Politicians' stance toward Istanbul Convention probed by LTV's De Facto

Seven years ago Latvia signed the Istanbul Convention, but has still not ratified it. The case of the woman murdered in Jēkabpils in mid-April has led several non-governmental organizations to talk about it repeatedly, also claiming the responsibility of politicians for the tragedy. However, some parties represented in the Saeima do not intend to change their negative attitude toward it, Latvian Television's De Facto reported on May 7.

Just 4 years ago, Egils Levits, as the presidential candidate, told Latvian Television in a debate: “I think the Istanbul Convention is very ideological, needlessly ideological. If Latvia is serious about getting to the problem of domestic violence, it can do so immediately. It could have done it a year ago and can do so starting Monday. There are appropriate measures, different legislative measures, and a variety of practical measures that are also being taken. For example, there are these places where the persons concerned can take shelter for some time, which must be constructed. There's no need for some sort of convention, it's just to be done.”

Now, four years later, when the public has been shaken by the unprevented killing of a woman in Jēkabpils, Levits states nearly the same about the Istanbul convention. In the LTV program “Today's Question”, asked whether the Saeima should now be in favor of further advancing the Istanbul Convention, the president stated: “I think we should have done everything and adopted a law where everything that the Istanbul Convention provides for was done. The convention itself... There are, let's say, ideological issues that give nothing in this case. The question is if, for example, there are more institutions or places where the victim of violence can shelter – all this can be done and must be done.”

The statement that there would be some vaguely ideological issues in the Istanbul Convention is not agreed with by the judge of the European Union (EU) Court of Justice and former Constitutional Court President Ineta Ziemele: "When reading this document correctly according to the method, I do not see any danger or ideology at this stage. Well, if we think that way, we can already refer such terms [as ideology] to human rights in general. [...] And I am prepared to discuss it and actually look for where the stumbling blocks are, with the greatest pleasure. Not only with the President, but also with Saeima deputies."

Of the EU Member States, only six have not ratified the Istanbul Convention: Latvia, Lithuania, Bulgaria, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, and Hungary. On the other hand, from the composition of the Council of Europe, the Convention is currently not in force in another 3 countries: Armenia, which has not ratified it; Azerbaijan, which has not signed it; and Turkey, which withdrew two years ago from the Convention by the decree of President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan.

On behalf of the Latvian Government, the Istanbul Convention was signed seven years ago by then Welfare Minister Jānis Reirs (New Unity), because the Minister of Justice representing the National Alliance, Dzintars Rasnačs, refused. The Prime Minister was Māris Kučinskis at the time, representing the Union of Greens and Farmers (ZZS).

Kučinskis now represents the United List as Minister of Internal Affairs in the government. He has stated that the adoption of the Istanbul Convention would not solve much: “The Istanbul Convention – in no case should it be put forward that it is a benchmark. Oh, let's now assume it's going to end - no, it won't!”

The Minister for Welfare of the New Unity, Evika Siliņa, is in no hurry to move the ratification of the Convention towards the Saeima. She is aware that the ratification of the Convention could be lacking votes in this Saeima, so she is in no hurry to move it toward parliament.

Siliņa stated: “But we, as the Ministry of Welfare, have launched an assessment, it could be called a conformity assessment, which is then the case with our laws and the situation in Latvia. Indeed, some time has passed since it was signed, and the Constitutional Court has acknowledged that the Istanbul Convention is not in contradiction with the Latvian Constitution, and we could move on with an up-to-date edit. We must also look at what has happened over these years, so we will also launch a procedure of what every ministry has done, what is happening."

Meanwhile, at the end of April, the Progressives faction in the opposition urged the government to immediately advance the Istanbul Convention for ratification. The issue is not yet on the agenda, because the majority of the Saeima rejected it, but the party promises to speak of the matter on a regular basis.

“This case, I hope, has opened eyes to many [..] Because it's also a matter of values. This is not just about these cases, but also in which direction we go. Are we going in that direction of Western European values, where 37 countries have already ratified it, or we are going in that other direction, where propaganda affects us,” said the Progressive Member, Leila Rasima.

Rasima added, “if politicians have pushed themselves into that corner, well, you don't need to go deeper into that corner”, and called on parties who have previously 'scared' their voters with the Istanbul Convention to begin to explain to people what is actually meant by the document.

Yet there is no shortage of skeptics against the convention in other parties, primarily about the concept of gender defined in the convention. Seven years ago, several conservative organizations feared that the adoption of the Istanbul Convention would pave the way for same-sex marriage or even the introduction of polygamy in Latvia. Such and similar concerns have already been rejected several times by European Council officials.

However, the representative of the National Alliance, Jānis Dombrava, also sees other risks in the convention: “For example, in terms of reinforcing the severity of the punishment committed against the relevant groups of society. There, the list is long enough, it does not only concern women and children but, for example, different minorities. What does that mean? If two people develop a conflict, they are in a fistfight, in the end, one person will be sentenced to much higher punishment only because, for example, he will be involved in a conflict with a minority."

The Convention provides for a harsher responsibility for offenses against a person who is vulnerable due to special circumstances, because perpetrators often choose them as a target, knowing that they are unlikely to be able to defend themselves. National or ethnic minority representatives are included among vulnerable groups, along with pregnant women, persons with disabilities, children, the elderly, rural persons, the homeless and other groups. In addition, the convention does not talk about a simple fistfight.

However, the concerns expressed by former Justice Minister Rasnačs about the incompatibility of the convention with the Constitution of the Republic of Latvia, are not maintained by the current management of the Ministry. The Ministry's parliamentary secretary Lauma Paegļkalna said: "The Constitutional Court has assessed the compliance of the Istanbul Convention to the Latvian legal system and the basic values protected by the Constitution [..]. And the Constitutional Court has declared that the Istanbul Convention is in no way forcing a specific family or marriage model or a specific understanding, conscience, or way of thought."

Justice Minister Inese Lībiņa-Egnere has previously called on politicians to support the ratification of the Convention, stating that currently the legal system around domestic violence is 'rotten'.

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