At 3 a.m. on Saturday morning, Turkey announced through its official gazette that it was formally withdrawing from the Istanbul Convention, an international treaty to combat violence against women and outlaw domestic abuse.
As word spread of President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s move, Turks banged pots and pans from their apartment windows to protest. Erdoğan dismissed the protests. The manner of withdrawal blatantly violated Turkey’s constitution that says that only the parliament can change, suspend or withdraw from international treaties. Nor did Erdoğan follow the withdrawal process outlined in the Convention itself. Technically, Erdoğan’s move was illegal and unconstitutional but, as a dictator, Erdoğan did not care. The presidency, meanwhile, explained that the move was necessary because the Convention “was hijacked by a group of people attempting to normalize homosexuality,” an excuse which has little basis in reality but plays to Erdoğan’s Islamist base.
Erdoğan’s move came just short of a decade since Turkey hosted the international conference that finalized the treaty. On May 11, 2011, delegates from 13 countries gathered in Istanbul to sign and celebrate what they described as the first legally-binding international treaty to tackle the problem of spousal abuse and domestic violence. Ultimately, 45 states would sign the Istanbul Convention, and 34 would ratify it. Turkey, however, took pride in being not only the host, but also the first to sign. Feride Acar, Turkey’s chief negotiator, explained, “Not a day goes by in Turkey without news in the paper about women who have been subjected to violence. Now Turkey wants to be known in the world as a country that has championed the cause of combating violence against women.” Turkish feminist activists both celebrated the Convention as a milestone and worried that the government was simply seeking to use it as a public relations ploy.
They had ample reason for concern. Through a quirk of Turkish election law, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP) received a supermajority in the 2002 parliamentary elections even though the AKP had won just 34 percent of the vote. While Turkey had previously had an Islamist prime minister, they never had one govern absent the need for secular coalition partners. Diplomats sought to assuage concern. Assistant Secretary of State Daniel Fried, for example, assured that the AKP was no more Islamist than European Christian Democratic parties were theocratic. So too did liberal pundits like Matthew Yglesias who obsessed far more about Erdoğan’s critics than the facts of the case.
The facts, however, were and horrific. According to Turkey’s own interior ministry, the murder rate of women in Turkey increased 1,400 percent in the first seven years of AKP rule. Turkish parliamentarians told me the increase was not due to better reporting but rather because of a sense of impunity toward honor crimes. Child marriage is rampant. In 2012, Erdoğan sought to ban Caesarian sections as interfering in God’s plans. He called childless women “deficient” and “incomplete” and responded to criticism about the declining space for professional women in Turkish society by saying that women should first have at least three children. AKP officials have called for legalizing polygamy. Erdoğan is a misogynist, seeks to justify repression of women, and the Istanbul Convention stood in the way.
Why then did his government ever sign it? For Erdoğan’s regime, the Istanbul Convention was always about laundering Turkey’s image. It was a successful strategy, as both the State Department and European foreign ministries saw it as a sign that Turkey was salvageable as an international partner. In effect, it was sand thrown into the eyes of the world while Erdoğan consolidated control and worked to transform Turkey. Too often, while the West looks at diplomacy as a means to repair the world, dictators see it as an asymmetric warfare strategy to tie the hands of the naïve. With his Istanbul Convention withdrawal, Erdoğan has once against shown Turkey exists in the same camp as Iran, North Korea, Pakistan, and China than any European aspirant.
Now a 1945 Contributing Editor, Michael Rubin is a Senior Fellow at the American Enterprise Institute (AEI).