The Istanbul Convention: A Framework in Crisis?
The Council of Europe’s Convention on Preventing and Combating Violence Against Women and Domestic Violence is the first legally binding instrument to provide a comprehensive framework to combat gender-based violence. It was opened for signature in Istanbul in 2011, hence it being known as the Istanbul Convention. Turkey played a leading role in its inception, and it was the first state to sign and ratify it. However, it has now achieved another milestone on March 20 as the first state to officially withdraw from the convention. Given the country’s symbolic status, growing campaigns of disinformation about the convention in parts of Europe, and the general absence of international consequences for its decision, the impact Turkey’s withdrawal could have on the convention as well as on the Europe-wide protection of women should not be underestimated.
The Istanbul Convention
The Istanbul Convention was founded on the understanding that gender-based violence disproportionately impacts women and is more common than one would suppose. By the time it entered into force in 2014, a survey showed that one-in-three women in Europe have experienced physical and sexual violence, one-in-twenty rape, one-in-two sexual harassment, and one-in-five stalking. Despite heightened awareness of this form of violence and initiatives for its prevention, it remains present at many levels of society. It has even recently increased because of ongoing conditions related to the coronavirus pandemic. Policies of isolation and confinement have negatively impacted women in terms of violence and also of the balance between their professional and personal life as well as their economic independence.
The Istanbul Convention advocates a four-pillared approach to combat violence against women at various levels of society and to provide the necessary tools to help victims. It includes measures such as training professionals, awareness-raising campaigns, and treatment programs. It emphasizes tools for the protection of women such as granting police the power to remove perpetrators from their family home, ensuring access to information, shelters, telephone helplines, and referral centers. It also criminalizes various forms of violence to facilitate the prosecution of offenders. Finally, the convention encourages the integration of all policies through the concerted action of government agencies, NGOs, and national, regional, and local authorities.
Up until now twenty-one EU member states have ratified the Istanbul Convention, with Bulgaria, the Czech Republic, Hungary, Latvia, Lithuania, and Slovakia still outstanding. Signatories need to comply with the measures as well as to integrate them into national legislation. Once the convention is ratified, it is considered legally binding. Subsequently, an independent Group of Experts on Action against Violence against Women and Domestic Violence and the Committee of the Parties regularly assess and provide recommendations for its implementation.
Disinformation in Central and Eastern Europe
The Istanbul Convention has been the victim of misrepresentation and a broader attempt to instrumentalize it for domestic religious and political gains. Particularly in Central and Eastern Europe, ultra-conservative and religious groups have distorted its objectives. Conservative governments and constitutional courts in the region have enhanced this trend. In 2018, Bulgaria’s Constitutional Court pronounced the treaty unconstitutional on the grounds that it contravenes a binary understanding of sex that is “determined by birth.” In 2020, Hungary’s parliament passed a “declaration of refusal” on account of opposition to the agreement’s definition of “gender” and the notion that recognizing gender-based violence as a form of persecution in asylum procedures endangers national traditions and values. Similar trends are present in the Czech Republic, Lithuania, Latvia, and Slovakia. Poland, which became a signatory under a previous government, now seeks to replace the convention with a regional treaty that boosts the rights of the “traditional family,” bans same-sex marriages, and restricts abortions.
While the reasons for discrediting the Istanbul Convention are nuanced and unique to each country, three common misconceptions prevail in political rhetoric. First, provisions calling for changes in patterns of behavior and traditional practices that discriminate against women are interpreted as interference in customs and traditions. Second, phrasing “gender” as “socially constructed” is understood to promote destructive gender ideologies and to contravene the binary understanding of “sex” present in the constitutions of some countries. Third, redefining “domestic violence,” “gender,” or “violence against women” to combat gender stereotypes is considered a threat to the traditional image and role of the family in society. Other myths—that the convention calls for a new refugee status, recognizes same-sex marriages, or imposes a specific model of education—are also utilized to demonstrate its supposed ill-intentioned objectives.
The Implications of Turkey’s Withdrawal
Turkey’s withdrawal from the Istanbul Convention and its justification for doing so have the potential to strengthen the disinformation campaign in Central and Eastern Europe, to incentivize or at the very least provide the pretext for other signatories to do the same, and to prevent others from ratifying it.
Considering the country’s symbolic status, Turkey’s withdrawal particularly challenges the convention’s legitimacy. The government’s official position is that the convention’s objective has been hijacked by people attempting to normalize homosexuality, an aspect deemed incompatible with Turkish social and family values. Justifying withdrawal with misconstrued understanding of the convention inadvertently encourages anti-Western and LGBTQ+ sentiments, demonizes women’s rights, and fuels the disinformation campaign.
The kind of impact Turkey’s decision can have is illustrated by Venezuela’s withdrawal from the Inter-American Convention on Human Rights in 2013, which threatened the authority of the instrument and instigated threats of withdrawal from other member states. Similarly, Turkey’s decision could lend weight to the trending campaign of ultra-conservative and religious groups in other countries, and the necessary pretext for other conservative governments to follow suit.
The lack of consequence for Turkey does nothing to discourage other states from doing the same. While its decision was met with international dismay, there were no tangible countermeasures such as asset freezes, restricting funds, or economic sanctions. On the contrary, the EU has begun talks with Turkey about strengthening cooperation with regard to the modernization of the Customs Union agreement at a time where the country has not only withdrawn from the convention but also tries ban a pro-Kurdish party and follows an aggressive foreign policy approach. Effectively condoning Turkey’s withdrawal by talking of strengthening cooperation undermines the EU’s self-proclaimed objective of upholding democratic norms and values.
Turkey’s withdrawal could strengthen the resolve of those EU governments that have expressed skepticism of the convention’s objective and prevent countries such as the Czech Republic, Lithuania, Latvia, or Slovakia from ratifying it. There being minimal ramifications for a non-member does not necessarily imply that the same would be true for EU members. However, the EU has neither been consistent nor effective in countering members states’ disregard for judicial independence, the EU legal order, or human rights—as clearly illustrated in the cases of Hungary and Poland.
Considering the spike in domestic, sexual, and gender-based violence during the coronavirus pandemic, the relevance of the Istanbul Convention cannot be overstated. It provides a necessary framework for governments to remain engaged on the issue and sends an important political signal that violence against women is not a private matter. Turkey’s withdrawal from the convention not only compromises the safety of women in the country but also facilitates campaigns of disinformation and accepts backsliding on regulations around domestic violence and women’s rights elsewhere.