Turkey exits European treaty designed to protect women from violence

Turkey withdrew early Saturday from a landmark European treaty protecting women from violence that it was the first to sign 10 years ago and that bears the name of its largest city.

Hundreds protest as advocates say treaty crucial to halting domestic violence

Hundreds of women gather in Istanbul on Saturday to oppose a move by the Turkish government to exit the Istanbul Convention, a European treaty designed to protect women from violence. (Umit Bektas/Reuters)

Turkey withdrew early Saturday from a landmark European treaty protecting women from violence that it was the first to sign 10 years ago and that bears the name of its largest city.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan's overnight decree annulling Turkey's ratification of the Istanbul Convention is a blow to women's rights advocates, who say the agreement is crucial to combating domestic violence.

Hundreds of women gathered at demonstrations across Turkey on Saturday to protest the move.

Marija Pejcinovic Buric, the Council of Europe's secretary general, called the decision "devastating."

"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 said.

Marija Pejcinovic Buric, the Council of Europe's secretary general, calls the decision by Turkey to leave the Istanbul Convention 'devastating.' (Lehtikuva/Mesut Turan via Reuters)

The Istanbul Convention states that men and women have equal rights and obliges state authorities to take steps to prevent gender-based violence against women, protect victims and prosecute perpetrators.

"Shame on this bigotry, patriarchy, heartlessness that protects bullies and murderers instead of women," Turkish author Elif Safak said on Twitter of the withdrawal.

Istanbul's mayor, Ekrem Imamoglu, said ditching the pact was "painful" and disregarded women's struggle over years.

Some officials from Erdogan's Islam-oriented party had advocated for a review of the agreement, arguing it is inconsistent with Turkey's conservative values by encouraging divorce and undermining the traditional family unit.

Critics also claim the treaty promotes homosexuality through the use of categories such as gender, sexual orientation and gender identity. They see that as a threat to Turkish families. Hate speech has been on the rise in Turkey, including from Interior Minister Suleyman Soylu, who described LGBT people as "perverts" in a tweet. Erdogan has rejected their existence altogether.

Exit prompts protests

Women's groups and their allies who have been protesting to keep the convention intact immediately called for demonstrations across the country on Saturday under the slogan, "Withdraw the decision, implement the treaty." They said their years-long struggle would not be erased in one night.

"We were struggling every day so the Istanbul Convention would be implemented and women would live. We now hear that the Istanbul Convention has been completely repealed," said Dilan Akyuz, 30, who joined other women demonstrating in Istanbul. "We are very angry today. We can no longer bear even one death of a woman. We do not have any tolerance for this."

Rights groups say violence against and killing of women are on the rise in Turkey, but the interior minister called that a "complete lie" on Saturday.

Police officers scuffle with protesters during a rally in Istanbul on Saturday. (Emrah Gurel/The Associated Press)

A total of 77 women have been killed since the start of the year, according to the We Will Stop Femicide Platform. Some 409 women were killed in 2020, with dozens found dead under suspicious circumstances, according to the group.

Numerous women's rights groups slammed the decision. Advocacy group Women's Coalition Turkey said the withdrawal from a human rights agreement was a first in Turkey. "It is clear that this decision will further encourage the murderers of women, harassers, rapists," their statement said.

Government claims commitment to issue

Turkey's justice minister said the government was committed to combating violence against women.

"We continue to protect our people's honour, the family and our social fabric with determination," Justice Minister Abdulhamit Gul tweeted.

Erdogan has repeatedly stressed the "holiness" of the family and called on women to have three children. His communications director, Fahrettin Altun, said the government's motto is "Powerful Families, Powerful Society."

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, shown in February, issued a decree annulling Turkey's ratification of the Istanbul Convention. (Adem Altan/AFP/Getty Images)

Many women suffer physical or sexual violence at the hands of their husbands or partners, but up-to-date official statistics are unavailable. The Istanbul Convention requires states to collect data.

More than 1,000 women and allies gathered in Istanbul, wearing masks and holding banners. There was a heavy police presence in the area, and the demonstration ended without serious skirmishes.

They shouted pro-LGBT slogans and called for Erdogan's resignation. They cheered as a woman speaking through a megaphone said, "You cannot close up millions of women in their homes. You cannot erase them from the streets and the squares."

"As women, we now think that the withdrawal is a direct attack on women's rights and a direct attack on the rights of modern young women, in particular," Ebru Batur, 21-year-old demonstrator, said. "This of course makes us feel insecure and like our rights are appropriated."

Turkey signed on first

Turkey — which applied to join the European Union in 1987 but is not yet a member — was the first country to sign the Council of Europe's "Convention on preventing and combating violence against women and domestic violence" at a committee of ministers meeting in Istanbul in 2011. The law came into force in 2014, and Turkey's constitution says international agreements have the force of law.

Some lawyers claimed Saturday that the treaty is still active, arguing the president cannot withdraw from it without the approval of parliament, which ratified the Istanbul Convention in 2012.

Protesters gather during a rally in Istanbul on Saturday. (Emrah Gurel/The Associated Press)

But Erdogan gained sweeping powers with his re-election in 2018, setting in motion Turkey changing from a parliamentary system of government to an executive presidency.

The justice minister wrote on Twitter that while parliament approves treaties that the executive branch puts into effect, the executive also has the authority to withdraw from them.

Women lawmakers from Turkey's main opposition party said they will not recognize the decree and called it another "coup" on parliament, which had unanimously accepted the treaty, and a usurpation of the rights of 42 million women.

Germany, France criticize withdrawal

Germany's Foreign Ministry joined the criticism, saying "withdrawal from the Istanbul Convention is a wrong signal for Europe, but especially for the women of Turkey."

"Only a few weeks ago, President Erdogan introduced an action plan for human rights which also includes the fight against domestic violence and violence against women," the German ministry said in a statement. "Quitting an important convention of the Council of Europe questions how serious Turkey is when it comes to the goals mentioned in that action plan."

Activists participate in a protest against Turkey's withdrawal from Istanbul Convention, an international accord designed to protect women, in Istanbul on Saturday. (Umit Bektas/Reuters)

"It is clear that neither cultural, nor religious or other national traditions can serve as a disguise in order to ignore violence against women," Germany said.

France's foreign affairs ministry said on Saturday it deeply regretted Turkey's decision and that the move marked a new regression in terms of respect for human rights.

"This decision will primarily affect Turkish women, to whom France expresses all its solidarity," the French ministry said in a statement.

With files from Reuters