Istanbul Convention and EU’s accession: Why did It Take the EU 12 years to ratify?

The accession of the European Union to the Istanbul Convention promises a stronger fight for women against domestic violence. What were (and still are) the obstacles and reservations by its’ members?

Last Thursday, the 1st of June, the EU has made a significant step forward in protecting all women and girls from violence when the Council of Europe approved the accession of the EU to the Convention on preventing and combating violence against women and domestic violence, more commonly known as the Istanbul Convention.

According to the WHO about 1 in 3 women worldwide have experienced physical and/or sexual violence and as stated by the European Parliament, 55% of women in the EU have experienced sexual harassment at least once since the age of 15, while 1 in 20 women has been raped. These numbers demonstrate the urgent need for more preventive measures, stronger support for victims, better policies and improved prosecution procedures, which the Istanbul Convention strives for. But while the human rights treaty of the Council of Europe already opened for signature in May 2011 and came into force in 2014, it nonetheless took 12 years in total, 6 years after signing it in 2017 and a decision by the Court of Justice, for the EU as a whole to ratify the Convention. Despite several requests from the European Parliament, reservations by EU members, misconceptions and the spread of false narratives prevented several ratifications on national levels. Even the name “Istanbul” Convention seems misleading nowadays since the host state Turkey withdrew from the Convention itself two years ago.

The legally binding Istanbul Convention

The Istanbul Convention with 81 Articles is a legally-binding instrument which not only categorizes violence against women as a human rights violation and discrimination, but also includes a definition of gender. It further criminalizes all forms of gender-based violence offences, such as psychological violence (Article 33), stalking (Article 34) and genital mutilation (Article 38), which are often not thoroughly addressed in national laws. Article 78 of the Convention, however, allows any member to make reservations and thus implements the right to not apply several provisions. Many members, including Germany at first until February this year, have exhausted this possibility, which has undermined the success of the objectives of the Istanbul Convention.

Additionally, several states expressed doubts about the Convention. At the end of 2022, all EU member states have signed the Convention, however, only 21 member states have ratified it until now. Bulgaria, Czechia, Hungary, Latvia, Lithuania and Slovakia have refrained from ratifying the Convention on a national level until now due to concerns about the purpose and implications, with the consequence that they are not legally bound by the Articles until the Convention enters into force after ratification.

Opposition by several states

Especially in Central and Eastern Europe, the Istanbul Convention faced cultural, conservative and religious objections, sovereignty concerns, oppositions to gender ideologies and political resistance in the past years.

In Bulgaria, concern spread that the ratification would result in a formal recognition of a third gender and same-sex marriage. This led to the Constitutional Court’s declaration in 2018 that the framework was unconstitutional as it would conflict with the constitutional, irrevocably understanding of sex biologically “determined by birth” and would expand transgender rights. The Convention’s definition of gender also sparked resistance in Hungary in 2020, resulting in the refusal to proceed with the ratification. Only this April, the government of Latvia condemned the Convention due to different values and the alleged lack of a legal gap, although the Latvian Constitutional Court assured compatibility with the constitution. Poland declared to provide the consular protection of the Convention solely to Polish nationals,  which other signatory countries consider inconsistent with Article 78 in regard to Article 18 (5). In addition, it was announced in 2020 that Poland would withdraw from the Convention and replace it with a treaty which bans abortion and same-sex marriage completely.

In March 2021, Turkey, the first country to sign and ratify the Convention, withdrew from the Istanbul Convention with a presidential decree and a statement that the Convention “originally intended to promote women's rights, was hijacked by a group of people attempting to normalize homosexuality - which is incompatible with Turkey's social and family values.” While it was widely disputed whether a withdrawal without parliamentary approval is even valid, President Erdoğan stands firm in his belief and relies on Article 3 of the presidential decree no. 9, authorizing the president to withdraw from any international agreement. In Slovakia, the opposite occurred, where the Parliament’s resistance against the Istanbul Convention prevailed despite the support of Slovakia's first female president Zuzana Čaputová. These actions sparked a shock wave and demonstrations by feminist activists were initiated around the countries. Due to this reluctance by several EU members to ratify the Convention, the EU Court of Justice had to confirm in 2021, that a qualified majority is sufficient for the ratification of the Convention by the EU as a whole and that a consent of all member states is not necessary. Now this has been put into practice with a result of an overwhelming vote of 472 in favour, 62 against and 73 abstentions regarding institutions and public administration of the Union and 464 in favour, 81 against, and 45 abstentions on judicial cooperation in criminal matters, asylum and non-refoulement.

Clarifying misconceptions and misinformation

The Council of Europe tried to clarify the misinformation on several occasions and defended the sole intention of the Convention to implement measures to tackle all forms of violence against women and domestic violence. To end misconceptions it stated, that the Convention “does not seek to regulate family life“, is “not about ending sexual differences between women and men“ and “does not replace the biological definition of “sex” (…), but rather emphasises how much inequalities, stereotypes and consequently - violence do not originate from biological differences, but rather from a social construct.” The Council in Strasbourg also urges for action against the inferiority of women compared to men which restrains women from disclosing experiences of violence and to deconstruct stereotypes.

A new unified EU front to combat violence against women?

Without doubt, the accession of the EU as a whole to the Istanbul Convention is a strong message against gender-based violence and highlights the importance of protecting women's rights in the EU. However, the accession of the EU cannot circumvent the need for the 6 remaining member states to also ratify the Istanbul Convention themselves. How likely these ratifications of the treaty are, remains unclear. The opposition to the Convention seems consistent. Nonetheless, hope could prevail. The snap election of the Slovak Parliament in September might change the conservative control of MPs. In Ukraine, the narrative changed last year, when the country ratified the Convention by 259 votes against 8. Before, the majority in the Ukrainian Parliament prevented the implementation. But since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in 2022 domestic and sexual violence are present in such immense dimensions, that it pressured to ultimately ratify the Convention. A combination of raising more awareness on violence against women, clarifying the incentive of the Istanbul Convention and the newest success of the whole of the EU being part of the Istanbul Convention could persuade others to follow suit, like Ukraine. As the President of the European Commission, Ursula von der Leyen said: “Europe is on the side of women, to protect them from violence. All women and girls deserve a life free from violence, it is time for justice and equality.“ Maybe now with the accession, the whole of Europe really is on this side.


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