Last month Greece became the 32nd state and 19th EU member state to ratify the Istanbul Convention, formally known as the Council of Europe Convention on Preventing and Combating Violence against Women and Domestic Violence (CETS 210). The country took this step just days after Croatia did the same, and a few months since passing changes within its own penal code.
Council of Europe Secretary General, Thorbjørn Jagland, was in attendance when Ambassador Stelio Perrakis, Permanent Representative of Greece to the Council of Europe, ratified the convention. Of the momentous occasion, Jagland said “Greece is now fully part of our common efforts to combat domestic violence. This is good for Greece and good for Europe“. The convention will officially enter into force in Greece in October of 2018. Some Greek laws that were not in line with the Convention have already been amended to strengthen protections for women.
The First Treaty of Its Kind
The Istanbul Convention is notably wide in scope. It is the first legally binding instrument used to enforce violence prevention, victim protection, and prosecution for perpetrators of violence against women (and other domestic violence) throughout the bloc.
For one, CETS 210 defines and criminalizes various forms of violence against women, like forced marriage, female genital mutilation, stalking, psychological violence, and sexual violence. It also establishes an international system to monitor implementation on the national level. All signatories must provide helplines, shelters, medical care, and legal aid for women who have suffered from violence. They must also teach healthy relationships in public education and conduct regular awareness campaigns. Through requiring the establishment of longer-term budget allocations, partnerships, and data collection, treaty creators hope it will have a lasting effect.
Given that violence against women is a form of gender-based aggression and breaches basic human rights, the Union has made the issue a top priority. Though the overwhelming majority of domestic violence victims are women, signatories are encouraged to apply the framework to men and children who fall victim to domestic violence as well.
The Convention was adopted by the Council of Europe in 2011, entered into force in August 2014, and signed by the EU in June 2017 in Istanbul, hence its name.
Financial leaders like Germany as well as all other southern EU states (Portugal, Malta, Italy, France, Spain, and Cyprus) have already ratified the framework. The Convention is also open to non-European countries, many of which have also signed and ratified the treaty.
Initially, the treaty did not appear controversial. A series of Council of Europe initiatives preceded the document, and the UN labelled the treaty a “gold standard”, following a Europe-wide campaign from 2006 to 2008.
However, some nations have become resistant to ratify due to misconceptions that have spread about what the Convention attempts to do. These misconceptions are often politically motivated, as is seen in the United Kingdom. They point to nations where the convention has been ratified and highlight a lack of tangible results. Elsewhere, there are arguments about whether nations should design this kind of framework on their own and debates about whether the terms are in line with religious or moral standards. The most oft-cited controversy is around use of gender ideology and how the word opens a conversation about issues that are still taboo or even shamed in certain, more conservative member states. In Bulgaria, for example, the country’s Constitutional Court will hold a sitting at the end of this month to decide whether the Istanbul Convention is compliant with the country’s constitution before making a decision on its ratification.
As of publication, eight EU member states still have yet to ratify the Convention: Bulgaria, Czech Republic, Hungary, Ireland, Latvia, Lithuania, Slovakia and the United Kingdom. They have signed the treaty and therefore cannot implement policies that actively work against its terms. Yet without ratifying the treaty, they are not required to implement its terms in full and are not held accountable for breaches under international human rights law.
While the treaty will not eradicate violence against women, it serves as a gigantic leap in the right direction. According to the European Commission, one in three women in the EU has been a victim of physical and/or sexual violence since the age of 15, half have experienced sexual harassment, and one in 20 has been raped. Something needs to be done to protect victims and prevent the normalisation of such behaviours, and it is the aim of this treaty to take necessary action towards this end.
The Commission has expressed hope that the treaty will extend well beyond the EU, changing the status quo from Australia to Zimbabwe. It’s increasingly important for the Union to set an example about women’s rights and many insist the Council take action so that all member states ratify the treaty as quickly as possible.