Turkish government targets women, LGBT People
The Turkish government, led by President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, is dismantling human rights protections and democratic norms in Turkey on a scale unprecedented in the 18 years he has been in office, said Human Rights Watch (HRW).
The president issued an overnight decree March 18 withdrawing Turkey from the Council of Europe’s Convention on Preventing and Combating Violence Against Women and Domestic Violence, known as the Istanbul Convention, a groundbreaking treaty strongly supported by women’s and LGBT+ rights groups.
Erdogan’s withdrawal from the Istanbul Convention is part of his efforts to shore up support from religious conservative circles outside his party. HRW says the move “shows his readiness to use the convention as a pretext to promote a highly divisive and homophobic political discourse. That discourse disingenuously claims women’s rights undermine so-called family values and promotes a hateful and discriminatory view of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) people.”
On March 21, the president’s communications chief issued a written statement defending the decision to withdraw Turkey from the treaty, saying that it was “hijacked by a group of people attempting to normalize homosexuality — which is incompatible with Turkey’s social and family values.”
This assertion devolves from language within the convention prohibiting discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity. Women’s groups across Turkey have been staunch supporters of the convention as it legally obligates governments to take effective steps to prevent violence against women, protect survivors, punish abusers, and protect LGBT+ people, a majority of whom are also women.
There are hundreds of murders of women in Turkey each year, with femicide a leading cause of death for women of all orientations. Human Rights Watch said Erdogan’s withdrawal from and weaponization of the treaty to mobilize political support from the right, as well as his decision to ignore the treaty’s desperately needed protections for women, is “shocking.”
Kenneth Roth, executive director of HRW, said in a statement, “The decision to withdraw is a profoundly backward step in the struggle to protect women’s rights in Turkey and a major blow for all women across the political spectrum.”
On March 20, thousands of women protested in cities across Turkey, declaring that the women’s movement in Turkey will continue the struggle and demand government action to combat the entrenched problem of domestic violence and femicide.
The major developments of the past few days follow a series of grave setbacks for human rights in Turkey in 2020 and 2021.
Anti-LGBT+ speeches and social media posts by top government officials have become common, most recently targeting students arrested for an artwork with LGBT flags and protestors on International Women’s Day.
Throughout March, Erdogan has unleashed attacks against what he called “the LGBT youth,” in response to student protests against Erdogan’s rule. A student artwork depicting Islam’s holiest site in Mecca draped in the LGBT rainbow flag resulted in arrests. The controversial artwork prompted officials to shut down Bogazici University’s LGBT club.
Interior Minister Suleyman Soylu reported the arrest of “four LGBT freaks” over the display, condemning the “degenerates” in social media posts flagged by Twitter for “hateful conduct.”
After International Women’s Day protests and arrests, Erdogan later told his female supporters not to listen to “those lesbians,” adding that there is “no such thing” as the LGBT movement in Turkey.
Homosexuality is not illegal in Turkey, but HRW and other groups assert homophobia is widespread. Turkey has dropped down the LGBT rights index published by the International Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Trans and Intersex Association (ILGA). In 2020 it was ranked 48th out of the 49 countries ILGA lists in its Eurasia region.
Kaos GL, one of the oldest LGBT rights groups in Turkey, reported that in 2020, they counted more than 2,000 news articles with discriminatory and defamatory statements about LGBT+ people, a 40% increase over 2019.
Erdogan had previously defended a top religious affairs official who linked homosexuality to the spread of diseases, causing widespread antagonism towards LGBT+ people amid the coronavirus pandemic. “What he said was totally right,” Erdogan said.
Polish government continues LGBT+ discrimination
The war on LGBT+ people by the government in Poland continues. LGBT+ Poles have been sending European Union commissioners personal stories of LGBT people who have been harmed by the so-called “LGBT Ideology Free Zones” or anti-LGBT “Family Charters” in nearly 100 Polish regions, towns and cities.
Polish LGBT groups are calling on EU Commissioners to initiate an infringement procedure — a legal action that can lead to referral to the European Court of Justice — against Poland. The “LGBT-free zones” and other discriminatory measures, activists asserted in a legal complaint submitted to the European Commission, breach Poland’s legal obligations under the EU Charter of Fundamental Rights and a European Council directive for equal treatment in employment and occupation.
In August 2020, the EU Commission cancelled grants for six Polish towns that had declared themselves “LGBT-ideology free zones.”
As PGN has previously reported, the ruling Law and Justice Party has intensified its anti-LGBT rhetoric, making LGBT rights a key social justice debate. President Andrezj Duda signed a “Family Charter,” which opposes same-sex marriage and adoption rights as well as comprehensive sex education in schools.
Poland, following Turkey’s lead, is considering withdrawing from the Istanbul Conference. In January, a Constitutional Tribunal ruling that virtually bans legal abortion went into effect after the government bypassed Parliament to put the issue before the politically influenced court. A bill that would potentially criminalize anyone providing sex education, which would harm LGBT+ people and women, is pending.
Membership of the EU comes with obligations, such as adherence to the EU’s founding values including respect for human rights and the core principles of non-discrimination and tolerance. In December 2017, in response to problematic judicial reforms, the European Commission triggered Article 7 of the EU Treaty against Poland, which can lead to suspension of a member state’s rights if it is found to persistently breach those values.
Human Rights Watch argues that the European Commission can do more against Poland’s attack on the human rights of LGBT people, women and others.
“Initiating an infringement procedure would send a strong message that these kinds of policies have no place in the EU, could press the Polish government to change route and would offer a chance to the EU Court of Justice to reaffirm states’ obligations to protect, not neglect, their LGBT citizens.”
Human Rights Watch asserts that in the current climate under President Duda, “LGBT rights are seen as a soft target. In standing up for the rights of LGBT people in Poland, the EU would be moving not only to protect the rights of a vulnerable minority, but human rights writ large.”
As PGN previously reported throughout 2020, Duda received strong support from the Trump administration, via Secretary of State Mike Pompeo. The Biden administration has yet to address human rights issues in Poland, but they have affirmed support for the Istanbul Convention.