By Surya Rajkumar*
Note: This post was originally published in Oxford University’s Human Rights Blog. It has been republished with minor edits here. To read the original, visit http://ohrh.law.ox.ac.uk/domestic-violence-and-the-regressive-russian-amendment/
On the 8th of February 2017, Russian President Vladimir Putin signed into law an amendment that relegated domestic violence to an administrative offence. This post will argue that the new law lacks any persuasive justification and does not comply with Russia’s international human rights obligations. Under the new law, a first conviction for domestic battery (use of physical force) carries a penalty of a $500 fine or 15 days in jail. However, only injuries like concussions or broken bones, or repeated offenses committed in a family setting, would lead to charges. Previously, domestic violence was punished criminally. Now, less grave injuries are treated as an administrative offence. The new law also returns the crime to the realm of “private prosecution”, where the victim is responsible for collecting evidence and bringing a case. The problem with this is that the abusers within the family are generally husbands and they may have authority over their wives. If the wife would like to bring a case against her husband – irrespective of the fact that she is injured – she will have to gather evidence to prosecute her husband, which is difficult at times. It also becomes problematic in the case of children, as they cannot be reasonably expected to collect evidence or to file a complaint against their fathers or mothers. Repeat offences would be criminal infractions, but only within a year of the first. This means that repeat offenders within a year will be arrested and penalized as criminals. However, if a person commits the same crime after a year has passed, that crime would only be construed as an administrative offence.
Justification and Crime Statistics
Defenders of the law say that it is inappropriate for the law to interfere in family life, and argue that domestic abusers within the family should be exempted from criminal liability. There is, however, no reason for this disparity of treatment. Disparity of treatment means that if a crime – for instance, beating somebody up – is committed within the family, it is excused with a fine, whilst if the same crime is committed by a stranger, she/he will be convicted criminally. The following statistics demonstrate why an effective and comprehensive law is needed to prosecute and clamp down on domestic violence within the home. Statistics from the Ministry of Internal Affairs in Russia show that 25% of murders registered in Russia in 2014 were committed within families, and almost 42,000 crimes toward family members were registered for the same year. The statistics show that 40% of violent crimes happen within the family, and 14,000 women die annually from injuries inflicted by their husbands or partners – nearly 40 per day in 2014. While official data on domestic violence in Russia is very limited, estimates based on regional studies suggest that each year 600,000 women face physical and verbal abuse in the home, including violence not penalized in the new law such as beatings and pulling of the hair. Up to 36,000 women and 26,000 children face violence in the family every day. The move to criminalize domestic violence only came after the Supreme Court gave a ruling last July. The rapid shift back towards decriminalizing domestic violence is seen as a move to appease the Russian Orthodox Church. This means that the aforementioned statistics from 2014 are from a period when domestic violence was not specifically criminalized; rather, domestic abusers were prosecuted (if at all) according to the general criminal law. With this most recent move, the situation may remain the same or even become worse as there is no criminal punishment, whereas previously there was criminal liability.
Inconsistency with International Law
Under Article 9 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, and Article 5 of the European Convention on Human Rights, both of which Russia is bound by, everyone has the right to liberty and security of person. In addition, under Article10(3) of the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, which is also binding on Russia, special measures of protection and assistance should be taken on behalf of all children and young persons. The latest amendment seems to be in contravention of these provisions. In addition, the former Russian Federation also signed the Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination against Women in 1980; the new law is also in contravention to this Convention. This is because, in the first case, the security of a person is put in danger, and in the second, instead of protection, there is limited assistance to children. Moreover, children are put at risk by the absence of any form of strict punishment for domestic battery. One may argue that the Russian State is not violating any of these conventions as there are punishments for such violations under the new law, but easing rules against domestic violence partly condones such behavior, which works against the very objective of these conventions. In order to properly protect human rights, the State should criminally condemn any form of domestic violence.
It is clear that the new law is inconsistent with international law and fails to address Russia’s domestic violence problem. Before the situation gets worse, it is the duty of the international community to come forward to oppose the new law and put pressure on Russia to produce effective strategies for responding to and reducing domestic violence.
Article 5, European Court of Human Rights, September 3, 1953, T European Convention on Human Rights, F-67075 Strasbourg
Article 10(3) United Nations General Assembly, December 16, 1966, International Covenant on Economic Social and Cultural Rights, New York
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United Nations General Assembly, December 16, 1966, International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, 2200 A, New York<http://www.ohchr.org/EN/ProfessionalInterest/Pages/CCPR.aspx>
United Nations General Assembly, 1980, Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW), New York
*Surya Rajkumar is a student of law from the O.P. Jindal Global University, Sonipat, Haryana, India. He writes on issues related to human rights, international relations and domestic Indian politics.