The Polish government, emboldened by a narrow election victory this month and undeterred by criticism from European Union leaders, is considering withdrawing from a treaty aimed at curbing domestic violence and protecting women’s rights, with the country’s minister of justice filing paperwork on Monday to start the process.
The move came just one week after European Union leaders, bowing to pressure from Poland and Hungary, relaxed demands that were supposed to tie funding in the bloc’s long-term budget to issues related to rule of law. In the days since, both Warsaw and Budapest have pressed ahead with agendas that critics say compromise judicial independence, media freedom and gay rights.
Poland’s plan to pull out of the domestic abuse treaty is likely to face stiff resistance, however. The mere suggestion that the government wanted to withdraw prompted thousands of protesters to take to the streets over the weekend and led the Council of Europe, a human rights organization with 47 member countries, to express alarm at the prospect.
The treaty, known as the Istanbul Convention, is intended to combat violence against women in Europe. Conceived more than a decade ago, the treaty has been caught up in a maelstrom of disinformation and populist rhetoric, cast as a threat to national sovereignty and twisted by conspiracy theories and smear campaigns.
The convention has been targeted by far-right and nationalist leaders across East and Central Europe and has become a totem in the battle against what they portray as the too-liberal influences of Western culture. Although the treaty does not address issues of gay rights, opponents have claimed that the treaty promotes “L.G.B.T. ideology” and poses a threat to Christian morality.
Ratification of the treaty has stalled in several European countries including Bulgaria, the Czech Republic, Hungary, Latvia and Slovakia. Russia, which is also a member of the Council of Europe, has not signed it.
When a previous Polish government ratified the treaty in 2012, Zbigniew Ziobro, then a member of the opposition and now the Polish justice minister, called it “an invention, a feminist creation aimed at justifying gay ideology.”
Although the government has insisted that no final decision has been made yet, Mr. Ziobro, a lawmaker from United Poland, the more conservative member of the governing coalition, organized a news conference on Monday to say that he had started the process of withdrawal.
Mr. Ziobro also said he believed that Poland had “a higher level of protection of women than in the convention,” and he added that the treaty had “a second part, which concerns ideology and harms the interests of women and of family.”
Mr. Ziobro’s increasing attacks on the treaty came just one week after the leaders of the 27 member nations of the European Union agreed to take on hundreds of billions of euros in common debt. To convince Poland and Hungary to back the deal, European leaders watered down language making funding conditional on the rule-of-law benchmarks.
Returning from Brussels, where the budget negotiations had taken place, Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki of Poland said his country had notched a success. “We are coming back as the great winner,” he said.
Prime Minister Viktor Orban of Hungary struck a similarly triumphant note. His government has been solidifying control over the country’s news media in ways critics say undermine press freedom.
Hungary signed onto the Istanbul Convention in 2014 but has never ratified the treaty. The most recent attempt to get legislative approval came at the height of the coronavirus pandemic in May and failed.
David Vig, director of Amnesty International in Hungary, said then that the decision was “extremely dangerous coming at a time when reported domestic violence incidents in Hungary have doubled since the start of the COVID-19 lockdown.”
The attack on the treaty in Poland has been folded into a broader culture war — a fight over values that led to the one of the closest presidential contests since the first partially free election was held in the former communist country in 1989.
Strong rhetoric against gays and lesbians was at the heart of President Andrzej Duda’s campaign for re-election. He said “L.G.B.T. ideology” was more dangerous than communist doctrine.
Mr. Duda narrowly won, in large part thanks to support from influential members of the Catholic clergy. But rather than trying to heal the rifts of the bitter campaign, the government has pressed ahead in its efforts to protect what it defines as “traditional values.”
On Friday, thousands of women, some dressed as characters from “The Handmaid’s Tale,” demonstrated outside the headquarters of a conservative Catholic group, Ordo Iuris, in Warsaw.
Protesters held up the obituaries of Polish women killed by their partners and husbands.
“This government has been laughing in the faces of victims of gender violence for years,” said Marta Lempart, one of the leaders of the Polish Women’s Strike, which previously organized nationwide protests of the government’s attempts to tighten what are already some of Europe’s most restrictive abortion laws.
Marija Pejcinovic Buric, secretary general of the Council of Europe, said in a statement on Sunday that Poland’s withdrawal from the Istanbul Convention “would be highly regrettable and a major step backwards in the protection of women against violence in Europe.”
While it does not carry legal force in any country, the treaty’s signatories are expected to introduce laws which criminalize psychological and physical violence against women, including sexual violence, rape, stalking, forced marriage and forced abortion. The states that ratify the document also commit to prevent and prosecute crimes against women; introduce educational campaigns about the topic; and adhere to a monitoring procedure, assessing the implementation of the convention.
In Slovakia, which has signed but not ratified, the treaty has been targeted by a wide range of groups on the right, including the neo-fascist Kotlebists — People’s Party Our Slovakia. During the prelude to national elections this year, hundreds of people gathered in the capital, Bratislava, for a “prayer” against the “evil from Istanbul.”
In Bulgaria, the treaty has faced fierce backlash from across the political spectrum, with critics claiming that it would force the country to legalize same-sex marriages and what they refer to as the “third gender.”
The Bulgarian Constitutional Court found in 2018 that the convention defined the term “gender” in a manner incompatible with Bulgarian law. The judges argued that by defining gender as a social construct, the treaty blurred the lines between the sexes.
“If society loses its ability to distinguish between a woman and a man, combating violence against women would remain a formal yet futile commitment,” the court found.
Advocates have condemned the political efforts to sabotage the treaty.
“Simply put, the Istanbul Convention aims to prevent and combat violence against women,” said Radoslav Stoyanov, an expert with the legal program of the Bulgarian Helsinki Committee, a human rights organization based in the Bulgarian capital, Sofia. “However,” he added, “the public debate somehow missed the core aims of the treaty.”
In Poland, withdrawal from the treaty would probably have little practical impact because the government has not used it to advance much legislation that protects women. Last year, lawmakers proposed defining domestic violence as having taken place only when spouses had been beaten more than once, though that plan was abandoned after a fierce backlash.
Domestic violence in Poland is widespread and underreported, according to the Warsaw-based Women’s Rights Center, an organization that works to prevent attacks against women. The center estimates that about 800,000 women in Poland are victims every year, with the 400 to 500 deaths reported each year from beatings, murder and suicide tied to domestic violence most likely understating the problem.
Natalia Broniarczyk, an activist with the group Abortion Without Borders, said, “Politicians from the ruling party know that violence against women is an everyday reality in Poland,” adding, “What is the most cruel is the timing — they are coming back to the issue during a pandemic, when the situation of victims of violence has gotten much worse, as they were locked in with their abusers.”
Reporting was contributed by Monika Pronczuk from Brussels; Anatol Magdziarz from Warsaw; Kit Gillet from Bucharest, Romania; Boryana Dzhambazova from Sofia, Bulgaria; and Miroslava German Sirotnikova from Bratislava, Slovakia.