Poland has ratified the Istanbul Convention, yet announced plans to withdraw from the treaty. Related attacks on reproductive rights, the independence of the judiciary, sex education, and civil society have abounded.
The Istanbul Convention
The Istanbul Convention, or the Council of Europe Convention on Preventing and Combating Violence Against Women and Domestic Violence, was adopted in November 2011. This treaty seeks to address gender-based violence against women in all its various forms. Members are expected to amend their laws to define and criminalize violence against women and children, provide public education, and protect victims by establishing strong support services, in line with international standards.
The Status of the Istanbul Convention in Poland
Poland signed the Istanbul Convention on December 18, 2012 and ratified it on August 1, 2015. Since then, claims that the Istanbul Convention promotes so-called “gender ideology,” a conservative fiction that equates the goals of women’s and LGBTI rights activists with destroying the traditional family unit (consisting of a married man and woman and their children) have instigated threats to withdraw from the treaty. On July 25, 2020, Justice Minister Zbigniew Ziobro announced that Poland will withdraw from the treaty. The Council of Europe condemned the action in a statement released on July 26, 2020, warning Poland that such a move would have serious implications for the protection of women. Thousands in Poland began protesting after Minister Marlena Malag, Minister of Family, Labour and Social Policy tweeted on July 19, 2020 that Poland was preparing to withdraw from the Istanbul Convention. Several organizations, including the Ordo Iuris Legal Institute, have long supported withdrawal from the convention, arguing that it is a threat to traditional family values. Together, with dozens of pro-family organizations, they began collecting signatures for a citizens’ legislative initiative called “Yes to Family, No to Gender.” The petition lobbies the Polish government to withdraw from Istanbul Convention and propose an alternative treaty, the International Convention on the Rights of the Family.
The withdrawal from the Istanbul Convention and such initiatives are not a new development. Two other citizens’ initiatives recently garnered sufficient signatures to be introduced to the legislature, one of which is the Stop Pedophilia Bill. This bill would criminalize “anyone who promotes or approves the undertaking by a minor of sexual intercourse or other sexual activity.” This could include those who provide sex education or information to minors, such as health educators or providers.
The bill has been supported by the Law and Justice party, which controls the Sejm legislative body and the presidency. President Duda, relying on anti-LGBTI rhetoric, was re-elected in July 2020. State-run television speculated “on whether Duda’s presidential opponent would have forced LGBTI education on all children, whether he would replace independence-day parades with gay-pride parades, [and] whether Duda should push for a clause in the constitution banning gay marriage.” These sentiments were also echoed by a large part of the Catholic Church, including the archbishop of Krakow who has referred to homosexuals as “the rainbow plague.”
Response of Civil Society
Attacks on NGOs in retaliation for participating in marches for women’s rights have occurred. On the one-year anniversary of the 2016 demonstrations, the government raided many women’s rights organizations. Many organizations, especially those related to sexual and reproductive health, anti-violence, and non-discrimination, have seen their work demonized. Those working in the public sector, such as government employees or teachers, are under pressure not to collaborate with those organizations. Those that continue to work with the NGOs or participate in the women’s rights protests often find themselves subject to disciplinary hearings or other retaliation.
When the two new citizen’s bills were introduced in April during the pandemic, activists again protested by using online platforms, placing signs in their windows and marching in the streets while practicing social distancing. Many who left their homes now face fines of up to $7000, despite wearing masks and leaving their homes for everyday necessities.
The withdrawal from the Istanbul Convention will greatly impact victims of gender-based violence against women, both in Poland and internationally. In Poland, human rights activists will no longer have the treaty as a tool to push for legislative and societal changes. Such withdrawal sets a dangerous precedent and a is a serious backlash to women’s rights.
By Elizabeth Montgomery, Staff Attorney, Women’s Human Rights Program at The Advocates For Human Rights.
The Advocates for Human Rights is a nonprofit organization dedicated to implementing international human rights standards to promote civil society and reinforce the rule of law. The Advocates represents more than 1000 asylum seekers, victims of trafficking, and immigrants in detention through a network of hundreds of pro bono legal professionals.