Why is Czechia reluctant to ratify the Istanbul Convention?

The Czech government announced on Wednesday that Czechia would abstain from a vote on the EU’s accession to the Istanbul Convention on combatting violence against women. Two of the ruling parties are reluctant to support it and the cabinet is yet to decide whether to put the convention to a vote in the Czech parliament.

Czechia is one of the last six Council of Europe countries that have not yet ratified the convention on a national level. Similarly as in Bulgaria, Hungary, Latvia, Lithuania and Slovakia, some political parties in this country are holding out against it for fear that it would “interfere with the legal order and put traditions and values at risk.”

Photo: Council of Europe

The need to move ahead and ratify the document has become the first point of contention between the country’s recently inaugurated president, Petr Pavel, and the Fiala administration. The head of state sees no reason to delay the document’s ratification while the cabinet remains divided on the matter.

So why is the Istanbul Convention so sensitive an issue for some parties in this country?

According to women’s rights activists many myths are being bandied around by conservative-minded politicians, among them, that the concept of the family as we know it would be under threat, that it would open the way for same sex marriages, put traditional values at risk, and force unacceptable gender requirements into the Czech language and legislation.

The Christian Democrats, both in the Czech and European parliaments, are firmly against it, arguing that the country’s own laws protect women sufficiently. They are particularly concerned about the treaty's use of the term “gender” as a social construct as opposed to the biological “sex” and even claim that it tries to introduce a “third sex” by differentiating between sex and gender. Taking those arguments further, they say could lead to dangerous extremes.

The Civic Democrats, the leading party in the ruling coalition, are also very cautious regarding the convention’s possible impact on life and traditions in Czechia. For instance MEP Alexander Vondra argued that the convention could put an end to the harmless Czech Easter tradition of “whipping” young women, because it would not be considered "politically correct".

Petr Fiala | Photo: Office of Czech Government

Meanwhile, the other coalition parties are pushing for the convention’s ratification.  MPs from TOP 09 and the Mayors and Independents have defended it from the start, as has the Pirate Party.

According to Czech Radio, 10 out of the cabinet’s 18 members would now support its ratification.

Prime Minister Petr Fiala has said it is a sensitive issue and he is in favour of sending the treaty to Parliament and letting lawmakers decide. Justice Minister Pavel Blažek noted that it would be good “to let emotions subside and discuss this matter rationally”.

However, the chances of that are small. The opposition parties are also at odds on the matter, so even if the government sends the Istanbul Convention to Parliament next week it may not win enough support for ratification.