The EU seeks to ratify the so called ‘anti-violence’ convention which has been at the centre of heated debates in Poland and other Visegrad countries. Only the Czech Republic views it with relative calm.
While V4 politicians argue about whether gender roles are constructed socially or biologically attempts at concrete solutions to protect women take a backseat. Many conservative politicians not only object to the theoretical bases of the document (gender) but also question the gravity of the problem of violence against women, since in their opinion in Eastern Europe it is a marginal phenomenon. The discussion concerning the document slides into issues which are not to be regulated by it, such as civic partnerships.
The anti-violence convention means for the countries that ratified it specific legal, institutional and financial obligations, i.a. subsidizing help centres for victims of abuse, launching an around-the-clock hotline, presenting a clear legal definition of violence and prosecuting sex crimes ex officio.
Up till now all four Visegrad countries signed the convention, but only Poland ratified it, in 2014. In December 2016, however, the web portal oko.press reported that the Ministry of Family, Labour and Social Policy is working on Poland leaving the anti-violence convention. After the Commissioner for Human Rights demanded explanation from the Ministry, they responded that indeed such endeavour had been underway but was now abandoned.
In February 2017 president Andrzej Duda, when asked on TV by a right wing journalist whether Poland should quit the convention, said: ‘First of all, we shouldn’t implement it’.
‘Our violence regulations are very good, they work, they are being enforced’ explained the president. ‘Endorsing new regulations is unnecessary, because those already in place in Poland are working. Therefore we do not need to commit to any additional measures’ he concluded.
Indeed, the V4 countries have implemented most of the legal solutions included in the convention. An example of their qualified success in Poland are changes to the prosecution of rape - since 2014 it is prosecuted ex officio. It is an important change which led to detecting more crimes of this type. It did not, however, lead to punishing more of them. In 2014 the number of initiated proceeding rose by nearly 30% (from 1885 in the previous year to 2444), but the number of convictions dropped from 1362 to 1254.
Neither Poland nor the rest of the signatories of the convention will be held accountable for crime statistics. The signatories of the convention are judged not by the effects they achieve, which often cannot be measured, but by the so called due diligence, i.e. for example implementing particular legal solutions aimed at preventing domestic violence, protecting the victims and punishing the perpetrators.
When it comes to implementing the convention the Polish government has split record at best. On the one hand the Ministry of Justice introduced at the beginning of this year more severe sentences for sex crimes and crimes against children. On the other, one of the first decisions of Zbigniew Ziobro upon becoming the Minister of Justice was to revoke subsidies for experienced women organisations working on preventing domestic violence.
Helping the victims of abuse it is just as important as introducing legal solutions. In order to provide support it is essential to lay the groundwork at local police stations, social welfare centres and organizations. Meanwhile in Poland such support isn’t standardised. In 2016 the police filled more than 76 thousand ‘blue cards’ - records of suspected domestic abuses. Almost 7,500 of those were in the city of Olsztyn, whereas for example in Warsaw there were only 3,500. This, however, does not mean that among the 2 millions inhabitants of Warsaw there are half as many domestic abusers as there are among the nearly 200 thousand inhabitants of Olsztyn.
Another problem is the fact that victims of violence often do not report it. ‘Sexual violence is a hidden phenomenon’ - says Agnieszka Kozłowska Rajewicz, the government plenipotentiary for equal status of men and women from 2011 to 2014, now an MEP and a member of the EP Committee for Women’s Rights and Gender Equality - ‘Awareness is an important factor of reporting crimes. Just because in Poland a smaller number of people report or declare that they have been victims of abuse, does not mean that abuse in Poland is less common but that it is a more hidden phenomenon than in other countries. When it comes to sexual violence it is estimated that only about 4% of cases are communicated to anybody’ - claims the MEP.
‘We all oppose violence against women and we cannot ignore women suffering. Yet we cannot also pretend that this ordeal will be put to an end by the ideologically charged Istanbul convention. If the EU signs it, the definitions of crimes included in the convention will be tainted by gender ideology in all member states’ - said Jadwiga Wiśniewska (PiS) during the first debate on EU’s accession to the convention in November 2016.
Marek Jurek (PiS) and the Slovak MEP Ana Záborská (EPP, SK) introduced two minority opinions to the resolution on EU signing the convention. Jurek repeated his formal arguments, questioning the EU’s competences regarding the problem of domestic violence.
Záborská said ‘EU’s access to the convention would mean breaching not only the treaties but basic human rights of EU citizens, such as the parents’ rights as main tutors of their children and the right of freedom of religion.’
Tadeusz Zwiefka (EPP, PO) pointed out that the debate focuses on ideological issues instead of the problems of abuse victims - ‘Helping victims of sexual abuse, prosecuting the perpetrators as well as education and actions preventing violence are comprehensive solutions presented by the convention which were agreed by the UN to be the golden rules of anti-violence policy’ - he wrote in a written statement in the debate.
The European Parliament voted in favour of the EU joining the convention by 489 votes to 114 (73%). MEPs from Visegrad countries were, on the other hand, rather sceptical. Polish MEPs were the only European delegation to oppose the access with a majority of votes - 29 out of 51 Polish MEPs opposed the proposition, while 19 were for it. In the Hungarian delegation 4 out of 20 MEPs voted for the convention, one voted against and the rest abstained (11) or were absent. Among 13 Slovak MEPs 7 supported the signing. The convention was treated more favourably by the Czechs - 17 out of 21 Czech MEPs voted in favour of it. The votes against were Christian Conservatives from KDU-ČSL (part of EPP)
Ratifying the convention (signing it entails only the intention of ratifying) by the EU will not make the document come into effect in all member states. It will, nevertheless, have a symbolic meaning and it will facilitate shaping laws protecting women rights on the European level.
At the same time when it comes to adjusting state laws to the convention’s directives Poland and other V4 countries are doing quite well. EU’s signing of the convention is disapproved of mainly in Poland, Slovakia and Hungary because it is viewed as a tool of ideological influence on the society. Meanwhile in order to better the situation of domestic violence victims it is essential to implement systemic changes, from local police stations to the judiciary. Belittling the problem by the politicians influences the behaviour of the authorities, deepens the victims’ sense of helplessness and gives the perpetrators’ the feeling of impunity.
Lenka Galetova, Barbora Belovicka, Emese Keyha, Tibor Sepsi have contributed to the article. This text was created within the joint project of four organizations: Czech Kohovolit.eu, Slovakian Demagog.sk, Hungarian Atlatszo.hu and Polish MamPrawoWiedziec.pl. English editing: Helena Teleżyńska.