Poland challenges the Istanbul Convention: Duda’s assault on human rights continues

The proposed withdrawal signals President Duda’s latest leap away from the common goals shared by EU Member States and the time has come to assess what actions can be taken to prevent Poland exposing its women and girls to a future in which they are unprotected from violence.

What is the Istanbul Convention?

The Council of Europe Convention on preventing and combating violence against women and domestic violence, more commonly referred to as the Istanbul Convention, is a human rights treaty which opened for signature on the 11th of May, 2011 and first entered into force in 2014. As of last month, the Convention has been signed by 45 countries, including all EU Member States, as well as the European Union itself, and has been ratified and entered into force in 21 EU Member States.

With the aims of preventing violence against women, protecting victims of such violence and ending impunity for perpetrators, the Istanbul Convention is one of a host of documents which play a key role in creating a society which guarantees gender equality in EU nations. Emphasising that violence against women is a manifestation of historically unequal power relations between men and women, the Convention’s Preamble recognises the “structural nature of violence against women” and clarifies that “violence against women is one of the crucial social mechanisms by which women are forced into a subordinate position compared with men''.

The withdrawal proposal could not come at a worse time for the EU. While a Member State’s potential withdrawal from the Convention would ordinarily spark fear and outrage, those sentiments are exacerbated by the current climate created by the Covid-19 pandemic and subsequent legislation, both temporary and permanent, which has been enacted in various countries. So why, now, does Poland threaten to remove itself from a Convention which is so clearly aligned with the core values of the EU?

Poland’s argument for withdrawal

The Minister for Justice in Poland, Zbigniew Ziobro, has stated that the reason for the prospective withdrawal is that the Convention requires schools to teach children about gender and that this practice was “harmful”. He went on to say that the Convention violates the rights of parents and contains “elements of an ideological nature”. This is not the first time that Poland’s ruling Law and Justice (PiS) party have used ideology as the basis for promoting discrimination. In a campaign speech before his recent re-election, President Andrzej Duda declared that the promotion of LGBT rights constituted an ideology more destructive than Communism. Similarly, in 2019, the leader and co-founder of the Law and Justice party, Jarosław Kaczyński, took aim at same-sex couples by stating that Catholicism was part of the national identity and that a family consists of “one man and one woman and the children”. The Polish government's discriminatory treatment of LGBTQ citizens is beginning to cost them, with the EU cancelling funds for some towns in the country, due to legislation implemented.

Given PiS’ close ties to the Catholic Church, it hardly comes as a surprise that they consistently push for legislation that reinforces what they call ‘traditional family values’, but that does not make these actions any less dangerous. Withdrawal from the Istanbul Convention would once again show how Duda’s government has no interest in respecting the human rights of its citizens and is willing to expose these same citizens to inhumane treatment just to further his own political agenda. His alliance with President Orbán of Hungary, who recently claimed that has only reinforced the belief that he, and indeed Orbán, has chosen to paint the EU as the enemy while he preaches nationalistic rhetoric in an attempt to consolidate his power, following the narrowest of wins in the recent presidential election. After this slim electoral victory, Orbán was quick to praise Duda, claiming that the “international liberal mainstream” have again lost an important battle and that the “central European right wing is up 3:0”

Withdrawal mid-crisis: a harrowing thought

The cynical nature of the Polish government’s recent policies can be seen by the timing of this latest proposal. Withdrawing from the Istanbul Convention would be a truly terrifying turn of events for women and girls in Poland. The disproportional nature at which women and girls are subjected to domestic violence is reason enough in itself to ensure the highest level of protection is available to them. The state of affairs in Europe, and indeed across the world, since the beginning of the pandemic, however, exposes women and girls further to this injustice. Not only are the core values of the EU being obliterated by this proposal, they are subjecting women and girls to violence which, given the restrictions on movement and, in some cases, strict lockdowns, is unavoidable.

Since mid-March, when most national lockdowns began in the EU, reports of domestic violence are up over 30% in several EU nations, with some sources reporting an increase of up to 50% in Poland. This massive increase in violence can be seen across the world, with similar figures being reported in the USA, the UK, Canada, much of Latin America and parts of Asia. This is a pandemic in itself. Victims being forced to remain restricted to residing in the same place as their abuser is a grave violation of one’s rights to not be subjected to inhumane treatment. Add to this increased vulnerability the fact that access to support has been greatly reduced and it is clear as to why some victims feel as if all hope is lost.

If the European institutions act quickly and effectively, however, there is still a chance they can put out this fire before anyone’s basic human rights turn to ash.

What must be done to remedy the situation?

Though this situation is far from ideal, there are actions which can be taken to convince the Polish government that withdrawal from the treaty is not the way forward.

1. Structured dialogue to set straight any and all misconceptions about the Convention: As suggested by Council of Europe Secretary General Marija Pejčinović Burić in response to Poland’s announcement, a discussion must take place to clarify any misconceptions regarding the Convention. The Istanbul Convention aims to eliminate violence against women and girls and domestic violence. It does not have an ulterior motive. This is clearly worth clarifying, as the Polish government has cited gender and ideology as points on which they disagree with the treaty.

2. Ratification and enactment of local legislation by Member States to give force to the Istanbul Convention: Only in 21 EU Member States has the treaty entered into force. This is simply not good enough. All EU nations must immediately ratify and enact any local legislation which is required to give force to the Istanbul Convention. Not only will this ensure there is protection and support available to victims and potential victims alike, but it will reinforce each Member State’s commitment to the values which the EU hold so dear. Very soon, GREVIO, the independent body which the Council of Europe have charged with the monitoring of how signatories to the treaty are enforcing it, will be releasing their first General Recommendation on the topic and they are likely to suggest each signatory enact the needed legislation so that the Convention can be properly enforced.

3. Invoke Article 7 of the Maastricht Treaty: Finally, it is important to note that if Poland were to withdraw from the Istanbul Convention, there is a method by which they could be punished by the EU. Article 7 of the Treaty of the European Union (the Maastricht Treaty) allows for the EU to suspend the rights of a Member State who has been found to be in persistent breach of the EU's founding values, which include respect for human dignity, equality, the rule of law and respect for human rights. Given Poland’s recent track record of a complete disregard for the notions of equality and human rights, there is no doubt that there would be grounds for such a motion. Identifying such a breach, however, requires unanimity amongst all Member States, apart from the accused nation, but it is worth noting that Hungary would likely veto the motion. Should a breach be identified, however, a qualified majority is all that would be needed to impose sanctions.

Poland’s proposed withdrawal from the Istanbul Convention sent shockwaves through Europe. The EU prides itself on its commitment to human rights and equality and the notion of a Member State discarding these values in favour of a continued path towards right-wing nationalism is a harrowing one indeed. The structural nature of violence against women and girls must not be ignored and every protection necessary should be offered so that everyone can live fear of the threat of violence and not feel vulnerable in their own home. The Istanbul Convention ensures that protection and support is available to victims and potential victims alike. The Polish government has shown they do not care about the basic human rights of their people and action must be taken before they endanger their citizens further.