Members of the European Parliament voted overwhelmingly on May 10 for the European Union’s accession to the Istanbul Convention, which recognises violence against women as a violation of human rights and a form of discrimination against women.
The Convention covers various forms of gender-based violence against women, which refers to violence directed against women because they are women or violence affecting them disproportionately.
The Istanbul Convention, officially the Council of Europe Convention on preventing and combating violence against women, which came into force in 2014, is the first legally binding international instrument on preventing and combating violence against women and girls at international level.
It is the first international text that is legally defining violence against women and establishes a comprehensive framework of legal and policy measures for preventing such violence, supporting victims and punishing perpetrators.
As of September 2022, it has been signed by all EU member states, and ratified by 21 (Austria, Belgium, Croatia, Cyprus, Denmark, Estonia, Finland, France, Germany, Greece, Ireland, Italy, Luxembourg, Malta, Netherlands, Poland, Portugal, Romania, Slovenia, Spain and Sweden). Bulgaria, Czechia, Hungary, Latvia, Lithuania and Slovakia have not ratified the Convention.
MEPs voted to give their consent in two separate votes: On institutions and public administration of the Union with 472 in favour, 62 against and 73 abstentions; and on judicial cooperation in criminal matters, asylum and non-refoulement with 464 in favour, 81 against, and 45 abstentions.
A committee report ahead of the vote said that outside the EU, countries such as United Kingdom, Moldova and Ukraine, in the middle of a burning war, had ratified the Convention in 2022. Turkey is the only country that has withdrawn from the Convention.
The Convention defines and criminalises various forms of violence against women: psychological violence, stalking, physical violence, including rape, forced marriage, female genital mutilation, forced abortion, forced sterilisation as well as sexual harassment. It prevents violence by obliging parties to invest in education, training for experts, and treatment programmes for perpetrators. It protects victims by obliging states to establish appropriate support services.
In a written opinion, the European Parliament’s committee on legal affairs said that evidence suggests that the ratification of the Istanbul Convention has led to the creation of services for victims in many countries.
It has also triggered amendments to existing legislation and/or the adoption of new legal measures, for example, to introduce new offences (e.g. criminalisation of forced marriage and psychological violence) or stricter sanctions.
“The EU accession to the Istanbul Convention would provide for a systematic and EU-wide approach to combating gender-based violence. It would, for example, contribute to ensuring that incidents of domestic violence are taken into account when determining custody and visitation rights in relation to children. Moreover, it would also complement other efforts, such as the proposal for a directive on combating violence against women and domestic violence,” the committee report said.
The European Court of Justice, in a ruling in October 2021, found that the EU does not need to wait until all member states have ratified the Istanbul Convention before acceding to it.
The opinion also clarifies that the Council of the EU should not make the agreement of all member states a prerequisite for the accession decision. The decision in the Council of the EU to accede should be based on a qualified majority. Unanimous assent is not required.
Politico reported that in a plenary debate on May 9, several MEPs played up the May 10 vote as a seminal moment for women’s rights in Europe, but lawmakers from far-right groups criticized the convention as a by-product of “gender ideology” and accused the European Commission of trying to force the hand of countries that have not ratified the treaty.
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