Socially distanced gathering in Istanbul to protest against domestic abuse during the coronavirus outbreak on May 20, 2020. Turkey is reported to be having second thoughts about the Istanbul Convention. (Photo by Erhan Demirtas/NurPhoto via Getty)
Artillery Row

Ratifying the Istanbul Convention won’t protect British women

We must not empower an international body to meddle in matters which should be left to our own lawmakers

The glow of virtue you get from signing up to a good cause can be hard to resist. It’s very often only later, when you look at the small print in your welcome pack, that you notice that the enthusiasts who run the organisation you have just joined have committed it – and you – to supporting all sorts of other policies you don’t like at all.

Interestingly enough, it’s much the same with nations. There are any number of international conventions available for signature by the 200-odd countries in the world, ostensibly aimed at promoting some self-evident social good. Think anti-discrimination; children’s rights; disabled rights; women’s equality; and so on. Many of these have a high take-up rate, for reasons not difficult to see. Faced with a concerted campaign from activists, it can be hard for an administration to resist calls to sign up. What government wants to admit a lack of enthusiasm for, say, disabled rights, or for that matter admit that it is prevented from signing up because its laws don’t adequately protect such people? This is as true of the UK as of other countries: it is party to large numbers of these agreements.

Once a state has been hooked it’s subject to international obligations that may be difficult to get rid of

But … there is a but. Many of these conventions have provisions that carry a sting in the tail. Children’s rights, for example, are fine in the abstract. But the possibility that they may carry a requirement for, say, a ban on smacking is more problematical. Further, once a state has been hooked it’s subject to international obligations that may be difficult to get rid of: unlike individuals, it’s not just a matter of quietly cancelling your direct debit in favour of Amnesty or the RSPCA and telling them what you think.

This is all quite important because of one particular such convention, the innocuously titled Istanbul Convention on Preventing and Combating Violence against Women and Domestic Violence (the IC for short). The UK has signed this, but has not yet ratified it so as to be formally bound. The case for ratification is being heavily pressed at the moment. The psychology we just described has already been deployed, to considerable effect. Three years ago a private member’s bill from a group of largely left-leaning MPs surprisingly passed, and now requires annual reports on progress towards ratification from the Government. Last month a group called ICChange stepped up the pressure on MPs, supported by Labour MP Jess Phillips, Human Rights Watch, the Everyday Sexism Project, and for that matter even the Women’s Institute.

What is not to like about all this? Actually, a great deal.

For one thing, there’s much to be said for applying the principles of Occam’s razor to international agreements: keep their numbers as small as possible, and if something doesn’t require international co-operation, don’t sign up to them. Applying that principle here, there is precious little reason to agree to the IC. Its main requirement is that if a state ratifies it, it agrees to have laws that prevent and criminalise violence against women, from rape through to forced marriage, forced abortion, FGM, intimidation and sexual harassment. But all this we already do, and without the aid of any international treaty to make us. (True, technically we fall short of the Convention requirements in that we don’t make it illegal for our citizens to commit acts of violence abroad; but this is no big deal). If you ask whether ratifying the Convention will go beyond an exercise in transnational virtue-signalling and actually do anything substantial for victims of sexual violence in the UK, the answer is fairly clearly no.

If the only argument against signing up to the IC was that it was just another pointless but harmless gesture aimed at placating pressure groups and providing congenial work for professors of international law, there might be a case for a government giving itself a quiet life by doing so. Unfortunately this isn’t so. In several ways the IC is positively harmful, in that the small print contains a number of ancillary commitments that should give any democratic government pause. Not that this ought to surprise anyone. The IC is sponsored by the Council of Europe, a well-meaning but impeccably liberal international quango consisting of all European states and best known for administering the European Convention on Human Rights; true to its nature, its draftsmen prefer the intellectual language and concepts of international human rights activists and are impatient with populist, or for that matter popular, values.

Labour MP Jess Phillips has called on the Government to ratify the IC (Photo by PAUL ELLIS/AFP via Getty Images)

Three examples ought to be enough. To start with, one provision, Article 12, calls on governments to engage in what can only be described as official cultural manipulation. Parties, it is said, “shall take the necessary measures to promote changes in the social and cultural patterns of behaviour of women and men with a view to eradicating prejudices, customs, traditions and all other practices which are based on the idea of the inferiority of women or on stereotyped roles for women and men.” Read that again, slowly. The IC demands, with more than a whiff of totalitarianism, a treaty commitment by the government, not to persuade people of a particular position or promote argument about it, but to take administrative steps to eradicate their existing customs, traditions and practices in so far as they do not conform to an official line. Whether the estimable ladies who make up the WI realise that their leaders have signed them up to support a mini-Cultural Revolution, one can only wonder.

Secondly, the IC requires government to intervene big-time in education and in addition lean on the media. One wonders whether the earnest and well-meaning supporters of ratification have ever looked closely at Article 14. Under this, governments must at all educational levels from kindergarten to university take “necessary steps to include teaching material on issues such as equality between women and men, non-stereotyped gender roles, mutual respect, non-violent conflict resolution in interpersonal relationships, gender-based violence against women …” This provision for the compulsory instilling of a thoroughly ideological position ought to worry anyone concerned with parental rights to educate children according to their own beliefs, not to mention the ability of communities to set up schools so as educate children within reason according to their norms. Equally alarming is the second part of the same article. All this must be governmentally promoted, not only in education, but in among other places the media: put another way, governments are told to pressure news and TV outlets to toe a particular ideological line. The implications for press freedom are plain for all to see.

Thirdly, and even more worrying, is what the IC says about gender. Not only does it refer frequently to such things as gender-based violence, and require children to be taught that gender roles are bad; but tucked away in Article 3 is a statement that gender means “the socially constructed roles, behaviours, activities and attributes that a given society considers appropriate for women and men.” It is hard to see this as anything other than a requirement that the state officially take sides in the gender debate. Under the IC the state must apparently enforce as official ideology, and teach to the young as fact, the controversial and almost cultish idea that gender is simply a social construct. This may be acceptable to those who have spent their lives in universities or attending conferences of like-minded professionals: it is not acceptable to anyone who thinks that such matters should be open to free discussion free from official intervention.

You might think all this is a bit exaggerated. After all, the IC is merely a rather remote international treaty, and its words are often vague and manipulable. Why doesn’t the government simply sign up and then fudge the issue if it comes across popular or electoral pushback on the difficult issues? Unfortunately it’s not as easy as that. For one thing, the UK government sets great store by its respect for international law; and as a matter of international law a government remains committed to observe the terms of a treaty even if its electorate disagrees. (Indeed, this is one reason why progressive internationalists love embodying their principles in conventions: it protects them from later questioning by unenlightened electorates).

The Istanbul Convention demands the putting beyond democratic control of large swathes of social policy

There is a more important point, however. The IC creates a cadre of 15 people called GREVIO, or the Group of Experts on Action against Violence against Women and Domestic Violence, consisting in practice of selected professionals who can be trusted to agree with its objectives and share the internationalist mindset. To this body to which each state, rather like a worker on probation, is required periodically to outline its progress, and in turn to receive reports on what GREVIO thinks it could do better. Obviously the UK has never received a report from GREVIO. But its experience with similar bodies connected with other conventions has not been good, and gives a good idea of what can be expected. On children’s rights, for example, where the UK has ratified the relevant convention, it has faced impertinent and peremptory demands to sever links between the armed forces and schools, to impose mandatory state-dictated sex education, to set up youth parliaments and to abolish the 11-plus: demands it has had some difficulty in resisting. There is no reason to think GREVIO’s reports would be any less intrusive, or any more accommodating of what voters might actually want in a democracy.

What we have in the IC, in other words, is a convention which, while providing little or no advantage to the victims of violence, demands the putting beyond democratic control of large swathes of social policy and the imposition of measures likely to be unacceptable to many of its voters. At least two EU countries, Bulgaria and Slovakia, have seen this and flatly refused to ratify it, despite intense pressure from the EU and the UN. Even more interestingly Turkey, having ratified, is reported to be having second thoughts and to be thinking of withdrawing. Given these facts, the UK government needs to think very carefully indeed before taking the easy way out and committing itself to this unnecessary and fatally-flawed agreement.

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