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Turkey exits 'human rights convention of women'

The Turkish president withdrew his nation from Europe's first legally binding treaty on preventing violence against women and removed the central bank chief.

Cânân Arın of Istanbul, Turkey receives a Heinrich Böll Foundation award this month for 40 years of campaigning
Cânân Arın of Istanbul, Turkey receives a Heinrich Böll Foundation award this month for 40 years of campaigning for women's rights and self-determination (AN/Stephan Röhl)

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan issued a decree on Saturday to withdraw Turkey from Europe's first legally binding treaty on preventing violence against women, a reversal that international organizations and women's rights campaigners had been warning about over the past year.

His decision to pull out of the landmark treaty known as sponsor Council of Europe's Istanbul Convention, which Turkey was the first to sign in 2011 when Erdoğan was prime minister, has angered not only voices from abroad against gender-based violence but also many Turkish women including some of his own relatives. After the decree was issued in the Official Gazette, demonstrations erupted in Istanbul and other Turkish cities.

COE''s Secretary General Marija Pejčinović Burić lambasted Erdoğan's move. “Turkey‘s announced withdrawal from the Council of Europe‘s Istanbul Convention on violence against women is devastating news," she said in a statement.

"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. 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.”

Erdoğan also issued a presidential decree to remove Turkish politician Naci Ağbal as head of the central bank after just three months on the job, replacing him with a professor, Şahap Kavcıoğlu, who favors lower interest rates. Erdoğan has expressed the view that higher interest rates are a cause of and not an antidote to inflation.

In recent years international organizations such as the Council of Europe, or COE, the United Nations and International Commission of Jurists expressed alarm over Erdoğan's two-year state of emergency rule that ended in 2018 after suspending some basic human rights and legal standards. It was a reaction to the failed military coup attempt in 2016 that Erdoğan’s government tied to Fethullah Gulen, a cleric based in the United States. Erdoğan then took on sweeping new powers.

And starting last summer, women took to the streets around the nation and used social media campaigns to protest Erdoğan's apparent disenchantment with the Istanbul Convention. Turkish news media reported widespread verbal and physical abuse and police attacks on women and LGBTQ+ allies. Erdoğan's opposition to the treaty grew as some of his conservative Muslim supporters described it as a Western scheme to undercut Turkish traditional family norms.

At least 38% of married Turkish women have been subjected to physical or sexual violence and hundreds of women are murdered every year, according to national figures more than half a decade old cited by the United Nations in Turkey, which also said it was "deeply concerned" about Erdoğan's treaty withdrawal.

"The COVID-19 pandemic has led to a further escalation of violence against women and girls around the world, due to restrictions of movement, social isolation, and economic insecurity," U.N. officials said in a statement.

"We are concerned that Turkey’s withdrawal from the Istanbul Convention would undermine the significant efforts invested so far to prevent and combat violence against women and may hinder progress towards further strengthening of national legislative, policy and institutional frameworks."

'The human rights convention of women'

Turkish lawyer and women's rights activist Cânân Arın, recipient of Berlin-based Heinrich Böll Foundation's prestigious Anne Klein Women's Award this month f0r her 40 years of advocacy, said the anti-domestic violence treaty is important because it introduced legal standards to Europe on gender-based violence.

"This convention is the human rights convention of women," she said. "It is a convention that protects the rights of women and those whose human rights are disregarded."

One of the foundation's board members, Barbara Unmüßig, said the fight personified by Arin's efforts is one shared by many women in Turkey.

As the first legally binding and comprehensive treaty to fight violence against women and girls, the Istanbul Convention entered into force on August 1, 2014, after it was ratified by 10 of COE's 47 member nations. Since then it has entered into force in 34 of those member nations.

"With the withdrawal from the Istanbul Convention, important successes of the Turkish women's movement would be reversed." Unmüßig said. "With Cânân Arın, many thousands of women in Turkey are currently fighting against the women's political rollback and for a self-determined life without violence."

As Europe's leading human rights organization, COE intended for the treaty to build on continuing efforts to protect women and girls from violence since the 1990s. It has not yet entered into force in 13 of COE's member nations: Armenia, Azerbaijan, Bulgaria, Czech Republic, Hungary, Latvia, Liechtenstein, Lithuania, Moldova, Russia, Slovakia, Ukraine and the United Kingdom.

Six of those — Bulgaria, Czech Republic, Hungary, Latvia, Lithuania and Slovakia — are European Union members. However, all but Azerbaijan and Russia have at least signed it.

The treaty also emphasizes that violence against women and girls is a human rights violation and form of discrimination that causes inequality between women and men. Some governments, such as Bulgaria's, have opposed the treaty based on sovereignty concerns.