The United Nations says the United States must reassess how it protects victims and punishes perpetrators of domestic violence. Channel 4 News investigates.

US 'breaching human rights of domestic violence victims', according to United Nations (Getty)

The United Nations (UN) Special Rapporteur on violence against women has urged the United States to re-examine its current policies on dealing with violence against women.

It's a huge embarrassment for a nation which considers itself to be among the most equal in the world - and the kind of slap on the wrist that the UN normally administers to nations with dismal human rights records.

"Violence against women is the most pervasive human rights violation which continues to challenge every country in the world, and the US is no exception," said the UN's Rashida Manjoo.

Women's rights

The UN's criticism comes after a United States human rights panel found the US Government responsible for human rights violations in the case of Jessica Lenahan (previously Gonzales).

Violence against women is the most pervasive human rights violation which continues to challenge every country in the world, and the US is no exception. UN's Rashida Manjoo

The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights said the Government fell short of its international obligations when it failed to enforce a restraining order against Ms Lenahan's then husband, Simon Gonzales.

On 22 July 1999, Ms Lenahan made seven calls over seven hours to the police in Colorado when her estranged, abusive husband abducted her three daughters, aged 7, 8, and 10. Despite the restraining order against Mr Gonzales, no action was taken.

Early the following morning, Mr Gonzales drove to the police station and began shooting. He was shot dead by police, who then found the bodies of the couple's three daughters, with gunshot wounds, in the back of his truck.

Women's rights researcher at Human Rights Watch, Meghan Rhoad, told Channel 4 News the case was very significant.

"It's a huge case and I hope it will be recognised by policy makers. I think we tend to take for granted that the US has made major gains in women's rights and particularly in violence against women, but this is calling for us to reassess what this actually means in women's lives on a daily basis.

"How much progress have we really made when a woman can call the police seven times over seven hours to get a restraining order enforced and that doesn't happen, and her children are killed?"

UN call

The US human rights body called for a review of the case as well as recommending wider steps for the US Government, including making enforcement of protection orders mandatory. In a report, the UN has gone even further, suggesting the failure should lead to a much deeper rethink of the US Government's attitude towards domestic violence cases.

How much progress have we really made when a woman can call the police seven times over seven hours to get a restraining order enforced and that doesn't happen, and her children are killed? Human Rights Watch's Meghan Rhoad

"The US Government should reassess existing mechanisms for protecting victims and punishing offenders, and establish meaningful standards for enforcement of protection orders and impose consequences for a failure to enforce them," said Ms Manjoo, who went on a fact-funding mission to the US earlier this year.

She added: "In my discussions with government officials, victims, survivors and advocates including Jessica Lenahan, I found a lack of substantive protective legislation for domestic violence victims in the United States, as well as inadequate implementation of certain laws, policies and programmes."

Ms Manjoo said there was little in terms of "federally binding" provisions to protect women against domestic violence, or to prevent the acts in the first place.

She concluded: "State inaction towards cases of violence against women fosters an environment of impunity and promotes the repetition of violence."

Human Rights Watch's Ms Rhoad said the negative publicity - as well as the fact that the US is currently re-authorizing its landmark Violence Against Women Act - was a "gathering storm" that she hoped would elevate the issue in the public consciousness.

"As much progress as has been made, we still have to keep educating about the Government's responsibility to stop violence, whether it is happening on the street or inside someone's home," she said.

Officials at the United States mission to the UN were not immediately available to comment when contacted by Channel 4 News.

The US is the only developed nation not to have ratified the UN Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women.