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 and international human rights norms. “It will nurture the ongoing misogynous assaults on women,” she says. “The decision comes at a time when a Turkish diplomat, Volkan Bozkır, heads the UN General Assembly. Mr. Bozkır must either publicly denounce the withdrawal or resign from his post.”
Women are not the only group facing threats to their rights and safety. Over the past several years, violent crimes against members of the LGBTQ+ community have been steadily rising amidst growing anti-LGBTQ+ rhetoric from government officials – including President Erdoǧan himself, who has defended his top cleric’s comments that homosexuality brings “illness and decay.”
Trans women are particularly at risk of violence and daily discrimination, including being fined by police simply for existing.
“It’s a very hostile environment for trans women,” says Keskin. “They are being given fines stating that they are polluting the environment.”
A red flag amid global erosion of women’s rights
Madeleine Rees, Secretary-General of the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom, says that Turkey’s termination of the Istanbul Convention reflects a growing global movement of nations pushing back against women’s rights.
“Rates of domestic violence against women and members of the LGBTQ+ community have skyrocketed during COVID-19, but very little action is being taken by governments to address this shadow pandemic,” says Rees. “And now we’re seeing the systematic erosion of legal avenues created to protect human rights and prevent violence.”
Rees, an international human rights lawyer, says that the Istanbul Convention is the most comprehensive framework available for the protection of women’s rights – which is why its denial by Turkey and other nations that have so far refused to ratify it represents such a serious threat to progress.
“The Istanbul Convention is the result of years gradual build-up of legal principles and international law surrounding women’s rights, including through the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) and UNSCR 1325 on Women, Peace and Security,” she says.
“Turkey’s rejection thus amounts to an explicit rejection of the notion that women’s rights are human rights,” Rees continues. “The fact that this has to be argued yet again just shows how treacherous patriarchy can be. All states are obligated to protect against violence and whilst the stance taken by Erdoǧan has rightly brought him into disrepute internationally, he is not alone in his misogyny. There are others who delay ratification on spurious grounds and we need to call them out.”
Heidi Meinzolt, WILPF board member for Europe, says that Turkey is not an isolated case. “We hear similarly alarming stories from partners in Ukraine, Bosnia, Croatia, Armenia, Georgia, and practically all countries in Central and Eastern Europe where nationalist circles are covered up and promoted by church institutions under the pretext of ‘preserving tradition’,” she says. “We are all called to be aware and alarmed!”
Paradoxically, the COVID-19 pandemic – during which Turkey announced its withdrawal from the Convention – has led to a frightening increase in sexualised violence and even femicides. However, there are completely inadequate mechanisms in place to protect women experiencing or threatened by domestic violence. This is especially true for migrant women, women refugees, and women living in precarious situations, for whom the situation is often catastrophic: lack of protection and adequate shelters, lack of institutions to protect them, lack of political understanding and will.
The social and economic costs of violence against women and the state’s disregard for the problem are enormous.
The international community must act
Together with Keskin, Ertürk, women’s rights activists around the world, and WILPF’s global community, Rees is calling on the international community to take concrete action that puts pressure on Turkey to reverse its decision.
“Although the Istanbul Convention was created by the Council of Europe, any country can sign it,” she says. “We are demanding that all nations – particularly those that claim to have developed a feminist foreign policy – announce that they endorse the Convention and are taking steps towards signing. They must demonstrate their legal alliance with the rights of women everywhere.”
“I believe that international solidarity will save us,” agrees Keskin. “If the international community puts enough pressure on the Turkish government – which is a member of NATO and desires to become a member of the EU – then they might change their perspective and their policy.”
Meinzolti adds that “solidarity also means putting continuous pressure on EU institutions by talking about women’s rights in negotiations on the migration deal and arms export regulations with Turkey and on arms export regulations to Turkey. For Poland, Hungary, and Croatia, it is a direct responsibility of keeping EU norms and values high on the agenda. WILPFers will keep an eye on it – this is promised!”