Ladies and gentlemen,
Equal access to justice is a fundamental right – a legal right – enshrined in both the European Convention on Human Rights and the European Social Charter.
It is not merely something that is desirable;
Rather, it is something that every Council of Europe member state is obliged to ensure.
Yet gaps persist.
Women have long experienced specific barriers and discrimination when they seek redress from the justice system.
These vary across time, circumstances and location – and recent examples include budget cuts to specific services, strict migration laws, and the impact of the covid-19 pandemic.
Indeed, necessary lockdowns put in place during the public health crisis resulted in spikes of domestic violence –
And this in turn has exposed the shortcomings of many justice systems when it comes to protecting women and girls in their homes and providing effective redress where abuse occurs.
Just one chilling example of a much wider problem.
While governments are primarily responsible for ensuring women’s access to justice, the Council of Europe’s role is to help them meet our common European standards.
Case law from the European Court of Human Rights provides guidance.
As do specific provisions in our Convention on Action against Trafficking in Human Beings and our Istanbul Convention on Preventing and Combating Violence against Women and Domestic Violence, which is a particular focus of this conference.
And the Council of Europe’s current Gender Equality Strategy and many of our joint Action Plans in the Eastern Partnership countries include women’s access to justice as a specific priority:
Recognising that this is fundamental for ensuring real equality between women and men.
So, I particularly appreciate the cooperation that exists between the Council of Europe and the European Union and which makes our Partnership for Good Governance possible.
This provides the Eastern Partnership countries with tailor made support that helps them bring their legislation and practice into line with European standards.
Its methods include the provision of legal expertise and capacity-building, and awareness-raising and peer-to-peer reviews.
And alongside needs assessments, legislative reviews, and training, networking and conferences – like this one – national authorities and others are informed and empowered to make change to the benefit of their citizens.
On women’s access to justice, the Good Governance Partnership has taken specific steps.
A pioneering mentoring programme, information webinars, and national training courses for legal aid lawyers have expanded the competences of legal professionals in the region.
An online HELP course and an interactive checklist tool for gender mainstreaming law schools’ teaching have strengthened knowledge among practitioners and students;
And working with national authorities to assess and improve their frameworks for measuring progress.
This is important because the barriers that stand between women and justice are real.
And they must first be understood, so that they can then be removed.
Four years ago, the Partnership for Good Governance published its “Barriers, Remedies and Good Governance”, based on five country studies.
It found gaps in anti-discrimination frameworks;
Limited use of international standards and case law in the reasoning of judicial decisions;
And indirect discrimination against women and the persistence of gender stereotypes in the judiciary.
It also found significant procedural barriers and limited access to legal aid.
And that legal aid lawyers, like legal counsellors, often lack specific training when it comes to violence against women.
Indeed, all of these shortfalls leave women more exposed to harm.
This is backed up by the evaluation reports published by GREVIO, our independent Expert Body responsible for monitoring and implementing the Istanbul Convention.
These also pointed to the need for proper training for legal professionals, so that they can better understand the various causes and effects of violence against women and how these should be addressed.
And that, after all, is the very essence of the Istanbul Convention.
The treaty is direct in its aims:
To prevent violence against women;
To protect those who become victims;
And to ensure the prosecution of perpetrators.
It not only encourages integrated policy-making;
It also criminalises specific offences, such as stalking, forced marriage and female genital mutilation.
And where it has been implemented, it has worked, with positive changes to national laws.
But we need to be clear that the benefits brought by the Istanbul Convention cannot be replicated by any one country acting alone.
First, the standards for the protection of women that it sets out are higher than national laws in many countries.
Second, GREVIO provides a unique, independent and international monitoring mechanism to evaluate the implementation at national level and assist compliance.
And third, only this treaty’s states parties can benefit from provisions relating to international co-operation in criminal matters and seek co-operation from others to bring perpetrators of crimes against women to justice.
What we have here is a treaty that provides a level of co-operation and protection that is only possible with a multilateral approach.
As in every Council of Europe member state, the citizens of Eastern Partnership Countries would benefit if their governments ratified the Istanbul Convention.
Georgia has done so, to its great credit.
And Armenia, Ukraine and the Republic of Moldova have each signed the treaty.
Each has also gone on to improve aspects of its national laws on gender-based violence –
The Moldovan Parliament has started parliamentary procedures to ratify the Istanbul convention.
And Armenia and Ukraine have announced their intention to do the same.
This too is positive.
I urge every Council of Europe country to complete that journey.
And as the Eastern Partnership countries do so, the Partnership for Good Governance will continue to help them in co-operation with the EU.
Our range of tools for ensuring women’s access to justice is there for use.
But the Istanbul Convention holds a central and unique role among them when it comes to issues of violence.
It is the gold standard in its field, as Commissioner Dalli, the EU and the United Nations leadership have all underlined.
So, I thank all of you for participating in this conference.
And I look forward to hearing your thoughts about how we expand our Treaty’s circle of membership –
How else we can ensure progress for our common cause –
What more we can do to enable women to live their lives safe in the knowledge that justice belongs to them.