Happy New Year! The end of one calendar year and the start of another is a good time to talk about which events of the past year hold the promise of change and give us something to work on in the upcoming year. The past year was an important one in terms of proving human rights violations, identifying existing problems, and recognizing the need for urgent solutions.
The most important topics in Russia were the terrifying cases of torture within the federal penal system, political repressions and prosecutions of human rights NGOs, and systemic domestic violence against women. Many people were naturally traumatized by last year’s news about torture, the arrests of political activists, the shuttering of vital NGOs, and the abuse of women in families. But the public discussions and condemnation of repressions, discrimination, and violence should inspire those who were previously aware of these human rights violations to continue the fight.
A major achievement of 2021 was the ECtHR decision concerning the systemic problem of domestic violence in Russia. As the court noted: “[the] continued failure to adopt legislation to combat domestic violence and the absence of any form of protection orders clearly demonstrate that the Russian authorities were reluctant to acknowledge the seriousness and extent of the problem of domestic violence in Russia and its discriminatory effect on women.” This is not the first time that the ECtHR has ruled that domestic violence represents discrimination against women in Russia. But it is the first time that it has linked the article on violence (Article 3 of the European Convention) and the article on discrimination (Article 14 of the European Convention) with Article 46, which is only applied if a systemic problem exists and the Court requires the government to take general measures, i.e., amendments and laws (with the Council of Europe’s Committee of Ministers monitoring implementation of the general measures). The general measures the ECtHR required Russia to implement included adopting a law on violence in the family, which must provide a legal definition of this phenomenon; criminalizing acts of domestic violence and investigating them regardless of the victim’s position (i.e., violence in the family must be the subject of a public prosecution, not a private one); and adopting standard protocols and other legislative acts for protecting victims. From the viewpoint of the fight against discrimination, the following position of the Court must be acknowledged as groundbreaking: “with a view to addressing the situation of inequality and de facto discrimination against women which the Court has found to be in breach of Article 14 of the Convention, taken in conjunction with Article 3, the domestic authorities should put into place an action plan for changing the public perception of gender-based violence against women.”
This position is significant not only for women who are victims of domestic violence: This is the first time the ECtHR has recommended that Russia adopt systemic measures to protect people from discrimination. Until now, such decisions were not issued in the rare cases when discrimination was legally recognized (these cases related not just to women, but also to LGBT activists and ethnic minorities). Meanwhile, it is clear that overcoming the problem of discrimination lies squarely within the realm of adopting general measures: It will be impossible to attain significant results in the fight against discrimination without adopting a comprehensive anti-discrimination law. This is one of the topics that requires further efforts in the coming year. An important step toward this was taken in the past year.
Another form of violence – torture in places of detention – also requires the adoption of systemic measures. In other words, a separate law banning torture that provides an exact legal definition of this term must be adopted. Last year, Russia made its first serious attempt to develop a corresponding draft law, even though the proposed amendments do not fully meet the recommendations of the UN Committee Against Torture. However, this is an important step in the right direction that requires further work in the coming year.
Finally, one of the most dramatic events of 2021 in the field of human rights was the decision of courts to liquidate International Memorial and Memorial Human Rights Center. These decisions crown years of persecuting human rights NGOs by branding them with the humiliating and inane stamp of “foreign agent,” fining them, and depriving them of their rights (preventing them from joining public monitoring commissions, observing elections, and so on). Since 2013, when punitive measures started being applied to human rights NGOs, many organizations were shuttered, but their complaints to international courts have yet to be evaluated. The explosive cases of both Memorials were the first to receive a reaction from the ECtHR, which amounted to protection under international law: In accordance with Rule 39, the ECtHR demanded that liquidation be suspended until the merits of a complaint concerning the law on NGOs “performing the functions of a foreign agent” can be considered. As Memorial HRC lawyer Tatyana Glushkova stressed, “This decision of the Court regarding Rule 39, which is generally applied in relation to people facing the threat of death or a serious deterioration in health, is unprecedented. This is the first time it is being applied to an NGO”.
We can only hope that the ECtHR’s move to protect International Memorial and Memorial HRC will also be the start of a major undertaking to recognize as victims dozens of other NGOs whose existence has been seriously complicated by the illegal law on foreign agents and the arbitrary application of this law to anyone who stands against the violation of human rights in Russia.
To wrap up this New Year’s discussion, we’d like to say something about truly good news: Last year we were pleased to see amendments to laws in Kazakhstan, where the death penalty was abolished (a moratorium had been in effect since 2003, but the death penalty has now been completely abolished!) and professional bans for women were lifted, with the required amendments made to the Labor Code, which no longer contains articles restricting women’s work. These two amendments – the ban on the worst form of violence and the end of direct discrimination in the form of professional bans for women – give hope not just to Kazakhstan, but to all the countries in our region. Changes are possible, but they must be pushed for. There is much to work on.