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New Report: Istanbul Convention and Women’s Rights Under Attack

December 3, 2021

The Advocates released A Roll Back for Human Rights: The Istanbul Convention Under Attack.

Undertaken with the support of the law firm of Akin Gump, the report details the alarming opposition to the Istanbul Convention, formally known as the Council of Europe (CoE) Convention on preventing and combatting violence against women and domestic violence. It documents how opponents have strategically influenced the debate over ratification. The report’s findings, drawn from interviews with stakeholders, focus on Armenia, Bulgaria, Croatia, the Czech Republic, Hungary, Italy, Latvia, Lithuania, Moldova, Poland, Romania, Slovakia, Turkey, and Ukraine. The Istanbul Convention entered into force on August 1, 2014, following ratification by the tenth CoE Member State. The comprehensive treaty explicitly defines gender-based violence and domestic violence as human rights violations which ratifying states must prevent and punish. As of May 2021, a decade after opening for signature, 34 countries had ratified the Istanbul Convention.

The Istanbul Convention builds on decades of international law to recognize that violence against women is a human rights violation. As a result, it requires coordinated and consistent state action to protect and support victims and their children, punish perpetrators, and prevent violence.

Despite initial momentum, the Istanbul Convention now faces growing opposition across Central and Eastern Europe, the Former Soviet Union, and in Turkey. The fourteen countries investigated initially embraced the treaty on some level. Each signed the Istanbul Convention, and Turkey’s vote to ratify was the Turkish Parliament’s only unanimous vote in all of 2012.

Yet, several developments indicate the speed with which the opposition gained political and public influence to sway opinion: the stalled ratification processes in Ukraine, Slovakia, Bulgaria, Moldova, Latvia, Lithuania, Hungary, Armenia, and the Czech Republic; the resistance to full implementation of the convention in Croatia, Romania, and Italy; Poland’s announced intention to withdraw from the treaty, and; Turkish President Erdogan’s March 2021 decree actually withdrawing from the convention.

Policymakers who previously supported the convention are reluctant to publicly mention it or support ratification. Poland has even begun to directly lobby its neighbors to reject the Istanbul Convention and adopt the so-called Convention on the Rights of the Family, an alternative document produced by opponents of the Istanbul Convention.

The Advocates documented similar threats to the Istanbul Convention in all countries it investigated. Opposition tactics fall within three categories: 1) defending the “traditional” family, defined as the lifelong union of a biologically male husband and a biologically female wife whose goal is procreation; 2) generating fear and hysteria about the convention’s requirements; and 3) stoking nationalist sentiments. Many of the individuals, organizations, and networks that oppose the Istanbul Convention also attack other issues, including LGBT+ rights, sexual and reproductive rights, and immigrants’ rights.

Increasingly, women’s human rights defenders have faced threats to their physical safety. Many of The Advocates’ partners have reported threats of violence and attacks. In addition, frivolous lawsuits designed to intimidate and suppress defenders’ human rights activities have become commonplace. The Istanbul Convention, and with it, the right of women to be free from violence, has become collateral damage in a broader transnational movement that opposes many of the rights it associates—correctly or not—with the treaty.

Meanwhile, the working space for civil society, especially women’s rights non-governmental organizations (NGOs), to counter this backlash and continue protecting women’s human rights is shrinking. Increasing restrictions include: limiting the ability of human rights NGOs to receive international funding; enacting burdensome registration or reporting requirements; intimidation and violent attacks against human rights defenders; the invasion of spaces normally reserved for human rights NGOs by private interest groups, lobbyists and Government Operated NGOs (GONGOs); defunding women’s NGOs; and self-censorship by civil society due to fear of persecution and lawsuits.

In the face of these coordinated attacks, civil society plays an increasingly crucial role in defending women’s right to be free from violence. Despite the rising challenges, human rights NGOs have mounted successful campaigns engaging thousands of women in support of the Istanbul Convention. Their efforts to promote the Istanbul Convention and educate the public and policymakers about violence against women have led to improvements in law and policy and, in some cases, enhanced public understanding about the issue of violence against women. Civil society movements have organized mass demonstrations against government actions that would restrict or suppress women’s rights and fundamental freedoms, including in Poland and Turkey.

The report captures some of the most promising and successful strategies human rights defenders are employing to resist this backlash. As summarized by one Austrian human rights defender, “We must not forget we live in the most free and safe time, and that is why we are facing this big backlash—because this is their last stand. We must remember there is a crack in everything, and that is where the light comes in, and we must be that light.”