Croatia Divided over Ratification of Istanbul Convention

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While most other members of the European Union have already ratified the convention on preventing violence against women, the government of Croatia, under pressure from the conservative groups, seems unsure what to do.

The Istanbul Convention, which is formally known as The Council of Europe Convention on preventing and combating violence against women and domestic violence, might seem like a strange point of controversy. Surely, no one could have anything against an international agreement which forces countries to do to more in protecting women and preventing domestic violence. However, this is another case in which Croatia has managed to prove that it is no ordinary European country.

The convention was adopted in 2011 and has been signed by 46 member states of the Council of Europe, including Croatia in 2013. It was a result of a series of initiatives undertaken by the Council of Europe to protect women against violence. The goal was to set comprehensive standards for preventing and combating violence. Currently, 28 states have ratified it, and in those countries, the convention has entered into force. This includes many of the neighbouring countries, as well as those European countries with strongly conservative governments, such as Poland.

Initially, the convention did not appear to be particularly controversial. Swift ratification was expected from the then SDP-led government, but for one reason or another, the parliamentary confirmation was continuously delayed. Then, parliamentary elections came in 2015 and 2016, and politicians focused on issues which they apparently considered to be more important than the protection of women.

However, at the time, the ratification was supported even by those who are today heroes of the conservative circles which are now opposed to the convention. For example, Kolinda Grabar-Kitarović, at the time just a presidential candidate, wrote in November 2014, “The ratification process should be accelerated. I wonder why Croatia is still not among the countries which have already ratified the convention, why the victims of gender-based violence are not protected according to the convention’s standards, and I call on everybody to deal with this problem.” Now as president and probably the most popular politician among conservative voters, Grabar-Kitarović has changed her opinion and called just for “implementation of parts of the convention which do not cause public controversy.”

It turned out that the word “gender” would become the main issue of contention for those who are against the ratification. They allege that “under the guise of protecting women from violence, the gender ideology is being introduced by which a human is born as a neutral being and can then decide whether to be a man, a woman, a gay, a lesbian, a trans, an incest, an animal, a paedophile.” This is a claim cited in a pamphlet distributed in a church just a few weeks ago. The church has distanced itself from these claims. Another apparent worry is that children would be “gender trained” in kindergartens, with boys being forced to dress in skirts to see whether they would feel better as girls.

While this might be an extreme example of the arguments used against the convention, the fact is that many “serious” politicians are also against the ratification, with their arguments being only marginally more reasonably sounding.

Prime Minister Plenković announced in 2017 that the convention would be ratified by the end of the year, but that turned out to be just another unfulfilled promise. As usual, Plenković probably wants to do the right thing but is afraid of the right wing of the party he only nominally leads and therefore hesitates with sending the proposal to parliament. Among MPs, there is undoubtedly a majority ready to vote for the ratification, since Plenković’s coalition partner HNS and almost all of the opposition parties would vote in favour, together with many of HDZ’s MPs. Still, there would undoubtedly be a partial rebellion among his own MPs, which Plenković desperately wants to avoid, since that would reveal just how weak he is in his party.

These internal divisions were seen among HDZ’s members of the European Parliament when they voted on a resolution supporting the ratification of the Istanbul Convention. Dubravka Šuica and Željana Zovko voted for the confirmation, while Ivica Tolić was against, and Ivana Maletić abstained.

In the meantime, conservative NGOs have launched a comprehensive campaign to discredit the convention, mainly quoting provisions which do not exist in it and focusing on the word “gender,” forgetting that the same term has repeatedly been used in many other governmental and parliamentary documents adopted in recent years, including in periods when HDZ was in power. Recently, event a department of the Croatian Academy of Arts and Sciences (HAZU) was used to issue a statement against the ratification, trying falsely to present it as the official position of the Academy.

Such attempts are part of the broader conservative initiative to move the public debate in Croatia further to the right, which can be seen in efforts to censor allegedly unpatriotic films on the national television, to decide which theatre plays are acceptable and which are not, to proclaim everybody who is more liberally inclined as being a traitor, to spread the influence of the Catholic Church and in numerous other ways.

With such strong opposition to the convention, and with such a weak prime minister, it is hard to expect any positive steps in the foreseeable future. Just this week, the Prime Minister said in Parliament that the government would solve the issue before the end of this term, which means in the next three years. But even that sounds too optimistic. HNS, HDZ’s supposedly liberal coalition partner, tried for a few days to pretend that it would issue an ultimatum that the convention had to be ratified before the summer parliamentary break, but today party president Ivan Vrdoljak decided to be honest for a change and explained in an interview that his party did not consider the issue to be significant enough to leave the government if its demands were not met.

It is more likely that the issue will remain unresolved, with women continuing to be beaten (with a prominent case of a wife of HDZ’s official in Požega being just one example), and with Croatia further continuing its long and slow decline.


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