Council of Europe’s ‘Istanbul Convention’ on Preventing and Combating Violence against Women and Domestic Violence
Recognised as a ‘Visionary Policy’ by the Future Policy Award 2014, this human rights convention from the Council of Europe commits those Member States which ratify it to adopt a comprehensive, multidisciplinary response to violence against women through long-term preventive actions alongside measures which ensure the prosecution of perpetrators and protection of survivors. In effect since August 2014, the ‘Istanbul Convention’ is currently the most comprehensive international instrument on violence against women and is open to accession by any State in the world, whether they are a member of the Council of Europe or not.
- The Istanbul Convention commits Member States to adopting a comprehensive, multi-disciplinary response to violence against women.
- It covers all forms of violence against women, including domestic violence. States are also encouraged to apply the convention to other victims including men, children and older persons.
- It is currently the most comprehensive international instrument on violence against women and domestic violence.
Council of Europe Convention on preventing and combating violence against women and domestic violence CETS No.210. [In English]
- Inter-American Convention on the Prevention, Punishment and Eradication of Violence against Women (Convention Belém do Pará), 1994. [In English]
- Protocol to the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights on the Rights of Women in Africa (Maputo Protocol), 2003. [In English]
- United Nations Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW), 1979 and its Optional Protocol, 1999. [In English]
- United Nations Committee on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women Recommendation No. 19 on violence against women, 1992. [In English]
- United Nations Declaration on the Elimination of Violence against Women (DEVAW), UN General Assembly resolution 48/104 of 20 December 1993. [In English]
- Council of Europe Recommendation Rec(2002)5 of the Committee of Ministers to Member States on the protection of women against violence of 30 April 2002. [In English]
The Istanbul Convention is the first regional instrument on violence against women and domestic violence in Europe, and currently the most comprehensive worldwide. In addition to Council of Europe Member States, it can also be ratified by the European Union and is open to any State in the world.
The Convention codifies existing international standards on violence against women stating it clearly as a violation of human rights as well as a form of gender-based discrimination. It introduces a definition of domestic violence and provides for detailed criminal law measures. The Convention also introduces a gender perspective throughout by introducing a general obligation for States Parties to integrate a gender perspective into the implementation of its provisions.
Its comprehensive approach is in accordance with recommendations made by international organisations and experts with respect to a state response to violence against women. Many experts, including women’s rights advocacy organisations and practitioners, agree that the Istanbul Convention is today the best existing instrument at the international level, which even before its entry into force on August 1st 2014, inspired policy improvements at national level.
Once ratified and implemented, the Istanbul Convention has strong potential for guaranteeing women a life free from violence, as it sets very high standards. Its impact will depend on the strength of its accountability mechanisms, which foresee the strong involvement of civil society as well as national parliaments. It was therefore awarded the World Future Council’s newly created “Vision” Future Policy Award, as the most promising policy approach which can prove its effectiveness in the years to come.
As of April 2015, the Istanbul Convention has 37 signatories and has been ratified by 17 States (Albania, Andorra, Austria, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Denmark, Finland, France, Italy, Malta, Monaco, Montenegro, Portugal, Serbia, Slovenia, Spain, Sweden and Turkey).
Our “Best Policies” are those which meet the Future-Just Lawmaking Principles and recognise that interrelated challenges require interconnected solutions. The World Future Council’s unique research and analysis ensures that important universal standards of sustainability and equity, human rights and freedoms, and respect for the environment are coherently considered by policy-makers.
- Art. 8 of the Istanbul Convention clearly specifies that adequate financial and human resources shall be allocated to state responses to violence against women and domestic violence and to NGO activities in the field.
- At the Council of Europe level, special funding is allocated to the monitoring mechanism and to promoting the Convention.
- The Istanbul Convention takes an explicit human-rights based, victims’ rights centred approach.
- It clearly encourages a gender sensitive perspective (Art. 6) and recognises historical power relationships between men and women.
- Violence targeting minority groups of women is also taken into account.
- A special emphasis is placed on specialised support services (as well as general services) to empower women.
- Prevention activities are a major component of the Istanbul Convention (Chapter III) and include awareness-raising campaigns, school-based programmes, specialised trainings for professionals, programmes for perpetrators, and partnerships with the private sector and the media.
- It requires regular data collection (disaggregated by sex) and research, and that the States make this available to the Group of Experts on Action against Violence against Women and Domestic Violence (GREVIO) as well as to the public.
- International NGOs participated as observers in the negotiations; partnerships with women’s rights NGOs (including funding) are an important component of the text; and CSOs and NGOs will have the possibility to submit alternative monitoring reports.
- The right for survivors to be informed of their rights and remedies available to them is recognised.
- It requires that survivors receive “sensitive and knowledgeable assistance“ during the complaint procedure.
- It is specified that measures related to the protection of survivors, including their rights during any related procedure, should be approached with gender understanding and focus on their human rights and safety, avoiding secondary victimisation and increasing their empowerment.
- The Istanbul Convention has clear provisions for an independent monitoring mechanism. [Council of Europe: About Monitoring]
- It requires that a body (or several) be set up for coordination, implementation, monitoring and evaluation.
- It was drafted with the participation of different sectors (Ministries of Justice and Social/Women’s Affairs, NGOs, academics).
- A strong partnership with parliamentarians has been established, notably through the Council of Europe Parliamentary Network “Women Free from Violence”.
- Detailed provisions on protection measures are provided.
- The principle of due diligence is very strong so that States as well as individual perpetrators are held accountable for their acts of violence.
- A key strength of the Convention is that it adopts a comprehensive approach, based on prevention, protection, prosecution and service provision.
- It is the first and only comprehensive policy instrument on violence against women and domestic violence at the European level.
- It is the result of intense negotiations between 47 state delegations and therefore takes differences between CoE member states into account.
- It is open for accession by any State in the world.
The Council of Europe (CoE), a human rights organisation comprised of 47 European Member States, started working on domestic violence and violence against women towards the end of the 1980s. In 1993, on the occasion of the Third European Ministerial Conference on Equality Between Women and Men, the “Declaration on Policies for Combating Violence against Women in a Democratic Europe” was adopted, defining violence against women as “a means of controlling women, originating from the unequal power relationship still prevailing between men and women, and […] therefore an obstacle to the achievement of genuine equality between women and men” and calling for the elaboration of a plan of action to combat the phenomenon.
A “Plan of Action to combat violence against women” was released in 1997, leading later on to the adoption of Recommendation Rec(2002)5 of the Committee of Ministers on the protection of women against violence in 2002. With the adoption of Rec (2002)5, Council of Europe Member States committed to act and legislate against all forms of violence against women. Although its implementation in all 47 Member States is regularly monitored, it remained a “soft” norm and over the years it was decided that further action was needed to reduce gaps in legislation.
A European-wide campaign on domestic violence against women was carried out from 2006 to 2008 to raise awareness and build momentum for further action, eventually leading to the decision to draft a regional instrument on violence against women and domestic violence. The Ad Hoc Committee on Preventing and Combating Violence against Women and Domestic Violence (CAHVIO) was set up by the Committee of Ministers for that purpose and negotiated the text from 2009 to 2011. European civil society networks and international organisations (most notably UN agencies) took part in the negotiations as observers.
The final text of the Convention was adopted in Istanbul, in May 2011. It entered into force on August 1st 2014, following the 10th ratification by a Member State.
The objective of the Istanbul Convention, as stated in its title, is to prevent and combat violence against women and domestic violence. It rests upon the following core principles:
– it defines violence against women as a universal phenomenon and criminalises its main forms;
– it recognises unequal power relations between men and women as the root cause of violence, advocates a gender-sensitive perspective (Art.6) and it is the first international treaty which defines “gender” as the socially constructed categorisation of women and men;
– it stresses the State’s duty to protect all individuals from violence, including when it was perpetrated by state officials or during conflict (“due diligence” principle); and
– it places survivors’ rights at the core of all state response and recognises the special needs of vulnerable groups including asylum seekers (gender-based violence is recognised as a form of persecution) or children victims or witnesses of domestic violence.
The Istanbul Convention reflects a comprehensive approach covering the areas of prevention, protection (including provision of support services for survivors), prosecution, and coordinated policies. Hence in addition to its focus on survivors’ rights and protection (it notably requires that States Parties provide adequate general and specialist support services in Art. 20 and 22), it also encourages action over the longer term through prevention measures, and requires the establishment of specialised institutions (national coordinating body), partnerships (including with NGOs), substantial budget allocations and data collection/research programmes to ensure effectiveness and sustainability.
While it cannot impose national budgets, the Istanbul Convention does require that States Parties “allocate appropriate financial and human resources for the adequate implementation of integrated policies, measures and programmes to prevent and combat all forms of violence covered by the scope of this Convention, including those carried out by non-governmental organisations and civil society“ (Art. 8). This commitment can serve as the basis for civil society actors to hold their respective governments accountable with regard to appropriate funding. In addition, it is expected that the Convention’s monitoring mechanism is equipped with an on-going budget, to ensure it can function with full capacity.
The monitoring mechanism of the Instanbul Convention was inspired by the Council of Europe Convention on Action against Trafficking in Human Beings as well as the UN Convention to Eliminate all forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW). It consists of two pillars:
(a) an independent expert body called Group of Experts on Action against Violence against Women and Domestic Violence (GREVIO), and
(b) the Committee of the Parties, representing Member States. GREVIO will be made up of 10 to 15 members (10 after entry into force, 15 after the 25th ratification) and will release reports with recommendations based on States Parties’ official responses to its monitoring questionnaire, additional information received from a wide range of actors including alternative reports submitted by NGOs and, when needed, country visits. Reports will be transmitted to the Committee of the Parties, where States Parties will be asked to report back by a particular date. The Committee of the Parties will then adopt recommendations on the basis of those reports.
In addition to (and independently from) the regular reporting procedure, an urgent enquiry procedure modelled on the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) is to be developed to respond to large-scale violations whereby a State Party can be asked to submit a special report to the Committee of the Parties.
Although there is no individual or collective complaint procedure, GREVIO’s reports are to be made fully public and it is explicitly specified in the Istanbul Convention that NGOs’ as well as Parliaments’ participation must be taken into account. Therefore experts assess that it will be a transparent process and a very useful tool for civil society. Country visits are also regarded by NGOs as an opportunity for local groups to express their concerns over their country’s legislation or overall situation.
In addition, Art. 21 of the Convention requires that Parties provide information on, as well as assistance in, regional and international individual, as well as collective, complaints procedures: the central complaint procedure at the Council of Europe level, the European Court of Human Rights (based on the European Convention on Human Rights), for instance, has significant jurisprudence on violence against women and domestic violence.
The monitoring mechanism must be set up within a year of entry into force. The Ministers’ Deputies of the Council of Europe adopted on November 19th 2014 the official rules on the election procedure of GREVIO members and set March 2nd 2015 as deadline for submitting candidatures to the Secretary General. GREVIO members will have a four years term of office, renewable once. It is planned that the Committee of the Parties will elect the members of the GREVIO in the first half of 2015.
Whilst the Convention has only recently entered into force, it can already be regarded as a very promising policy:
(1) The Convention’s design is based on years of research and monitoring, and makes it an obligation for States Parties to collect disaggregated data and support research on a regular basis on the nature and prevalence of all forms of violence covered by the text and the efficiency of measures taken (Art. 10). The evidence base used for drafting includes specific examples of good practices collected during the three monitoring rounds of the recommendation Rec(2002)5, studies conducted by experts leading the CoE “Stop domestic violence against women” campaign (2006-2008), and jurisprudence from the European Court of Human Rights. It also includes experience from women’s organisations that were represented during the negotiations.
(2) The answers submitted for the fourth questionnaire monitoring the implementation of recommendation Rec(2002)5 indicate a trend towards more comprehensive policies to tackle violence against women, and reforms have been recently passed to criminalise more forms of violence against women (e.g. forced marriage in the UK and France, stalking in the UK and Poland, female genital mutilation in France). A significant number of CoE Member States have also introduced the legal foundation for the issuance of emergency barring orders as required by Art. 52 of the Convention and have developed minimum standards for support services. Also, new laws have been or are being adopted based on the Convention, such as in Turkey (2012). As the Convention is so detailed and practical, some experts argue it can be used as a “checklist” when developing legislation and policies.
Research undertaken by experts for the Council of Europe and the results of the monitoring rounds of Rec(2002)5 indicate that the drafting of the Istanbul Convention was inspired by existing good practices in law and policy, from a range of member states of the Council of Europe and beyond. The Istanbul Convention is a pioneer in Europe, filling a legislative vacuum, notably since the European Union has taken the position that it has no competence to legislate comprehensively on violence against women. It is often described as a “gold standard” for a comprehensive policy approach on ending violence against women at the global level. It is a high standard of policy-making and, since it is open for accession by any State in the world it can be an effective policy tool to end violence against women and girls globally.
Council of Europe, “Council of Europe Convention on preventing and combating violence against women and domestic violence, Istanbul Convention: A global tool to prevent and combat violence against women and girls”.
Explanatory Report, Council of Europe Convention on preventing and combating violence against women and domestic violence (CETS No. 210).
Council of Europe, EG (2004)5, “Violence against Women: Compilation of the main texts of the Council of Europe since 1995”, 2002.
Council of Europe, MEG-3 (93) 22, Third European Ministerial Conference on equality between women and men (Rome, 21-22 October 1993), “Strategies for the elimination of violence against women in society: The media and other means”.
The Istanbul Convention (2011): Combating violence against women and domestic violence
"The Convention on preventing and combating violence against women and domestic violence was opened for signature in May 2011 in Istanbul, Turkey. The Convention is also open to accession by non-European countries and by the European Union. Johanna Nelles, from the Council of Europe, explains what the Convention is and how it works."