The Istanbul Convention and the Rejection of European Values
8 March, 2021
Looking back over the past year, it has become abundantly clear that the Covid-19 pandemic has exposed and amplified inequalities that have been present for quite some time. In order to protect those vulnerable to the virus, governments launched campaigns urging people to stay at home in order to decrease the risk of infecting others. Yet what does this mean for the countless women whose own homes are the most dangerous place for them to be? Whose lives are put in jeopardy not only due to a deadly virus, but also through increased and prolonged proximity to their abusers?
Amongst the many inequalities that have been brought to the forefront due to the coronavirus, it has also allowed for the growth of a shadow pandemic – one of violence against women. Gender-based violence is a deeply pervasive issue, a clear abuse of human rights, and it continues to persist across the globe and within the European Union. Despite the various measures that have been introduced by Member States to protect women from harm, many of the support systems in place have unfortunately proven to be precarious or ineffective. Though exasperated by the pandemic, gender-based violence was already affecting the lives of countless women in Europe.
One major step forward in addressing violence against women and the differences between Member States is the Council of Europe Convention on Preventing and Combatting Violence against Women and Domestic Violence, also known as the Istanbul Convention. Adopted in 2011, it sets legally binding standards that combat gender-based violence, ensuring protection to victims and bringing perpetrators to justice. This Convention is a key instrument in recognizing violence against women as a human rights violation whose origins lie in unequal gender relations. It is the first international treaty that specifically targets gender-based violence and coordinates between national and governmental bodies in order to implement policies.
However, there has been pushback against the Convention, with countries like Bulgaria and Slovakia refusing to ratify it, and Poland threatening to withdraw completely. The main complaints relate to concern about the specific ‘gender ideology’ that is promoted by the Istanbul Convention, which they have argued is in direct opposition to their constitutions. The increased involvement of religious actors in the political sphere has also increased the pushback to the Convention.
The recent politicization of this Convention by the right-wing populist governments of these countries certainly has to do with a rejection of modern and progressive values on gender and women’s rights, but also points to larger trend of rejecting core EU values. This can be connected to the rising tensions between Brussels and the increasingly conservative and Eurosceptic national governments. In order to counteract this, concrete steps need to be taken to curb the rise of anti-EU sentiments.
The Origins of the Istanbul Convention
In 2014, the European Agency for Fundamental Rights (FRA) conducted an EU-wide survey on violence against women, which showed that about one third of women had experienced some form of physical or sexual violence since the age of fifteen. The European Institute for Gender Equality’s (EIGE) Gender Equality Index has indicated a slow trend towards a more gender-equal society in the EU, with a higher score signifying a more gender-equal society. Despite the legislative and practical measures introduced by the EU as a body, one obstacle that quickly becomes apparent are the large variations in responses by the various Member States in addressing this issue.
The disparities that exist in data collection and quality are also a major cause for concern. Gender-based violence is the result of the long-standing inequalities that exist between women and men. They can take various forms (physical, sexual, psychological and economic) and can include domestic violence, sexual harassment, femicide and more. Though gender equality has been enshrined in the EU’s Treaties since 1957 and is considered to be a fundamental part of Community law, the Istanbul Convention is an essential stepping stone in overcoming the challenges that persist when it comes both protecting women and ensuring effective prosecution of perpetrators.
The Convention puts the onus on states, stressing the obligation they possess to protect their inhabitants. It is structured around four main pillars; prevention, protection, prosecution and coordinated policies. Upon ratification, Member States are required to provide adequate funding and resources to awareness campaigns and education, as well as provide support services and improve data collection. Additionally, provisions on substantive law that are included in the Convention must be incorporated into the domestic laws of the States.
The added value of this Convention cannot be overstated; beyond shedding a light on the very real violence that affects both women and girls every day, it also sends an essential political signal that this violence will not be tolerated. In light of this, the rejection of the Convention by various European governments is all the more significant. Not only does it indicate that the protection of women is not a key priority for these states, it fans the flames of the culture war between Western and Eastern European over what ‘liberal’ values actually are. Though the Istanbul Convention is meant to strengthen protections for victims of violence, it is now being used as a tool in a battle of political agendas.
Misinformation surrounding the Convention
The rise of right-wing governments in the EU has become a cause for concern in recent years. Not only do certain states have a Eurosceptic outlook, they are also increasingly supportive of outdated and fundamentalist approaches to women’s and LGBTQ+ rights. In Poland, where the conservative Law and Justice Party maintain power, a near complete ban on abortion has now come into effect, doubtlessly putting women’s lives in danger and resulting in backlash from Polish women and European lawmakers alike. This is simply one case of the backlash against right-wing populist forces who promote traditional views on the family and seek to further curtail women’s rights.
The debates surrounding the Istanbul Convention are another example of this polarization. Widespread misinformation campaigns have been systematically pushing a narrative that stirs up negative perceptions of the Convention and prevents any kind of public support. There are currently six Member States that have not ratified the Convention: Bulgaria, the Czech Republic, Hungary, Latvia, Lithuania and Slovakia. Poland and Turkey intend to withdraw, and Hungary has formally rejected the Convention. Conservative voices in Poland are even pushing for a “family rights convention” that intends to unite like-minded neighbouring countries to challenge the Istanbul Convention.
As mentioned, the disinformation concocted by the governments of Poland and others relates to the idea that the Convention supports a destructive gender ideology. Opponents are usually supporters of “traditional family values” , and believe women and men should adhere to their “natural” i.e., stereotypical gender roles. The Istanbul Convention is seen as a threat to these values, painted as a tool of the liberal agenda and a threat to the moral foundations of nation. In reality, the Convention simply states that gender is the result of socially constructed roles attributed to men and women, and that violence against women is a result of these socially conditioned behaviours. Fear of ratification also stems from the idea that same-sex marriage or LGBTQ+ rights would be recognized as a result. Oftentimes, the strength of religious actors in these states have also played a major role in the anti-ratification process. The long arm of the Catholic Church never fails to make its presence known when a traditionally Catholic country appears to be veering towards any kind of progressive reform. Their close cooperation with governments in Poland, Bulgaria, Lithuania and others thus poses significant challenges.
Public attitudes towards intimate partner violence and violence against women may also be a contributing factor in the resistance that has formed against the Convention. The 2016 Special Eurobarometer 449 on gender-based violence shows that while most Member States agree that acts of gender-based violence are unacceptable, almost a quarter of respondents (24%) knew of a friend or family member who had been a victim of domestic violence. The survey also shows the continued presence of victim-blaming views, with 22% agreeing with the statement that women often fabricate or exaggerate claims of abuse or sexual assault. There does appear to be variation between Member States in this regard, with victim-blaming attitudes being more prominent in Eastern Europe.
This pushback is one reason why the ratification by the European Union itself is so key; Member States will be subject to the obligations of the Convention even if they themselves have not ratified it. Though the Convention was officially signed by Věra Jourová, the EU Commissioner for Justice, Consumers and Gender Equality in 2017, the EU has not yet acceded to it. This requires the European Parliament’s consent, which is still deliberating and waiting on an opinion by the European Court of Justice about the compatibility of the accession proposals with the EU Treaties. Hopefully, this opinion will be presented in 2021. Until then, the EU must take other steps to ensure alignment with the Convention and stop the spread of disinformation surrounding it.
Uniting Europe in the fight against gender-based violence
Though Eastern Europe may be experiencing a stronger surge in conservative and populist ideologies, this phenomenon is not just limited to that region. During a plenary debate regarding accession to the Convention in 2019, multiple speakers spoke out against it, once again claiming that it promoted objectionable gender ideologies. Even within the European network, conservative actors have been able to establish contacts and join forces. These Eurosceptic and often misogynistic actors have been able to come together to form transnational civil society networks and NGOs with the express goal of targeting the Istanbul Convention.
Despite the speculation and distortion of facts, it should not be forgotten that the Convention has already been implemented in certain European countries and has led to a positive impact on the prevention of violence against women. The Convention established a monitoring process that is meant to assess its effective implementation and in turn, garner insights into best practices and positive changes. The monitoring process is conducted by an independent group known as the Group of Experts on Action against Violence women and Domestic Violence (GREVIO) and a political body, the Committee of the Parties. In relation to the four pillars of the Convention (integrated policies, prevention, prosecution and protection), several good practices have emerged. For example, several Member States are creating National Action Plans and policies that address more forms of violence against women, such as updating the definition of stalking and sexual harassment. Better services for victims and increased training for professionals have also been developed, as well as the recognition of the experiences of female refugees leading to changes in asylum laws.
The discriminatory debate on women’s rights within the framework of the Istanbul Convention cannot be allowed to influence the political agenda of the EU. Though the dilemma of European influence versus the self-determination of Member States is becoming an increasingly difficult balancing act, the infringement of fundamental rights should not be a reason to falter in the pursuit of a more just world. Gender equality is an essential component of the EU’s values, underpinning all European policies in all Member States.
Considering the dire situation women and girls have been placed in due to the pandemic, urgent action is needed in order to ensure they are free from harm. The conclusion of the accession process of the Istanbul Convention is therefore of vital importance. Until this process has been finalized, the EU could introduce a specific Directive on violence against women and domestic violence, which would enhance and reinforce the framework already in place.
One of the biggest challenges to combatting gender-based violence are the existing gaps in data and the gender-neutral approach that is taken in data gathering and dissemination. Therefore, the introduction of common standards for collecting sex-disaggregated data would be beneficial; this would allow for more integrated policies between Member States and enable the sharing of best practice policy.
In order to target the controversy surrounding the Istanbul Convention, the European Commission and European Parliament can publish more information about it in order to raise awareness about its potential benefits and stop the spread of inaccurate myths that surround it. In countries where victim-blaming attitudes or stereotypical attitudes about gender persist, the development of education materials and programmes needs to be a priority. The Commission could encourage the exchange of effective methods and allocate funding specifically to these awareness raising programmes.
Although the ratification Istanbul Convention is an important step forward in the struggle for gender equality, it is by no means a quick fix. The current threats to women’s fundamental human rights, the right to be free from violence and oppression, will not suddenly vanish. Nevertheless, it’s pending adoption by the EU sends the message that this violence is not tolerated. The value of equality between the sexes holds true for all members of the EU. A piece of legislation meant to protect those most vulnerable to harm should not be politicized and used as a weapon in a battle of values. It should be celebrated as a valuable tool in the work towards a more equal future.