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Ahead of an expected vote this week in parliament on a draft law requesting the president withdraw Poland from the Istanbul Convention, BIRN can reveal the right-wing Polish government has already decided its replacement should be an alternative treaty that bans abortion and homosexual marriage, and has shared that vision with neighbouring states that it wants to join its efforts.

In the letter – leaked to the Balkan Investigative Reporting Network (BIRN) and published below in its entirety for the first time – which was sent last year to at least four governments in the region (Croatia, Czechia, Slovakia and Slovenia), the Polish Justice Ministry sets out its vision over five pages for an alternative to the Council of Europe Convention on Preventing and Combating Violence Against Women and Domestic Violence, to give the Istanbul Convention its full name.

The new treaty should offer “particular support” to “the protection of the life of a conceived child”, which should be understood as ending abortion; and “the concept of marriage remains reserved exclusively for the relationship of a woman and a man”.

“In pursuit of the achievement of the objectives stated above and having regard to the constant threats to the family, the Ministry of Justice of the Republic of Poland proposes that a convention be drafted together to be forwarded to the possibly wide group of addressees at the international forum,” the letter reads.

The ideas laid out in the ministerial letter appear to be, to some extent, a summary of a draft international family rights convention prepared by the Ordo Iuris Institute for Legal Culture in cooperation with former Polish MEP Marek Jurek from the Christian Social Congress.

And it was those two ultra-conservative groups that drew up the draft law and collected the necessary 150,000 signatures to create a citizens’ initiative to withdraw from the Istanbul Convention, which the Sejm, the lower and most important house of the Polish parliament, will consider approving this week.

However, in a statement to BIRN, Marcin Romanowski, undersecretary of state at the Justice Ministry, denied that the proposals of non-governmental organisations that “share similar values and care about the good of the family” are connected to the activities of the ministry.

“In our times, the defense of the family requires, in my opinion, not only national regulations, but also international solutions developed in a larger group of European countries. That is why we have invited ministries of justice in central and eastern European countries to voluntarily take part in the creation of an international treaty on family rights,” Romanowski said in the emailed statement.

Courtesy of BIRNCourtesy of BIRN Balkan Insight

Courtesy of BIRNCourtesy of BIRN Balkan Insight

Courtesy of BIRNCourtesy of BIRN Balkan Insight

Courtesy of BIRNCourtesy of BIRN Balkan Insight

Courtesy of BIRNCourtesy of BIRN Balkan Insight

No way to treat a treaty

The Istanbul Convention, which Poland ratified in 2015 and has now been signed and/or ratified by 45 countries but not yet ratified by the EU, attributes violence against women to the historical inequality between men and women, and defines gender as “socially constructed roles”.

For these reasons, ultra-conservatives in Poland and across Central and Southeast Europe have, for years, been railing against the document, which they argue will destroy the “traditional family” (ie. heterosexual married couples with children) by imposing so-called “gender ideology” – an umbrella term created by these groups which seems to refer primarily to LGBT and reproductive rights.

Last year, Polish Justice Minister Zbigniew Ziobro, a hardline Catholic whose United Poland party is a junior member of the Law and Justice-led (PiS) government, filed an official request with the Ministry for Family, Work and Social Policy asking it to initiate proceedings for withdrawing the country from the Istanbul Convention, which he argued was damaging to the family and Polish culture.

Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki, despite publicly criticising the Istanbul Convention, in the end decided to park the issue by asking in July the PiS-controlled Constitutional Tribunal to assess the legality of the Istanbul Convention. The court hasn’t yet issued any ruling.

Given the indecision in the governing camp, hardliners saw the citizens’ initiative before parliament as a way to speed things up. According to the Polish Constitution, the president is in charge of carrying out withdrawals from international treaties, for which he needs the approval of parliament.

The draft law asks President Andrzej Duda to withdraw Poland from the Istanbul Convention and establish an advisory body that, over the next three years, would begin a long and extensive process to “develop the basic principles of an international convention on the rights of family” to replace the Istanbul Convention.

However, as can be seen from the letter already sent to conservative governments in the region, the Polish government has already come up with the basic tenets of the alternative convention, seemingly based in part on the draft family rights convention created by Ordo Iuris and the Christian Social Congress that has been in the public domain for about two years.

Representatives of Ordo Iuris and the Christian Social Congress interviewed by BIRN claimed that the Ordo Iuris version has been received with interest by members of the governments of Hungary and Slovakia.

Both the ministerial letter and the Ordo Iuris draft describe a situation where families are “under threat” and need extra protection. Both documents also reject the idea that the main cause of domestic violence is structural inequality between men and women, the premise of the Istanbul Convention.

Instead, the ministerial letter reads: “One of the main contemporary threats to the family is domestic violence caused by pathological factors, such as alcohol and drug abuse, sex addiction or omnipresent vulgarisation and sexualisation of the image of women in mass media.”

Similarly, an Ordo Iuris representative stated in an interview with BIRN about their draft that the causes of violence are not structural, but “pathologies”, which include alcoholism, pornography, social atomisation, the breakdown of family ties and the sexualisation of women in the public space.

When it comes to recommended actions to protect the family, the ministerial letter largely follows the line of the Ordo Iuris draft, while tightening the language and leaving some principles vaguer: it highlights the autonomy of the family in relation to the state, including when it comes to decisions about education; lists a series of “family rights” including “freedom of thought, conscience and religion, freedom of speech, economic freedom, undistorted use of private property, and the right to the protection of private and family life”; then moves on to children’s rights, insisting the “child” has rights from conception; and then proposes civil and criminal remedies states could use to ensure those rights are respected.

Interestingly, in this latter section, the ministerial letter introduces the concept of “crimes against family”. While examples of such crimes in the letter include physical and psychological violence, sexual violence or forced marriage, the text specifies the list is not exhaustive – begging the question of whether actions like abortion or gay marriage might be added at a later stage.

Preparing the ground

“It’s not surprising to see what is in this letter, considering that PiS has been engaged in a crusade against human rights for the past six years,” Marcelina Zawisza, an MP of Razem, a left-wing party, told BIRN after hearing quotes from the letter. “They have constantly repeated that the breakdown of the traditional family model is what causes domestic violence and that the rights of LGBT people are threatening families.”

“I can’t understand this at all: how can the fact that someone loves another person be a threat to me?” she added.

Zawisza said that her party had tried to get access to the letter both via a freedom of information request and by sending MPs personally to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs to request it, but without success.

“We can say that the government did not want to publicise this letter because they know that its content – or at least parts of it – would cause not just a debate in Polish society, but deep opposition from the women’s movement, the LGBT+ movement and all those who care about human rights,” she said.

The MP surmises that the citizens’ initiative to be voted on this week by the Sejm is likely part of the governing party’s strategy. “At this time, there is not enough public support, so it might not happen,” Zawisza said of passing the draft law. “But its role is to introduce fake news into the public space, to plant the seeds of doubt as to whether the Istanbul Convention is necessary, to promote a negative attitude to it.”

“Morawiecki sent the Istanbul Convention to the Constitutional Tribunal for two reasons: to postpone the topic, and to ensure politicians have clean hands, because in the end the Tribunal decides,” she explained.

While the citizens’ initiative might not pass anytime soon, the debate will contribute to increasing negative feelings about the Istanbul Convention, which will then allow the Constitutional Tribunal to rule that it’s unconstitutional.

“The same thing that happened with abortion,” Zawisza warned.

For its part, Romanowski at the Justice Ministry told BIRN that “research units subordinate to his ministry” – namely, the Institute for Justice and the Center for European Policy Research at the High School of Justice – are conducting analyses of the various issues. “I hope that they will shortly take an active role in expert discussions on the topic of the need for a fuller international protection of the family against contemporary ideologies,” he said in the statement.

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This story was originally published by BIRN’s English language website Balkan Insight and can be accessed here.

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