Eren Keskin: “If Turkey leaves the Istanbul Convention, it will legitimise violence against women”

August 1st marks the anniversary of the Istanbul Convention initially signed in 2011 and aiming to prevent and combat violence against women and domestic violence. As the Council of Europe remarked, “2020 should have been a year in which the global progress on achieving gender equality was reviewed. Instead, a global health pandemic exposed the dangerous and pervasive forms of gendered social, economic and political inequality and discrimination that still very much exist across societies worldwide and a second pandemic of its own recorded in the figures on violence against women and domestic violence perpetrated during lockdowns.” 

On the eve of the anniversary of the Istanbul Convention and as women’s rights remain in jeopardy around the euro-Mediterranean region, we talked to Turkish lawyer and human rights activist Eren Keskin to get her views of the situation in Turkey, where the leading AKP party may withdraw Turkey from the convention, judging it was “a mistake”. 

EuroMed Rights: What is the situation regarding violence against women in Turkey?

Eren Keskin: “Women in Turkey have been facing patriarchal, feudal and discriminatory policies since the establishment of the Republic.

Until 2005, the Turkish Penal Code did not even have a section title that proscribed violence against women. While there was no definition of sexual harassment, even the definition of rape was quite insufficient. Committing murder because of “honour” was considered to be grounds for reduced sentences under the Turkish Penal Code until 2005.

Significant amendments were introduced to the Turkish Penal Code in 2005. These were due both to the strengthening of the women’s movement and the impact of the European Union accession process. Violence against women was thus introduced to the legislation as a section title and the definition of rape was expanded. Sexual harassment was also incorporated into the legislation as a criminal offense. Reduced sentences for “honour killings” were put to an end.

These are significant developments in written law. Yet these changes have not been truly implemented in practice. For example, reduced sentences are often handed down on grounds of ‘provocation’ in femicide cases. Public prosecutors and judges also lack awareness of the Istanbul Convention as they do not receive sufficient training”.

EuroMed Rights: Talking about the Istanbul Convention, what type of protection does it offer women in Turkey today?

EK: “The Republic of Turkey signed the Istanbul Convention on preventing and combatting violence against women in 2011. The Convention is virtually a constitution for women. While it holds Turkey responsible to carry out many duties to prevent violence, at the same time it clearly underlines the fact that concepts such as custom, tradition, or honour cannot be considered as a justification for any act of violence. I should also mention Law No. 6284[1] which prescribes measures to protect women against violence.

Under Article 90 of the Turkish Constitution[2], international agreements such as the Convention are superior to domestic law. In Turkey however, neither the judicial authorities nor other official institutions can do what is necessary to meet the provisions of the Convention. When one thinks of the overall prevalence of femicide and violence against women in the country, it is really clear that the written law and the practices in reality are at odds.

In particular, violence has now been legitimised at the hands of the state itself. For instance, the Minister of Interior can easily order law enforcement to use force when apprehending suspects. Many police and gendarmerie pages publish images of torture and such cases are on the increase.

ER: Senior figures in the ruling AKP party expressed strong doubts towards the Istanbul Convention with AKP Group Deputy Chairman Özlem Zengin stating: “The convention has become the mother of all evils for some”. This despite a majority of AKP voters opposed to it. Should Turkey withdraw from the Convention, could this have an impact on Turkey’s stance among other nations, and particularly in its relations with the EU?

EK: “The Istanbul Convention has indeed been brought into question by state officials and we fear that the Republic of Turkey may withdraw from the Istanbul Convention at any given time. The withdrawal of the Turkish state from the Istanbul Convention will lead to a legitimisation of violence against women.

The Republic of Turkey also announced that it had developed a second action plan for combatting violence against women after signing the convention[3]. As human rights defenders we do not see any real implementation of this action plan. While there is an increase in the number of domestic violence cases, there is also an increase in the number of acts of violence and sexual torture against women by state forces.

I should also underline that the Turkish state not only violates the provisions of the Istanbul Convention but of many other international conventions it signed. For instance, Turkey is a co-signatory – along many other states – of the European Convention on Human Rights, the UN International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women. And yet, in practice, it fails to implement the provisions of such international conventions/agreements. And so far, neither the European Union nor the European Commission or other co-signatory states have questioned Turkey’s disrespect of the provisions of such conventions.

We should always remember that violence against women is political and that each setback in this vital issue will trigger violence against women and feminicides”.

[1] T: N. Law No. 6284 on the Protection of Family and Prevention of Violence against Women was adopted in 2012.

[2] T. N. Art. 90. “International agreements duly put into effect have the force of law. … In the case of a conflict between international agreements, duly put into effect, concerning fundamental rights and freedoms and the laws due to differences in provisions on the same matter, the provisions of international agreements shall prevail.”

[3] The first National Action Plan on Combatting Violence against Women covered the period 2007-2010