A binding treaty to eradicate violence against women: from Europe, to the world?

In a previous IntLawGrrls post in this blog, Noelle Quenivet mentioned Renee Romkens’ concern about gender neutral approaches to domestic violence. Certainly during the negotiation of the treaty that became the Istanbul Convention, I shared those concerns – at the time I was representing Amnesty International, and I was present in the negotiation room and able to participate in discussions, albeit with a much lower status than state representatives. While these concerns about gender-neutral approaches to domestic violence remain, I would like to think that this was an anomaly in the negotiation, a view of a small number of delegations, unsubstantiated by clear research, that there is a symmetry between women’s violence against men, and men’s violence against women. I would like to think that this anomaly can be clarified and rectified by GREVIO practice.

To counterbalance this real concern, there are markers throughout the treaty that a gendered understanding and policy approach which recognizes the preponderance of male violence against women and girls is the appropriate road to take (see Article 6, Article 18(3) and Article 49(2)).

The research base supporting a gendered approach is extremely robust – particularly in the research of Professors Dobash and Dobash (particularly Women’s violence to men in intimate relationships: working on a puzzle).

In a recent Council of Europe conference on women’s access to justice, Professor Sylvia Walby noted that statistical flaws may account for the alleged symmetry between women’s violence against men, and men’s violence against women: a man’s lengthy course of conduct of domestic violence, involving coercive and controlling behaviour and psychological, physical, sexual and/or psychological violence will be counted as one episode of violent behaviour, whereas a single act of violent self-defence by the woman will also count as one event of violence: hence the apparent symmetry. [Further details, including Professor Walby’s PowerPoint presentation, can be found here.]

In Noelle Quenivet’s post, there was a detailed and interesting discussion of the possibilities for a global legally binding treaty. The Istanbul Convention is technically open to ratification by any state, not just states within the Council of Europe, so there is the technical possibility that the Istanbul Convention may become a global standard: as it is grounded in CEDAW requirements, this could be an effective response to violence against women.

A global treaty – drafted in negotiations where representatives of every region of the world participate – would be a handsome goal to aim towards, as long as it maintains the detail of existing human rights protections. Work on the upcoming CEDAW Committee’s General Recommendation on gender-based violence promises to be a good opportunity to appraise and recognize the detail of the existing standards and jurisprudence, for example, on definitions of crimes, survivor services, and the due diligence duty on states to prevent violence against women who are known to be at risk. As an observer in the negotiation of the Istanbul Convention, I hope that every delegation which participates in the negotiation of a global treaty on violence against women is led by a woman, and includes representatives of women’s organizations: and most importantly of all, is informed by women survivors. Taking as a benchmark the requirements in the Security Council Resolutions on women, peace and security, for women’s participation, it would be really progressive to explore various mechanisms to facilitate survivor participation – for example, either as members of delegations, or if they prefer to remain anonymous, through consultations which take place alongside the treaty negotiation sessions. These ideas could be explored from now on.

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Violence against women: a new binding standard for 2015

The Council of Europe Convention on preventing and combating violence against women and domestic violence (the Istanbul Convention) entered into force on 1 August 2014. As we begin 2015, when the members of the treaty body (GREVIO) will be elected and the process of reviewing states’ conformity with this very detailed and practical convention will begin, it is a good moment to reflect on the possibilities which come with this new binding standard.

While this is a treaty negotiated and adopted within the Council of Europe, its values and antecedents are truly global. The general recommendations, concluding observations and jurisprudence of the Committee on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination, General Assembly Resolutions on violence against women and criminal responses to violence against women, regional treaties on women’s rights from the Americas and Africa were all influential on the content, as was the UN Secretary-General’s in-depth report on violence against women of 2006 and twenty years of insights from three successive Special Rapporteurs on violence against women, its causes and consequences. The treaty was negotiated by state representatives, some of whom were past and present members of CEDAW. Others were experienced members of feminist civil society, with in-depth practical knowledge of the demands of service provision to women escaping gender-based violence.

Christine Chinkin and Renee Romkens acted as advisers to the negotiation, with great distinction. Christine brought a deep knowledge of international human rights law, international humanitarian law and international criminal law. Renee brought a deep knowledge of the sociological research base on inequality and gender-based violence. Civil society were observers – with limited opportunities to engage with the debates – including the European Women’s Lobby, the ILGA-Europe (the European Region of the International Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Trans and Intersex Association), WAVE (Women against Violence Europe) and Amnesty International – the organization I represented during the negotiations.

The Istanbul Convention deals with violence against women, including domestic violence, within a legal and policy framework of promoting women’s equality, according to CEDAW Article 1 and the transformative commitment of the entire treaty. Among its purposes is to contribute to “the elimination of all forms of discrimination against women and promote substantive equality between women and men, including by empowering women.” (Article 1b). Its 65 substantive articles are based in a practical response to what we know about the practice of violence against women, and how to eradicate it.

The treaty provides for three engines of change to take action on this knowledge basis. At the national level, there is a requirement in Article 10 to establish a coordinating institution, “responsible for the coordination,  implementation,  monitoring  and  evaluation  of policies and  measures  to  prevent and combat all forms of violence covered by this Convention” which will enforce joined-up thinking and action within each member state. It is also responsible for coordinating the collection of data on violence against women, analysing and disseminate the results of the data. States are required to cooperate positively with civil society organizations (Article 9) and provide “appropriate financial and human resources for the adequate implementation of integrated policies, measures and programmes” (Article 8).

At the international level, there will be a monitoring process by a panel of experts to whom states must provide a report on the implementation of the Convention. The GREVIO is empowered to govern its own procedures (article 68(4)), receive information from civil society (Article 68(5)) and international organizations (Article 68(8)) and make recommendations to states on how to improve their implementation of the Convention. Exceptionally, the GREVIO has powers to undertake urgent reports in order to prevent “serious, massive, or persistent” violations of the Convention (Article 68(13)), even with the power to undertake visits to countries (Article 68(14)).

The third, and most novel, engine for change is to require states parties to invite their parliaments to participate in the monitoring of the implementation of the convention (Article 70), which is apt and resonant given the huge numbers of women affected by gender-based violence. Addressing violence against women is a matter for democratic scrutiny as well as implementation of the rule of law.

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