The EU has signed the first legally binding instrument dedicated to combating violence against women known as the “Istanbul Convention”. The European Commission has released a statement saying:
“The signing of the Istanbul Convention sends out an important political signal during the year the Commission dedicated 2017 to fighting violence against women: the EU is committed to putting an end to violence against women”.
What is the Istanbul Convention?
The Istanbul Convention is the most far reaching international treaty to tackle violence against women. It requests that states criminalise various forms of violence against women including physical, sexual and psychological violence, stalking, sexual harassment, female genital mutilation, forced marriage, forced abortion and forced sterilisation.
Critically, the convention has established the first legally binding definition of violence against women as “a violation of human rights and a form of discrimination against women” and the convention defines it as an obligation of the state to “prevent, investigate, punish and provide reparation for acts of violence perpetrated by non-state actors”. It therefore sets minimum standards for governments to meet when tackling violence against women.
The convention is a departure from the gender blindness that has characterised many other international treaties and it explicitly acknowledges gender-based violence as a form of persecution. In particular, it acknowledges that rape can be used as a weapon of war. The convention takes a cross border approach by making it obligatory for parties to the convention to extend their jurisdiction to cover crimes committed abroad by their nationals. It also introduces protection measures for migrant women who are trapped in abusive relationships, including the option of granting them an autonomous residence permit, independent of that of their abusive spouse or partner.
How does the Istanbul Convention operate in practice?
Once the Istanbul Convention is ratified by national parliaments, EU member states will be committed to introducing or strengthening a variety of support services for women to help tackle discrimination, violence and abuse. This will include 24/7 helplines, police powers to remove perpetrators from their homes (even if they own them) and setting up and funding women’s shelters and refuges.
The convention requires states to adopt a “four Ps approach” to combatting violence against women:
- Prevention – this involves tackling the root cause of violence against women by changing attitudes, gender roles and stereotypes that make violence against women acceptable.
- Protection– states are required to protect women and girls who are known to be at risk by setting up specialist support services including shelters, round the clock telephone helplines and rape crisis referral centres.
- Prosecution – states are required to prosecute perpetrators including allowing criminal investigations to continue even where a victim has withdrawn their complaint.
- Policy – this involves liaising with various international agencies to adopt and implement state-wide policies aimed at preventing and combatting all forms of violence against women.
Nation states that have ratified the convention will be monitored by a group of independent experts, who will assess progress at national and international levels. It is intended to offer a forum to co-ordinate and set a global agenda to eliminate violence against women.
Although the EU has signed the convention it is yet to be ratified by member states. This can take some time as nation states are required to make amendments to domestic law and take extra territorial jurisdiction over a range of offences. For example, although the UK signed the convention on 8 June 2012 it was not until April 2017 that it was passed into UK domestic law.