship say that they were abused by a current or former partner," he said.

"Yet Ireland is in the minority of countries in Europe that have not signed the Council of Europe Convention on Violence Against Women and Domestic Violence, despite committing to do so at a meeting of the UN Human rights Council in March of last year."

Last week Amnesty also noted that our abortion laws are out of line with international human rights standards, particularly as victims of rape or incest will still be denied a termination even under the new proposals.

I ask Carrie her views on the current Irish debate and she diplomatically acknowledges that it is a "hot button issue". However, in the case of pregnancy through rape, she says, "The United Nations Committee on the Elimination of Violence Against Women specifically addressed this question in the case of LC versus Peru – whether a rape victim should have the right to terminate her pregnancy – and they found that Human Rights law mandated that yes, she should be allowed. And that case establishes that this is a fundamental human right, in the case of rape."

Carrie adds: "The Irish Government should look to these international standards and follow them as part of its international obligations . . . comporting with international Human Rights standards that are well established."

We discuss the best way to advocate these human rights for Irish women. "Ireland ratifying the Council of Europe Convention on Violence Against Women and Domestic Violence would be an important first step," she says drily.

Indeed. We keep coming back to that.

Jacqueline Healy, Women's Health and Human Rights Worker with the National Women's Council of Ireland (NWCI) had earlier informed me that plans are afoot to organise an action campaign to call on Minister Shatter to sign the Convention during the Irish EU Presidency. "Because," she said, "back in March, Minister Kathleen Lynch, representing EU interests at the UN Commission on the Status of Women (the theme of which was the elimination and prevention of all forms of violence against women and girls), was encouraging countries to ratify this agreement – and we haven't even signed it yet!"

Is this another ducking of leadership where women's rights are concerned?

Carrie kindly notes that she's always considered Ireland to be a world leader in matters of human rights in many respects, so "we need to call on our Government to act as leaders". "We have to change hearts and minds in order to change the law," says Carrie. "It's important to get out into communities and make people aware of the real- life consequences of denying women human rights."

Caroline's visit to Ireland was organised and sponsored by the Global Women's Studies Centre at NUI Galway and co-sponsored by the Women's Human Rights Alliance, which is being convened by the NWCI.

Women's Aid freephone helpline: 1800 341 900

Irish Independent