ISTANBUL CONVENTION – Pushback against the Council of Europe Convention on Combating and Preventing Violence against Women and Domestic Violence

There has been a conservative pushback in Europe against the Council of Europe Convention on Combating and Preventing Violence against Women and Domestic Violence (the Istanbul Convention) in the past few years as it is being used as an entry point to push back against liberal democracy and human rights more broadly. A letter initiated by two Slovenian and Croatian Members of the European Parliament recently urged European institutions to ratify the Convention, because it seems Poland and Hungary are openly inviting countries to withdraw from it.

As of July 2020, the Istanbul Convention had been signed by all European Union states, but ratified by only 21 of them. The pushback began in 2018 in Bulgaria, where the Minister for Defence, on the advice of someone linked to the US Christian “Alliance Defending Freedom”, convinced other cabinet ministers to oppose the ratification of the Istanbul Convention by creating “public hysteria” around the word ‘gender’ in the Convention. The cabinet asked the Constitutional Court to rule; they decided that the Convention contravened the Bulgarian constitution because the Constitution does not recognise ‘gender’, only ‘sex’. More than 30 prominent NGOs and individuals, working in the fields of human rights, children’s rights, women’s rights and LGBTI rights, condemned their decision, whose details are such nonsense that they have to be read to be believed.

On 5 May 2020, the Hungarian Parliament adopted a declaration which rejected ratification of the Istanbul Convention because it defines gender as a social construct; it also called on the government to oppose the European Union accession to the Convention. If the EU accedes to the Convention, all EU member states must comply with it, even though it was rejected by national parliaments.

Apparently, Lithuania is currently involved in the same decision and is waiting for their Constitutional Court to pronounce on whether the Convention complies with their Constitution or not, following the same advice.

On 16 October 2020, an MEP from Slovenia and an MEP from Croatia, both from the centre-left Progressive Alliance of Socialists and Democrats bloc, said that 118 of the 705 Members of the European Parliament had co-signed a letter calling on the European Commission and the European Council to ratify the Istanbul Convention to mark Member States’ commitment to “gender equality and stopping violence against women”. In 2017, the EU signed the Convention but did not ratify it. And although Poland also signed it in 2015, the Polish government is now calling for an “alternative convention on family rights” and invited the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Slovenia and Croatia to join them in this.

There will be a webinar on 10 December 2020 by the Amsterdam Centre for European Studies in collaboration with the Central European University, on the pushback against the Istanbul Convention. It will discuss why and how violence against women became a site of struggle over gender equality in Europe.

For further reading, see this April 2020 European Parliamentary Forum publication in six languages and this 2015 Friedrich Ebert Stiftung publication.

SOURCES: Balkan Insight, by Anja Vladisavljevic, 16 October 2020 ; Unpublished report from Rada Tsaneva, 5 November 2020 ; INFOGRAPHIC, valid as at 28 December 2018