Court Watch: Victory in Volodina v Russia as State Found in Violation of European Convention on Human Rights

On 9 July 2019, the European Court of Human Rights found Russia in violation of the right to be free from torture and inhuman treatment (Article 3) and the right to be free from discrimination (Article 14) of the European Convention on Human Rights for failing to address gender-based violence within the state. The Trust, which intervened in the case, welcomes the Court’s decision, which powerfully asserts the importance of Article 14 of the Convention in such cases, and recognises discrimination as a fundamental cause and consequence both of the violence itself and the state’s failure to protect from it.  

The applicant, Valeriya Igorevna Volodina, began a relationship with her partner in November 2014. Having separated the following year, Ms Volodina’s partner became abusive, making threats of violence against her and her son. Over the course of the next three years, the applicant experienced multiple instances of violence and intimidation at the hands of her former partner, including verbal threats, physical assaults, strangulation and a threat to her life. Despite multiple police reports lodged, the applicant's partner was never prosecuted. In June 2017, Ms Volodina made an application to the European Court of Human Rights, claiming that the “the Russian authorities had failed in their duty to prevent, investigate and prosecute acts of domestic violence” and had “failed to put in place a legal framework to combat gender-based discrimination against women.” The Court agreed with the applicant.

The Court first considered whether Ms Volodina had been subjected to treatment contrary to Article 3. Given the evidence of physical violence, this part of the claim was easily made out. However, the court also noted the evidence of psychological abuse meted out by the applicant’s partner, which, in the present case, was “sufficiently serious” to also constitute inhuman treatment. In the absence of an effective legal framework capable of punishing perpetrators of domestic violence and protecting survivors; the adoption of measures designed to prevent the “known risk of ill-treatment”; or any effective investigation into allegations of ill‑treatment received, the Court concluded that Russia had failed to discharge its positive obligations under Article 3.

Significantly, through a number of separate opinions, three judges of the Court expressed their view that the treatment in question reached the severity required to amount to “torture” (as opposed to “inhuman treatment”) under the Convention. The comments indicate that some on the Court are prepared to take a harder line on the severity of domestic violence and how it is to be appropriately categorised under Article 3.

The relevance of discrimination

Despite a lack of state data, which was due to the lack of any definition of domestic violence in national legislation, the Court drew on other sources (including from international organisations, national NGOs and UN Special Procedures) and found sufficient evidence suggesting that women were disproportionately affected by such violence within Russia. In finding that the state had violated the right to be free from discrimination, the  Court’s conclusions on Russia’s approach to tackling domestic violence were damning:  

“[T]he [State’s] continued failure to adopt legislation to combat domestic violence and the absence of any form of restraining or protection orders clearly demonstrate that the authorities’ actions in the present case were not a simple failure or delay in dealing with violence against the applicant, but flowed from their reluctance to acknowledge the seriousness and extent of the problem of domestic violence in Russia and its discriminatory effect on women. By tolerating for many years a climate which was conducive to domestic violence, the Russian authorities failed to create conditions for substantive gender equality that would enable women to live free from fear of ill-treatment or attacks on their physical integrity and to benefit from the equal protection of the law.”

The Trust welcomes the strength of this judgment and the extent to which the Court powerfully identifies an institutional state failure to ensure gender equality as being central to the individual facts of the case. We urge Russia to take the positive steps required both in respect of the legal framework and its implementation to robustly tackle the scourge of domestic violence.

To read the judgment of the Court please click here.

To read the Equal Rights Trust’s Third Party Intervention click here.

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