Putting an end to impunity: Russia’s systematic failure to protect women from domestic violence
How can international institutional bodies put pressure on Russia regarding legislative reforms and combat the culture of domestic violence as a private family matter?
In recent years, Russia has been the focus of increased attention with regard to the topic of violence against women, and domestic violence in particular. In a country where 14,000 women are murdered each year by their intimate partner, new cases of domestic violence made international headlines. News articles such as the one of the three sisters who killed their abusive father last summer, a St. Petersburg university professor who killed and dismembered his girlfriend, and even the case of a woman whose rage-filled husband abducted her, took her into a forest and cut off both her hands, have been recently covered by media outlets around the world.
Since 2017, battery that does not result in lasting harm has been decriminalised and classified as misdemeanour for first-time offenders. Specifically, under the Administrative Code, a fine is imposed for intimate partner violence (from 5,000 to 30,000 roubles which equals to 70 to 430 euros) instead of a prison sentence. Russia has no specific laws on domestic violence despite its ratification of the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) in 2004, nor has it ratified the Istanbul Convention on Preventing and Combating Violence against Women and Domestic Violence.
The exact number of domestic violence incidents is not known since the government does not disaggregate crime data according to gender – with the exception of homicides - nor does it have a separate category for domestic violence. This lack of accurate statistics contributes to the reluctance of policymakers to consider domestic abuse a national priority.
Police authorities treat each complaint separately in cases of repeated abuse and are often unwilling to investigate and bring proceedings in domestic violence cases. Domestic violence is considered a private family matter, and victims often suffer secondary victimisation by having to collect evidence and bear the burden of proof at trials. Such conditions, added to the problem of legal illiteracy, explain why 8 out of 10 cases do not even make it to court.
While bills on domestic violence have been introduced more than 40 times over the last decade in the State of Duma, Russia’s lower house of Parliament, none of them has even passed the first reading. Recently, a member of the Russian Parliament, Oksana Pushkina, has been campaigning to get the 2017 decriminalisation law overturned. She has also initiated amendments to legislation including the introduction of restraining orders, anti-sexual harassment and other measures to promote gender equality. Opposing her proposals, 182 Russian Orthodox Church groups and parents’ organisations wrote an open letter to the Russian president, Vladimir Putin, asking for the proposed legislation to be blocked.
So, how can external pressure initiate a shift in Russia’s passivity towards the prevalence of domestic abuse in the country?
Volodina v. Russia
In its first domestic violence judgment involving a claim against Russia, the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR) found Russia to be in breach of Articles 3 (prohibition of inhuman or degrading treatment) and 14 (prohibition of discrimination) of the European Convention on Human Rights. Most notably, it held that Russian authorities had failed to take adequate measures to protect the victim of domestic violence (positive obligation under Article 3) and condemned the absence of legislation defining domestic violence. The Court underlined that Russia had neglected ‘to acknowledge the seriousness and extent of the problem of domestic violence in Russia and its discriminatory effect on women’. (§ 132)
This case was brought before the Court by Ms. Volodina, who had experienced numerous instances of violence by her former partner (Mr. S) over the course of three years. Mr. S. had allegedly beaten, threatened, GPS-tracked, kidnapped and intimidated her. After one physical assault in particular, Ms. Volodina was obliged to undergo medical surgery to terminate her pregnancy. Despite having lodged several complaints with the police, Mr. S was never convicted.
The ruling comes a few months after the United Nations Committee for the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW Committee) published its views in S.T. v Russia. The CEDAW Committee monitors State compliance with the CEDAW Convention, and hears individual complaints alleging Convention violations against State Parties. However, the Committee’s communications are non-binding on State Parties. In S.T. v Russia, the Committee found that Russia had failed to uphold the rights of the victim of severe domestic violence in question under the Convention, and had directly perpetuated sex-based discrimination and stereotypes in its handling of her case.
Despite the acknowledgement of injustice for victims of domestic violence in Russia by both the CEDAW Committee and the Court, Russia has not yet complied with these international decisions. As an alternative, the Strasbourg Court could invoke the so-called ‘pilot judgment procedure’ under Article 46 of the European Convention as a pressure tool for reforms. Under this procedure, the Court recognises a systematic problem in a Member State and urges its government to adopt policy and legal reforms so as to prevent violations of the same nature from occurring in the (near) future. Such a procedure could be deemed more effective for future practices - given that four more cases of domestic violence against Russia are pending before the Court - since this would ensure that the government adopts national measures required to satisfy the judgment.
It is yet to be seen whether international attention will contribute towards legal and policy reforms in Russia to set the systematic problem of violence against women as a national priority, as the approval of the suggested bill by the Duma is still pending. Nonetheless, the Committee of Ministers of the Council of Europe, tasked with supervising the execution of ECtHR judgments by Member States, could still put pressure on Russia by adopting decisions and resolutions to demand that the country introduces legislative reforms and, hence, conforms with international human rights standards. With 137 women being killed by their intimate partner every day, the lives of women in Russia depend on the introduction and implementation of effective laws on domestic violence.