In this post Dr Gizem Guney (Doctoral Tutor in Law and Sociology at the University of Sussex, and recent PhD graduate) analyses the Istanbul Convention, with a specific focus on its recognition of the ‘right to be free from gender-based violence’ as an independent and standalone human right. Examining the potential implications of this approach within the women’s rights framework, she questions whether this could be a step forward to reconstruct the male subject of rights.
The Istanbul Convention in Context
We have left behind 2019 with a worrisome level of gender-based violence against women (VAW) across Europe, alongside the evident failure of domestic laws to address the problem efficiently. The Council of Europe Istanbul Convention remains the most prominent legal tool to address VAW in Europe, as the first legally-binding treaty specifically devoted to all forms of VAW (and domestic violence) within the European human rights framework.
Although the Istanbul Convention entered into force only five years ago, it has already been acceded to by a high number of Council of Europe member states (at the time of writing, 45 signed and 34 ratified). With this high rate of accession to the Convention, one could claim that the Istanbul Convention has proved its potential for reconstructing gender policies across Europe.
At this point, it is noteworthy to underline that the UK is one of the countries which has not yet ratified the Istanbul Convention. Although the Convention was signed in 2012, and the former SNP MP Eilidh Whiteford’s Bill, which requires the Secretary of State to produce an annual report each year setting out the steps to ratify the Convention, passed in 2017, legal reforms are still needed to align UK laws with the Convention. One provision of the Convention (Article 44), which obliges states to prosecute criminal conduct even when that conduct is committed outside their territory (extra-territorial jurisdiction), has been particularly contentious in the UK context.
The Domestic Abuse Bill, which aimed to close the normative gap in UK law with regards to the Istanbul Convention (including extra-territorial jurisdiction) fell due to the prorogation of the parliament last year. Despite campaigners emphasising the pivotal nature of the Bill and Boris Johnson’s promise to bring it back, considering the current ambiguity around European laws in the context of Brexit, there is enough reason to not hold one’s breath for the resurrection of this Bill in near future.
Nevertheless, the potential of the Convention is worthy of discussion, particularly its recognition of VAW as an independent human rights violation. The rest of the article focuses on this.
The Istanbul Convention’s Recognition of VAW as an Independent Human Rights Violation
There are many firsts that the Istanbul Convention achieves, at least in theory, yet its practical success remains to be seen. In this article, I explore particularly Article 3(a) of the Convention, which defines all forms of VAW and domestic violence as both a form of ‘discrimination’ against women and a ‘human rights violation’. In doing this, the main focus is on the potential implications of defining VAW as a ‘human rights violation’, together with a brief commentary on the Convention’s approach to ‘discrimination’.
Starting with the discrimination aspect, the Convention identifies VAW as a form of discrimination against women on the grounds that VAW is a manifestation of historically unequal power relations between women and men, and therefore a structural problem. What is striking here is that the Convention brings this discrimination reading without any need for proof, such as the unequal treatment of women before the law or the evidence of women being disproportionately violated.
This is not the first time that the discriminatory nature of VAW has been established within the structures of human rights law. In its 1992 General Recommendation 19 the monitoring body of the Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) made the link between inequality and VAW, and consequently found the violation of CEDAW in VAW and domestic violence cases, although CEDAW originally did not make any reference to VAW. Similarly, and for the first time, the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR) found the violation of Article 14 of the European Convention on Human Rights (prohibiting discrimination) in the landmark 2009 domestic violence case of Opuz v Turkey. The discrimination approach of the Istanbul Convention towards VAW is therefore not novel, but essential in the sense that the discriminatory nature of VAW is being confirmed for the first time in a ‘legally-binding instrument’ in Europe.
I would like to focus in particular on the implications of the Convention in its confirmation of VAW as an independent human rights violation. VAW had previously been found by other human rights bodies to have led to the violation of numerous rights such as the right to life, the right to be free from torture, the right to privacy and so on. This was mainly due to the normative gap in the human rights treaties regarding VAW, namely the lack of a VAW provision in human rights instruments. VAW incidents therefore had to be handled under these gender-neutral human rights.
At this point, we should remind ourselves of the well-established feminist critique arguing that, under the disguise of gender-neutrality, rights are actually gendered. It is not possible to cover the critique in detail here, but it is necessary to establish that:
- Liberally constructed (gender-neutral) rights exclude women’s gendered problems in their origin and prioritise male interests.
- In other words, rights are constructed only with the imagination of men as right-holders, and with the aim to address men’s common concerns.
- Rights are constructed to a male standard and therefore the subject of rights is men.
The Istanbul Convention defines VAW as a human rights violation in itself, in its very own nature, without leaving VAW having to fit in other (gender-neutral) rights categories. VAW had been previously identified as an independent human rights violation in the Organization of American States, via the 1994 Convention of Belem do Para, the first regional treaty that specifically handled VAW. However, the Istanbul Convention is the first legally-binding treaty carrying this onto the European context.
It is important to mention that the journey to this confirmation in the Convention was not an easy one. In the drafting process, some delegations insisted that violence against women merely formed an obstacle for women to fully realise their human rights, instead of being an explicit human rights violation in itself. For example, the United Kingdom suggested the removal of Article 3(a) of the draft Convention, which categorised violence against women as a human rights violation. It proposed this article be replaced with the statement that ‘[v]iolence against women constitutes a serious obstacle for women’s enjoyment of human rights’. This proposal was heavily criticized by Amnesty International in its report, ‘Time to Take a Stand’, which opposed these amendments on the grounds that they could potentially weaken the effect of the Convention.
Deconstructing the ‘Male’ Subjects of Rights?
The questions to be asked then are:
- Why is this identification of VAW as an independent human rights violation important?
- What is the message given by the drafters of the Istanbul Convention by this?
- And, what are the potential implications of this approach in practice?
This outright recognition of the standalone ‘right to be free from VAW’, besides its symbolic value, leads to important legal implications. As the previous president of the monitoring body of the Convention, GREVIO (Group of Experts on Action against Violence against Women and Domestic Violence), said to me in an interview, this recognition means that the ECtHR and other human rights law bodies are likely to take the issue of VAW more seriously. The Convention does not leave any room for dispute as to whether VAW is a human rights violation.
This confirmation also allows victims to invoke states’ responsibility to prevent, investigate, and prosecute gender-based violence on stronger and more secure grounds. Recognising the issue as a violation under international law narrows states’ freedom to determine the manner in which they handle VAW within their jurisdictions. It therefore impedes states’ tolerance of the phenomenon, i.e. a failure to address it on effective and appropriate grounds.
As Paulina García-Del Moral and Megan Alexandra Dersnah state, ‘[t]hough the power to enforce those rights lies with the state, the ability to claim rights still has legitimising functions’. As a result of deeming VAW a human rights violation, and thus transforming the language of politics, women have a stronger hand when seeking protection against such violence, which is ‘less about whether or not states will immediately comply with the decisions of institutions (but) more about the extension of what women can demand’.
Looking at the issue from a theoretical point of view, the recognition of VAW as an explicit form of human rights violation strongly challenges the male standard of liberally constructed rights. In fact, by recognising the unique harm that results from gender-based violence (which disproportionately affects women) as a wrong in itself, the Istanbul Convention reveals a shift towards an approach whereby women’s gendered problems are handled in explicit terms, and are not left to be addressed under rights which were drawn in a gender-neutral sense, but ultimately promote male interests. This serves the feminist aim of deconstruction of the male standard within law.
This declaration of the Istanbul Convention does not impede other human rights law bodies, like the ECtHR, from addressing domestic violence cases by reference to other violations of rights contained in the instruments that they supervise, such as the right to be free from torture or ill-treatment, the right to privacy or the right to life. On the contrary, it will strengthen the grounds on which to find these violations. However, to recognise VAW as a human rights violation in itself, within a legally-binding treaty, demonstrates that the human rights law framework has finally reached a point whereby a gendered problem against women is directly integrated into the scope of human rights violations. This is a departure, in terms of the subject of rights, from a male to a female standard.
It is perhaps too early to make conceptual and assertive evaluations on such a young instrument as the Istanbul Convention. Over time, the extent to which the Istanbul Convention will have affected state policies and laws, as well as international human rights responses to VAW, will be more visible and measurable. Undoubtedly, the ongoing state report mechanism, which is supervised by GREVIO, will help clarify the picture. It can, however, still be argued that the Convention has the potential, not only to lead states making necessary legal reforms regarding VAW, but also to deconstruct and redefine the gendered foundations of human rights, which have long subordinated women.
 In the context of domestic violence cases, see AT v Hungary (CEDAW Committee, 26 January 2005) Com No 2/2003, UN Doc A/60/38 (2005); Goekce v Austria (CEDAW Committee, 2005) Com No 5/2005, UN Doc CEDAW/C/39/D/5/2005 (2007); Yıldırım v Austria (CEDAW Committee, 2005) Com No 6/2005, UN Doc CEDAW/C/39/D/6/2005 (2007); VK v Bulgaria (CEDAW Committee, 2011) Com No 20/2008 UN Doc CEDAW/C/49/D/20/2008 (2011); Isatou Jallow v Bulgaria (CEDAW Committee, 2012) Com No 32/2011 UN Doc CEDAW/C/52/D/32/2011 (2012); Angela González Carreño v Spain (CEDAW Committee, 2014) Com No 47/2012 UN Doc CEDAW/C/58/D/47/2012 (2014).
 Opuz v Turkey App no 33401/02 (ECtHR, 9 June 2009).
 Interview with Feride Acar, then President of Group of Experts on Action against Violence against Women and Domestic Violence and Retired Professor of the Faculty of Economic and Administrative Sciences in METU (Ankara, Turkey, 18 January 2017).