What Turkey’s withdrawal from the Istanbul Convention means for women in Turkey and beyond

By Allegra Wirmer

Allegra is a first-year master student in International Relations at Alma Mater Studiorum – Università di Bologna, where she focuses on international affairs, security studies and the Middle East.

BBC website (https://ichef.bbci.co.uk/news/976/cpsprodpb/1547C/production/_117646178_mediaitem117646176.jpg)

In an unexpected, if unsurprising, turn of events, Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan announced his country’s withdrawal from the Convention on Preventing and Combating Violence Against Women and Domestic Violence on March 20th. The treaty, better known as the Istanbul Convention, creates obligations for State Parties aimed at protecting women from violence. The President’s move has ignited protest in Turkey and provoked widespread condemnations from international leaders, as it is seen as a further rejection of human rights standards by the Turkish leadership. For years, fears that Turkey is progressively drifting toward right-wing authoritarianism under the ruling Justice & Development Party (AKP) have worried its neighbors and the global community of states.

The Convention

The Istanbul Convention is a Council of Europe human rights treaty which was opened for signature in 2011, and currently has 46 signatories (among them the European Union). Of these, 34 have ratified the treaty. Ironically, Turkey was the first state to sign and ratify the Convention, which entered into force officially in August 2014. The treaty is the outcome of the Council of Europe’s long-term commitment to fighting violence against women through policy recommendations and initiatives around the continent, as well as landmark pronouncements by the institution’s judicial arm, the European Court of Human Rights. 

The Convention is the first legally binding international instrument focused specifically on the prevention of violence against women, articulated through a variety of provisions which encourage State Parties to take any necessary measures to counter this phenomenon. The treaty applies to all victims of gender-based violence but notes how particular attention must be paid to women, as they are disproportionately subject to such actions. The 81 articles, divided into 12 chapters, spell out obligations for State Parties constructed around the “4 Ps approach”: Prevention, Protection and support of victims, Prosecution of offenders, integrated Policies. The treaty emphasizes the State’s responsibilities to intervene not only where women are subject to violence in the public sphere, but also in the domestic sphere, where many gender-based abuses occur which are often ignored as intrusion into the private sphere of the family is traditionally frowned upon.

Interestingly, the Convention is outspoken in placing the phenomenon of violence against women in the wider context of gender-based discrimination in society. Indeed, the Preamble clearly identifies violence against women as only one of the expressions of “historically unequal power relations between women and men”, recognizing that advancements on the elimination of violence against women cannot be separated from societal progress on the issue of gender equality. This holistic view of such violence as a symptom of patriarchal dynamics of oppression is visible throughout the treaty, which does not merely focus on the topic as a crime but prescribes, for example, the need for an education-based approach to prevention. 

The situation in Turkey

Erdoğan’s decision to withdraw his country from the Convention sent shockwaves through the nation. The will to make Turkey the first country to denounce the treaty since its inception had been looming threateningly since last summer, when talks of withdrawal had inflamed public opinion, creating schisms within the AKP and even within Erdoğan’s own family. While hardliners indicated the Convention as the root cause of major problems in Turkish society, others close to the AKP had restated the need for membership to safeguard the rights of Turkish women. Among these voices was KADEM, the Women and Democracy Association led by Erdoğan’s daughter and daughter-in-law. The opposition, women’s associations and human rights organizations had been among the voices protesting the proposed action. Apparently, this unrest was not enough to steer the President away from his intents.

statement released by the government on March 22nd commented the decision as stemming from the supposed “hijacking” of the Convention by a group of people “attempting to normalize homosexuality – which is incompatible with Turkey’s social and family values”. The text nonetheless restates Turkey’s commitment to the protection of women, which it argues to be able to efficiently undertake even without the Convention, citing domestic legislation and its ratification of the UN Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) as evidence.

Nowhere in the statement is there mention of the realities of gender-based violence in the country, where femicides have increased drastically in recent years and violence against women is often justified in relation to male “honor”. The government’s extremely conservative stances on women’s status in society, often characterizing them exclusively as mothers and caretakers, show its prioritization of traditional ideals of family and masculinity over the livelihood of its female citizens. The consequences of this are evident: the Turkish women’s rights organization We Will Stop Femicides recorded 300 confirmed femicides in 2020. This number does not include the 171 women who were found dead and declared suicides or natural deaths in highly suspicious circumstances. High-profile cases of violence resulting in death and physical mutilation of victims, often coupled with sexual assault, spell the gruesome reality of fear and repression which Turkish women are forced to suffer most often at the hands of their own partners and family members.

The actions of the Turkish government have drawn criticism from around the world. From the EU institutions, High Representative and Commission VP Josep Borrell condemned the “dangerous message” sent around the world by Turkey, while Commission President Ursula von der Leyen called upon all signatories to ratify the Istanbul Convention. US President Biden released a statement rebuking Turkey’s “disheartening step backward”, emphasizing the need to fight gender-based violence also in light of a recent murder spree in Atlanta, Georgia, which had targeted Asian women. Local Turkish women’s associations decried the decision and called citizens to the streets for protest rallies.

Possible implications for the future

The repercussions of Erdoğan’s move will be unravelling in the coming weeks and months, but the possibilities are grim both domestically and internationally. Observers are worried about the fate of women’s and LGBTQ+ rights in Turkey, as both groups have been subject to marginalization and violence either at the hands of the government or with its tacit approval. In any case, his move widens the gap between Turkey and the West; what this means for the already stalled talks of accession to the European Union remains to be seen.

However, the Turkish decision could have wider repercussions when it comes to the adherence to the Istanbul Convention across Europe. The Convention is yet to be ratified by twelve signatories, six of which are members of the European Union. Among these, the governments of Hungary, Bulgaria and Slovakia have already openly stated their opposition to ratification. In July 2020, the Polish government announced its intention to withdraw from the Convention, which it had already ratified. In each of these cases, the Convention has been presented as an attack on national values of family and societal wellbeing by ominous liberal forces. This framing of the Convention by right-wing nationalist groups has contributed to the undemocratic spirals which have propelled many European countries further away from the guiding principles of the EU.

Whether Erdoğan’s initiative will have a domino effect of withdrawals from the Convention remains to be seen. Certain is that this event represents a dangerous precedent of politicization of international human rights standards, by creating a false partisan narrative around rights which should be seen as neutral and thus universal. By weaponizing human rights treaties such as the Istanbul Convention for political gain, leaders such as the Turkish president are reframing the human rights discourse in a way that corrupts its original meaning. Above all, these actions contribute to the further victimization of groups which are already extremely vulnerable and subject to discrimination, in Turkey and beyond. 

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