Istanbul Convention (the Council of Europe Convention on Preventing and Combating Violence Against Women and Domestic Violence) is the first most comprehensive and binding international document that aims at prevention of violence against women.
The Convention determines the measures that should be taken by the states to prevent all forms of violence against women, to protect those exposed to violence, and to take legal action against the perpetrators.
The Convention was opened for signature in May 2011, and Turkey became the first party to sign and ratify the Convention. It went into effect on 1 August 2014. As of July 2020, it was signed by 45 countries and the European Union.
International documents and mechanisms that predate the Convention
For a very long time, violence against women was regarded as a matter of “private sphere” and of protection of family in Europe. In fact, most of the time violence against women was seen not as a European but as a “non-Western” problem, and the method used for combating violence against women was a “humanitarian aid” approach. This is why the Istanbul Convention was drafted rather late despite the presence of other regional documents on violence against women in American and African countries such as the 1995 Belém do Pará Convention and the 2003 Protocol to the African Charter on Human and People’s Rights on the Rights of Women in Africa. However, together with European feminists’ conceptual works and actions around the concept of violence against women and actions carried out by global women’s and feminist movement which have transformed the mechanisms of international law, this way of thinking has changed. Therefore, violence was no longer restricted to the private sphere and started to be regarded as a public issue. “Humanitarian aid” approach was replaced by the rights-based approach. Accordingly, a life free of violence came to be seen as a fundamental human rights and violence against women was defined as a human rights violation.
The most important international document and mechanism that predates the Istanbul Convention is the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women, also known as CEDAW. However, CEDAW (1979) did not address violence against women. General Recommendations (of which No. 12, 19 and 35 are the most important), which have been adopted thanks to the efforts and pressures of women all around the world, rendered the link between violence against women and discrimination visible. Another important development prior to the Istanbul Convention is the acceptance of women’s rights as human righst in the World Conference on Human Rights which was hold in Vienna in 1993 and the proclamation of the “UN Declaration on the Elimination of Violence against Women” in the same year. In 1994, the mandate of UN Special Rapporteur on Violence against Women was established in order to research forms and dynamics of violence against women and draft new legal documents. A year later, in the 1995 Beijing Fourth World Conference on Women, violence against women was included in the 12 critical areas of concern which should be immediately addressed.
In Europe, the case law formed by the ECtHR rulings regarding violence against women secured the constitution of a binding monitoring and evaluation. ECtHR cases such as X and Y v. the Netherlands (1985), Bevacqua and S. v. Bulgaria (2008), Opuz v. Turkey (2009) and M.C. v. Bulgaria (2003) emphasized the relationship between violence against women and discrimination against women as well as underlined the state obligation to protect women from violence. As the article titled “From Feminist Legal Project to Groundbreaking Regional Treaty” co-authored by Feride Acar and Raluca Maria Popa, which tackles the drafting process of the Istanbul Convention, shows that during the negotiations of the Istanbul Convention, these ECtHR judgements strengthened feminist lawmakers’ hands vis-à-vis the defenders of the gender neutral penal approach.
In the case of the Council of Europe, an important development predating the codification of the Convention was the adoption of the Recommendation No. 5 in 2002. With this recommendation on “the Protection of Women against Violence” by the Committee of Ministers of the Council of Europe to the member states, monitoring of the member states’ actions on the subject in question and defining future actions were prioritized. Encouraged by this development, the Council started a campaign. Within the scope of the campaign, a special committee of seven independent experts including Feride Acar was formed and the committee conducted research on and undertook the assessment of violence against women in European countries. The Campaign to Combat Violence against Women (2006-2008) revealed that violence against women, including domestic violence, is strikingly widespread in Europe (45% of women stated that they were subjected to male violence). It also provided an analysis pertaining to the responses against the violence women are exposed in the member states. At the end of this two-year-long process, a report was published. Based on the data obtained from this report, various recommendations were made to both the European countries and the other countries in general. More importantly, the idea of a legally binding convention in Europe emerged. The Committee of Ministers adopted the idea and set up an ad hoc committee named “Ad Hoc Committee on Preventing and Combating Violence against Women and Domestic Violence” (CAHVIO) to draft the convention. The Council asked member states to delegate two representatives who are experts on law and women’s studies. Feride Acar, once again, was the representative of Turkey in the Committee. Following a controversial process negotiation, the details of which are written by Acar and Popa in their article, the Istanbul Convention was drafted.
Highlights of the Convention
The Convention explicitly historicizes and points at the close link between violence against women and gender inequality. The Preamble clearly states that “historically unequal power relations” between women and men have led to male domination over women and discrimination against women, and that violence against women is a manifestation of these power relations. None of the international documents that predate the Istanbul Convention have emphasized this point as explicitly. In fact, CEDAW Committee’s General Recommendation 35 on gender-based violence against women (updating General Recommendation 19) which was inspired by and issued after the Istanbul Convention emphasizes the relationship between gender inequality and gender-based violence.
Secondly, as frequently repeated, 4P principle proposed in the Convention offers a comprehensive roadmap for eliminating violence. Thus, the Convention adopts a holistic approach and designates the concrete steps to be taken to work in coordination. In doing so, the Convention explicitly addresses the state and lists the obligations of the state. In the Prevention section, the first of the 4P, the Istanbul Convention clearly provides a to-do-list to eliminate sexism, to ensure an egalitarian perspective in the society and to empower women. The second section, Protection, specifies the general and specialized support mechanisms that women who are subjected to violence need and that should be established. The third section, Prosecution, sets out the factors necessary for effective investigation, evidence gathering, and penalization even if women do not file complaints. Finally, the principle of Integrated Policies envisages the development of comprehensive and coordinated policies and prevention of secondary victimization of women by ensuring coordination between agencies.
Addressing all forms of violence, the Convention protects women irrespective of the form of relationship between the women who are exposed to violence and the perpetrators. Being inclusive of girls, citizen and non-citizen women, and without classifying women under one category, the Convention adopts a framework which takes into consideration the differentiation among women as well as the diverse needs stemming from these differences.
To exemplify what has been so far discussed, when we examine the words and actions of organizations which have been working on violence against women and which have been supporting women personally, we can see that what has been emphasized was grounded in women’s experiences and has been experienced by women working in the field in practice. These organizations have long been telling us that violence is inextricably linked to
gender inequality, that coordination between agencies (both national and international) is of significant importance in combating violence, and that support and protection mechanism for women should be created in accordance with the diverse needs of women.
Another significance of the Convention pertains to the operation of the monitoring mechanism. According to the procedure that we know from CEDAW monitoring processes, the Committee of Experts conducts monitoring by reviewing country reports together with shadow reports written by independent women’s/feminist organizations. Monitoring meetings are organized for short periods of time in cities such as New York and Geneva. While the state delegations can participate in meetings at full strength, the participation of women from independent organizations, which use their own resources to take part in these meetings, remains to be limited due to economic obstacles, language barriers, etc. Due to the formal and elitist structure of the monitoring process, the venue, the atmosphere and time constraints, if the women who participate in the meeting and submit the shadow reports to Committee want to further contact and communicate with the “expert” women of the CEDAW Committee, they can only do so within a limited amount of time and they can only present limited amount of information. It is not possible to find time and place to discuss what is missing in the shadow reports or the information and experience overflowing the reports which are written in an official format. Based on these shortcomings, the committee of experts, of which is Feride Acar -who has also worked in the CEDAW Committee- is a member, developed a more “participatory” method for the monitoring of the Convention while the Convention was drafted. Accordingly, the group of experts called GREVIO visits activists in various countries as is the case for the monitoring process of Turkey. The group meets both with government officials and with women, and exchanges information. In doing so, it has the chance to have meetings with a diverse group of women from different organizations. In addition, by visiting the implementation sites mentioned in the reports of the state, it has the opportunity to monitor the field on-site and examine the accuracy of the reports.
As opposed to the approach of the states and international organizations, we, the feminists who have been working in the field, very well know that it is inadequate to see international conventions as documents that are created only by “experts” and imposed upon the states from the top down. Having drawn on the experiences of and challenges faced by women who have been struggling against violence against women, the Istanbul Convention –just like any other international agreement– was written thanks to the participation and feedback of women in the field, strategic legal actions on ECtHR, the shadow reports that women have written, and the transfer of knowledge and experience that women have acquired in and through other international mechanisms. The monitoring method that was devised particularly for the Istanbul Convention attaches value to the knowledge and experience of women and feminists in the field (of course, this method is open to improvement) and this is one of the reasons among others as to why the Istanbul Convention is very important.
We are the authors of the Convention and we are not giving up on our rights
The Istanbul Convention, just like other international documents, was written by women based on the experiences of women from Turkey, has been implemented thanks to women’s efforts in every stage, and as long as it has been implemented, it has brought positive results. It is a document that we wrote and then we strive for the implementation in our country. In discussing the Istanbul Convention (and other international documents) we have often underlined at different occasions the foundational role and will of women and feminists in the formation and development of these documents; we shall say it here once again. We do not say it solely against the mainstream objections which claim to be “domestic and national”. We object to all male-dominant approaches some of which were uttered at different scales by men coming from completely contrasting political positions which constrict the subject into the relationship between the state and the international organization, which envision a unidirectional and top-down impact, and which, hence, render invisible women’s impact and labor in these processes. Demand for gender equality and a life free of violence is a right which has been defined, won, and universalized by women struggling all around the world. We are not giving up on our rights which we have gained with our own efforts.
The Istanbul Convention: https://rm.coe.int/1680462545
CEDAW General Recommendation 35: http://kadinininsanhaklari.org/wp-content/uploads/2018/08/CEDAW-General-Recommendation-35-çeviri-Nazan-Moroğlu.pdf
Feride Acar and Raluca Maria Popa’s article: From Feminist Legal Project to Groundbreaking Regional Treaty: The Making of the Council of Europe Convention on Preventing and Combating Violence against Women and Domestic Violence, European Journal of Human Rights, 2016/3