Erdoğan signs executive order to leave Istanbul Convention on violence against women

(This story was updated with the Council of Europe statement in the seventeenth paragraph.)

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan pulled Turkey out of the Council of Europe Convention on Preventing and Combating Violence against Women and Domestic Violence, better known as the Istanbul Convention, via an executive order published in the Official Gazette on Friday night.

The move comes after months-long debates on whether Turkey should withdraw that continued throughout the summer, with pro-government conservative and Islamist groups arguing against the convention. However, overall objection to the convention remained low, with only 17 percent of Turks approving of Erdoğan's pledge to withdraw, according to a July poll.

Women’s organisations, including KADEM, or Women and Democracy Association, where Erdoğan’s daughter Sümeyye Erdoğan Bayraktar is the vice chairwoman, have stood firmly on the side of the convention, with most grassroots organisations calling for further protections for women and LGBT persons.

Advocacy group "We Will Stop Femicides" urged Erdoğan to “revoke the executive order and implement the convention”, and called for an impromptu demonstration for Saturday afternoon in Istanbul’s Kadıköy district.

The publication of Erdoğan’s executive order coincided with a social media campaign under the hashtag “Strong Women Strong Turkey” led by Presidential Communications Director Fahrettin Altun, who in an interview with a pro-government newspaper, said efforts to resolve women’s issues “continue to be the main agenda of our government”.

As part of the campaign, some users posted a 2017 quote by Erdoğan, where the president said in a Women’s Day event, “We don’t need to take on a foreign model, to make translations, or to cheat and copy to protect the rights of our women.”

Friday evening saw alternative media reporting on rumours of Turkey’s withdrawal, hours before the executive order came out.

At midnight, pro-government media started to report on the Official Gazette as Saturday’s issue and the order were published online.

Lawyer and member of main opposition Republican People’s Party’s (CHP) Disciplinary Board Tuba Torun cited Article 80 of the convention, which states, “Any Party may, at any time, denounce this Convention by means of a notification addressed to the Secretary General of the Council of Europe.”

“As a rule, an international treaty is denounced in the same manner that it was enacted in,” Torun said in a tweet. The opposition lawyer continued:

“The Istanbul Convention went into force with approval from the Grand National Assembly of Turkey (TBMM), and as such, can be withdrawn from via the same will, i.e., with approval from TBMM. The president can’t just say, ‘I’m withdrawing from this convention, it is done’. It can’t happen. You may ask, is there any law left? You are right.”

 

Turkey has seen an escalation in violence against women and LGBT persons, with particularly violent murders of several women shaking the country in the summer and fall of last year. 

In February, Turkey saw at least 33 murders of women at the hands of men, most of them intimate partners or close family members. At least 57 women were assaulted, at least one child was murdered, and at least four children were sexually abused in the same timeframe, while 104 cases of women being forced into prostitution were recorded, according to a report by news network Bianet.

March also saw an uptick in reported crimes against the LGBT community, including murders and serious injuries for at least three transwomen. Lawyer Levent Pişkin said “vague concepts like morality and honour are used to justify a policy of impunity” when it comes to homophobia and transpobia driven crimes in the country.

The LGBT community has faced increased antagonism from Erdoğan, who said there was “no such thing as LGBT” in Turkey, and his government. Interior Minister Süleyman Soylu has repeatedly called LGBT persons “deviants”, and said the community “has nothing to do with our values and is something Western countries market to Turkey”.

Islamist circles have targeted the convention over its supposed promotion of LGBT, with pro-government newspaper Yeni Akit taking the lead. In its frequent coverage of the Istanbul Convention, framing it as a “shield” for the LGBT community, Akit said the convention was “presented as something innocent like just the prevention of violence against women”, but that it favouring “the LGBTs” was “apparent in the articles”.

Meanwhile, the head of the Turkish Directorate of Religious Affairs Union (Türk Diyanet Vakıf-Sen), Nuri Ünsal, has advised women to read Muslim holy book, the Quran, to combat violence against women, T24 news site reported on Saturday.

Ünsal said some articles of the Istanbul Convention promoted the LGBT, something which “Islam does not recognize.’’

“Islam protects all living things including women, men and animals from all kinds of violence and evil deed,” the official said.

According to the Istanbul Convention, signatory states must ensure the implementation of the convention with no discrimination based on a number of characteristics, including sex, gender, sexual orientation and gender identity, which Yeni Akit maintains “legitimises LGBT”.

In a statement on Saturday, the Council of Europe condemned Turkey's decision to withdraw from the Istanbul Convention.   

"The Istanbul Convention covers 34 European countries and is widely regarded as the gold standard in international efforts to protect women and girls from the violence that they face every day in our societies," Secretary General Marija Pejčinović Burić said.

"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,” she added. 

In May last year, Hungary officially rejected the Istanbul Convention following long debates. Hungarian Prime Minister Victor Orban considered his and his government’s opposition to the convention to be part of their long fight against what they call “gender madness”, pro-Turkish government Daily Sabah reported.

Last week in Poland, where discussions to withdraw continued throughout last year, the right-wing government proposed an alternative to the Istanbul Convention that would ban abortion and same-sex marriage, according to a report by Balkan Insight.

The Polish Justice Ministry has suggested that a new treaty should offer “particular support” to “the protection of the life of a conceived child”, Balkan Insight said.

In Turkey, abortions up to 10 weeks remain legal on paper, however, public hospitals have all but stopped providing the service, a 2019 report by Deutsche Welle Turkish found. Same-sex marriage or civil partnerships are not legal in any form in the country, while homosexuality itself isn’t officially criminalised either.

The Istanbul Convention requires signatory parties to implement effective remedies to combat violence against women and vulnerable persons, including the establishment of rape crisis centres and domestic violence shelters. Turkey’s own laws separately require municipalities serving populations larger than 100,000 to run shelters for women and children.

For its population of some 82 million people, 42.9 million of whom are female, Turkey has a total of 3,482 places available in 145 women’s shelters, Evrensel newspaper reported in February.

To comply with the stricter international guidelines, columnist Berrin Sönmez wrote in 2017, Turkey would need to run at least 8,000 shelters for women and children.

Turkey established Contact Points to Combat Violence in 355 social centres, Fahrettin Altun said in his Friday interview, and there are “as many as 81” guesthouses under the Violence Prevention and Monitoring Centres (ŞÖNİMs) run by the Family, Labour and Social Services Ministry.

“Of course our goal is that not a single woman of ours is victimised by violence,” Altun said.

Civilian-run initiative tracking femicides, Anıt Sayaç, or the Counter Monument, has recorded 409 murders of women in 2020, and 77 in the first three months of 2021.