Turkey has withdrawn from the landmark Istanbul Convention on women’s rights that it was the first to sign over a decade ago. Political contention over the treaty’s impact on the conservation of ‘traditional family values is thought to be the cause, although no official rationale has been given.
The accord officially named the Council of Europe Convention on Preventing and Combating Violence Against Women and Domestic Violence is a legally binding international treaty signed by forty-five countries. Its purpose is to provide a legal framework for preventing and combatting violence against women, protecting women’s rights, and promoting gender equality.
President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan released a decree on Saturday morning announcing the annulment of Turkey’s ratification of the convention. Debates over whether the country should withdraw from the convention date back to early 2020 when opponents of the treaty began to argue that it threatens ‘family unity’. The debates continued throughout the COVID-19 pandemic as domestic violence levels rose in Turkey.
Alleged threats of the convention include promoting LGBTQIA identities, although the treaty’s only reference to sexual orientation merely stipulates non-discrimination. Some conservative supporters of the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) argue that this language has been used to justify ‘immoral lifestyles’ and garner acceptance from wider society. Pro-AKP writer Abdurrahman Dilipak derogated female defenders of the convention as ‘prostitutes’ and argued in his column: ‘families are falling apart because of the Istanbul Convention. Our young are not marrying and married couples are lining up to divorce’. The allegation that the treaty encourages divorce is more bizarre still, given that the treaty makes no explicit references to marriage or divorce other than to oppose the forced marriage. Dilipak’s argument is likely that the treaty subverts traditional gender roles via the promotion of women’s equality and empowerment, undermining the ‘family values.’
Members of AKP have responded to concerns over the protection of women’s rights and safety by arguing that the government’s own constitution and regulations are sufficient. Family, Labour, and Social Policies Minister Zehra Zumrut Selcuk wrote on Twitter “The guarantee of women’s rights are the current regulations in our bylaws, primarily our Constitution. Our judicial system is dynamic and strong enough to implement new regulations as needed”. Vice President Fuat Oktay likewise wrote on his Twitter that “There is no need to look for outside remedy or imitate others for this paramount goal [of protecting women’s rights]. The solution indeed lies in our traditions and customs”.
Arguments like Selcuk and Oktay’s are hardly reassuring considering the current social climate for women and LGBTQIA people in Turkey. According to the Turkish government’s Interior Ministry, over 230 women were killed in 2020. The World Health organisation reports that 38% of women in Turkey are victims of domestic violence. Turkey’s withdrawal from the Istanbul Convention will remove external regulation to ensure compliance with international women’s rights, potentially enabling a rollback or stalling of existing protective structures.
This lack of accountability is especially concerning given that there is already a gap between discourse around human rights and practice in Turkey. Eighteen women’s rights activists were arrested on International Women’s Day in Turkey for chanting slogans that were ‘insulting’ toward President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. The arrests and subsequent investigations were not only in violation of the international human right to free speech; they also came just one week after the announcement of a new Human Rights Action Plan which included upholding this right. Senior women’s rights researcher at Human Rights Watch Hillary Margolis commented “It speaks volumes that even on a day to celebrate women and promote equality, Turkish authorities would rather target them for peaceful demonstrations than protect their rights.”
Likewise, LGBTQIA individuals have been increasingly targeted in recent years. Human Rights Watch reports that police have attempted to prevent trans women from joining protests and banned rainbow coloured objects at demonstrations in several Turkish cities. Fahrettin Altun, President Erdoğan’s communications director, derogated homosexuality as an ‘ugliness’ and argued that families were being targeted with propaganda promoting tolerance for LGBTQIA people. Some argue that polarisation over LGBTQIA issues is being used by the Turkish government to garner support from conservatives and discredit opposing parties. The politicisation of homophobia and transphobia is especially concerning given that the Turkish government is no longer legally bound to non-discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender by the Istanbul Convention.
Julia Hahn of DW reports that debates over whether Turkey should withdraw from the convention in 2020 “were met with massive protests by women at the time”. Following Saturday’s decree, members of opposition parties and women’s rights groups denounced the move on Twitter and began mobilising to protest. Republican People’s Party (CHP) Secretary-General Selin Sayek Böke argued that the withdrawal was unconstitutional, stating on behalf of the CHP that “we don’t recognize and will not recognize the decision taken by Erdoğan by disregarding the law and the Parliament”. Council of Europe Secretary-General Marija Pejcinovic Buric released a statement arguing: “This move is a huge setback to these efforts and all the more deplorable because it compromises the protection of women in Turkey, across Europe and beyond”.
Hahn argues that President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan bowed to pressure to withdraw from the treaty despite protests in order “to re-energize his voter base amidst a period of economic downturn”. It remains to be seen whether the CHP’s claim that the AKP’s withdrawal is unconstitutional will gain any political traction to oppose the constitution in the coming weeks.
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