Eight and a half years ago, the UK government signed the Council of Europe Convention on Preventing and Combating Violence Against Women and Domestic Violence – also known as the Istanbul Convention. Yet, despite the increasing prevalence of the issue, and widespread calls for them to do far more to combat it, the Tories STILL haven’t managed to ratify the treaty.
The Istanbul Convention officially came into force across its 45 signatory countries in April 2014. The document contains four pillars designed to tackle, decrease and eventually eradicate gender-based violence (GBV).
Who has signed and ratified it?
Firstly, it’s important to note that countries that sign the Istanbul Convention were not obligated to immediately ratify it. Only countries that both sign and ratify the convention are officially bound by it. Countries who sign, but do not ratify – such as the UK – show they have the intention to comply with the treaty, but this is not binding.
So far, 45 of the 47 Member States of the Council of Europe have at least signed the treaty. The two non-signatories are Azerbaijan and Russia. 34 nations have signed, ratified and entered the treaty into force, meaning they are legally bound by all four pillars of the convention. That leaves 11 countries that have signed the agreement, but not ratified it and committed themselves to the treaty – one of which is the United Kingdom.
But, given the desperate need to do more to tackle the issue – added to an apparent willingness across all sides the political spectrum to do more – why has the UK still not ratified the Istanbul Convention after 8 and a half years?
Most of the nations that have signed, ratified and brought the treaty into force generally had a sizeable gap between each of these stages – time which was generally spent organising resources and putting infrastructure into place in order to properly comply with each of the four pillars. Had the UK only signed the convention recently, it would perhaps be understandable that they had not yet ratified it. However, the UK officially signed the Istanbul convention on 8th June 2012. That will be a full nine years this summer.
Yet Sweden, for example, signed the treaty in May 2011, and ratified it in July 2014. The UK has had more than double the time it has taken the majority of other nations to ratify and bring the obligations into law. So, what’s their excuse?
Essentially, the UK does not currently have the prevention, protection, prosecution and coordinated policies in place to be able to legally meet all of the obligations if they were to ratify it. There have been promises since the UK first signed in 2012, however many of these ‘promises’ seem to be just that – and therefore, until practically implemented, the government cannot ratify the treaty as 34 other European countries have already done.
In 2016, the UK government announced the Violence Against Women and Girls (VAWG) Strategy, promising £100m of funding for ending Gender-Based Violence (GBV), and bringing the UK in line with the requirements of the Istanbul Convention. In 2019, the government produced a ‘Strategy Refresh’, to highlight what had been done since 2016 and propose a variety of new strategies. For example, the 2019 Refresh acknowledged a lack of assistance for LGBT victims of domestic violence and pledged more help in that area.
Funding has certainly been provided to achieve the goal, there’s no denying that – such as the introduction of a ‘Domestic Abuse Commissioner’ being a step in the right direction. However, many areas still fall far short of the government’s 2016 promise, and their forward-planning indicates the UK still won’t be in a position to achieve the goal of ratification any time soon.
Whilst the government’s VAWG Strategy keenly states how important preventing violence against women and girls is, this doesn’t always translate into practical action. Indeed, there are no mentions in the Budgets of either 2017, 2018 and 2020 (there was no Budget in 2019 due to the December election) of the VAWG strategy – just brief mentions of the Domestic Abuse Bill.
In October 2019, the Home Office released a Progress Report on the ratification of the Convention and the 95 actions the government believed were necessary in order to do so, stating that:
“Of these 95 actions, 54 have been completed, 29 are on track to be delivered by the date set out in 2016, and 12 remain a work in progress, due to be delivered by 2020.”
At the point of the Progress Report’s release, the outstanding issues (that break down into the 12 elements as mentioned above) were:
- Article 4: fundamental rights, equality and non-discrimination (specifically in relation to the migrant or refugee status element)
- Article 44: jurisdiction regarding where and when an offense is committed,
- Article 59: residence status
There was also an issue with Northern Ireland being non-compliant in criminalising ‘psychological violence’, as stated in Article 33.
However, whilst the Progress Report of October 2020 is just as full of self-praise and insistence that the government has done plenty for women and girls as in 2019, there has been absolutely no progress. In terms of actual numbers, the government are still in the exact same place as in the 2019 Progress Report – whereby the same 12 elements that were due to be completed by 2020 still remain a “work in progress“.
Domestic Abuse Bill
While the Conservatives have spent many years since signing the treaty allegedly committing themselves to eradicating domestic violence in the UK, the numbers tell a very different story. For example, the 2017 Budget stated that:
“The government will provide an additional £20 million over the Parliament to support organisations working to combat domestic violence and abuse, and to support victims. This builds on the government’s commitment to bring forward a Domestic Violence and Abuse Act, and increases the total funding for implementing the government’s Ending Violence Against Women and Girls Strategy to £100 million over the Parliament.”
Yet, in the spending breakdown section of the very same Budget, government spending for ‘tackling domestic violence and abuse’ over the next few years appeared be as follows:
2017-2018: £0 change in spending
2018-2019: -£10m change in spending
2019-2020: -£10m change in spending
2020-2021: £0 change in spending
2021-2022: £0 change in spending
This is confusing enough on its own, as the ‘additional £20 million’ promised in the previous statement appeared to be precisely the opposite in the actual breakdown of spending figures.
It gets more convoluted, however. In the 2020 Budget, the Tories promised an ‘extra’ £10m in spending to tackle domestic abuse for 2020-2021. This is, comparatively, still £10m less than was committed back in 2016, as the government committed £20m less funding overall between 2018 and 2020. It’s therefore another example of the Tories attempting to make themselves look better, promising ‘extra’ spending when it has already been lost. It’s a similar situation to the ‘20,000 new police officers’ promise made by the Conservatives in 2019, a number that would simply cancel out the number that had been lost during austerity.
Furthermore, in July 2020, a Conservative majority voted down amendments to the Domestic Abuse Bill that would ensure financial support is accessible for all migrant women through the creation of an exemption to the ‘no recourse to public funds’ rule. With statistics showing that migrant and asylum-seeking women are most likely to experience destitution and repeat victimisation, such an action is downright dangerous for minority women in the UK.
What is the significance of the UK’s non-ratification?
The UK’s failure to ratify the Istanbul Convention is a significant statement to our allies in Europe. Brexit or not, we are still a country with substantial influence on both the regional and global stage, and this should be reflected in our position towards such an important issue as Domestic Violence and GBV.
What’s more, the fact that the UK is still not even in a position to ratify the treaty – a full eight and a half years after signing it – should be ringing alarm bells at whether or not the Tories genuinely want to tackle violence against women and girls.
The failure also leaves the UK in a comparable position to other European countries who haven’t yet ratified the treaty – either due to delaying the process or outright refusing to ratify it. Hungary, for example, with its appalling record on women’s rights, has refused to ratify the treaty due to to its alleged promotion of ‘gender ideology’, along with the treaty’s protection of refugee and migrant women that supposedly contradicts Hungary’s efforts to eradicate illegal immigration.
What does it mean for women in the UK?
Simply put, the Tories’ near decade-long failure to ratify the Istanbul Convention is a constant reminder that the safety and security of women – especially BAME, migrant, and asylum-seeking women – is not the priority the UK government loves to profess it is.
Voting down an amendment that would provide support for some of the most vulnerable women in the UK is simply inexcusable, and is also another symptom of this government’s deeply unpleasant attitude towards migrants in general.
Furthermore, words are completely irrelevant if there is no action to back them up. Because, no matter how many times the VAWG strategy insists that “Protecting women and girls from violence and abuse, and supporting victims and survivors, remain key priorities for this Government”, the fact stands that the government’s record clearly show otherwise.
Moreover, between 2010-2017, a total of 67 out of 86 local authorities had their funding for women’s refuges slashed by the government – all during a time when the Tories were repeatedly pledging to do everything in their power to put in place the procedures in order to ratify the Istanbul Convention.
Some of these funding reductions even led to the removal of the entirety of that local authority’s funding – such as Rutland County Council’s measly £500 annual budget in 2010/11, which dropped to £0 by 2016/17. In addition, there was North Tyneside’s 2010/11 budget of £224,048, which also fell to £0 by 2016/17. Or take Devon County Council, and Windsor and Maidenhead Council, where both authorities boasted precisely £0 in funding for refuges in both 2010/11 and 2016/17.
And even as recently as 2019 the government was still cutting funding for women’s refuges, leading to the few remaining refuges being forced to reject women desperate for help.
Even if all of the flaws within the domestic abuse bill were ironed out and the bill finally passed, it’s no good if there’s nowhere for victims of violence against women and girls to go.
Once again, this government is consistently breaking promises and hiding behind meaningless statements and twisted representations of the real funding, or lack thereof.
And, given the Tories’ detestable track record on funding, added to their countless broken promises on the issues of Domestic Violence and GBV, I would be wholly unsurprised if the UK was still not in a position to ratify the Istanbul Convention by the time of the next General Election in 2024.