Rantsev v Cyprus and Russia

Forum: European Court of Human Rights
INTERIGHTS' role: Third party interveners

On 7 January 2010, in an historic first judgment concerning cross border human trafficking in Europe, the European Court of Human Rights has found that Cyprus and Russia committed a number of human rights violations. In a judgment which confirmed that trafficking cannot be considered compatible with the values of the European Convention on Human Rights, or with a democratic society, the Court has taken this opportunity to further clarify states’ obligations to protect against, as well as to investigate, trafficking.

The case concerns the death of a twenty year old Russian woman, Oxana Rantseva, who was trafficked from Russia to Cyprus, a destination country for women trafficked from Eastern and Central Europe for the purpose of sexual exploitation. In Cyprus under the 'artiste' visa scheme, she was subjected to sexual exploitation in a cabaret in the island’s largest coastal resort, Limassol. Ms Rantseva was found dead in March 2001 below the balcony of an apartment belonging to an employee of the cabaret, having been taken there from a police station by the cabaret’s owner. The police found a bedspread tied to the railing of the balcony on the upper floor of the apartment.  An inquest in Cyprus found she had died as a result of injuries sustained when she jumped from the balcony. 

The case was brought by Nikolay Rantsev, Ms Rantseva’s father. He argued that there was no adequate investigation into the circumstances surrounding his daughter’s death, that she was inadequately protected by Cypriot police while she was still alive and that there was a complete failure to punish the individuals responsible for exposing his daughter to the sexual exploitation and ill treatment which ultimately led to her death. He also complained about the lack of access to the judicial process in Cyprus.

The Court found that Cyprus, the State of destination in this case, had not only failed to protect Ms Rantseva from being trafficked or from being unlawfully detained prior to her death, but it had also failed to adequately investigate her death.  Russia, the state of origin, was found by the Court to have failed to adequately investigate the way in which Ms Rantseva had been trafficked from its borders. The Court ordered the Cypriot Government to pay Oxana Rantseva’s father the sum of Euro 40,000 in damages and the Russian Government to pay a sum of Euro 2,000. In its judgment, the Court clarified the obligations of states in relation to trafficking – whether states of origin, transit or destination – as well as noting the importance of cross border coordination in fighting trafficking.

In describing the nature of human trafficking the judgment states that, 'by its very nature and aim of exploitation [human trafficking] is based on the exercise of powers attaching to the right of ownership.  It treats human beings as commodities to be bought and sold and put to forced labour, often for little or no payment, usually in the sex industry but also elsewhere…It implies close surveillance of the activities of victims, whose movements are often circumscribed… It involves the use of violence and threats against victims, who live and work under poor conditions…It is described by INTERIGHTS and in the explanatory report accompanying the Anti Trafficking Convention as the modern form of the old worldwide slave trade.'

Noting that, as a relatively modern phenomenon, human trafficking is not mentioned in the 1950 European Convention, the Court found that it nevertheless fell within the scope of Article 4 of the Convention (prohibiting slavery, servitude, and forced or compulsory labour).  The Court elaborated on the positive obligations of states in the context of Article 4 with respect to trafficking, holding that there is a positive obligation on states to adopt appropriate and effective legal and administrative frameworks, to take protective measures, and to investigate trafficking where it has already occurred. The Court described as 'indisputable' that the latter obligation involved the need for a full and effective investigation covering all aspects of trafficking allegations, from recruitment to exploitation.  The Court noted that these positive obligations applied to the various states potentially involved in human trafficking – states of origin, states of transit and states of destination. Given the cross border nature of trafficking, the Court emphasised, as INTERIGHTS did in its written comments to the Court, the importance of cross border cooperation in investigating incidents of trafficking.

In relation to Cyprus, the Court found that the regime of 'artistes' visas did not afford practical and effective protection against trafficking and exploitation.  It also found that the Cypriot police had failed to make appropriate enquiries of Ms. Rantseva in a situation which gave rise to a 'credible suspicion' she had been trafficked.  Accordingly, the Court found that Cyprus had failed to comply with its positive obligations under Article 4.  Having previously found a violation by Cyprus of its duty to investigate Ms. Rantseva’s death under Article 2 (the right to life), the Court found it did not need to revisit the procedural obligation under Article 4. 

In relation to Russia, the Court found there was a failure to effectively investigate the trafficking of Ms Rantseva under Article 4 of the Convention. It stated that there had been no investigation into how Ms. Rantseva had been recruited, and no steps to identify those involved in her trafficking or their methods.  It stated that Russia was well placed to investigate the individuals and networks responsible for Ms. Rantseva’s trafficking and that it had failed to do so.  Accordingly, it found Russia in violation of its procedural obligations under Article 4.
INTERIGHTS was a third party intervener in the case. It submitted a brief highlighting the duty to protect and the duty to investigate, duties which are clearly emphasised in the Court’s judgment. The intervention emphasised the importance of an effective legal framework to address trafficking, and was framed in terms of the positive obligations on states to protect individuals against trafficking, as well as setting out the nature of that protection.  The Court has clarified the obligations of states in relation to trafficking as well as noting the importance of cross border coordination.  INTERIGHTS' submission placed considerable emphasis on existing international treaties with respect to trafficking, which the Court referred to in interpreting the Convention in order to respond properly to this modern phenomenon.

INTERIGHTS had described trafficking as a modern day form of slavery. INTERIGHTS' Legal Director Andrea Coomber welcomed the judgment stating: 'The European Court has confirmed that human trafficking is an affront to human dignity and fundamental human rights, and as such is prohibited by the European Convention.  It has elaborated the obligations of States with respect to protecting the thousands of victims of human trafficking across Europe, and has demanded enhanced action on the part of States involved in the various stages of this cross border crime'. 

A panel of five judges of the Grand Chamber decided on 10 May 2010 not to accept the Russian Government’s request that the case be referred to the Grand Chamber and confirmed the judgment as final.

For further information please contact Pádraig Hughes, Co-Litigation Director at phughes@interights.org

Click here to read INTERIGHTS' intervention

To read the full text of the judgment click here to visit the online database of the European Court of Human Rights

To read coverage of this case in the Wall Street Journal please click here