WARSAW – Poles are bitterly divided over steps being taken by the right-wing government to leave a European treaty against domestic violence, claiming it promotes gender “ideology” and links violence to religion.
Justice Minister Zbigniew Ziobro said Monday he has formally asked the Ministry of Family to start preparations for Poland's exit from the Istanbul Convention — an initiative of the Council of Europe, the continent's leading human rights organization. It was not clear when an official withdrawal notice would be filed.
Ziobro, who is head of a small grouping inside the ruling coalition, said he was taking the steps of his own accord and was ready to discuss their timing with other government members.
“It is time to take decisions .... to protect women, children and the family against violence but also time to give no consent to them being demoralized by norms that have been insidiously added to the valid slogans and demands for protection against domestic violence," Ziobro said on Catholic Radio Maryja.
Ziobro argued that the convention includes provisions of an “ideological character” that his ministry does not agree with. He insisted Poland’s own legislation protects women and children against violence to an even higher degree than the convention.
Council of Europe Secretary General Marija Pejcinovic Buric has said Poland's intentions to withdraw from the convention are “alarming” and encouraged a “constructive dialogue” to clarify any misunderstandings.
"Leaving the Istanbul Convention would be highly regrettable and a major step backwards in the protection of women against violence in Europe,” Pejcinovic Buric tweeted Sunday.
Also the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe said Monday that Poland's move toward withdrawal form the convention were “reason for serious concern.”
It said the Istanbul Convention is "widely recognised as the most advanced legally binding treaty to prevent and combat gender-based violence, including marital rape, forced marriages, stalking, female genital mutilations and so-called “honour crimes.”
In Poland, critics expressed outrage on social media, saying the right-wing government of the conservative Law and Justice party was ready to sacrifice women’s safety for its own views based on Roman Catholic traditions.
Warsaw's liberal mayor, Rafal Trzaskowski, runner-up in the recent presidential election, on Monday called attempts to leave to convention a “scandal,” saying that all political forces should work together to fight domestic violence.
Last week, thousands protested the government's plan in rallies across Poland.
Deputy Justice Minister Michal Wojcik, however, said that while the ministry agreed with the convention on the protection of victims of violence, there was “no consent to ideology” regarding the concept of gender as a social construct.
“There is no third sex, there is only a man and a woman,” Wojcik said.
The deputy spokesman for the ruling party, Radoslaw Fogiel, said on public-service broadcaster Polish Radio 24 that the government was analyzing the convention but had not yet made its final decision regarding the withdrawal.
Poland's previous, liberal government ratified the convention in 2015, shortly before the current administration took office after winning parliamentary elections on promises including the expanding of social welfare.
The treaty, formally named the Council of Europe Convention on preventing and combating violence against women and domestic violence, is based on the premise that women are targeted with violence just because they are women. It states that men and women have equal rights and obliges state authorities to take steps to prevent violence against women, protect victims and prosecute perpetrators.
Another point in the convention that has been questioned by Poland’s government says that “culture, custom, religion, tradition or so-called ‘honor’ shall not be regarded as justification” for acts of violence covered in the treaty. In the government's interpretation, that amounts to making a link between religion and violence.
The convention, which came into force in 2014, has been signed by 45 European countries and the European Union, but 10 countries — including Britain, Hungary, Slovenia, Bulgaria and the Czech Republic — and the EU have yet to ratify it.