Mr. Ziobro and “Gender Gibberish”

Guest contribution by Milosz Hodún

Justice minister Zbigniew Ziobro has vowed to submit a motion aimed at withdrawing Poland from the Istanbul Convention, the Council of Europe´s Convention on preventing and combating violence against women and domestic violence. He said the Convention contains harmful, ideological elements. He also stressed that Poland is doing just fine with protection of women rights and prevention of domestic violence without the Convention. Ziobro’s deputy Marcin Romanowski added that Poland should drop out of the Istanbul Convention as soon as possible, calling the treaty “gender gibberish.”

The Council of Europe’s Istanbul Convention is commonly recognized as the most advanced legally binding international instrument to prevent and combat gender-based violence, including marital rape. The Convention has not been signed only by Russia, while the United Kongdom, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Latvia, Lithuania, Ukraine, Hungary, Bulgaria, Armenia and Moldova have yet to ratify it. It is obvious that the withdrawal of Poland from the Convention would represent a major setback for the respect for human rights in Poland, and in the EU in general.

The topic of the Convention appeared on the surface of post-electoral Polish politics with a negative comment by minister of family and labor Marlena Maląg. Later her words were commented as misunderstanding. The radio station RMF FM reported that Maląg misunderstood a spin she received from the headquarters of the Law and Justice party and confused the party leadership with her words. But Ziobro decided to use this mistake in his political game. Ziobro is leading a small PiS coalition partner, Solidarity Poland, a party that represents the most hard core line in the government. Ziobro and his colleagues want to win support of the most radical right voters, including those who chose Krzysztof Bosak (Confederation) in the first round oft he presidential election on June 28. Solidarity Poland is closely aligned with the Catholic Church and promotes an ultra-conservative social agenda.

PiS has long complained about the Istanbul Convention, which Poland signed under the government of the Civic Platform (PO) and the Polish People´s Party (PSL) in 2012 and ratified in 2015. PiS made it one of the main topics of the 2015 presidential campaign that paved the Andrzej Duda’s way for the most important office in the country. Later, former Prime Minister Beata Szydło presented herself as an outspoken enemy of the Convention, e.g. praising the town of Zakopane for not implementing the Convention locally (it’s the only such town in Poland). PiS claims that the Convention is disrespectful towards religion and requires teaching liberal social policies in schools. Polish right wing populists have been often given the Convention as an example of the so-called “gender ideology” to legitimize attacks on the rights of LGBT people. This hateful and divisive rhetoric has been the main axis of at least three successful electoral campaigns in 2019 and 2020. 

Despite the general PiS’s hostile attitude towards the Convention, it does not seem that Jarosław Kaczyński, leader of the PiS, wants to start now a war with women organizations. Deputy Minister of State Assets Artur Soboń from PiS, said that minister Ziobro “indeed had every right to make such claim”, but added the government had made no decision to withdraw from the convention. Also the Head of Prime Minister´s Office has denied that a final decision on withdrawal has been taken.

Protests in the Streets

As a consequence of Ziobro’s actions, protest were organized on streets of many Polish cities. Thousands of women and men gathered in Warsaw and other locations all around Poland. Marta Lepmart, one of the leaders of the so-called “Black Protests”, said that minister Ziobro wants to legalize domestic violence. The protesters reminded PiS’s general hostile attitude towards women´s rights. They said that they could not forget not only the full abortion ban law proposed by PiS in 2016 but also the governmental war with NGOs like Women’s Rights Centre in Warsaw that had lost all public funding and could not help anymore female victims of domestic violence. The issue of domestic violence is now more actual than ever, as reports of domestic violence rise during the Covid-19 pandemic.

Marija Pejčinović Burić, Secretary General of the Council of Europe, condemned the Polish authorities’ plan to withdraw from the convention. “Leaving the Istanbul convention would be highly regrettable and a major step backwards in the protection of women against violence in Europe,” Pejčinović Burić said in a statement. “If there are any misconceptions or misunderstandings about the convention, we are ready to clarify them in a constructive dialogue,” she stated.

The Renew Europe’s leader Dacian Cioloş tweeted: “Using the fight against the Istanbul convention as an instrument to display its conservatism is a new pitiful and pathetic move by some within the PiS government”

and Guy Verhofstadt stressed that this is a “scandalous” step, adding that “violence is not a traditional value”.

Clément Beaune, French minister of European affairs, said Poland could be “hit in the wallet” thanks to new mechanisms in the EU budget if it withdrew from the pact.

But what the Ziobro’s declaration really mean? Politically a lot, putting the zealous justice minister in the middle of a heated discussion, so important for him in context of internal fights within the governing coalitions just before the changes in the government announced by PM Morawiecki (main political enemy of Ziobro who wants to reduce the number of ministries by half). But legally this declaration does not bring any serious consequences. It is not up to the justice minister or family minister to withdraw from the Convention. The withdrawal from the Convention would have to be initiated by the government, supported by both chambers of the parliament and signed by the president. It would be a long process and it is unlikely that it will be started now with blessing of Jarosław Kaczyński, who wants to focus now more on media, education and economic situation after the crisis. It is more likely that different fractions in the government will be using the Convention for their own political benefit, spreading misinformation and misinterpretations. 

Unfortunately, Polish women will pay the highest price for this political play. Prevention of violence, protection of the victims and prosecution of the perpetrators are at heart of the Convention and they should become top priorities of this government as well as any other government in the future. Doing anything that would put life, health and safety of women in danger is simply nefarious, but Ziobro & Co. do not understand this word.

Milosz Hodún

Expert at the Nowoczesna party. PhD, formerly a part-time teacher at Reykjavik University School of Law. His main areas of interest are comparative constitutional law and federalism. Board member of Projekt: Polska Association. Until September 2015, he worked as an expert within “Presidential Experts’ Programme” at the Chancellery of the President of the Republic of Poland. He is member of the Board of Directors of the European Liberal Forum.