In January of this year, the Council of Europe finished drafting the groundbreaking Convention on preventing and combating violence against women and domestic violence (CAHVIO).
Starting from the understanding that “violence against women is a manifestation of the historically unequal power relations between men and women,” this important legislation adopts a holistic approach to combating a scourge that takes many forms across the continent. Curbing violence not only requires measures targeting the violence itself, but also policies and legislation to remove obstacles standing in the way of gender equality and empowering women.
Drafting a text acceptable to the 47 member states took nearly two years of intense negotiations. Each word was carefully weighed to produce this new convention, which will be legally binding and include mechanisms to monitor and support implementation once it is approved.
Feride Acar of Ankara’s Middle East Technical University, one of Turkey’s leading advocates on women’s rights as well as a member and former president of the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW), played an active role in drafting this key document. It is to the credit of Turkey’s government that it chose such an experienced advocate to represent the country.
After the writing team had wrapped up its work and unveiled the final draft, a few member states began to raise new objections, suggesting amendments that would dilute the provisions of the treaty. Amnesty International, one of several NGOs involved in drafting the new legislation, recently published a detailed briefing note on the proposed changes, expressing its concerns and opposing any modification of the existing text.
Human rights activists were disappointed, but perhaps not entirely taken aback, by the Holy See and Russia’s attempts to remove sexual orientation and gender identity as impermissible grounds for discrimination and their proposal -- which should be opposed -- to exclude violence against lesbian, bisexual and transgender women from the scope of the convention. But they were particularly surprised and frustrated when it emerged that the country seeking the most amendments was the United Kingdom.
The UK’s long wish list even included a proposed change to the definition of violence against women, identified as a violation of human rights in international legislation since the 1990s. Britain would prefer substituting the vaguer notion that violence constitutes an “obstacle” to women’s enjoyment of human rights.
Equally unexpected was London’s proposal to delete reference to armed conflicts and limit the applicability of the new convention to peacetime. Conflicts around the globe, including the Bosnian war in Europe, which is still fresh in memories across the continent, have shown that women are often the target of rape during wartime. Just as British Home Secretary Theresa May was launching a new strategy to tackle gender-based violence at home, her government sought to remove the notion of “due diligence,” which requires states to take a comprehensive approach to prevent, investigate and punish violence, from the new international agreement. And while Britain had adopted legislation against forced marriage under the Labour government, it now objects to criminalizing it under the new convention, even though, as Amnesty points out, forced marriage “often involves violence, threats and rape.”
Italy, increasingly intolerant in the face of a migrant influx, would like to change the wording of an article on migrant women so as to limit their protection, while Russia wants to water down an article requiring that the state ensure gender-based violence is recognized as a form of persecution in the context of the 1951 Convention on the Status of Refugees.
The text of this binding convention, which addresses all forms of violence against women, is the most comprehensive European treaty on the subject. Expected to be submitted to the Council of Ministers in May, it is the result of years of campaigning on the part of the Council of Europe. Last-minute attempts to re-open the discussion at this late stage should be resisted. As Amnesty International put it, it is “time to take a stand to oppose violence against women in Europe.”
*Published in Turkey's TODAY ZAMAN on April 1.