The 11 May marked the 10th anniversary of the opening for signature of the Council of Europe Convention on preventing and combating violence against women and domestic violence, commonly known as the Istanbul Convention.
The Convention is the first legally-binding instrument which creates a comprehensive legal framework and approach to combat violence against women. It covers all forms of violence against women and girls (not just that which occurs in the domestic sphere) and includes offences such as rape and stalking.
The Convention is focused on preventing violence, protecting victims and prosecuting offenders. It has been signed by 45 countries, yet 12 – including the UK – have yet to ratify, and several European countries have now indicated that they will not ratify, or have subsequently denounced the Convention.
Given the significant increase in concerns about violence against women, particularly following the death of Sarah Everard, what has gone wrong? What, if anything, can be done to increase support for the Convention in the UK?
The UK signed the Istanbul Convention in 2012, but it quickly became apparent that the UK’s domestic laws were not in a fit state to meet its requirements. In a report published in 2015, Parliament’s Joint Committee on Human Rights (JCHR) highlighted a number of issues that needed to be resolved.
These included criminalising psychological violence; ensuring extraterritorial jurisdiction (so that a UK national or person who lives in the UK could be prosecuted for certain conduct committed outside the UK) and providing support to victims with refugee and migrant status.
By 2017, little had changed and parliamentarians backed a Private Members’ Bill which required the Government to make annual reports on progress towards ratification. Sadly, this had only limited impact.
The issue came to the fore again during the passage of the much delayed Domestic Abuse Act 2021. The Government made clear that it would make provision for extraterritorial jurisdiction and that separate legislation, before the Northern Ireland Assembly, would deal with the unresolved question of criminalising psychological violence in that jurisdiction. This left open a final issue: providing support to migrant victims.
In February 2021, the House of Lords International Agreements Committee held an evidence session with Victoria Atkins MP, a Home Office Minister with responsibility for violence against women and girls. It quickly became clear that the Government was still unable to provide a clear commitment to ratifying the Convention, even after the passage of the Domestic Abuse Act.
She stated that the Government was tendering for a pilot scheme designed to support migrant victims, but was unable to commit to a timescale for ratification, amid concerns from peers that this could be pushed back for years.
At the end of the session the Committee wrote to the Home Office, noting that it was ‘deeply concerned’ that the Government was unable to give any assurances as to the timetable for ratification, particularly given the slow progress since 2012.
It noted proposals to amend the Domestic Abuse Bill to introduce a clause which would provide adequate support to all victims of domestic abuse, regardless of their migration status and stated that ‘it should be possible for a clause of this type to be made to align with immigration control measures.’
Unfortunately, despite significant efforts in the House of Lords, this clause was resisted by the Government and the question of how to help all migrant victims of violence remains unresolved.
Given the particularly vulnerable situation that they may face, including the risk of deportation when they report domestic abuse, one is left with the impression that protecting all women from domestic violence is not the priority of the Home Office in circumstances where such a policy might hinder immigration enforcement.
Yet, providing migrant victims with support, even if this is only temporary, is the only way that the UK will be able to meet its obligations under the Convention and is clearly the right thing to do.
What are the consequences of the UK’s continuing failure to ratify the Istanbul Convention? As a matter of principle, many believe it is inappropriate for the UK to sign a Convention and then leave it unratified for such an extended period.
This clearly hinders the UK’s ability to provide international leadership in this vital area – a point which was stressed by the JCHR in 2015. This is important as, over the past few years, the Istanbul Convention has faced criticism in a number of other states.
In March, it was reported that Turkey would denounce the Convention, following the example of Poland, which left in 2020 (principally on the grounds that it argued that the Convention promoted an ideological agenda, including LGBT rights). The Convention has also been rejected in Bulgaria, Hungary and Slovakia.
The UK has also made little recent headway in tackling its own issues with violence against women.
The Office for National Statistics reported that, in a twelve month period ending in March 2020, ‘an estimated 2.3 million adults aged 16 to 74 years experienced domestic abuse’ and the lockdowns imposed during coronavirus pandemic is likely to have made this worse.
In the same period, it was reported that 207 women had been killed in Great Britain and that about 57% of female victims were killed by someone they knew, most commonly a partner or ex-partner.
The ratification of the Istanbul Convention is hardly a panacea for these problems. But it would emphasise that the state has a positive duty in law to intervene in a proactive way to modify practices that result in harm, violence and degradation to women and girls.
It is frankly embarrassing that, after almost a decade, the Government is still not in a position to provide clear assurances that it will now meet its obligations and ratify the Convention this year.
By Alexander Horne, a barrister and former legal adviser to the House of Lords International Agreements Committee until April 2021. This article is written in his personal capacity.