Why Turkey’s withdrawal from the Istanbul Convention is a global problem
On March 20, the Turkish Official Gazette announced the presidential decision to withdraw from the Istanbul Convention, the Council of Europe treaty on the prevention of violence against women and domestic violence. Although the announcement was sudden, it was not a complete surprise, given that the Convention has been at the center of the backlash against women’s rights in countries with right-wing populist governments.
Alongside the Inter-American Convention on the Prevention, Punishment and Eradication of Violence against Women (Bélem do Para), the Istanbul Convention is the world’s leading international human rights treaty that specifically targets gender-based violence. After two years of preparation and negotiation, the treaty was opened for signature in 2011 in Istanbul, with the Turkish Foreign Minister being the first signatory. The Turkish parliament then unanimously approved the ratification, underlining its full support for the eradication of violence against women. On March 8, 2012, in a symbolic demonstration of political support on the occasion of International Women’s Day, the parliament adopted Law No. 6284 on gender-based violence and officially ratified the Istanbul Convention.
Turkish participation in the Convention stems from a history of feminist mobilization in Turkey, which successfully demanded incremental changes in state structures and legislation over several decades. For example, feminist groups lobbied for Turkey to ratify the United Nations Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women in 1985 and succeeded in pressuring the government to lift your reservations in 1999. In addition, alliances between women’s organizations helped push for a new civil code in 2001, which recognized full equality of women and men in marriage, and a new penal code in 2004, with gradual changes in the punishment of feminicides (or others). called “honor killings”), marriage rape, sexual harassment, child abuse and other sexual crimes that perpetuate the low status of women. Feminist advocacy made Turkey’s legal system significantly more gender sensitive by building coalitions between women’s networks (platforms) and negotiating with state actors through institutional channels such as parliamentary committees and ministries.
Since then, feminist groups have campaigned to make visible the horrific extent of violence against women in Turkey and how it has escalated in recent years. They used the Council of Europe first report of the Expert Group on the Convention in 2018 to highlight how the judiciary finds ways to undermine legal clauses or misinterpret them to allow victims to be blamed. They also raised concerns about secondary victimization, which occurs when police fail to implement protective measures, as well as the ignorance of prosecutors and violations of victims’ rights. Unlike right-wing populists, who claim that violence against women has increased because of the Convention, women’s NGOs have proven that the problem is lack of implementation.
The rally backlash
Despite the progressive legal framework, far-right populists have become more brazen in recent years. There are more and more attempts to eliminate the problem of gender inequality from the political debate by asserting that there is a natural division of labor between men and women in families, and that we should try to protect Turkish families and culture.
For example, blaming strategies against perpetrators are increasingly successful in criminal courts, which themselves abuse legal clauses concerning unfair provocation or good behavior. Lower courts unsuccessfully challenged existing legislation aimed at preventing gender-based violence before the Constitutional Court of Turkey. In 2016, a bill was proposed that would have deferred the sentence for sexual assault on minors. Supporters of the bill, which advocacy groups have called “The marry your rapist bill” or “the legal rape bill”, claimed to protect families where men, punished for sexual assault on minors, had married their victims with the consent of both parties. After massive protests and criticism from civil society, including representatives of conservative women’s groups, the government withdrew the bill.
These movements coincided with increasing attacks by the right against the “dangers” of the Istanbul Convention. In response, We will stop the feminicide platform (Kadın Cinayetlerini Durduracağız Platformu) organized a social media campaign in 2019 titled “The Istanbul Convention Keeps Us Alive”. This campaign was taken up by civil society organizations, political parties and local authorities. In 2020, Turkish feminists launched the #Challenge Accepted campaign by posting black-and-white photos of themselves, indicating that they don’t want to end up among the photos of victims of domestic violence that mourners pin to their collars at funerals.
The campaign picked up internationally and became a trending topic on Instagram within days. Turkish feminist organizations came together in August 2020 to establish a platform called Women’s platform for equality (Eşitlik için Kadın Platformu) to collectively fight against far-right demands to withdraw from the Convention. The platform is also is part of a transnational advocacy network with organizations in various countries where women’s rights are under similar attack.
Meanwhile, polls in Turkey show a significant decrease (from 45% to 21% over the last ten years) in public support for namus, the conviction that the behavior of women and their public presence must be controlled in order to protect “family honor”. Likewise, acceptance of domestic violence is declining (from 20% to 6% over the past five years). Among those who know what the Istanbul Convention is, 84% were against a possible withdrawal in September 2020. Even within the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP), many defended the Convention after extreme right-wing actors began to denounce him.
As societal norms become more progressive, in part thanks to a strong tradition of feminist advocacy, there is also a backlash from the right. The situation in Turkey is therefore complex.
Withdrawal and democratic resistance
The level of social mobilization against the presidential decree calls into question its legitimacy. After March 20, government leaders said the decision was irrevocable. Nevertheless, people flocked to the streets to protest despite the risks of police violence and the Covid-19 pandemic. The resistance was not limited to demonstrations either. Individuals and associations have used strategic litigation in a way unprecedented in Turkish political history: Platforms of women, ordinary citizens and 77 bar associations have filed thousands of lawsuits before the Board of state, the highest administrative court, requesting the annulment of the decision. The opposition parties, CHP, IYI Party, DEVA and HDP, also voiced their objections and joined the litigation campaign while TUSIAD, the Turkish Industry and Business Association, which represents Turkey’s largest companies, issued a statement against withdrawal.
Recently, some right-wing commentators have explained the backlash against the Convention as a backlash against top-down political actions related to globalization and Europeanization. They claim that the pro-women policies themselves reflect a large democratic deficit because they lack popular support in Turkey. As a result, any action to promote gender equality in Turkey is the result of international commitments and the work of “submissive governments” and “bureaucratic elite”. In this explanation, therefore, the backlash is presented as a case of citizens expressing concerns about the lack of democratic oversight and demanding participation in public policy making.
However, this argument is not only implausible but also highly problematic given the unanimous parliamentary approval of the Istanbul Convention in 2012, as well as recent polls showing high public support for the Convention, not to mention the protests and protests. widespread statements against the withdrawal, and divisions within the AKP itself. A better explanation might be that fringe and ultra-conservative groups have taken critical positions in government and are trying to hold onto them through a policy of polarization.