Turkey’s Withdrawal from the Istanbul Convention Demands an International Response

Turkey’s Withdrawal from the Istanbul Convention Demands an International Response    On 20 March, the Turkish government announced its withdrawal from the Council of Europe Treaty on Preventing and Combating Violence against Women and Domestic Violence. Better known as the Istanbul Convention, it was first signed in the nation’s capital in 2011.   With a stroke of his pen, President Recep Tayyip Erdoǧan abandoned Turkey’s commitments to take seriously violence against women, sparking mass protests by Turkish women activists and their allies.    The presidential decree was made in defiance of the Turkish constitution and is being challenged in the courts. For the past decade, the Convention – which establishes legally binding standards for preventing domestic violence, protecting victims, and punishing perpetrators – has served as a powerful tool for women’s rights activists in Turkey and the 33 other countries that have ratified it by providing a comprehensive legal framework for prevention, protection, and accountability.     The timing could not be more inauspicious, with Turkey already having one of the highest rates of domestic violence in the world – which have further increased during the COVID-19 pandemic. With the legal framework set out by the Istanbul Convention now obsolete in Turkey, women and other marginalised groups have been left without access to systematic justice.   “Since 2011, the Istanbul Convention has basically been the constitution for women in Turkey,” said Eren Keskin, a Turkish lawyer and human rights activist, in a recent webinar hosted by the LSE Centre for Women, Peace and Security. “It is one of the biggest and most important written documents for defending women’s rights, and it serves as a binding force for governments on the issue of domestic violence.”   Keskin said that although the Turkish judicial system has never actually applied the standards of the Istanbul Convention in a legal setting, its very existence supported calls for change and progress by women across the country. An estimated 40 per cent of all women in Turkey have experienced some form of domestic violence, and rates of violence against women have been steadily rising over the past decade.    “At the end of the day, we were still able to go into the streets and demand that the government implement the Istanbul Convention, which was like a safeguard for women,” said Keskin. “But now that has been taken from us.”    When human rights become political    Although the government has been vague about its reasons for withdrawal, conservatives have long claimed that the Convention undermines traditional family values and questions traditional gender roles, which are deeply entrenched in Turkish society and culture.    But many believe the decision was also a political move designed to secure support from conservative and Islamist voters in a deeply religious country that has struggled to take steps toward secularism and progressive values.    Yakin Ertürk, former United Nations Special Rapporteur on violence against women, says President Erdoǧan’s decision to withdraw from the Istanbul Convention defies the democratic-secular principles of Turkey [...]