Turkish court’s decision to uphold withdrawal from the Istanbul Convention

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s decision to withdraw Turkey’s membership from the Istanbul Convention regarding violence against women in 2021 was upheld by Turkey’s top administrative court in July. The Istanbul Convention, also known as the Council of Europe Convention on Preventing and Combating Violence against Women and Domestic Violence was designed in 2011 to protect women’s rights and prevent domestic violence in societies among member countries of the Council of Europe.

Prior to the court’s decision, various women’s rights advocates had petitioned the Council of State, arguing that Erdogan’s decision to withdraw from the treaty via a presidential decree was unlawful. However, most of Turkey’s top administrative court judges, in a 40-page ruling, denied the petition and insisted that Erdogan’s decision was valid, citing that the president has the “right of discretion” when interpreting Turkish laws. In context, Turkey is the first-ever member of the Council of Europe to have withdrawn from an international human rights convention. The contentious move was amplified by Erdogan’s Islamic conservative supporters, who claim that the treaty’s language harmed traditional family values and promoted LGBTQ rights.

Erdogan’s ruling party welcomed the administrative court’s decision. Although Kemal Kilicdaroglu, the main opposition leader of the center-left party, was disappointed with the current government’s actions and pledged that Turkey would return to the convention immediately if it succeeds in the upcoming election next year.

The Turkish court’s judgment has sparked outrage among local and international women’s rights groups and several Western countries. Unfortunately, the controversial ruling in Turkey isn’t the only blow to women’s rights. A month ago, the United Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade, a landmark ruling that granted women the constitutional right to abortion in 1973. This shocking development will illegalize or severely restrict abortion in all states, thus, prompting women’s rights advocates to protest outside the US Supreme Court.

Ironically, women in Turkey can legally have an abortion without restriction permitting that they are within the first ten weeks of pregnancy. However, abortion is not easily accessible as there are only a limited number of private hospitals that offers this kind of service. Since the law legalizing abortion in Turkey was introduced in 1983, the number of procedures has risen over the first five years since its implementation. Unfortunately, a study conducted by Kadir Has University, one of Turkey’s most influential research institutions, found that the accessibility rate of healthcare facilities offering free and safe medical abortions has declined in the past few years due to the government blockading such procedures in public hospitals even though it is technically legal for women to avail. Nonetheless, this occurrence threatens the essence of the 1983 law, and the recent controversial changes in the United States with its abortion rights could intensify an ongoing conservative campaign in Turkey to follow suit and overturn Turkish women’s freedom to have an abortion. It is also an occurrence that President Erdogan and his administration will welcome, as the current government has always been vocal about its plans to scrap abortion.

According to women’s rights advocates in Turkey, the current government’s actions appear to prioritize economic prosperity over women’s rights due to the increasing Islamic conservative movement among the current Turkish society that desires to accelerate the country’s population as they see women’s ability to procreate be determining factors to weigh in the balance of global competition.

Recently, the Stockholm Center for Freedom, a non-profit advocacy organization that promotes human rights in Turkey, conducted a report in June 2022 claiming that Article 29 of the Turkish Penal Code (TCK) is often used by perpetrators of gender-based violence to gain reduced sentences from Turkish courts by claiming that the victim “provoked” them to commit a crime. Women’s rights activists in Turkey have been longing for the amendment of the law, as violence against women is becoming more prevalent in the country, but the current government appears to be mum on the serious calls for change.

Turkey is known to have a significant tourism industry. It has three cities that made it in the list of top 100 most popular destinations worldwide in 2020 as Turkey has become a hotspot for cheap cosmetic procedures. However, the COVID-19 pandemic and the ongoing Russia-Ukraine war affected Turkey’s current decline in its tourism industry, which is now in recovery mode, while the increasing rate of cases relating to violence against women also won’t help attract tourists, and its recent withdrawal from the Istanbul Convention might have redirected prospective visitors.

It is apparent that women’s rights in Turkey have taken a setback due to the controversial changes that have transpired in the past few years, both local and international. Turkey’s finalization of its withdrawal from the Istanbul Convention might set a domino effect among conservative-led nations within the Council of Europe. Whilst President Erdogan assured women that their rights would remain to be intact even if they pulled out of the Istanbul Convention, women’s rights advocates believe that it is a terrifying situation for Turkish women to have a government that doesn’t want to abide by an international agreement on women’s rights.

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