Why hasn’t the UK government ratified the Istanbul Convention, eight years after signing it?
Updated: Nov 28, 2020
By Helena Trenkić
This blog introduces the Istanbul Convention to the reader, and explains that the UK government signed the Convention eight years ago, but has not yet ratified it.
Using the government’s own reports on progress towards ratification, the post explains key areas in which the government is still not compliant with the Convention.
The forthcoming Domestic Abuse Bill should bring the UK into compliance with Article 44, which relates to extra-territorial jurisdiction. However, the issue of support for migrant women leaves the UK still in non-compliance with Articles 59 and 4(3).
The post finishes by reflecting on a number of other issues which remain, and what the impact of ratifying the Convention would be.
The 8th June 2020 marked eight years to the day since the UK government signed the Council of Europe Convention on Preventing and Combating Violence Against Women and Domestic Violence – the Istanbul Convention, for short. Yet, eight years after it was signed, the Convention has not yet been ratified. The Istanbul Convention enforces a legal framework to tackle numerous forms of Violence Against Women and Girls (VAWG), including domestic violence, rape, sexual assault, FGM, so-called ‘honour-based’ violence, and forced marriage. It has been termed the ‘gold standard approach’ to tackling these widespread instances of gender-based violence .
To mark this year’s International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women (25th November), during a year where the plight of victims of domestic abuse has only been compounded by the Covid-19 national lockdowns, I would like to present and explore the reasons why the UK government has not yet ratified the Istanbul Convention.
Progress to Ratification
The government insists that ‘in most respects, the UK already complies with or goes further than the Convention requires’ . Of course, women and girls can be protected without the ratification of this Convention – after all, compliance precedes ratification, and not the other way round. But currently, the government has no legal obligation to meet its requirements. It can essentially pick and choose which areas to uphold, and that focus is subject to change. The formal ratification of the Convention through parliament would commit the UK government to a strong set of minimum standards, all of which they are legally bound to follow, regardless of who comes into power.
Since 2017, the government has been obliged to release an annual report detailing progress towards ratification . These documents illustrate the key areas where the UK still does not fulfil the terms of the Convention: Articles 44, 59, and 4(3). In a personal letter I recently received from Victoria Atkins MP (Minister for Safeguarding), she described these as mere ‘caveats’. However, these articles remain part of the Convention the UK would have to be in compliance with, but the UK currently falls short.
Article 44 of the Istanbul Convention includes the requirement for legislative measures to apply to British citizens who commit crimes against women whilst abroad, regardless of whether that country is party to the Convention. This extra-territorial jurisdiction already applies to British citizens for offences like forced marriage or FGM, but not a crime like rape, sexual assault, and domestic violence . Fortunately, the forthcoming Domestic Abuse Bill includes legislative measures on extraterritorial jurisdiction – when this receives Royal Assent (hopefully by Spring 2021), this should satisfy the requirements of Article 44.
Devolved administrations also need to be compliant, and thus the Scottish parliament already considered relevant legislation in June 2020, whilst the Domestic Abuse and Family Proceedings Bill in Northern Ireland covers certain clauses the Domestic Abuse Bill there does not. In the latest government report on progress towards ratification (published October 2020), Article 44 is therefore marked as ‘in progress towards compliance’ .
Articles 59 and 4(3)
Unfortunately, the Domestic Abuse Bill hasn’t provided a solution to everything. Back in July 2019, the Joint Committee on the draft Domestic Abuse Bill stated that the Bill missed ‘the opportunity to address the needs of migrant women who have no recourse to public funds’ .
Currently, people on certain visas (such as spousal or fiancé visas) have ‘No Recourse to Public Funds’ status, making them ineligible for most government benefits. Because refuges often depend on government housing benefit payments for financial support, many cannot accept survivors with ‘No Recourse to Public Funds’ .
This is one of the key reasons that Articles 59 (on ‘Residency Status’) and 4(3) remain marked as ‘under review’ – because the Istanbul Convention necessitates that services and support for victims must not discriminate on the basis of residency or immigration status .
Following the comments of the Joint Committee, the government launched a review into Migrant Victims of Domestic Abuse, published this July. The Joint Committee had made a number of recommendations, including to expand the time limits of current support from three to six months . The government has deferred its decision on this – it states that expanding support would ‘have a significant financial cost’, and that currently there is a ‘lack of evidence to demonstrate how long individuals […] might need support for’ .
Instead, the £1.5m Support for Migrant Victims Scheme has been launched. This temporary fix covers the cost of support in refuges or other safe accommodation for migrant victims of domestic abuse who are unable to access public funds. The scheme is also intended to gather the evidence needed to develop a long-term and ‘sustainable’ solution for migrant victims of gender-based violence (especially domestic abuse). A long-term policy strategy to fulfil the conditions of Articles 59 and 4(3) is, of course, needed as soon as possible. For now, these Articles remain marked as ‘under review’.
Progress reports mark the UK as ‘compliant’ with all other Articles of the Istanbul Convention – but there remains the fact that minimum standards must be maintained, and can always be improved upon. Article 22(1) mandates ‘specialist’ support services ‘in adequate geographical distribution’ – yet the Joint Committee last year outlined concerns over the arrangements for the national provision of specialist services to groups including BAME women and those with disabilities . In May 2019, Women’s Aid found that there were only 418 dedicated shelter spaces across England for BAME women, 4 for women over 45, 12 for women with learning disabilities, and none for deaf women. What’s more, these were geographically concentrated around London.
Whilst the government insists that victims are seen primarily as victims (‘enforcement action is not prioritised against victims or survivors of domestic abuse’) , migrant women are still less likely to seek help, fearing they’ll be met with deportation rather than assistance. Support schemes not only need to be implemented, but their availability communicated to women, especially those who were not reached by the English-only #YouAreNotAlone campaign during national lockdown.
There’s also Brexit to consider – the July review into Migrant Victims of Domestic Abuse pointed out that the rights to access public funds for family members of EEA migrants could be affected by Brexit, but it’s still unclear exactly how .
Ratifying the Istanbul Convention would require the government to adhere to a basic minimum standard, and hopefully draw attention to where further action does need to be taken to raise that minimum to a higher standard. And, at a time when countries such as Poland and Turkey may potentially be withdrawing from it, the Convention’s ratification would also be a symbolic gesture, continuing the country’s conversation on ending Violence Against Women both domestically and on the international stage.
Non-governmental organisations continue to pressure the government to progress towards ratification. If you would like to add your voice, you can email your MP or check out the resources published by White Ribbon UK: https://www.whiteribbon.org.uk/news/2020/6/8/call-out-for-the-uk-to-ratify-the-istanbul-convention.
Helena Trenkić is a candidate for the MPhil in Modern European History at Jesus College. She is also a member of the National Council of Women GB, contributing to the organisation’s advocacy for legislative change to better tackle Violence Against Women and Girls. She has been a delegate to international conferences including the UN Commission on the Status of Women in New York.
 Comment made by then-UN Women Deputy Executive Director, Lakshmi Puri, and repeated since by numerous NGOs. ‘The Istanbul Convention: strengthening the response to ending violence against women’. UN Women: 2013. https://www.unwomen.org/en/news/stories/2013/3/the-istanbul-convention-strengthening-the-response-to-ending-violence-against-women [accessed 20 November 2020].
 Statement by Victoria Atkins MP to the House of Commons. ‘Istanbul Convention Ratification: 2019 Report on Progress’. Hansard: 2019. https://questions-statements.parliament.uk/written-statements/detail/2019-10-31/HCWS58 [accessed 20 November 2020].
 This was brought into law with the IC Act (Preventing and Combating Violence Against Women and Domestic Violence [ratification of convention] Act 2017).
 Madeleine Gordon, David Hodson. ‘The Istanbul Convention; Could the UK Government be on the brink of enshrining a life-changing law to help tackle violence against women?’. International Family Law Group LLP, 2016. https://www.iflg.uk.com/printpdf/871 [accessed 20 November 2020].
 ‘Ratification of the Council of Europe Convention on Combating Violence Against Women and Girls and Domestic Violence (Istanbul Convention) – 2020 Report on Progress’. Home Office. 2020. https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/928764/CCS001_CCS1020331858-003_Istanbul_Convention_Progress_Report_E-Laying.pdf [accessed 20 November 2020].
 Joint Committee on the Draft Domestic Abuse Bill. ‘Draft Domestic Abuse Bill: First Report of Session 2017-19’. House of Lords, House of Commons. 2019. https://publications.parliament.uk/pa/jt201719/jtselect/jtddab/2075/2075.pdf [accessed 20 November 2020].
 ‘Migrant Victims of Domestic Abuse: Review Findings’. Home Office. 2020. https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/897472/Migrant_Victims_of_Domestic_Abuse_-_Review_Findings_v.3._FINAL.pdf [accessed 20 November 2020]. See also: Human Rights Watch. ‘UK Failing Domestic Abuse Victims in Pandemic: Enact Legislation Protecting Those Most At Risk’. Human Rights Watch. 2020. https://www.hrw.org/news/2020/06/08/uk-failing-domestic-abuse-victims-pandemic [accessed 18 June 2020].
 Article 4(3) reads: ‘The implementation of the provisions of this Convention by the Parties, in particular measures to protect the rights of victims, shall be secured without discrimination on any ground such as sex, gender, race, colour, language, religion, political or other opinion, national or social origin, association with a national minority, property, birth, sexual orientation, gender identity, age, state of health, disability, marital status, migrant or refugee status, or other status.’ Emphasis added. Council of Europe Convention on preventing and combating violence against women and domestic violence. Council of Europe. 2011. https://www.coe.int/en/web/conventions/full-list/-/conventions/rms/090000168008482e [accessed 20 November 2020].
 ‘Migrant Victims of Domestic Abuse: Review Findings’.
 ‘Migrant Victims of Domestic Abuse: Review Findings’.
 ‘Draft Domestic Abuse Bill: First Report of Session 2017-19’. Articles 213, 230.
 ‘Ratification of the Council of Europe Convention on Combating Violence Against Women and Girls and Domestic Violence (Istanbul Convention) – 2020 Report on Progress’.
 ‘Migrant Victims of Domestic Abuse: Review Findings’.