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Mainstream, VOL LX No 32, New Delhi, July 30, 2022

Turkey Slips back on Women’s Rights and Empowerment | Gautam Sen

Friday 29 July 2022


The Turkish government headed by its president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, had pulled out of the Council of Europe`s Istanbul Convention (Convention) through a presidential decree issued on 20th March 2021. Turkey is a member of the Council of Europe (COE), an international organization established in 1949 and consisting of 46 member states, intended to uphold human rights, democratic principles and the rule of law in Europe based on the European Convention on Human Rights. Turkey had joined the COE on 9th August 1949, and acceded to the COE`s Convention on Preventing and Combating Violence against Women and Domestic Violence, popularly known as the Istanbul Convention (the Convention), by ratifying it on 12th March 2012. It is ironic that the Convention drafted in 2011 in the Turkish city after which it is named, with Turkey as the first country to ratify the Convention on 12th March 2012, had withdrawn from the Convention by a presidential decree, nine years later. There has been a huge uproar and widespread opposition to this decision of the Erdogan government, not only in Turkey but also in Europe as a whole. The presidential decree was challenged in the Turkish Council of State — the highest administrative court in that country, but the court has ruled on 19th July 2022, in favour of the decree.

Turkey`s withdrawal from the Convention was criticized by COE`s Commissioner for Human Rights, as an ill-advised decision, undermining women`s rights and sending a wrong signal to all women in Turkey and beyond. The commissioner had further stated that, when femicide and other forms of violence against women are on the rise in that country, Turkey should not step back and reduce its tools to fight against this scourge. It was a most retrograde step on the part of the Erdogan presidency, to annul the application of the Convention in Turkey and step back from its obligations under this international legal instrument.

When the Turkey ratified the Convention in 2012, Abdullah Gul was the country`s president. President Gul had a controversial political career and been an advocate of staunch Islamist political views during his university years. However, president Gul had shown modernistic traits later, in his political career. He had founded the Justice and Development Party (the AKP), subsequently, which was following a moderate political path, with Recep Tayyip Erdogan as his colleague in the party. During his presidency, Gul had also given accent to controversial laws which were strongly contested by the Opposition on grounds regarded by them as unconstitutional leading to widespread protests in the country. It seems ironic that, the Convention acceded to and ratified by Turkey with great promptness during the presidency of Gul with Erdogan on the levers of power, was repudiated in 2021 by the latter as executive president. This change in posture and policy on a secular and modernistic Turkish society with women`s rights institutionalised, may be understood if the international context in which the country was placed in 2012 and today, are compared. The domestic compulsions of the government at Ankara were different between that in the previous decade and today. The AKP and Erdogan had still to consolidate their political power in 2012, the executive presidency under Erdogan had not come into existence in 2012, and Turkey`s position in the European comity of nations, COE, etc, was not substantive. The situation since 2021 is however different.

Elections in Turkey are due in June 2023. Thus, the urge to garner votes of the conservative minded in the country`s electorate, the main support base of Erdogan`s AKP — the major partner of the ruling Grand Coalition, in the recent years, was obviously a motivating factor behind Erdogan`s decision of March last year, to annul the country`s accession to the Convention. The AKP, which won 285 out of 600 seats and 42.6 % popular votes in the Turkish national legislature in the 2018 parliamentary election, may not be able to muster similar support in next year`s election owing to many issues of public discontent based of economic factors and related to stifling of regional aspirations and thwarting of aspirations of the cultural minorities, and particularly the Kurds spread over the eastern segment of the country, its womenfolk and the secular segment of the population which is not insubstantial. Leader of the opposition centre-left party, the CHP (Republican People`s Party), Kemal Kilicdaroglu, has vowed to return to the Convention, if it comes to power. This party, the CHP, is of social democratic orientation, and stresses its close ties to the era of Turkey`s first president, Kemal Ataturk, and professes to defend the fundamental Kemalist values of republicanism and secularism. The CHP candidate against Erdogan in the last presidential election in June 2018, had polled 31 % of the votes. Erdogan and his AKP has argued that the Convention is inconsistent with Turkey`s conservative values, encourages divorce and homosexuality. However, the fact of the matter is that oppression against women looms large in the country. 226 women have already been murdered this year, and the statistical average of women`s death in violence against them, has been reported as three per day, in the recent years by human rights groups.

While a disinformation campaign against the Convention is evident in a few countries within the fold of the COE including Turkey, what is worrisome is that the institution of the Istanbul Convention which has been a beacon of hope for women in the European continent and Turkey in particular, for nearly a decade, is now under threat. A few other countries in the Balkans, may also emulate Turkey. Erdogan has been gradually moving Turkey away from values and principles propagated by the founder of the Turkish Republic, Mustafa Kemal Pasha. Reversing the ratified Istanbul Convention - an institution for upholding women`s rights and which facilitates the adoption of administrative measures against persecution of women, is an outcome of this process, apart from efforts of Erdogan to consolidate the conservatives in Turkey behind his AKP. The enforceability of the Convention and even the European Convention on Human Rights — from which the Istanbul Convention is primarily derived, will be an issue before the European community, its COE and the European Union, in the near future. These are the likely ominous repercussions of Turkey`s action of withdrawal from the Convention.

The twists and turns in Turkish politics are nothing new. However, fundamental changes in Turkey`s external environment and internal milieu are presently occurring. There is too much concentration of political power in an unresponsive president Erdogan at present, notwithstanding the public discontent in various parts of the country and segments of its populace on their socio-political rights and economic welfare. The crisis in the Black Sea littoral, the Russia - Ukraine conflict, Erdogan`s mediatory role in facilitating Ukrainian grain exports, etc, seem to have enabled the Turkish president to play a `larger than life` role both within and outside his country. The internal evolving situation does not encourage the Turkish womenfolk to expect a more secure, safe and protective future from socio-economic angle and particularly their human rights perspective. It is interesting to recall former Turkish president Abdullah Gul`s warning in April 2016 before the introduction of the presidential system through a referendum on 16th April 2017, at a Financial Times summit that, polarization and concentration of power must stop, and the (political) climate must be normalized. The reverse is happening now and the process of curtailing human rights, particularly of Turkish womenfolk, seems to be gathering momentum.

(Author: Gautam Sen, is a retired senior Civil Service officer with administrative experience in the central and state governments. The views are personal.)

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