Analysis: Istanbul Convention no Turkish delight for Polish ruling camp

“Solidarity Poland”, part of the ruling Law and Justice (PiS), is arguing for Poland to ditch its participation in the Istanbul Convention on violence against women. It argues that Poland’s legislation on domestic violence in Poland is ahead of most countries and that the provisions of the Convention are hostile to the Church and the traditional family as well as ideological in defining gender as a cultural and social rather than biological phenomena.

In 2012, the Civic Platform (PO) led government signed the Council of Europe’s treaty to prevent and combat violence against women and domestic violence. It was later ratified by President Bronisław Komorowski in 2015. Poland has yet to complete the treaty’s implementation. Now the ruling Law and Justice (PiS) government is considering whether it may withdraw from the convention altogether.

The contents of the Istanbul Convention have aroused similar concerns in other parts of Central and Eastern Europe. Among the countries that have not ratified the treaty are Bulgaria, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Hungary and Ukraine (as well as the United Kingdom). The first country to ratify the treaty, rather surprisingly in respect of its recent record on human rights was Turkey.

The levels of domestic violence recorded in Poland are lower, according to OECD statistics, than in countries which have implemented the convention. Some, however, dispute these statistics arguing that families in Poland are still less willing to report instances of violence against women.

The ruling party recently passed legislation allowing perpetrators of domestic violence to be immediately separated from their victims. Polish legislation in this regard is among the most restrictive of domestic violence in the world.

Political battle begins

The Ministry of Justice, headed by the “Solidarity Poland” leader Zbigniew Ziobro has submitted a formal application to the Ministry of Labour and Family Policy for the government to begin the country’s withdrawal from the Istanbul Convention. However, the head of PM Mateusz Morawiecki’s Chancellery has denied that a final decision on withdrawal has been taken. It is also reported that the leader of PiS Jarosław Kaczyński has some doubts about moving ahead with such a withdrawal.

The liberal wing of the ruling camp, especially the “Agreement” party led by former Deputy PM Jarosław Gowin is reluctant to support the move to withdraw from the Convention. It perceives it as “Solidarity Poland” and Mr Ziobro attempting a course of radicalising the cultural agenda in the pursuit of “Confederation” and Catholic voters who are hostile to the gender agenda.

The moves for withdrawal from the convention have provoked protests in Warsaw. On Friday around 2,000 protesters assembled outside both the Labour Ministry and the office of Ordo Iuris, a conservative pressure group that has led the campaign in Poland against the Istanbul Convention.

Gender ‘ideology’ the sticking point

The part of the convention which relates to combating violence against women is not at issue. Polish legislation has gone beyond what is required in the Convention. The main objection is to do with the ideological character of the treaty which defines gender as a “social construct” rather than a biological phenomenon. This definition is not reflected in Polish law and conservatives want it kept that way.

Conservatives, such as Ordo Iuris argue that the treaty suggests that “relations between female and male roles” and the traditional family serve as a hotbed of violence. The conservatives therefore suspect that the convention is seeking to weaken the family as a unit.

They object to an article in the convention which obliges signatories to “include a gender perspective in the implementation and evaluation of the impact of the provisions of this convention and to promote and effectively implement policies of equality between women and men and the empowerment of women”.

Another article of the convention actually obliges signatory states to “take the necessary measures to promote changes in the social and cultural patterns of behaviour of women and men with a view to eradicating prejudices, customs, traditions and all other practices which are based on the idea of the inferiority of women or on stereotyped roles for women and men”. This conservatives take to be an attack on traditions and customs and an attempt to push countries towards forms of social engineering.

Critics of the convention also believe that it could violate the rights of parents by requiring schools to teach children about gender. The convention obliges signatories to “take, where appropriate, the necessary steps to include teaching material on issues such as equality between women and men, non-stereotyped gender roles, mutual respect, non-violent conflict resolution in interpersonal relationships, gender-based violence against women and the right to personal integrity, adapted to the evolving capacity of learners, in formal curricula and at all levels of education.”

The document omits issues such as alcoholism and the objectification of women and their image in public spaces, which some argue are conducive to violence. It is hard to argue that alcohol, substances and pornography do not contribute to domestic violence and violence against women in general.

Defence of the treaty

Adam Bodnar, Poland’s Ombudsman and many others argue that the Convention strengthens mechanisms of protection against gender-based violence. This is seen as helpful in guaranteeing that Polish law will stick to the highest standards of protection and monitoring of the problem.

Opponents of withdrawal also point to the fact that Poland has not renounced any international human rights treaty. To withdraw now would be a signal that Poland is not prepared to guarantee the protection of women’s rights. The protection of women against violence is not waterproof as the law currently leaves out former partners from the definition of ‘domestic violence’ and leaves women without support in cases such as stalking by former partners.

It is also argued that the convention effectively expands and details the definition of rape in Polish legislation. Currently, Polish legislation obliges the victim to prove that a criminal act was committed with the use of force, threat or deception, while the treaty defines rape as sexual behaviour without consent.

The convention also obliges signatories to establish facilities to support the victims of violence. Such facilities granting victims support and comprehensive risk assessment in Poland are still in short supply.

A matter of international politics and choice

The dispute however is not really about definitions of rape or support for victims. It is about the way the treaty enters the ideological terrain which creates the impression that traditional families and religion are the roots of domestic violence and violence against women.

However, the international dimension is a significant one. However, unfair this may be, Poland would get heavily criticised by human rights bodies and international organisations such as the European Commission and the UN over any withdrawal from the treaty.

Some Ordo Iuris supporters such as Marek Jurek, the former speaker of the Lower House and a prominent Catholic conservative, have argued that Poland should withdraw from the Convention and then go on to propose a charter of family rights which could first be signed by Visegrad states. However, here we enter the realms of how realistic it is to attempt agreements outside of major international organisations such as the UN, the EU or even the Council of Europe.

During the lifetime of the previous PO government Poland invested much time and effort in trying to activate the Commonwealth of Democracies. The former FM Radosław Sikorski saw that body as being a potential alternative to many UN initiatives.

It did not work out that way. Poland under the current administration has been far more active within UN structures. It has hosted one of the UN’s climate summits and was elected to the UN Security Council.

To withdraw from a Council of Europe’s convention would be out of character for Poland’s multilateral approach in most other spheres. But it would also be a sign that a major Central European state is ready and willing to make a stand on an issue of principle.