Spanish Supreme Court affirms that decisions of UN treaty bodies are legally binding
María de los Ángeles González Carreño v Ministry of Justice, Judgment No. 1263/2018
Court: Supreme Court of Spain
Date of judgment: 17 July 2018
On 17 July 2018, the Supreme Court of Spain (the Supreme Court) affirmed that the State must comply with decisions of the United Nations treaty body mechanisms – in this case, the Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW Committee), in compliance with its obligations in terms of the United Nations Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (the Convention).
Ms González’s partner had subjected her to frequent physical and psychological abuse, but despite having lodged approximately 30 complaints with the police and the courts, only one conviction for a minor offence had been granted. Ms González and her partner had a daughter, Andrea. In November 2001, after various court proceedings, an order of marital separation was granted. No reference was made to the complaints of abuse that had been made by Ms González. In May 2002, an order was granted allowing Ms González’s partner to have unsupervised visits with Andrea. Despite Andrea repeatedly expressing a desire not to see her father, and Ms González attempting to appeal the order, the unsupervised visits were allowed to continue.
In April 2003, Andrea was killed by her father during one of the unsupervised visits, following which he committed suicide.
Ms González filed a claim for compensation for a miscarriage of justice, which was dismissed by the Ministry of Justice in Spain. Ms González then pursued administrative and judicial appeals, and approached the Supreme Court and the Constitutional Court, all of which denied the claim.
Ruling by the CEDAW Committee
In 2012, Ms González submitted a claim to the CEDAW Committee after having exhausted all domestic remedies. The CEDAW Committee is established in terms of article 17 of the Convention. The key issue before the CEDAW Committee was the responsibility of the State for not having fulfilled its duty of diligence in connection with the events that led to the murder of Ms González’s daughter.
According to the CEDAW Committee in its decision dated 16 July 2014, the decision to allow unsupervised visits was taken without the necessary safeguards in place, and without taking into consideration the pattern of domestic violence that had been ongoing. Relying on its General Recommendation No. 19 (1992), the CEDAW Committee noted that a state party may also be responsible for acts of private persons if the state party does not act with due diligence to prevent violations of rights or to investigate and punish acts of violence and to compensate victims.
The CEDAW Committee noted further that the Convention obliges states parties to ensure by law or other appropriate means the realisation and practise of the principle of equality of men and women, and to adopt appropriate measures to amend or abolish laws, regulations, customs and practices that constitute discrimination against women. In terms of article 16(1) of the Convention, states parties specifically have the obligation to adopt all appropriate measures to eliminate discrimination against women in all matters relating to marriage and family relationships.
In the present case, the CEDAW Committee held that Ms González had suffered harm of the utmost seriousness and irreparable injury, and that the absence of reparations constituted a violation by the State of its obligations under the Convention. As such, in accordance with article 7(3) of the Option Protocol to the Convention, the CEDAW Committee concluded that the State had infringed the rights of Ms González and her dead daughter in terms of article 2(a)-(f), 5(a) and 16(1)(d) of the Convention, and ordered the State inter alia to grant Ms González “appropriate reparation and comprehensive compensation commensurate with the seriousness of the infringement of her rights”.
Judgment of the Supreme Court
Before the Supreme Court, Ms González’s case dealt with whether the State was obliged to give effect to the ruling of the CEDAW Committee. The State argued that, unlike the European Court of Human Rights, for example, there were no administrative mechanisms in place to enforce the decision of the CEDAW Committee or other human rights treaty body mechanisms. As such, according to the argument by the State, Ms González’s claim should fail on the basis of the principle of res judicata, which stipulates that a matter that has already been finally adjudicated by a competent court may not be pursued further by the same parties.
The Supreme Court disagreed. It noted that while neither the Convention nor the Optional Protocol provides for rulings of the CEDAW Committee to be directly enforceable, article 24 of the Convention requires states parties to “adopt all necessary measures at the national level aimed at achieving the full realization of the rights recognized”. Furthermore, article 7(4) of the Optional Protocol provides that states parties “shall give due consideration to the views of the [CEDAW] Committee”. The Supreme Court noted further that the Constitution of Spain affirms that international treaties “form part of the internal legal order”, and that the Bill of Rights must be interpreted in accordance with international human rights law.
With regard to the ruling of the CEDAW Committee, the Supreme Court held that complying with decisions of treaty body mechanisms is a matter of the rule of law, and not doing so would breach the principles of legality and legal hierarchy proclaimed in article 9(3) of the Constitution of Spain. In conclusion, the Supreme Court concluded that the “inexistence of a specific procedure to execute the views of the CEDAW Committee … constitutes a breach of a legal and constitutional mandate by Spain”.
Accordingly, the Supreme Court ordered the State to pay Ms González €600,000 in compensation.
The full judgment (in Spanish) is accessible here.
An EJIL: Talk! case note on the judgment (in English) is accessible here.
The ruling on the merits by the CEDAW Committee is accessible here.
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