Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe

Testimony :: Robin Phillips
Director - Minnesota Advocates for Human Rights


My name is Robin Phillips. I am the Deputy Director of Minnesota Advocates for Human Rights and the Director of the Women’s Human Rights Program. I am here to speak about domestic violence in Central and Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union. I have participated in research in Albania, Armenia, Bulgaria, Macedonia, Moldova, Poland, Romania, Ukraine and Uzbekistan. Minnesota Advocates for Human Rights documents domestic violence as a human rights abuse. This documentation includes extensive review of the governmental and legal system responses to the problem. We analyze the effectiveness of the responses and compare them to the commitments a country has made in the international treaties it has ratified.

Domestic violence is a serious problem in each of the countries in which we have worked. It is important to point out that the problem is universal and that no country should be singled out for greater violations than any other country. That being said, no country’s human rights violations should be ignored just because other countries also commit the same violations. Women are being seriously injured and killed by their husbands and intimate partners in countries around the world, including countries in the OSCE region. Women’s human rights are being systematically violated and the governments of these countries are not responding appropriately to the problem. These governments are not complying with their obligations under international human rights law to protect the human rights of everyone in their countries.

The United Nations has clearly outlined the responsibility of governments to protect against human rights violations and to provide adequate remedies when fundamental human rights are violated. Governments are also required to meet the health and social needs of victims in compliance with their treaty obligations, however, I will focus today on the civil and political rights violations associated with domestic violence and the lack of appropriate legal system response.

Although each country in the OSCE region is unique, there are many similarities in their approaches to the problem of domestic violence. Often, the first and only opportunity for the state to intervene in a domestic violence dispute is when a woman calls the police to seek assistance. The police response in each of these countries is lacking and covers a range of issues. The police do not take the problem seriously. They do not respond to calls for assistance or when they do respond, they do not remove the perpetrators from the home. For example, in Macedonia, a woman I interviewed had made several complaints to the police about beatings by her husband. She went to the police station with a broken jaw and blood all over her face to seek help after a severe attack. The police ignored her pleas and only arrested the abuser when he attacked the woman’s male cousin who was trying to help her.
Also, in Macedonia, several women in prison were also victims of domestic violence. They were either forced to commit crimes such as prostitution or theft by abusive partners, or they killed their abusers to protect themselves. Several women reported that police had raped and/ or beaten them while they were in custody. These women told me that they were much more comfortable in prison. They did not have to worry about being beaten by their husbands and partners and they did not worry about being harassed by the police. When asked to respond to these allegations, the Chief of Police in Skopje and the Deputy Minister of Internal Affairs simply denied that they ever happened.

In many countries where we documented domestic violence, people who provide services to women victims identified police and military officers as perpetrators of the problem. Many pointed out that when perpetrators have a connection to the police, the police are even less likely to respond to a call for intervention.

In many countries, the police face a serious lack of resources. For example, in both Moldova and Ukraine, many police officers have not been paid for several months and they do not have money to put gasoline in their police vehicles. Several police officers described riding the bus to answer a police call. When asked what he did when a serious crime was in progress, one police officer in Ukraine said, “I run.”

With limited exceptions, police training does not include instruction on proper intervention in cases of domestic violence. Police are not trained about the unique issues domestic violence victims face or the human rights implications of failing to respond to a call.

Women also run into obstacles when they attempt to pursue prosecution of domestic assaults. The greatest obstacle for many is the forensic medical system. Generally, the only evidence of injury a court will accept in an assault case is an official certificate from a forensic medical doctor. The purpose of these certificates is to document the extent of an injury a woman has sustained. In some countries, the offices of the forensic doctors are in inconvenient or inaccessible places, the office hours are extremely limited or the doctors charge fees that can be as high as an average month’s salary for a woman.

In other countries, forensic medical doctors will consider the circumstances of an assault and modify the description of the injuries based on their opinion about whether the woman provoked the assault. For example, in Romania, we reviewed court files of domestic assault cases. In one case, a forensic doctor graded an injury as minor and described it as taking 14 days to heal. The injuries the woman sustained included a broken leg. When asked about the file, the judge said that the forensic doctor determined the woman provoked the assault and therefore, downgraded the level of injury. The consequence of grading the injury at a lower level in this case was that the woman was left to prosecute her case on her own without the assistance of the state.

The legal systems in each of these countries allow a crime victim to pursue a private criminal prosecution if the state does not prosecute. In the case of domestic violence, a woman may face added burdens because of her fear of the abuser and the expense of prosecuting someone upon whom she may be economically dependent.

In Poland, several forensic doctors expressed extreme skepticism of women victims of violence. They said that they viewed their first responsibility as determining whether the injuries could have been caused in the manner the victim described. They expressed the opinion that a woman would lie to achieve an advantage in a court case. Although none of the doctors interviewed in Poland identified cases in which women lied, they universally expressed mistrust of women.

The laws also present serious obstacles. For example, in Bulgaria, the Criminal Code divides assault into three levels: grave, medium and light. Pursuant to the Criminal Procedure Code, the state does not prosecute light injuries and only prosecutes medium injuries if the victim and the perpetrator are not related. The result is that if a woman is stabbed by a stranger on the street and does not die or become permanently disabled as a result of the attack, the state will prosecute the crime. If the woman walks into her home and is stabbed by her husband, sustaining the same injuries, the state will not prosecute. Although the injuries make this assault a crime, the woman victim is left to prosecute on her own.

In addition to the failure of the state to assist in prosecution, the courts often fail to assess proper penalties. Dozens of judges, in countries around the region, expressed reluctance to “harm” family relations by sentencing a batterer to serve jail time. One judge in Bulgaria said that there is little public interest served by sentencing men who beat their wives to serve time in jail because, “these men do not pose a danger to society in general.” Often, men receive only a suspended sentence or a fine. In the case of a fine, women are legally responsible for ensuring that the fine is paid because of their relationships to the perpetrators. In Armenia, women expressed reluctance to pursue prosecution of domestic assault cases because they do not want to jeopardize their limited family resources.

In many countries, the legal system response is focused on reconciliation. In Albania, women experience a complete lack of support at all levels of the legal system. Prosecutors, judges, police, all view their role as convincing a woman to “pardon” her partner for beating her. The result is that in a five-month period, 150 to 300 women reported cases of domestic assault to the prosecutors’ office in Tirana and only ten cases were actually filed in court. The women in all ten of these cases dropped the charges on the first day at the encouragement of the judges.

Many government officials expressed opinions about domestic violence based on myths that are common in the United States and in countries all over the world. The most common is that alcoholism causes domestic violence. Although alcohol may exacerbate a particular beating, data shows that many perpetrators continue the abuse after they have stopped drinking. In Poland, the entire government intervention is based on the myth that alcohol causes domestic violence. The intervention programs focus on alcohol treatment for the man and not on holding the man accountable for committing a crime and violating his wife’s human rights. In fact, the domestic violence intervention program is operated out of Poland’s Agency for Solving Alcohol Related Problems.

Although the situation is grave, there are reasons to be hopeful. I was privileged to attend a police training workshop in Moldova. A high level official with the Ministry of Internal Affairs stood before a room of police officers and told them that domestic violence violated the fundamental human rights of women. He told them this meant that when a woman calls the police and they do not respond to her call, they are violating international human rights law. This statement is powerful and such directives from top officials are critical to improving the state response to domestic violence.

The United Nations has taken the lead in recognizing domestic violence as a human rights abuse. Many countries in the OSCE region are very concerned with improving their respect for human rights. As a result, many states are at the beginning stages of recognizing the problem of domestic violence. Although this recognition has not necessarily translated into improved state response, it is a necessary first step.

Minnesota Advocates for Human Rights’ reports on domestic violence are posted on our website: