On March 20, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s decision to withdraw Turkey from the Istanbul Convention by presidential decree was received as “devastating news” by the Council of Europe and rights groups worldwide.
Pulling out from the convention — which aims to prevent and combat violence against women and to which Turkey was the first signatory in 2011 — is a new low in the country’s troubling human rights record.
However, it is only the “tip of the iceberg,” the latest and most visible in a series of recent populist ploys by the Turkish government which gravely endanger the rights and well-being of critical voices.
Earlier this month, in the space of four days, the Turkish government took a series of measures that jeopardize its human rights commitments, particularly related to the right to freedom of association and expression.
Banning Opposition Party
On March 17, the Court of Cassation’s Chief Public Prosecutor initiated proceedings to ban the Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) on allegations it was “acting together with terrorists.”
The party, often referred to as pro-Kurdish, is in fact the second-largest opposition party in parliament and has fervently opposed the country’s rapid democratic backsliding.
On the same day, the Turkish Parliament moved to revoke the seat and immunity of HDP MP Omer Faruk Gergerlioglum, who was handed a two-and-a-half-year prison sentence over a social media post. Gergerlioglu subsequently announced that he would not leave the parliament building and started a protest sit-in.
Four days later, on March 21, dozens of police officers forcibly detained him at the parliament.
Intimidating Human Rights Defenders
In a dawn raid two days prior, Ozturk Turkdogan, the Human Rights Association’s co-chairperson (IHD), Turkey’s biggest human rights organization, was detained on charges of being part of an illegal group.
Though later released, he has been ordered to report to his local police station regularly and was issued an international travel ban. Such tactics intended to intimidate and restrict activists are commonplace in Turkey.
Last year, we at Civil Rights Defenders published an interview with Osman Isci, then-Secretary-General of IHD, in which he specifically detailed the types of attacks colleagues at the organization have faced over the years.
‘More Democratic Turkey’
What’s remarkable, this latest round of repression against human rights defenders comes merely two weeks after President Erdogan signed a new Human Rights Action Plan, boasting it would lead to “free Individuals, strong society: a more democratic Turkey.”
The reality on the ground couldn’t be more contrasting. The Action Plan comes amid anti-LGBTI+ rhetoric by high-ranking government officials, widespread student protests across Turkey’s main campuses, and the arrest of 13 women for shouting slogans at a demonstration in central Istanbul on International Women’s Day.
Last week’s withdrawal from the Istanbul Convention was the most damning of them all. It was the first time the country formally pulled out of a human rights treaty, and it certainly sent a resounding message, both at home and abroad, that this government values its international commitments as much as the paper they are written on.
Yet it also comes at an increasingly precarious time, in which, each morning, colleagues and partners ask themselves: Who will be next? When will they come for us?
Most chilling is the government’s official justification for withdrawing from the Istanbul Convention: “it was hijacked by a group of people attempting to normalize homosexuality – which is incompatible with Turkiye’s social and family values.”
Such inflammatory rhetoric is intended to shore up nationalist votes amid sinking ratings for the ruling party. Referring to Turkey as Turkiye in an English-language communique suggests no effort to hide this.
However, the consequences are that the Turkey’s LGBTI+ community and other vulnerable groups find themselves in the crossfire of a ruthless populist campaign. The need for widespread solidarity has seldom been greater.
Civil Rights Defenders and other organizations working with vulnerable groups in Turkey are bracing for a new normal, in which human rights defenders, independent journalists, and other critical voices will be exposed to daily threats and attacks.
We call upon all relevant civil society organizations and international stakeholders to closely monitor developments and raise their voices whenever violations occur.
This article was originally published on The Globe Post.