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Turkey’s withdrawal from the Istanbul Convention: A retrogressive step back in the protection of women’s human rights enshrined in the CEDAW Convention

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The UN Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women reiterates its deep disappointment and concern at the decision of Turkey, officially notified to the Council of Europe in March 2021, to withdraw from the Council of Europe Convention No. 210 (2011) on Preventing and Combating Violence against Women and Domestic Violence, better known as the Istanbul Convention.

The adoption of this decision in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic has the potential to deepen the protection gap for women and girls during a time when gender-based violence against women (GBVAW) is on the rise and thereby undermines the international human rights system seeking to prevent, and protect women and girls from such violence. Such an unprecedented act cannot, and does not, have a valid ground and justification.

The Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW Convention), to which Turkey acceded in 1985, is the only near-universal legally binding international instrument that comprehensively protects women’s rights, including their rights to be free from discrimination and GBVAW. In its general recommendation No. 19 (1992) on violence against women, the Committee firmly established GBVAW as a form of discrimination against women prohibited by the CEDAW Convention. In its general recommendation No. 35 (2017), updating general recommendation No 19, it recalled that the opinio juris and State practice suggest that the prohibition of GBVAW has evolved into a principle of customary international law.

The CEDAW Convention requires States parties to eliminate discrimination against women “by all appropriate means” and “without delay”. This obligation is of an immediate nature, as affirmed in general recommendation No. 28 (2010) on the core obligations of States parties under article 2 of the CEDAW Convention, which does not allow for retrogressive measures.

Adherence to regional human rights instruments and standards reinforces the rights enshrined in the CEDAW Convention and is an important element of States parties’ implementation of their obligations under the Convention. As a unique regional instrument and the most detailed international standard for protection against GBVAW, the Istanbul Convention is a vital complementary platform to CEDAW at the regional level for the realization of the right of women and girls to be free from violence.

Being the first country to ratify and having lent its name to the Istanbul Convention, Turkey has always been considered as a custodian of the Convention. In addition, Turkey has for decades been leading on women’s rights in the region, demonstrating its commitment to advance the promotion and protection of women’s rights. In the course of the past 10 years, the Committee has noted many achievements by Turkey in the protection of women from GBVAW, mainly due to the influence and implementation of the Istanbul Convention.

Moreover, the Committee emphasizes the important contributions of Turkish human rights experts in this field, such as Professor Feride Acar, a former Chair and member of the Committee and the first Chair of the Group of Experts on Action against Violence against Women and Domestic Violence (GREVIO), the independent expert body responsible for monitoring the implementation of the Istanbul Convention, and Professor Yakin Erturk, the former UN Special Rapporteur on violence against women, its causes and consequences.

Despite these achievements, there are reports that the implementation of the Istanbul Convention and of relevant national legislation has fallen behind in recent years. The Committee is seriously concerned at the status of women and girls in Turkey, in particular their limited protection from GBVAW as a result of Turkey’s decision to withdraw from the Istanbul Convention.

The Committee further wishes to recall the principle of indivisibility and universality of human rights enshrined in the Vienna Declaration and Programme of Action of 1993, and strongly rooted in the CEDAW Convention. As powerfully stated in the Vienna Declaration: “While the significance of national and regional particularities and various historical, cultural and religious backgrounds must be borne in mind, it is the duty of States, regardless of their political, economic and cultural systems, to promote and protect all human rights and fundamental freedoms.”

Against this background, the Committee considers that Turkey’s denunciation of the Istanbul Convention constitutes a deliberately retrogressive measure that reduces the scope of protection of women’s human rights and is inconsistent with Turkey’s due diligence obligation under the CEDAW Convention to prevent and protect women and girls from GBVAW. By disengaging from its international commitments to fight domestic and other forms of GBVAW, Turkey undermines the recognition of peremptory norms of international law (jus cogens) such as the prohibition of torture, femicide and other grievous forms of GBVAW, as well as the guarantees of substantive equality and non-discrimination.

Given Turkey’s imminent denunciation of the Istanbul Convention taking effect on 1 July 2021, the Committee reiterates the concern expressed by its Chair, Gladys Acosta Vargas, at a virtual meeting with the Permanent Representative of Turkey held on 5 May 2021, at which she called on the Government of Turkey to reconsider as a matter of highest priority, and by all possible means, its decision to withdraw from the Istanbul Convention, which would further weaken the protection of women and girls during the COVID-19 pandemic, deprive them of acquired rights and stand in contrast to the aforementioned standards and principles of international human rights law.

At the same time, the Committee invites the Government of Turkey to strengthen its dialogue and cooperation with the Committee, with a view to ensuring the effective protection of women’s human rights under the CEDAW Convention and implementing its due diligence obligations to eliminate GBVAW, in line with the relevant recommendations of the Committee.