Empowering Equality: the Istanbul Convention and its Significance for Ukraine

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On June 28, 2023 (and at long last), the European Union had finally ratified the Council of Europe Convention on Preventing and Combating Violence Against Women and Domestic Violence, also known as the Istanbul Convention. 

But for a long time, conservative-leaning countries had blocked the signing of the Convention by the EU. Bulgaria, the Czech Republic, Hungary, Latvia, Lithuania and Slovakia are countries which have not ratified the Convention, although they have all signed it.

So how does the Convention influence the countries partial to its provisions - and how shall these provisions specifically affect one of its most recent signatories - Ukraine?

 

The Istanbul Convention - what is it, what is its significance?

The Convention was opened for signature in May 2011. 

It obliges states party to its signature and ratification to adopt a number of concrete measures that will ensure action against gender-based violence. The object of the document is found in the following lines of its text: 

The Convention aims to protect women against all forms of violence; to prevent, prosecute and eliminate violence against women and domestic violence; to promote real equality between women and men; to provide assistance to organisations and law enforcement agencies to cooperate effectively, in order to adopt an integrated approach.” (Article 1, Chapter 1).

The Council of Europe further defines 4 key pillars of the Convention: Prevention, Protection, Prosecution, and Coordinated Policies. 

The Convention entered into force in August 2014, but its implementation has not been without turbulence. Even in the EU, ratification of the convention has been met with opposition, scrutiny, and other obstacles - collectively hindering its political and legal significance. 

This fact betrays the message that - today - the protection of women from all forms of violence has become much more difficult.

 

Grounds for the Global Ratification - and in Ukraine Specifically

To understand its areas of focus, we should understand the conditions which contributed to the Convention’s introduction in the first place. These include (inter alia):

  1. Political factions hostile to women’s rights efforts have soared to prominence across central and eastern Europe. Examples include Poland - whose government infamously restricted access to abortion (in most instances) in 2020 - and Slovakia, where the Istanbul Convention has not entered force, and a campaign against abortion rights has risen in opposition to it.
  2. While discourses in favour of women’s rights are commonplace in political scenes across Europe, women’s rights are truly protected where a legal framework exists to safeguard them. The Convention accomplishes this by offering a strong legal precedent that states party to it are obliged to follow. 
  3. In the case of Ukraine, a resounding two-thirds (67%) of women stated they had experienced psychological, physical, or sexual violence since the age of 15 according to recent studies on violence against women by the OSCE in Ukraine.  If any statistic displayed the need for a robust mechanism for the protection of women, this should suffice.

In Ukraine, “romanticised” stalking used to be a huge problem. A woman could not count on help if she suffered from a stalker because the national law representatives would dismiss the objection as invalid. Moreover, women could hear patronising statements, even if the stalker could pose a deadly threat to her life. 

Ukraine became the 36th country to ratify the Istanbul Convention in June 2022, despite some significant opposition. Ratifying the Istanbul Convention now obliges Ukraine’s police and other legal authorities to react sharply to such cases. 

But how? 

 

Mechanisms of the Convention 

The significance of Ukraine’s ratification of the Istanbul Convention lies in its tangible mechanisms - which benefit and foster the protection of women, children and other victims of all forms of violence. 

The Convention is reinforced by comprehensive implementation and oversight structures: GREVIO, a 15-member expert body, as well as the Committee of the Parties, a monitoring mechanism composed of representatives from states which have ratified the Convention.

But how do these mechanisms work in practice? 

France ratified the Convention in 2014. On June 2, 2023, the Committee of the Parties provided a series of recommendations to the Government of France, including (inter alia):

amending the Criminal Code to bring it fully into line with the requirements of Article 36 of the Convention (Sexual violence, including rape); continuing the efforts to improve the judicial response to sexual violence; taking measures to establish a sufficient number of rape crisis and sexual violence referral centers”.

Germany, for its part, ratified the Convention in 2017. Today, the attention of German activists fighting for women's rights is focused on promoting the cancellation of remaining hesitations toward the Convention - with which they have achieved (to date) considerable success. 

German parliamentarians repealed reservations against Article 44 and Article 59 paragraphs 2 and 3: women who suffer from any manifestations of violence can, therefore, now turn to Germany for asylum. 

These are examples of the Convention’s mechanisms at work for the betterment of women’s rights.

 

Destroying Myths Surrounding the Istanbul Convention 

When the demand to ratify the Istanbul Convention in Ukraine (principally from local NGOs and ground movements) started steepening, disturbing myths emerged in opposition to discredit the topic, mostly loosely tied to traditional family and religious values. 

Interestingly, despite Ukraine ratifying the Convention, those myths have continued circulating. Powerful groups that denied the importance of the Convention included conservative organisations such as the Ukrainian Council of Churches and Religious Organisations, which criticised the term “gender”, and the concept of gender-based assault against women. 

The Council of Europe’s 2018-2020 Project “The Istanbul Convention: a tool to advance in fighting violence against women and domestic violence in Ukraine” assists in debunking all misinformation in “Myths and Facts about the Istanbul Convention”, doing so quite emphatically: 

  1. The Istanbul Convention was not forced on Ukraine by Europe. In fact, Ukraine is one of its authors. 
  2. The Istanbul Convention does not aim to destroy the institution of the traditional family, but to insulate it from domestic violence. 
  3. The Convention does not deny the biological differences between men and women. It does not tolerate the principle of women’s inferiority. 
  4. The Convention does not intrude on the educational process but allows flexibility in bringing in the principles of mutual respect, gender equality and zero-tolerance to violence. These have already been taught to pupils in Ukraine but require a more attentive attitude towards them. 
  5. The Convention is obviously focused on protecting women’s rights because they suffer the most from abuse, violence, stalking, harassment etc. but it does not exclude the need for protection of men’s rights. In fact, it urges countries to take measures to ensure gender equality and not women’s superiority. 

 

The Convention and its Applicability in Ukraine

In order to strengthen the fight against domestic violence, Ukrainian legislators introduced a new measure of administrative responsibility, according to the provisions “On Prevention and Combating Domestic Violence”. This provision was adopted in connection with the ratification of the Istanbul Convention, and its provisions included:

  • A requirement for offenders to attend a special programme for persons who have committed domestic violence or gender-based violence.
  • The creation of a single state register of cases of domestic violence and gender-based violence - a rather extraordinary measure in Ukrainian legislation - but with a key shortcoming: the high level of transmission of information about those who do not wish to disclose it to the public, and a resulting risk of privacy breach and further victimisation of these individuals.

The Convention’s applicability in Ukraine was born partially of uncomfortable legal circumstances: specifically, case law of the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR), M.M. and Z.M. v. Ukraine (2022).

In this landmark case, the applicants (a mother and son) contended that they were both victims of domestic violence by the applicant's ex-husband - elaborating that there had been negligent behaviour on the part of authorities and law enforcement agencies, through the absence of any action aimed at protecting the mother and her children. 

Relying first on Article 13 (awareness-raising) of the Convention, the applicants emphasised that the domestic authorities had failed to act on initial complaints about the ex-husband's aggressive behaviour towards his wife and the children. They also invoked Articles 3 (Definitions) and 8 (Financial resources) in this regard.

The Court found that the authorities failed to adequately respond to the alleged incidents of domestic violence affecting the applicants, and to assess their situation in its entirety, including any possible risk that similar incidents would happen again. Accordingly, there was found to be a violation of Article 8 of the Convention.

But this case is only one of many. According to the official data of the Council of Europe, in the period from 2020 to 2023, there were more than 30 cases of violations of the provisions of the Istanbul Convention in the ECHR. The largest number of these cases concern domestic violence, stalking and discrimination.

In short: the Istanbul Convention offers a measured guarantee of protection to all victims of domestic violence. To date, in Ukraine, parents of children who are witnesses of violence are not deprived of their parental rights, but such a procedure should be established after the Convention’s recent ratification. The Convention also focuses on protecting the best interests of children, by obliging signatory states to protect children who have witnessed domestic violence and provide them with psychological counselling. 

In addition, and perhaps most significantly, the Convention offers robust protection for women victims of domestic violence - and ensures they must be guaranteed to receive complex assistance in such circumstances.

 

Call to action!

Each country that ratified the Istanbul Convention must be responsible for the implementation of its provisions not only de jure, but also de facto - and in a uniform manner. 

There is no country with an ideal level of protection of women from all forms of violence. However, if countries show an appropriate level of attention to this issue, it will allow society to truly commit to the protection of women.  The Istanbul Convention was established in recognition of the fact that gender-based violence disproportionately affects women and is more prevalent than generally assumed. 

Since its inception, the Convention has been subject to misrepresentation and a broader effort to manipulate it for a variety of social and political reasons. In Central and Eastern Europe in particular, its intended goals have become subject to twisting.

Considering the spike in domestic, sexual, and gender-based violence during the coronavirus pandemic and the war in Ukraine, the significance of the Istanbul Convention cannot be emphasised enough.

Due to the war, Ukrainian women are forced to leave their homes and to emigrate. They face loss of their identity, as well as a gravely uncertain future. Ukrainian women have re-assumed the roles of primary care-givers for all and for themselves - and some Ukrainian women have become the victims of conflict-related violence due to the war.

All this is a part of the recent but ongoing reality faced by Ukrainian women due to the war.

Thus, despite the fact that different states have a rather ambiguous experience in implementing the provisions of the Convention, the ratification of this document is an extremely important step. It is for each state to use its ratification of the Convention as a launchpad: a catalyst by which they may unequivocally declare that the life of every woman, every child, and every victim of violence is of the highest value and will be protected.

They must do so even if ratification is not an unequivocal guarantee of the protection of women's rights. 

No more so is this the truth than for Ukraine.

 

 


References:

  1. EUR-LEX - 52016PC0109 - EN - EUR-LEX. (n.d.). https://eur-lex.europa.eu/legal-content/EN/TXT/?uri=CELEX%3A52016PC0109
  2. The Istanbul Convention: a tool to advance in fighting violence against women and domestic violence in Ukraine (2018-2020) - Gender Equality - www.coe.int. (n.d.). Gender Equality. https://www.coe.int/en/web/genderequality/the-istanbul-convention-a-tool-to-advance-in-fighting-violence-against-women-and-domestic-violence-in-ukraine
  3. Council of Europe Convention on preventing and combating violence against women and domestic violence. https://rm.coe.int/168008482e  
  4. Admin. (2022, July 22). Why does the Ukrainian judicial, law enforcement and legal community need the Istanbul convention? - Jurfem. Jurfem. https://jurfem.com.ua/en/why-does-the-ukrainian-judicial-law-enforcement-and-legal-community-need-the-istanbul-convention/ 
  5. The Council of Europe Convention on preventing and combating violence against women and domestic violence (Istanbul Convention) - Gender Matters - www.coe.int. (n.d.). Gender Matters. https://www.coe.int/en/web/gender-matters/council-of-europe-convention-on-preventing-and-combating-violence-against-women-and-domestic-violence 
  6. On Prevention and Combating Domestic Violence: Law of Ukraine [Pro zapobihannia ta protydiiu domashnomu nasylstvu]. (n.d.). https://zakon.rada.gov.ua/laws/show/2229-19#top
  7. Taranenko, V. Frightened by gender: who and why voted against the Istanbul Convention. [Naliakani genderom: khto i chomu holosuvav proty Stambulskoi konventsii] Glavcom. https://glavcom.ua/country/politics/nalyakani-enderom-hto-i-chomu-golosuvav-proti-stambulskoji-konvenciji-854563.html 
  8. Conclusions on the implementation of the Committee of the Parties recommendations published on 2 June 2023. https://rm.coe.int/conclusions-on-the-implementation-of-recommendations-in-respect-of-fra/1680ab71d0 
  9. Finally, the Istanbul Convention applies without reservation! Now on to full implementation – if not now, then when? https://www.damigra.de/en/meldungen/endlich-gilt-die-istanbul-konvention-vorbehaltslos-nun-auf-zur-vollstaendigen-umsetzung-wenn-nicht-jetzt-wann-dann/ 
  10. Levchenko K.B., Legenka M.M. To the problem of improving the legislative provision of prevention and countermeasures against domestic violence [Do problemy vdoskonalennia zakonodavchoho zabezpechennia zapobihannia ta protydii domashnomu nasylstvu]. Bulletin of Kharkiv National University of Internal Affairs [Visnyk Kharkivskoho natsionalnoho universytetu vnutrishnikh sprav]. https://dspace.univd.edu.ua/server/api/core/bitstreams/3553fb6f-caaf-4003-bcab-d1d5588c2eb2/content 
  11. Niemi Johanna, Sanmartin Amalia Verdu. The concepts of gender and violence in the Istanbul Convention [International Law and Violence Against Women Europe and the Istanbul Convention]. https://www.taylorfrancis.com/books/edit/10.4324/9780429289736/international-law-violence-women-johanna-niemi-lourdes-peroni-vladislava-stoyanova?refId=d35d6248-626b-462d-8e03-b3054242c6cd&context=ubx 
  12. Echr. (n.d.-b). HUDOC - European Court of Human Rights. https://hudoc.echr.coe.int/eng#{%22itemid%22:[%22001-220366%22]} 

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November 24 2023

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