Violence against women: UK ratifies Istanbul Convention but excludes protection for migrants
The UK ratified the Council of Europe Convention on preventing and combating violence against women and domestic violence (known as the ‘Istanbul Convention’) in late July, ten years after first signing it.
Despite the delay, ‘this is a big step towards improved support for survivors, more effective prosecution, and gender equality in the UK,’ says Christina Blacklaws, Member of the IBA Women Lawyers’ Committee Advisory Board and former President of the Law Society of England and Wales.
The ratification is legally binding and ‘will enable relevant organisations to hold the government to account for tackling violence against women according to its standards’, she adds.
The Convention, Europe’s first legally binding instrument on violence against women, defines such violence as discrimination and a human rights violation. Ratification obliges states to undertake comprehensive legal and practical measures that offer a ‘holistic response’, supporting the Convention’s four broad aims: prevention of violence, protecting victims, prosecution of perpetrators and implementation of coordinated policies.
Ukraine also ratified the Convention in July, with rights groups highlighting the heightened risk of sexual violence as a result of Russia’s invasion.
Anne Ramberg, Co-Chair of the IBA’s Human Rights Institute (IBAHRI), tells Global Insight that ‘by defining the violence as a violation of human rights as well as an infringement of a legally binding convention […] the compliance pressure on the states is fortified’.
Anyone who has suffered domestic abuse must be treated as a victim first and foremost, regardless of immigration status
Member, IBA Women Lawyers’ Committee Advisory Board
Ramberg, who’s also an ad hoc judge at the European Court of Human Rights, emphasises that international and regional protections have a ‘stronger impact’ on governments than national protections. She highlights that states are subject to the Convention’s monitoring mechanism – the Group of Experts on Action against Violence against Women and Domestic Violence – which can also adopt general recommendations on concepts relevant to the Convention, such as the digital dimension of violence against women.
‘One of the main goals is also to promote international cooperation,’ she adds, arguing that gender-based violence is not a national or private matter but one that has clear public and international dimensions. ‘Violence is a structural problem and should be treated as such also in the political and public discourses.’
The Convention calls on all of society, not just the government, to get involved. Blacklaws says it’s ‘vital that the legal profession support the Convention’s aims. In the UK, many large law firms support domestic violence charities and provide pro bono legal advice and support for those who are not eligible for legal aid. This is an important role and ensures many are able to access justice who otherwise would not.’
However, the UK has been criticised for reserving the right not to be bound by Article 59, which compels states to protect migrant women whose residency status is dependent on that of an abusive spouse or partner, including by suspending deportation proceedings to allow victims to apply for residence permits.
The UK’s Home Secretary, Priti Patel, said the reservation was applied to ‘enable us to ratify the convention before the evaluation of the Support for Migrant Victims scheme concludes, at which point we will consider the policy issues involved substantively, and whether that reservation should continue’.
The scheme, introduced alongside the Domestic Violence Act in 2021, was created to address ‘evidence gaps’ regarding the needs of migrant women whose visas have the condition ‘No Recourse to Public Funds’ attached.
Southall Black Sisters, a non-governmental organisation established to address the needs of Black and minoritised women suffering domestic abuse, leads the government’s pilot of Support for Migrant Victims, but claims the scheme does not provide holistic support, is ‘unambitious’ in scope and ‘seriously limited’ in funding. The scheme only reaches 500 migrant women each year for 12 weeks, and does not offer a safe reporting mechanism, leaving women ‘trapped in abuse through fear of being subject to immigration enforcement if they report abuse’, according to the Southall Black Sisters.
In June, a House of Lords International Agreements Committee report on the ratification of the Istanbul Convention condemned the reservation. ‘We do not see any justification for the reservation […] and regret that the Government did not ensure that the Convention could be ratified without such a reservation’, read the report.
‘The worry is that this effectively creates a two-tier system where migrant victims are not afforded the same protection as non-migrant victims,’ Blacklaws says. ‘Anyone who has suffered domestic abuse must be treated as a victim first and foremost, regardless of immigration status.’
A spokesperson for the UK’s Home Office told Global Insight that: ‘The decision to exclude the article does not impact a migrant victim’s ability to get support and regularise their stay here’. It added that the UK’s ratification of the Istanbul Convention ‘sent a strong message that we are committed to tackling violence against women and girls’.
These ratifications come at a time when the Convention faces backlash from some states. In 2021, Turkey became the first and only country to formally withdraw from the Convention, with its government claiming the Convention was not needed in light of national protections. Poland has also discussed withdrawing and creating an ‘alternative treaty’.
Opponents of the Convention in both countries have increasingly argued that its principles on gender equality encourage divorce and undermine family values, and that it promotes a harmful ‘gender ideology’ and homosexuality.
The Convention defines gender as the socially constructed roles, behaviours and attributes assigned to the two sexes that a ‘given society considers appropriate for women and men’. It explains that ‘certain roles or stereotypes reproduce unwanted and harmful practices and contribute to make violence against women acceptable’.
In 2011, Turkey became the first country to sign the Convention, ratifying it the next year through a unanimous parliamentary vote. Opinion polls carried out in Turkey in 2021 suggested that 84 per cent of the public opposed the country’s withdrawal from the Convention.
Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, Turkey’s President, withdrew the country from the Convention by presidential decree, which was announced in the Official Gazette and was condemned by critics for bypassing the Turkish parliament. Bar associations, women’s rights groups and other parties launched strategic litigation to reverse the decree in light of concerns about its constitutionality, but in July Turkey’s top administrative court ruled that Erdoğan’s decision was lawful.
The IBAHRI condemned the withdrawal last year, arguing it ‘put women at greater risk of domestic and other forms of violence at a time when more action is needed to protect women’.