Fears Over Turkey’s Looming Exit from Istanbul Convention

Erdogan accused of courting “conservative cults” with controversial move.

Fears Over Turkey’s Looming Exit from Istanbul Convention

Erdogan accused of courting “conservative cults” with controversial move.

Friday, 14 May, 2021

A decade after becoming the first signatory to the Council of Europe’s convention preventing violence against women, Turkey is to become the first country to leave it.

In March this year, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan issued a decree withdrawing from the landmark agreement, better known as the Istanbul Convention after the city in which it was signed. The formal exit will come on July 1.

It was a highly symbolic moment when Turkey signed the convention in May 2011, joined by 45 Council of Europe states. The agreement was drawn up in Istanbul to mark Turkey’s presidency of the international human rights body, and it was inspired by the story of a Turkish woman, Nahide Opuz.

A resident of southeastern Diyarbakır, Opuz first petitioned for divorce from her husband Hüseyin in 1996, making some 36 criminal complaints about his violence. Nahide told the police that her husband had subjected her to physical abuse, regular death threats and had tried to kill her several times.

In 2002, Nahide decided to leave the marital home. With the help of her mother Minheta, she packed up and left in a moving van. Hüseyin followed, stopped them en route and killed Minheta.

Convicted of murder, Hüseyin was released from prison in 2008 despite a sentence of over 25 years. Nahide filed a complaint about the Turkish government with the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) on the grounds that it had failed to protect her. In June 2009, the court decided in her favour, issuing its first-ever fine to Turkey regarding violence against women.

The ECHR ruling was also the first to define violence against women as categorically different to other crimes, noting that women suffered specifically on the basis of their sex.. The ruling also noted that violence was a result of gender inequality and that the government should be proactive in protecting women, recommending that all Council of Europe members implemented legislation protecting women, including legal reforms.

This extensive ruling prompted the creation of the Istanbul Convention. Based heavily on the 1979 UN Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW), it became a binding international treaty in August 2014.

According to political scientist Burak Bilgehan Özpek, both the signing of the convention by Turkey and its later withdrawal were due to the internal politics of Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP). At first, the AKP supported the initiative, Özpek said, because it considered issues of diversity and anti-discrimination to be an asset.

“The AKP cared back then because it served them in their conflict with the state military to promote diversity. They also wanted to appear in coherence with the international political landscape,” he said.

The AKP’s image and agenda has changed drastically during its time in office, however. Özpek said that the party had now switched to polarising rhetoric that aimed to prop up social hierarchies. This does not necessarily have widespread support: according to the Metropoll Research Center, 52.3 per cent of people in Turkey oppose the withdrawal.

However, he continued, “A small group of conservative voters who were in favour [of Turkey’s withdrawal] constitute an important portion of the AKP’s voter base.”

International agreements that expand legal protections make such conservatives feel insecure, Özpek said, adding that the AKP’s political style reinforced the concept of there being winners and losers in society.

“By withdrawing from the convention, the party is trying to emphasise its conservative identity and place itself on the side of people who feel they are losing out from greater gender equality,” he said.

Above all, the decision has pleased religious conservatives. The Islamist Felicity Party (Saadet), to which Erdogan once belonged, has been one of the loudest supporters of withdrawal. Some view the initiative as part of an AKP plan to form an alliance with Saadet in the next election.

Withdrawal from the Convention has prompted protests in Turkey, not least because of Erdogan’s use of a presidential decree to exit the treaty. In theory, this should have been forbidden by the Turkish constitution, which limits the use of decrees to areas that the president can rule on. International agreements like the Istanbul Convention, argued Erdogan’s critics, were subject to a vote in parliament.

“Withdrawing from an international treaty with a single person’s decree paves the way to withdrawing from the European Convention on Human Rights,” said Ceren Akkaya, a lawyer for the Mor Çatı Women’s Shelter Foundation. “There’s no room for a decree to withdraw from a rights treaty in a state of law.”

A greater objection, however, is the principle at stake.

Women’s organisations would still have opposed withdrawal even if it had been carried out via a parliamentary vote,” Akkaya said.

On the day that Turkey withdrew from the Convention, some of Akkaya’s clients, who were survivors of domestic violence, contacted her to express their fears about what might happen next.

“To withdraw from a treaty that promises to help women build a life away from violence means that the government doesn’t care about violence against women,” Akkaya said.

Melek Önder, a spokesperson for the group We Will Stop Femicide Platform, said that Turkey’s signing of the convention was the result of decades’ worth of campaigning by the women’s movement. Her organisation records reports of violence against women, and saw a decrease in the number of incidents in the year the convention was signed.

That’s a result of women’s struggle and of state policies,” she said.

The most important aspect of the convention, Önder added, was its definition of gender inequality as the cause of violence.

“The government needs to find out where and how violence emerges so it can create solutions. It’s not easy to create societal change, and the convention says that the government should protect women in the meantime,” she said.

The government now promises an Ankara Convention to replace the international agreement, but many women’s rights activists are sceptical about its likely form.

“I don’t think that an Ankara Convention will be useful as it will be created by a government that evaded enforcement of a modern treaty like Istanbul Convention for the sake of collecting votes from conservative cults in the country. Women’s lives were used for political leverage and they were thrown under the bus overnight. We won’t stop working to enforce the Istanbul Convention again,” Önder said.

The first suggestion that Turkey would withdraw from the convention came in July 2020, when AKP deputy chairman Numan Kurtulmuş told reporters that the government “couldn’t stay indifferent” about the document. “Just like we entered it legally, we will exit it legally,” Kurtulmuş said.

This formed part of a wider attack on the idea of equal rights, as the deputy chairman also declared LGBTI+ communities a threat “not just to Turkey but to the world”.

Kurtulmuş declared at the same press conference that it was “completely unnatural to make it sound like sex and gender could be a choice. This is a breach of creation, these are efforts to create a third sex and to legitimise it”.

Two weeks later, local media reported that the president had issued an order for the AKP to begin discussing withdrawal or the possible annulment of certain articles. One in particular, which said “all genders” should be protected, subsequently came under fire from AKP supporters.

Berfu Şeker, of the group Women’s Human Rights - New Solutions, said that the government’s hostile attitude to LGBTI+ communities was its explicit reason for criticising the convention.

“The common deployment of homophobic political rhetoric threatens LGBTI+ wellbeing. It’s completely in violation of human rights,” Şeker said.

Since 2010, when the AKP took a more conservative turn, Şeker said that policy had often targeted gender equality, a phenomenon not limited to Turkey.

“Right-leaning, populist and authoritarian regimes do this worldwide. Religious and authoritarian regimes that target gender equality, women’s rights and LGBTI+ rights, aim to undermine democracy and the rule of law.”

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