Recently, reports of detainee abuse in the “war on terror” have dominated the international legal discourse on torture. This focus on detainee abuse, however, should not obscure developments concerning the most common and pervasive form of torture: domestic violence.
Last summer, a landmark judgment for victims of domestic violence, Opuz v. Turkey (2009), was handed down by the European Court of Human Rights (below right). The Court found the Republic of Turkey liable for torture or inhuman or degrading treatment, under Article 3 of the European Convention on Human Rights, because local officials had failed to prevent and redress the abuse of Nahide Opuz and her mother by Opuz' husband. The Court concluded that the state’s response to the abuse “was manifestly inadequate to the gravity of the offences in question,” in spite of noting that the Turkish authorities “did not remain totally passive” and that “ill-treatment must attain a minimum level of severity if it is to fall within the scope of Article 3.” Turkey was ordered to pay Opuz 30,000 euros in compensation for violating Articles 2, 3, and 14 of the European Convention.
For years, human rights bodies have recognized that state failures with respect to domestic violence can amount to torture. An example is General Comment No. 2 - Implementation of article 2 by States parties, issued in 2008 by the Committee Against Torture.
The ECHR decision in Opuz, however, seems to mark the first time that an international or regional court has held a state accountable for domestic violence, between partners, under a theory of torture — thus establishing the justiciability of the concept. Yet this aspect of the holding has received surprisingly little media attention.
The lack of coverage may be partially due to the fact that, as IntLawGrrl Stephanie Farrior pointed out in a prior post, the Opuz judgment was also remarkable in other respects, including its acknowledgment of domestic violence as a potential form of gender discrimination.
Women’s rights advocates have been pushing for greater recognition of domestic violence as a breach of international human rights for decades, and have made enormous jurisprudential strides. Seminal cases such as Velásquez Rodríguez v. Honduras, decided in 1998 by the Inter-American Court of Human Rights (left), helped establish the concept of state accountability for transgressions by non-state actors. Moreover, the traditional view that domestic violence is inherently a family matter beyond the purview of the state has been challenged by cases like Bevacqua and S. v. Bulgaria, rendered by the European Court of Human Rights in 2008.
As a result, state failures to prevent and redress domestic violence can now be understood to violate a range of human rights. The late Rhonda Copelon (right), to whom I have dedicated this post, explained in early 2009:
The next step in this legal and cultural revolution is to treat gender violence as torture. So far, rape — in war, by the state and where the state does not take measures against it — has been acknowledged in international law as an act of torture. Domestic violence — the most private and most common of all forms of gender violence — is on its way.
The Opuz holding is an important milestone in this regard.
The benefits of a “torture” designation are manifold, and have normative as well as practical value in enhancing legal protections for domestic violence victims:
► These victims of stand to gain from the jus cogens status of the prohibition of torture. It confers a heightened level of international condemnation and sends a clear message that domestic violence is an unqualified violation of human rights.
► Another benefit is the resultant availability of the protections and complaint mechanisms that exist for torture. These can bolster international legal protection for victims of domestic violence.
► A third benefit is the synergistic effect of combining the efforts and resources of advocates focused on feminist issues with those of international human rights generalists.
As Copelon articulated:
Simply recognizing domestic violence as torture will not solve the problem of domestic violence. But . . . it will help make domestic violence a front burner issue, hastening both the impartiality, adequacy and appropriateness of official responses and the cultural revolution that demands absolute and unconditional condemnation of such violence.
Accordingly, as the world laments the mounting evidence of torture perpetrated in the “war on terror,” the same sense of indignation and urgency must be extended to the private torture that countless people endure on a daily basis.