Adam Polaski

Human Rights Court Hears First Sexual Orientation Case

Filed By Adam Polaski | August 28, 2011 5:30 PM | comments

Filed in: Living
Tags: Chile, Emma de Ramon, Inter-American Court of Human Rights, Karen Atala, lesbian mother, parents rights, Supreme Court

ChileanFlag.pngOn Wednesday, the Inter-American Court of Human Rights, one of the most important legal bodies concerned with human rights in the Americas, heard the case of Karen Atala, a lesbian mother from Chile who lost the custody of her three children in 2003. The Chilean Supreme Court ruled in 2003 that Atala was unfit to maintain any custody of her children because of her sexual orientation. The fact that the Inter-American Court of Human Rights heard Atala's case this week is significant because it is the first time the court has ever heard a case dealing specifically with sexual orientation.

In 2001, Atala, a criminal court judge, separated from her husband and soon after, moved in with a woman, Emma de Ramón. Atala's former husband sued for full custody of their three daughters, saying that Atala's lesbian relationship would damage the girls.

Although Atala won the case in some of the lower courts, in 2003 the Supreme Court of Chile overruled those decisions, asserting that the lesbian relationship put the daughters in a "position of risk."

Recently, Atala has turned to the IACHR, which assists victims of human rights violations, for help. The body has said it will issue a legally binding agreement in favor of Atala, with which the Chilean government has reportedly agreed to comply.

The Director of Programs at the International Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission, Jessica Stern, described the importance of Atala's case:

What happened to Karen Atala represents discrimination of the crudest sort. For no reason other than her sexuality, a court separated a mother from her children. The Inter-American Court of Human Rights now has an opportunity to render a decision that discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation is wrong.

Such a verdict will send a message to every state party to the American Convention on Human Rights - from the village court all the way to national supreme courts - that sexual orientation has no bearing on a parent's ability to raise healthy children.


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This is particularly surprising, since the Inter-American Court has traditionally done very little of practical significance in the way of human rights.

More importantly, WHO will enforce the decisions they come down with?