Istanbul Convention: battle for values

Strasbourg 14.02.2023 The European Union should ratify the Convention on preventing and combating violence against women, regarding the Court of Justice opinion of 2021. (Image: illustration).

The Istanbul Convention remains the international standard to eradicate gender-based violence, MEPs underline in the draft resolution they will debate on Tuesday, February 15, and put to the vote on Wednesday. Condemning the backlash against gender equality in some member states, for example in Poland, where the government is searching the ways to withdraw from the Convention, while introducing de facto ban on abortion – MEPs are expected to call on national authorities to fight against disinformation about the Convention.

Six years after the EU signed the Convention, it has still not ratified it, due to the refusal of a few member states in the Council. In an opinion issued on 6 October 2021, the EU Court of Justice confirmed that the Council can proceed with ratifying the Convention without first having the agreement of all member states. MEPs are also set to urge the remaining six EU countries that have not yet ratified the Convention – Bulgaria, Czechia, Hungary, Latvia, Lithuania and Slovakia – to do so without delay, in parallel to the EU process.
The European Parliament first asked the European Commission to launch the procedure for EU accession to the Istanbul Convention in its Resolution on Combating Violence against Women of 25 February 2014. Since then, Parliament has consistently supported the idea, highlighting that, in conjunction with an EU directive on violence against women, it would send a robust message about the EU’s commitment to eradicating violence against women and establish a coherent European legal framework for doing so. Pending conclusion of work in the Council and in advance of a formal request for Parliament’s consent, Parliament has been considering the matter:

As of December 2022, the Convention has been signed by all EU Member States, and ratified by 21 (Austria, Belgium, Croatia, Cyprus, Denmark, Estonia, Finland, France, Germany, Greece, Ireland, Italy, Luxembourg, Malta, Netherlands, Poland, Portugal, Romania, Slovenia, Spain and Sweden). Bulgaria, Czechia, Hungary, Latvia, Lithuania and Slovakia have not ratified the Convention. In July 2020, the Polish government announced its intention to withdraw from the Convention, but this has not yet been enacted.

The European Agency for Fundamental Rights (FRA) conducted an EU-wide survey on violence against women in 2014, which indicated that about one third (1/3) of women had experienced some form of physical or sexual violence since the age of 15. 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 increase of gender-equal society. Despite the legislative and practical measures introduced by the EU as an institution, one obstacle that quickly becomes apparent are the spectrum of responses by the Member States in addressing this issue.

The existing disparities of data collection and quality they are also a major cause for concern. Obviously gender-based violence is the result of the history and tradition of long-standing inequalities that exist between women and men. They can occur in various forms (physical, sexual, psychological and economic) and can include domestic violence, sexual harassment, femicide and other various forms, some of them are tolerated in societies, seen as a part of a cultural “tradition”. 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 became an essential stepping stone in overcoming the challenges that persist when it comes in an effective protection of women and prosecution of perpetrators.

The Convention points at states, stressing the obligation they possess to protect their citizens. 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 permanent awareness campaigns and relevant education, along with the services and improve data collection. Additionally, provisions on substantive law which 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 exposing violence which affects both women and girls in their daily lives, it also sends an essential political signal of zero tolerance to violence. Taking into consideration the latter, the rejection of the Convention by a number of European governments, namely of “new” members, it is a serious downfall. The clear indication of neglect of the protection, which deepens gap between Western and Eastern Europeans in an ongoing argument about European values. 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 between conservatives and liberals.

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