#IstanbulConventionSavesLives: Zero-tolerance treaty turns 10

On the tenth anniversary of the groundbreaking Istanbul Convention, MEPs are calling for intensified EU action tackling gender-based violence as cases skyrocket against the backdrop of the COVID-19 lockdowns.
Alamy: "Red Shoes" campaign against Turkey's withdrawal from the Istanbul Convention. Each pair of shoes stands for a woman who died through violence

By Lorna Hutchinson

Lorna Hutchinson is Deputy Editor of The Parliament Magazine

11 May 2021

On May 11, 2011, the Council of Europe (CoE) Convention on Preventing and Combating Violence against Women and Domestic Violence opened for signatures.

More commonly known as the Istanbul Convention, it became the gold standard in the fight to end violence against women and girls.

The CoE says that the Convention is the most far-reaching international treaty to tackle violence against women, breaking new ground by requesting states to criminalise the various forms of violence against women, including physical, sexual and psychological violence, stalking, sexual harassment, female genital mutilation, forced marriage, forced abortion and forced sterilisation. 

CoE Commissioner for Human Rights Dunja Mijatović said that in 10 years, the Convention has already had a positive impact on thousands of women and girls across Europe, adding, “The Istanbul Convention Saves Lives. States have a moral and legal duty to not fail women and girls. They must ratify and further implement the Istanbul Convention; there are no convincing arguments to not do so.”

To date, the Istanbul 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).

However, in July of last year, Poland said it intended to withdraw from the treaty, citing “ideological provisions in the Convention that we do not accept and consider harmful.”

The European Parliamentary Forum for Sexual & Reproductive Rights (EPF) called withdrawal from a human rights convention “an attack on our hard-won rights and a rejection of a state’s duty to ensure the right to life free from violence for all.”

“The Istanbul Convention is under heavy attack by an authoritarian backlash. Today and every day, we have to defend the Istanbul Convention and push for its full implementation” Terry Reintke, Greens/EFA

In March, Turkey also announced its withdrawal from the Convention, a move that was widely condemned by world leaders and campaigners.

It was Turkey’s withdrawal from the Convention that provided one of the talking points for the now infamous trip by European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen and Council President Charles Michel to Turkey in April.

Ankara provided the backdrop to the controversial ‘SofaGate’ incident, which saw von der Leyen relegated to a sofa on the sidelines while Michel and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan took the two main gilded chairs in the centre of the room.

Marking the tenth anniversary of the Istanbul Convention, von der Leyen said, “The EU must send a strong signal that violence against women and girls is unacceptable. That domestic violence is not a private matter. The Istanbul Convention is the cornerstone of the protection of women and girls worldwide. An important basis on which we must build further.”

PES Women President Zita Gurmai echoed this sentiment, saying, “With the Convention, violence against women is no longer a ‘private matter’ - the state has an obligation to act.”

“Talking about the Convention also contributes to raising awareness about the importance of stepping up action to protect women from violence.”

Gurmai said that in the current climate it is more important than ever to promote and protect the Convention, adding, “Even before the COVID-19 pandemic, one in three women in Europe experienced physical or sexual violence. Since lockdown, gender-based violence has increased and women have become more isolated, facing exacerbated threats to their physical and mental safety at home, online and in the streets. Calls to helplines and requests for help in shelters have increased in many countries.”

“Ten years since its inception and at a time when violence against women and girls has increased, we must redouble efforts to ratify and implement the Convention. Mr Erdoğan, please rethink your plans as a concrete gesture to the European Union” Dacian Cioloş, Renew Europe leader

She went on, “At the same time, we are seeing a backlash against women’s rights and gender equality from conservative, right-wing forces in Europe and globally, many of whom oppose the Istanbul Convention and encourage misconceptions and myths about its contents.”

“While most European countries fortunately remain committed to the Convention, too little progress has been made in the last decade. Many EU countries have not yet ratified it and others, like Poland, are threatening to withdraw.”

Věra Jourová, Commission Vice-President for values and Transparency, cited the sobering statistic that 137 women are killed by a member of their family every day.

She added, “The Istanbul Convention calls for all forms of violence against women to be criminalised by states, including sex without consent, forced marriage and female genital mutilation. It puts victims first, it saves lives.”

Fellow Commissioner Margrethe Vestager said, “No violence! Today marks the 10 years of the Istanbul Convention. Important to take stock of the work done to prevent, protect, prosecute and coordinate initiatives. Much has been achieved - but there is still so much to do.”

The EU Disability Forum pointed out that on average, women and girls with disabilities are 2 to 5 times more likely to face violence, adding, “Ten years later we still need it [the Convention] more than ever.”

The EPP, Parliament’s largest political grouping, said that the Istanbul Convention does not threaten “traditional family values”; it simply states that women have the right to receive protection and support if they wish to leave a violent relationship.

“Even before the COVID-19 pandemic, one in three women in Europe experienced physical or sexual violence. Since lockdown, gender-based violence has increased and women have become more isolated, facing exacerbated threats to their physical and mental safety at home, online and in the streets” Zita Gurmai, PES Women President

Lithuanian EPP member Aušra Maldeikienė said that she was ashamed of the fact that her country had still not ratified the Convention “and is stuck with soviet attitudes towards women, despite years of independence. We even have ‘christian democrats’ who defend hitting women as a Catholic tradition.”

Irish EPP deputy Frances Fitzgerald said, “This Convention has led a decade of change, setting out binding obligations to prevent and combat violence against women. Today I am calling on EU member states yet to ratify the Convention to do so urgently.”

S&D leader Iratxe García Pérez said that the Convention has only one purpose - saving lives.

“In these times of pandemic, where domestic violence and feminicides are on the rise, it is more relevant than ever.”

Renew Europe leader Dacian Cioloş also hammered home the message that the Convention saves lives.

“Ten years since its inception and at a time when violence against women and girls has increased, we must redouble efforts to ratify and implement it.”

He added, “Mr Erdoğan, please rethink your plans as a concrete gesture to the European Union. Let’s end violence against women.”

Dutch colleague Samira Rafaela described the Convention as “a landmark treaty” which is the EU’s most effective instrument in combating violence against women.

“The Convention is currently under heavy pressure, which reminds us that we still cannot take women’s rights for granted,” she added.

Ska Keller, co-president of the Greens/EFA group, said that women have the right to be protected from violence and deserve justice for crimes committed against them.

“Ten years ago, the Istanbul Convention was signed but we are observing a huge backlash against women’s rights. We need more EU-level commitment against gender-based violence.”

Fellow German Greens/EFA member Terry Reintke agreed, saying, “The Istanbul Convention is under heavy attack by an authoritarian backlash. Today and every day, we have to defend the Istanbul Convention and push for its full implementation.”

Dutch S&D MEP Thijs Reuten said, “Women’s rights are human rights! It is no coincidence that women’s rights come under pressure where authoritarian and populist leaders rise to power. Let’s fight to save the convention and save lives.”

Belgian Deputy Prime Minister Sophie Wilmès tweeted, "Never before has a treaty been so ambitious on preventing and combating violence against women and domestic violence. Ten years later, Benelux [Belgium, Netherlands and Luxembourg] countries reaffirm their commitment to this cause."

Michael Roth, German Minister of State for Europe, said it was shameful how today, governments abuse the Istanbul Convention for political gains, adding, “Preventing violence against women must not be ideological bargaining ground - it should be a matter of course.”

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