Istanbul Convention: How a European Treaty Against Women's Violence Became Politicized
Protests have erupted in Turkey after President Erdogan announced the country's withdrawal from the Istanbul Convention.
Turkey's exit from the Istanbul Convention marks the first time that a country has decided to withdraw from a Council of Europe treaty it has ratified. But Turkey isn't alone in distancing itself from the convention, which is designed to address violence against women and girls — signaling growing defiance to the treaty by right-wing governments.
What is the Istanbul Convention?
Formally the Convention on Preventing and Combating Violence against Women and Domestic Violence, it is better known as the Istanbul Convention, after the city where the treaty was signed in 2011.
The convention was drafted by the Council of Europe, an international organization founded after World War II to uphold human rights, and sets legally binding standards not only on punishing perpetrators — but also on violence prevention as well as victim protection.
The treaty contains government obligations, including investing in education, collecting data on gender-related crimes, and offering support services for victims. The convention has been signed by 45 European countries, as well as the EU as an organization.
Why is the treaty now controversial?
Conservative critics have said it promotes LGBTQ education and goes against so-called traditional family values, with some pointing to how the treaty defines gender as a "socially constructed" category.
This wording in the treaty is used, in part, to note the disproportionate effect that violence has on women — as well as the historical inequality between women and men. But some conservatives say it overreaches — despite repeated efforts from the Council of Europe to refute the claims.
"We have always explained that this treaty has one task and one task only, which is to prevent violence against women and domestic violence," Daniel Höltgen, the spokesperson for the Council of Europe's secretary-general, told DW in a phone interview. "It has no other agenda."
"To suggest that this treaty, for example, promotes homosexual marriage — which is one of the items listed by (governments) — is simply not true," he said. "The word 'gender' seems to irritate and lead to wild speculations. ... The treaty is not promoting anything else."
Höltgen said Turkey signed the convention just over 10 years ago and the text remained exactly as it was written. He questioned the motive behind the withdrawal: "The convention has not changed — but attitudes within countries and political streams have changed. That is what happened."
Experts say resistance to the treaty comes down to the rise in anti-Western and anti-LGBTQ sentiment among some right-wing governments.
"The main thing we're seeing is a disinformation campaign about the convention and what it represents and what is intended," Hillary Margolis, Human Rights Watch's senior researcher on women's rights, told DW.
"In a lot of ways, this convention has become a victim of this broader attempt to be used for political gains; to demonize women's rights and LGBT rights," she added. "It’s distorting the convention to create a panic around the idea that families are under attack and values and national systems are under attack — when, of course, that is entirely untrue."
Will other countries withdraw?
Conservative government officials in Poland in 2020 encouraged withdrawing from the Istanbul Convention, which the country ratified in 2015. According to leaked government documents seen by the Balkan Investigative Reporting Network (BIRN), the government is seeking to replace the treaty with one that would ban same-sex marriage and abortions.
Hungary and Bulgaria have also distanced themselves from the Istanbul Convention. The two countries, both signatories to the treaty, have measures in place indicating plans to further distance themselves from ratifying the convention. In 2020, Hungary's parliament approved a declaration refusing to ratify the Istanbul Convention, and Bulgaria's constitutional court ruled in 2018 that the treaty was unconstitutional. Slovakia has also kept ratification on ice.
How successful is the convention?
Amnesty International researcher Anna Blus told DW that it is "very difficult" to measure the direct link between the Istanbul Convention and concrete measures taken nationally to combat violence against women. But she referred to Denmark as a recent example. In December 2020, the country passed reforms recognizing sex without consent as rape — with adherence to the Istanbul Convention listed as among the grounds for changing legislation.
"But, obviously, how this will play out in practice is another question," she said, adding that the laws need to be implemented.
France, for its part, launched a push for "feminist diplomacy," pushing for gender equality with the Istanbul Convention set as part of its benchmark.
But, for experts and activists who back the treaty, it remains important that countries — no matter their governments' political leanings — remain engaged with the treaty to end violence against women, even if tangible achievements aren't immediately evident.
Among the countries that ratified the convention, Margolis said, "implementation is so porous that it remains incredibly problematic — including Turkey and Poland."
"But at least it holds them to a legal standard."
Update: This article was originally published on March 22, 2021. It has been updated to reflect a July 2022 ruling from Turkey's top administrative court that the country's withdrawal from the convention was legal.
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