Human rights experts are calling on Warsaw to change course – and on the European Union to toughen up.
Poland’s plan to withdraw from an international treaty on combating violence against women is causing serious concern across Europe.
The right-wing Polish government argues the Istanbul Convention does not respect religion and promotes controversial ideologies about gender. Human rights advocates say exiting the treaty would deal a major blow to women’s rights.
The Council of Europe (COE), a human rights organisation distinct from the European Union, called Poland’s intentions "alarming".
"If there are any misconceptions or misunderstandings about the convention, we are ready to clarify them in a constructive dialogue," Marija Pejčinović Burić, COE's secretary-general said in a statement.
"Leaving the Istanbul Convention would be highly regrettable and a major step backwards in the protection of women against violence in Europe."
MEPs have also slammed the Polish government’s move.
Iratxe García Pérez, the Spanish leader of the Socialist group, called it "disgraceful". Belgian MEP Guy Verhofstadt labelled it "scandalous", adding that "violence is not a traditional value". Dacian Cioloș, the head of the liberal Renew Europe group called the move "pitiful" and "pathetic".
Hundreds of people marched in Warsaw on Friday to protest against the government’s plan.
Using EU funds as leverage
The treaty, which was drafted by the Council of Europe, obliges nations to ensure that "culture, custom, religion, tradition or so-called 'honour' shall not be regarded as justification" for acts of violence against women.
It came into force in Poland in 2015, under the previous centrist government.
"The convention on violence against women is one of the most comprehensive laws to combat violence against women in the world," said Iverna McGowan, a human rights expert in Brussels.
"So this is really a very worrying signal that the government is sending that it does not wish to provide this protection for women's rights in Poland," she told Euronews, urging the European Union to put "serious pressure" on the country to stick to the convention.
Poland and Hungary have drawn the ire of Brussels in recent years over moves seen as undermining the independence of the judiciary, media freedom and the rights of LGBTQ people.
Poland’s move comes after the EU agreed on a €1.8 trillion budget and coronavirus recovery package, after four days and four nights of tense negotiations over the conditions that member states would have to meet to receive the funds.
In their final compromise, EU leaders mentioned tying the handouts to "the respect of the rule of law" – but they have yet to detail the "regime of conditionality" envisioned.
For McGowan, Poland’s move on the Istanbul Convention is a fresh reminder that the EU needs to be much more firm when countries stray away from liberal values.
"If the European Union really wants to live up to its commitment to human rights and democracy, I feel that it's very important that we do make recipients' receipt of EU funds conditional on compliance with the rule of law and human rights," she said.
"We need to get serious about human rights in Europe (…) This is a concern not just for women in Poland, it's a question for women's rights everywhere."
Watch the interview in the video player above.