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There is a new spectre haunting Eastern Europe. It is called the Council of Europe’s Convention on Preventing and Combating Violence Against Women and Domestic Violence. From Riga to Sofia, resistance against this so-called Istanbul Convention has been mounting in the past few months.

At the beginning of 2018, the ruling coalition in Bulgaria, which had just assumed the EU presidency, wanted to ratify the Istanbul Convention but was met with public backlash that almost led to the governing coalition’s downfall. In February, Slovakian Prime Minister Robert Fico refused to ratify the Istanbul Convention, saying it conflicted with Slovakia’s constitution and its definition of marriage as a heterosexual union; the prime minister did announce, however, that his country would implement all required legal measures to ensure compliance with European standards to protect women from violence. Meanwhile in Bulgaria, Prime Minister Boiko Borissov’s government has withdrawn its request to Parliament to approve the convention.  In Latvia, a bill to ratify the Istanbul Convention – prepared by the Ministry of Justice after much delay and initial refusal – is still being considered by the cabinet. “The Convention is considered the golden standard,” Ilze Tralmaka, Senior Legal Advisor to the Latvian Parliament, tells Muftah. “At a practical level a lot has already been done to implement these standards in Latvia.” With parliamentary elections slated for later this year, the fate of the convention is unclear at the moment.

An unholy alliance of conservative “family values” associations, opportunistic political parties, and religious leaders have teamed up against the convention, which they see as an effort by European institutions to impose their “gender ideology.” According to these groups, the Istanbul Convention is a social engineering project that undermines traditional marriage and indoctrinates boys and girls with a particular view on gender.

The Council of Europe, the Strasbourg-headquartered inter-governmental organization that is home to the European Court of Human Rights, wrote an op-ed on March 8th, International Women’s Day, to address some of the misunderstandings about the Istanbul Convention. As the Council wrote, the convention does not promote same-sex marriage, legally recognize “third sex” status, or automatically give refugee status to transgender or intersex people.

As described by the Council of Europe Commissioner for Human Rights, Nils Muižnieks, in a letter to the Latvian Parliament last year, benefits from the Istanbul Convention include the requirement that states systematically review their legislation and practices regarding violence against women. To further this objective, countries that ratify the convention must hold regular dialogues with its monitoring body, GREVIO. Ratification also sends a strong signal to domestic law enforcement and the judiciary that violence against women should not be treated as a private matter.

Whether by coincidence or not, reported incidences of physical and/or sexual violence against women by a partner or non-partner in Latvia is 39% and Slovakia is 34%, higher than the EU average of 33%, according to figures from the EU Fundamental Rights Agency. These figures are even higher than in those countries that have already ratified and implemented the Istanbul Convention. Indeed, ratification is likely to result in an immediate reduction in the number of domestic violence cases, as a result of better coordination between law enforcement and social service agencies and more coherent prosecution of perpetrators.

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