Today is the 100th International Women’s Day. The Government has been announcing its latest action plan on violence against women and girls (including some bold promises for increased funding for rape crisis centres) accordingly. But The Times reports that British officials have, in the same moment, been deliberately undermining a draft convention against violence against women at the Council of Europe. Specifically:
Britain objects to the words, “violence against women is understood as a violation of human rights”. Instead, it wants “violence against women constitutes a serious obstacle for women’s enjoyment of human rights”.
Even more damningly, our representatives apparently want the convention to apply only to gendered violence carried out in ‘peacetime’ and not to violations in war. Today’s Home Office announcements make reference to various avenues and promises of international ‘co-operation’, but say nothing about this specific charge. Media reports are similarly silent so far.
This is extraordinary. The timing is brutally ironic, although that is likely down to the Editors at The Times. But why would William Hague and co., newly championing freedoms elsewhere, suddenly seek to undermine international cooperation on this front?
The draft convention is fairly expansive in scope, and follows through on its bold preamble with a set of requirements for prevention, protection and changes to substantive law. Presumably many of these requirements are already contained in existent national and international legal instruments, but a number would seem to demand extensive changes to social policy:
Parties shall take the necessary legislative or other measures to ensure that victims have access to health care and social services and that services are adequately resourced and professionals are trained to assist victims and refer them to the appropriate services.
Article 22 (1 & 2):
Parties shall take the necessary legislative or other measures to provide or arrange for, in an adequate geographical distribution, immediate, short- and long-term specialist support services to any victim subjected to any of the acts of violence covered by the scope of this Convention.
Parties shall provide or arrange for specialist women’s support services to all women victims of violence and their children. (emphasis added)
Parties shall take the necessary legislative or other measures to provide for the setting up of appropriate, easily accessible rape crisis or sexual violence referral centres for victims in sufficient numbers to provide for medical and forensic examination, trauma support and counselling for victims.
Parties shall take the necessary legislative or other measures to provide victims, in accordance with the general principles of international law, with adequate civil remedies against state authorities that have failed in their duty to take the necessary preventive or protective measures within the scope of their powers.
Adequate state compensation shall be awarded to those who have sustained serious bodily injury or impairment of health, to the extent that the damage is not covered by other sources such as the perpetrator, insurance or state-funded health and social provisions. This does not preclude Parties from claiming regress for compensation awarded from the perpetrator, as long as due regard is paid to the victim’s safety.
When read alongside an unequivocal statement that gendered violence is a human rights violation, and within a scope that would include rape in wartime (whether in Europe itself or by European nationals), failure to carry out the required policies may well expose the Government to legal challenges under human rights legislation.
Their commitment to the convention might mean that failure to properly fund rape crisis centres, or to take in those fleeing sexual violence elsewhere, or to actually make services comprehensive enough that they are available to all, will have serious consequences, at least financially. In the wake of much fretting over the perfidity of foreign judges trampling on ancient British liberties, perhaps an active decision has been made to hobble initiatives that may require more than sweet words and vague commitments.
That’s my guess anyway.