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EU Accession to the Istanbul Convention Is a Welcome Step and Victory over the Anti-Gender Movement

July 12, 2023

On June 1, 2023, the European Council voted for the EU to accede to the Istanbul Convention, also known as the Council of Europe Convention on Preventing and Combating Violence Against Women and Domestic Violence. The Istanbul Convention provides comprehensive measures to prevent violence against women and domestic violence. Any country can ratify the treaty and signal its intent to comply with the obligations set forth in it. To date, the Istanbul Convention has been ratified by 34 countries and enjoys a great deal of support from governments, civil society, and women’s human rights defenders.  

EU ratification has been a long road. In October 2015, the EU developed a roadmap toward ratification of the Istanbul Convention and signed the treaty on June 13, 2017. Far-right groups, however, opposed EU accession, focusing on the treaty’s use of the term “gender” to push the ideological fiction of “gender ideology” that claims allowing individuals to choose their gender will destroy national values and the traditional family. In addition, The European Court of Justice (ECJ) ruled on the legal basis for EU accession in 2020, finding the EU could ratify the treaty even without every EU Member State’s assent. 

With EU ratification, the Istanbul Convention will apply to EU institutions and to Member States with regard to asylum, judicial cooperation over criminal issues, and the principle of non-refoulement which prohibits governments from returning people to countries where they will be persecuted or suffer torture or other cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment.  

Six EU Member States have not yet ratified the Istanbul Convention; they are Bulgaria, the Czech Republic, Hungary, Latvia, Lithuania, and Slovakia. Bulgaria is the only country to declare outright that ratification would be unconstitutional. On July 27, 2018, the Bulgarian Constitutional Court found the convention’s definition of gender conflicts with the constitution’s requirements, as well as Bulgarian legislation, which defines gender based on biological differences, and determined ratification would be unconstitutional.  

While religious institutions have been allies on many human rights issues - including immigration and abolition of capital punishment -in some countries, they have actively opposed ratification of the Istanbul Convention. The Czech Republic, Latvia, Lithuania, and Slovakia face heavy pressure from the Catholic churches in those countries not to ratify the convention. In fact, in the Czech Republic, the anti-convention sentiment was triggered by Catholic priest and former Education Minister, Petr Pit’ha, when he delivered a blistering sermon in 2018 that included false and misleading claims about the Istanbul Convention. Bulgaria and Latvia both face similar pressure from the Orthodox religious communities in their countries.  

Civil society organizations also face increasing challenges to their efforts to raise awareness and provide accurate information about the Convention. Tight funding and a shrinking space for civil society negatively affect organizations in Bulgaria, Hungary, Latvia, and Slovakia. Even for the Czech Republic and Lithuania, however, the current political climates make advocating for ratification of the Istanbul Convention difficult. 

Nevertheless, civil society has proven itself resilient, resourceful, and strategic in countering these rollbacks. Human rights defenders are finding creative ways to raise awareness about the Istanbul Convention and women’s rights, while engaging diverse and unexpected allies in their efforts. The EU decision to ratify, despite widespread anti-gender efforts to stop it, is proof that human rights will prevail.   

The Advocates works in coalition with women’s human rights defenders across Europe to Central Asia to address the overall backlash to human rights, develop counter-strategies to it and continue to promote women’s human rights. For more information on the Istanbul Convention, check out The Advocates’ 2021 report, A Rollback for Human Rights - The Istanbul Convention Under Attack. 

By Suzanne Mead, University of Minnesota Law School 3L (2024) and Rosalyn Park, Women's Human Rights Program, The Advocates for Human Rights