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A Step Backwards In The Fight Against Domestic Violence

A Step Backwards in the Fight Against Domestic Violence

During the COVID-19 pandemic, many countries are reporting the rise of a parallel, ‘shadow pandemic’: conjugal violence.  As couples are forced to spend more time together, in some cases, the physically, psychologically and/or economically weaker partner is literally trapped inside a violent household. The full extent of this ‘shadow pandemic’ is not yet known and may never be fully appreciated.

These difficult circumstances make the timing of the announcement by Poland’s Justice Minister Zbigniew Ziobro all the more surprising.  In late July of 2020, he informed the world that Poland will begin preparing the formal process to withdraw from the Council of Europe’s Convention on preventing and combating violence against women and domestic violence.

This landmark treaty, also known as the Istanbul Convention, was adopted by the of Council of Europe in order to offer a more uniform, standardized legal protection for women across its member states. The 47-nation Council of Europe, not to be confused with the 27-nation European Union, was founded in 1949 and has as its primary mission to protect and ensure human rights.

The Istanbul Convention is a recent instrument. The Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe had long taken a firm stance against all forms of violence against women, but lacked a standardized and legally binding instrument for preventing and protecting against gender-based violence. After a two-and-half year process of research and drafting, the Convention was adopted by the Council on April 7th of 2011 and opened for signatures on May 11th of the same year.  Its purpose is to create creating a legal framework at the pan-European level to protect women against all forms of violence, and to prevent, prosecute and eliminate violence against women, and domestic violence. States that ratify the Convention are legally bound by its provisions once it enters into force.

Poland signed on to the Convention in 2012, ratified it in April of 2015 and it came into force in August of the same year. Poland’s Justice Minister Zbigniew Ziobro is a member of the Cabinet of Beata Szydło, which is a different government from the more centrist government that originally ratified the treaty.  Ziobro and the current government have cited some of the following reasons for announcing the process of withdrawal from the convention:

  • That the treaty is harmful because it requires that schools teach children about gender in an ideological way and de-emphasizes biological sex, thereby violating the rights of parents;
  • That the treaty is an invention, a feminist creation aimed at justifying gay ideology;
  • That Poland has sufficient legal tools to protect victims of domestic violence;
  • That the treaty is disrespectful toward religion and requires teaching liberal social policies in school;

In order to withdraw, the Polish parliament must adopt legislation to that effect. This legislation will then have to be signed by the president, Andrzej Duda, who has himself also been critical of the treaty in the past.

Many of the countries that have ratified the treaty have done so with reservations addressing specific articles. Two countries, Bulgaria and Slovakia, were explicit in their rejection of the entire Istanbul Convention.

Bulgaria refused to ratify the treaty because it does not comply with the Constitution of the Republic of Bulgaria. The conflict lies in the interpretation that the convention offers a ‘binary’ interpretation of gender in contradiction to the Constitution of Bulgaria which defines humans irrevocably as male or female, with equal standing as citizens. Since the convention provides a foundation for promoting non-biological definitions of gender, it conflicts with the national constitution. In November of 2018, a few hundred people demonstrated in Sofia, the capital of Bulgaria, against this decision and against violence against women in general.

Slovakia, despite having just elected its first female president, Zuzana Čaputová, also refused to ratify the Istanbul Convention.  A unified force of conservative, Christian democratic, Roman Catholic, nationalist and far-right groups and parties opposed the ratification especially for its clauses concerning LGBT rights and positions that they considered as ‘extreme liberalism’ that are corrosive to the traditional values that need to be protected. President Čaputová has announced that if Slovakia’s parliament consented, she would ratify the treaty.

These sorts of criticisms have long been levelled against the Istanbul Treaty. In its Defense, the Council of Europe had already issued a statement on November 22, 2018, arguing that the convention is certainly not about ending sexual differences between women and men. Nowhere does the convention ever imply that women and men are or should be “the same”” and that “the convention does not seek to regulate family life and/or family structures: it neither contains a definition of “family” nor does it promote a particular type of family setting.

What is the damage that would result if Poland withdraws from the Istanbul Convention? The fight for women’s rights and the protection against violence is a multi-faceted fight conducted on thousands of different fronts across the world. There is no magic bullet. Every effort counts. Even if Poland itself actually does have sufficient domestic laws to protect its citizens from the sort of violence addressed in the Istanbul Convention, its withdrawal weakens the convention and diminished the efforts to create a unified front in this ongoing battle.

On the other hand, the Council of Europe itself has had to face frequent and substantial accusation of institutional corruption and of not having any meaningful purpose. It has been portrayed, again with some weight and credibility, as being superfluous to other pan-European bodies such as the European Union (EU) with which it is often confused, and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE).  Why do we need the Istanbul Convention when the United Nations (UN) already has its Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women since 1979?

In 2013, The Economist supported such accusations of redundancy and lack of purpose, and in 2014, third party NGO’s called upon the Council of Europe to undertake concrete steps to return to its original mission to protect and ensure human rights. The Convention on preventing and combating violence against women and domestic violence would appear to have been a step in precisely that direction.

Daniel Romano, BCL, LL.B., MA.

KALMAN SAMUELS, Avocats – Attorneys

In 2018, the state of the law in Quebec and in Canada was paved by the Kalman Samuels Team. In a case of conjugal violence, the team obtained significant moral and punitive damages, breaking records in both Quebec and in Canada. Read the case record here.

Further Information and Relevant Links

Here is a link to the Convention on preventing and combating violence against women and domestic violence, provided by the Treaty Office of the Council of Europe itself. We favour this link because it provides you with the official and non-official translations of the treaty, the history of signatures and ratification, the adhering countries, appendix, chart of renewals and reservations, and other useful links and information.

Here is a link to an article by Reuters, which provides a short summary of Poland’s possible withdrawal from the Council of Europe Convention on preventing and combating violence against women and domestic violence, better known as the “Istanbul Convention”.

Here is a link to an article in the Euronews by Shona Murray who is highly critical of Poland’s announced intent to withdraw from the Council of Europe’s Convention on preventing and combating violence against women and domestic violence:

 “‘Pathetic’: Poland’s plan to quit domestic violence treaty slammed”

Here is a link to a New York Times article by Marc Santora on Poland’s intent to withdraw from the Council of Europe’s Convention on preventing and combating violence against women and domestic violence.

 “Poland Considers Leaving Treaty on Domestic Violence, Spurring Outcry”.

The following link takes you to the United Nations Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women, adopted 18 December 1979. People ask if the Council of Europe and its Istanbul Convention are necessary if we already have the United Nations (UN) Office of the High Commissioner already addressing the matter.

  • In part because of its extensive success in the field and its proactive approach to reducing conjugal violence, the Law Office of KALMAN SAMUELS, Attorneys, had the honour of being invited to present a discourse on this convention at the university of Paris in Nanterre on 2018-08-27 at the 8th Tri-Annual International Congress on Feminist Research in the Francophonie (8ème Congrés International des Recherches Féministes dans la Francophonie, Université Paris Nanterre, 2018-08-27)

Did you know 1 in 3 women experience physical or sexual violence? See more facts and figures from the United Nations :

  • The UN enumerates various facts about violence perpetuated towards women. According to the UN, these facts are `facts everyone should know` as they are alarming and raise awareness.
  • This website also states various forms of violence that take place around the world.

Not sure you know how to define conjugal violence? Violence can take several forms, read more on how to spot whether you or someone you know may be a victim :

Since the pandemic countries, including Canada, have seen an increase of domestic violence. See what the United Nations has coined the “shadow pandemic” :

  • The United Nations has coined the uprising of violence against women, due to COVID measures “the shadow pandemic”. They call it a pandemic because, primarily, it does not only affect one country, rather many countries are seeing a rise to physical and sexual violence against women. Secondly, it’s shadow like effects are a result of the lack of reporting of these crimes.
  • They report that the measures that have been put in place to help prevent the spread of COVID are in reality stressors that are simultaneously fostering tension and the increase in violence going un-reported.

An estimated 35% of women worldwide have experienced physical or sexual violence. Find help across Canada with the following links and crisis lines :

This website has helpful links and crisis lines for each province in Canada.

Here is interactive way to scroll through the history of women’s rights throughout the world. How did we get to 2020? Who paved the way for the women rights today and how did they do it? Take a look throughout history here:

  • This is an interactive method to understand the progress of women’s rights throughout history.
  • It starts at 1840 and ends in 2020.
  • Along the way you see how the UN came to be and why they organized themselves.

Men are victims too.

Statistics Canada provides extensive data on the subject of conjugal violence. A study of these pages leads to some surprising results.

Men are far more likely to be stabbed by their female partners than the other way around. Women are more at risk during their younger years, men become increasingly at risk as they progress in age.

When looking at victims of dating partner homicide by age and sex, women outnumber men when limited to the age groups of 15 to 54. As of 55 years of age, male victims far outnumber female victims. When looking at spousal homicide, however, female victims continued to far outnumber male victims. We believe that this statistical data should keep a team of psychological theorists occupied for many years.

For definitions and an idea of the broad spectrum of violence that needs to be addressed, we refer you to the following list of forms of violence against women around the world, historical and current:

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