Why Does the Istanbul Convention Withdrawal Mean More Than Just Another Polish Populist Win?

Shortly before the Polish presidential election in June, the ruling Law and Justice party used strong anti-LGBT rhetoric to maintain their support within the right-wing Catholic circles. Now, after the successful re-election of their candidate, the party’s first move is to begin the process of withdrawal from the Council of Europe’s convention aiming to prevent domestic violence. Law and Justice’s strategy of inducing fear of the traditional Polish values being endangered has worked many times before, but this time it might seriously affect the lives of many Polish women and children.

The Istanbul Convention is the Council of Europe’s human rights treaty on preventing and combating violence against women and domestic violence. It was first established in 2011, and its main aims are the prevention of violence, protection of victims as well as ending predator impunity. The convention makes it mandatory for the countries who ratify it to criminalise many offences, including psychological violence; stalking; physical violence; sexual violence including rape; forced marriage; female genital mutilation; forced abortion and forced sterilisation.

In July 2020, Polish minister Zbigniew Ziobro announced Poland’s plans to withdraw from the Istanbul Convention. In 2012 Ziobro had already expressed his thoughts on the treaty, saying it was an invention, a feminist creation aimed at justifying gay ideology”. The Law and Justice party members claim that the convention is harmful to the ‘traditional Polish values’ such as the Catholic religion – this is referring to Article 42 of the convention, which lists religion as one of the unacceptable justifications for crime.

According to the Polish police statistics, in 2019 88,000 people fell victim to violence, over 65,000 of which were women. Polish Women’s Rights Centre determines that every year 400 to 500 women in the country die from causes directly or indirectly related to domestic violence. If the withdrawal finalises, it will cost even more lives.

What could happen following the withdrawal? A lot of rape and sexual violence allegations could be dismissed, and the victims easily neglected. Currently the Convention ensures that any relevant investigations or judicial proceedings are carried out without delay and victims receive immediate protection, including immediate restraining orders given to their abusers. The treaty also provides a clear and detailed definition of rape as a non-consensual sexual act, putting a focus on the act of consent, which is crucial since it no longer allows a victim’s state of unconsciousness or sleep and ‘assumed consent’ to be possible explanations for abusers.

Without the impact that the Istanbul Convention has on the Polish law and institutions, it would be in the hands of the government and individual officials to decide what falls under the category of sexual or domestic violence. For instance, in early 2019 the Istanbul Convention made it impossible for the Polish government to move forward with introducing a law which was supposed to make one-time or first-time acts of violence exempt from the legal definition of domestic violence, therefore excluding victims of those acts from receiving appropriate help.

Minister Ziobro claims that the Polish law alone does enough for the protection of women and victims of domestic violence. The Polish law does not provide suitable support to those experiencing violence by their ex-partners or husbands who do not live at the same address; it offers very little protection to women who are senior citizens, immigrants and women with disabilities – however, all of these cases are thoroughly covered in the Istanbul Convention. The Convention also defines and criminalises economic violence, which is not currently acknowledged or covered by any other Polish law.

Violence is not a traditional valuesays member of European Parliament Guy Verhofstadt. Adam Bodnar, the Polish Ombudsman, shares his opinion and voices his concern in a statement released on the 29th of July 2020, in which he calls for a stop to all actions aiming towards the withdrawal. The secretary general of the Council of Europe, Marija Pejčinović Burić, also released a statement where she guarantees to clarify any misconceptions that the Polish government might have about the Convention in hopes of reversing its withdrawal decision. Many human rights advocates agree that withdrawing from the treaty is, indeed, alarming, and a blow to women’s rights.

The hard truth is that regardless of the amount of criticism over Poland’s decision, no one can stop Law and Justice from proceeding with the withdrawal. This should be a concern for the European Union – in 2004, Poland, alongside seven other Eastern European countries, joined the organisation on conditions including compliance to the EU’s standards and rules and the protection of human rights. If Poland finalises the withdrawal, it will prove that the entry conditions can be broken without consequence once a country becomes a permanent EU member.

Polish women and their supporters took to the streets protesting the government’s decision, but the last few years under the ruling party’s order have shown us that they don’t tend to take public opinion into consideration. Will the wave of protests and pleas from EU’s human rights experts persuade the Polish government to reconsider the decision? We don’t know. But, if Poland goes through with the withdrawal, it will certainly have a serious effect on local women, and it might just show how little power the European Union institutions have over member countries.