The Istanbul Convention: A Continuing Source of Political Division In Several European Countries

Around Europe, there are ongoing discussions about the Istanbul Convention. In the Czech Republic, the convention is supported by former Minister of Human Rights and Legislation Jiří Dienstbier, the Czech Women’s Lobby, and victims of domestic violence, but right-wing political parties claim that the convention threatens the concept of the traditional family. Photo credit: 

The Istanbul Convention was opened for signature in 2011 in the Turkish city of Istanbul, with the aim of reducing violence against women across Europe. The convention, developed under the the Council of Europe, protects women and girls from gender-based violence, and is the first binding international regulation that defines violence against women as a human rights violation and a form of discrimination. It is also the first time that definitions of “gender” and “gender-based violence against women” have been included in an international convention. It has been signed by 45 countries and the European Union, which signed the Convention on June 13th, 2017.

Istanbul Convention Ratification. Green: ratified and signed. Yellow: ratified but not signed. Red: Not signed. Purple: Previously ratified, then ratification withdrawn.  Credit: Nederlandse Leeuw, via Wikimedia. CC BY-SA 4.0

Countries that have signed but still not ratified the Istanbul Convention are Armenia, Bulgaria, Hungary, Latvia, Liechtenstein, Lithuania, Moldova, Slovakia, Ukraine and the United Kingdom. Moreover, discussions are still ongoing in several countries about withdrawing from the convention.

The Polish parliament voted in March 2021 to send a bill called “Yes to Family, No to Gender” to parliamentary committees. The right-wing Polish government is still continuing to take steps closer to quitting the Istanbul Convention, arguing that it does not respect religion and promotes controversial ideologies about gender. In March 2021, thousands of women opposed to withdrawal from the convention took to the streets across the country in protest.

The Hungarian government also signed the convention in 2014, but it was not submitted for parliamentary approval. The opposition is concerned about women’s rights, complaining that violence against women is increasing and the government is not acting to prevent it. The government maintains that they can address the problem of violence against women with their own laws, instead of international conventions.

In Turkey, the government withdrew from the Istanbul Convention in July. Before the withdrawal, women complained that the convention was not being implemented, pointing to the increasing number of femicides. The government’s decision to quit the convention was based on protecting the traditional family from what they called the threat of LGBTQ+. Women have been on the streets for months despite police intervention, saying they do not accept the government’s decision. 

The Czech Republic was one of the last countries to sign the Istanbul Convention, in May 2016, but though ratification was scheduled for 2018, this has not happened.

In Prague, the Istanbul Convention was the subject of criticism from the senior Catholic priest Petr Piťha during his St Wenceslas Day sermon last September at St. Vitus Cathedral. He declared that if the convention was enacted, families would be torn apart and destroyed. Czech right wing political parties also claim that the convention threatens the concept of the traditional family. 

On the contrary, the Istanbul Convention was supported by former Minister of Human Rights and Legislation Jiří Dienstbier, the Czech Women’s Lobby and victims of domestic violence.

A major campaign, #ZaIstanbul (“For Istanbul”) brought together seven organizations defending women’s rights (Amnesty International, the Czech Women’s Lobby, the Czech Women’s Union, Profem, Rosa, EAPN and the Consortium of Migrants Assisting Organizations), which collectively called upon the Czech government to adopt the Convention immediately, and most importantly the specific measures that aim to protect victims of violence. 

Although the current Czech Prime Minister Andrej Babiš has expressed his intention to ratify the convention, there are still many voices opposing ratification. The position of the Istanbul Convention at the centre of Europe’s culture wars seems set to continue for now.

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