Sad irony in a decade: Turkey has just withdrawn from the Istanbul Convention, which was launched in 2011 to prevent and combat violence against women. At the Council of Europe meeting at which it was adopted in Istanbul, the first signatory to the Convention was hosted by Turkey, also the first country to ratify it, in 2012.
Now, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, a master in the art of signing and breaking human rights treaties, has taken his country out of the first binding international legal instrument to combat gender-based violence because, in his opinion, it promotes heresy. The 300 Turkish women killed by their partners in Turkey alone in 2020 (official figures, because the actual figures are hidden in the definition of suicides given to many victims of sexist violence) will not have an opportunity to prove it.
This backward jump from Turkey is one more in Erdogan’s authoritarian drift following the attempted coup d ‘état of 15 July 2016. His subsequent reaction dismantled many of the country’s democratic safeguards, including unprecedented harassment and persecution of journalists: Turkey achieved the dubious merit of becoming the world’s country with more journalists imprisoned.
Since 2016, authoritarianism has been accentuated with the approach to the extreme right by the Nationalist Action Party (MHP) and a strategy of sectarianism and polarisation that has cut more and more freedoms. During the last weeks, ultranationalism and the criminalisation of the opposition have materialized in the Attorney General calling for the illegalisation of the People’s Democratic Party (HDP), a pro-kurd formation and third political force in Parliament, as well as the persecution of nearly 700 of its leaders.
According to Erdogan, the convention is against culture and morals, against the Turkish family model… this justification is the same as that claimed by EU countries such as Hungary or Poland
The withdrawal from the Istanbul Convention is another concession to the ultra-nationalists. According to Erdogan, this is an attack on culture and morals, against the Turkish family model: it promotes heresy and is an instrument in the hands of LGBTI collectives to undermine society.
It is worrisome that this justification is exactly the same as those used by EU Member States that have not ratified or withdrawn from the Convention, with Hungary and Poland leading the claim. The lesson Europe must learn is that Turkey may not be the exception, but rather, the model of illiberal countries that place the Istanbul Convention as a threat, that need to be beaten.
It is evident that Turkey, day after day, is further and further away from European values. Now, after a year of clashes between Ankara and the EU, the European Council is trying to soften relations, underlining “a more positive recent dynamic”, on the eve of next Tuesday’s visit to Turkey by Commission President Ursula Von der Leyen and Council President Charles Michel.
Opening a truce may be positive, but without forgetting that provocation and blackmail have been Erdogan’s strengths in his relations with the EU. While the migration agreement has allowed the reception of almost 4 million people and has made it easier for the EU to outsource a large part of migration management, its political instrumentalisation, which plays with human lives in a situation of extreme vulnerability, is unacceptable. On the fifth anniversary of the Agreement and at the door of its renewal, we can never lose sight of this.
Turkey’s accession as a horizon remains probably the best incentive to achieve commitments by Ankara
But Turkey’s accession as a horizon remains probably the best incentive for Ankara’s commitments and a support factor for its democratic and pro-European civil society, despite voices insisting that the suspension of the process is the only way out. In a multipolar and geopolitically complex world, the EU deals and should deal with states that do not necessarily share their values. That is why we have to keep walking with Turkey, but knowing what ground we step on.
And, here we return to the leap behind Erdogan‘s departure from the Istanbul Convention. Authoritarianism lays the foundations for dictatorships. It is a fatal scenario, not only for the Turkish people’s rights and freedoms, but also for the evolution of our societies, for European stability and interests.
The struggle for the rights of all those women who fill the country’s squares is also the fight for all Turkish Democrats. Rights earned at the expense of suffering and sacrifices need constant defence. Supporting Turkish women in the streets is now supporting democracy in Turkey.