Human Rights Violations in Turkey: FOA & FOE
Freedom of expression (FOE) and freedom of association (FOA) are critical to the sustenance of democracy within a given country. Violation of these two freedoms threatens democracy. Turkey is regularly rebuked and castigated for various human rights violations (Cinar & Sirin, 2017). The country’s authoritarian leadership is well known for censoring and criminalizing speech. This censorship extends beyond the traditional forms of communication to include social media and the internet. Protesting and picketing is a very dangerous endeavor in Turkey, considering the various restrictions placed on the freedom of association. Just to show the scale of the human rights violations in this country, out of the 20,657 judgments passed by the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR), sixteen percent of them list Turkey as the defendant (Cinar & Sirin, 2017). As long as authoritarian leadership continues in Turkey, the numerous violations of the freedoms of expression and association will become a regular feature within the country.
Turkey first earned recognition as a country from the international community in 1923. This came after the War of Independence, which lasted from 1919-1923. Mustafa Kemal Pasha led this war and sought to get rid of the terms espoused under the Treaty of Sevres (Dural, 2012). The war was quite intense, but Mustafa’s troops were making incredible progress, considering by the end of 1922 the French, Greek, and Armenian troops within Turkish territory, had been expelled, with the Turkish Provisional Government, situated in Ankara, working towards getting rid of the traditional Ottoman ideals and becoming a republic. Within the same year, the country’s Parliament formally got rid of the Sultanate, putting an end to over six hundred years of Ottoman rule (Dural, 2012).
In 1923, the Treaty of Lausanne replaced the Treaty of Sevres, and as such, officially recognized the sovereignty of the newly created Republic of Turkey. Mustafa Kemal Pasha then became the country’s first president (Dural, 2012). Turkey is a member of the United Nations and joined the organization on June 26, 1945. Even though Turkey had moved from a monarchy to a republic, democratic ideals were still not recognized and adhered to, with the country operating under a single-party government. However, one year after joining the UN, the country had its first multiparty elections. Turkey has had its fair share of military-driven coup d’état in its attempt to embrace multiparty democracy.
The first coup took place in 1960, followed by another one in 1980. Modern-day Turkey straddles between Europe and Asia (Dural, 2012). The current government is under the leadership of Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Even though Istanbul is the country’s largest city, Ankara is its capital city. The fact that approximately eighty percent of the country’s inhabitants are Turkish makes it reasonable that it would recognize Turkish as its official language. However, there are other languages spoken in the country, including; Kurmaji, Zaza, Laz, Kabardian, and Arabic. Like most other countries around the globe, Turkey has numerous ethnic groups living within its territory, such as the Turks, Kurds, Arabs, Albanians, Laz, Circassians, and the Bosniaks (Dural, 2012).
The country has an estimated total population of slightly over eighty-three million people. Turkey rests on the Anatolian Peninsula in Western Asia. Greece and Bulgaria border the country on its northwest side, with Georgia lying on the northeast, Armenia, Azerbaijan, and Iran bordering it to the east, and finally, Syria and the Mediterranean Sea to the south. According to a study conducted in 2016 by Ipsos, eighty-two percent of the country’s citizens were Muslims, predominantly the Sunni faction. Thirteen percent were religiously unaffiliated, while the remaining portions were Christians and Jews. Religion, especially its place within public life, has been the source of intense debate, considering it was founded on a secular basis. For quite some time, Muslim women were not allowed to do the hijab when in school or any government building because the hijab got equated to political Islam. However, the government softened this stand and, in 2011, allowed university students to wear the hijab. In 2013 Muslim women were permitted to enter government buildings wearing the hijab. Turkey is one of the countries with the highest adult literacy rate across the world. As of 2011, ninety-four percent of the adults were literate.
The country’s membership in the European Union places it not only under the jurisdiction of the European Union Court of Human Rights but also under the union’s Parliament (Cinar & Sirin, 2017). The European Parliament exercised this jurisdiction on March 13, 2019, when it requested countries within the European Union to suspend any accession talks they may be having with Turkey, in light of the country’s rampant human rights violations. In 2013, the country’s government faced intense protests throughout Turkey, fuelled by the plan to destroy Gezi Park. People were protesting against the replacement of the park with a shopping mall. Even though this was the trigger, the protests soon evolved and begun covering issues centered on violations of the freedoms of expression and association (Cinar & Sirin, 2017).
By September 2013, eight individuals lost their lives, over eight thousand five hundred people suffered various injuries due to violent measures rolled out by the government to shut down the protests (Cinar & Sirin, 2017). Koc Holding is one of the companies that supported the protestors, and as such, gave them sanctuary within their premises. Once the government realized this, they slapped the organization with a tax investigation. The culmination of these widespread protests was the unsuccessful coup d’état of July 15, 2016. Erdogan’s government reacted poorly to this and responded with mass purges characterized by numerous human rights violations (Cinar & Sirin, 2017).
FOE and FOA in Turkey
Freedom of Expression
Like most other countries in Europe, Turkey acceded to a couple of international legal instruments that uphold the freedom of expression (Cinar & Sirin, 2017). On August 15, 2000, Turkey accepted to get bound by the dictates of the International Covenant on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights; they also did the same thing for the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. These two legal instruments underscore the importance of signatory countries ensuring that their citizens have the freedom to speak and express their opinions and ideas, as long as doing this does not interfere with another individual’s ability to enjoy their fundamental human rights.
Turkey’s Constitution, under Article 26, accords citizens the freedom of expression (Cinar & Sirin, 2017). Despite the existence of these legal guarantees, Turkish citizens have for a long time suffered due to censorship and criminalization of free speech. Law 765 was the first legal instrument within the country to restrict the freedom of expression. This old penal code remained in force from 1926 until it got replaced by Law 537. Even though the old one got replaced, the new law still maintained some of the restrictions placed on the FOE. Besides Law 537, there are other edicts that do the same thing, such as Law 5816, also known as the offenses against the memory of Ataturk, Press Law, Law on Political Parties, Articles 215, 216, 217 of the Turkish Criminal Code, which criminalizes any offense against public order, and finally the Anti-Terror Law (Cinar & Sirin, 2017).
The country has the highest number of jailed journalists. Almost all these instances of jailed journalists can be attributed to the Anti-Terror Law. The government uses the various provisions outlined in it to label journalists and any other people who speak up as terrorists, arrest them, and then prosecute them. Between 2013 and 2018, over one hundred thousand cases got instituted within Turkey under the auspices of the Prevention of Terrorism Act. Freedom of expression is very important, considering it is the lifeblood of genuine Constitutional democracy, helping keep it vibrant, peaceful, and stable. Whenever citizens of a country feel angry or get frustrated at the performance of any institution of a government, this freedom gives them a platform to speak up and let out their frustrations. By doing this, people are able to calm down and, to some extent, even move on with their lives. More importantly, FOE allows for a vigorous exchange of ideas and promotes accountability.
The Turkish government deprives its citizens of this by restricting their freedom of expression. Human Rights organizations and other non-profits dealing with human rights have not remained silent on the FOE violations taking place in Turkey. On July 21, 2020, the Human Rights Association (iHD), in collaboration with the Human Rights Foundation of Turkey (TiHV) and the Initiative for the Freedom of Expression, released a joint report documenting the rampant violations of the FOE in Turkey. Their report outlines various incidences where people’s freedom of expression was violated, with many victims getting detained and arrested. For example, on July 17 in the town of Dersim, law enforcement authorities violently intervened against a group of protestors after a press statement instigated them to protest against the rampant sexual violence meted out against women (Bianet, 2020). By doing this, the government was restricting the protestors’ ability to freely express their dissatisfaction with the sexual attacks targeting women.
On July 1, the Radio and Television Supreme Council (RTUK) punished Tele1 Channel with a five-day media blackout. This happened after the government took offense with some sentiments expressed regarding the Directorate of Religious Affairs during a show known as “Karanliktan Aydinliga” (Bianet, 2020). According to a statement by Article 19 and Turkey Human Rights Litigation Support Project, FOE is still under threat in Turkey, with law enforcement authorities using Anti-Terror Laws to detain, arrest, harass journalists, human rights watch groups personnel, political opponents, lawyers, and academicians. (Article 19, 2020). This continues to happen despite the numerous adverse judgments against the Turkish government at the ECtHR, whereby the court pointed out how various laws within the country are continuously used to violate FOE, and as such foster dissent.
Criminal remedies for these violations are almost non-existent in Turkey, considering the slow and inconsistent decision-making by the country’s Constitutional Court (Article 19, 2020). All this can get attributed to the authoritarian government in place. The Executive, under the leadership of Erdogan, has centralized most of the political and constitutional authority, taking away Legislative and Juridical autonomy. As such, courts are increasingly becoming wary of handing out directives that may displease or anger the president, an aspect that makes them ill-equipped to handle FOE violation cases (Article 19, 2020). Political interference is very high within the Turkish Judicial system. Politically motivated prosecutions are quickly becoming the norm, with anybody speaking against the government immediately getting detained, arrested, and prosecuted. According to a report by Amnesty International, the country’s members of Parliament could soon give the government more censorship powers, especially within the digital environment (2020). The MPs are expected to pass a set of laws Amnesty International classifies as “draconian social media laws” that will allow the government to censor online content and even prosecute social media users (Amnesty International, 2020).
Freedom of Association
The same international legal instruments that require the Turkish government to uphold the freedom of expression also place a similar obligation on the government when it comes to the freedom of association (Cinar & Sirin, 2017). Basically, FOA encompasses the freedom people enjoy to organize, form, and participate in groups. This freedom is an integral part of any society, considering it allows people to track the human rights situation within the country. Without this freedom, people would not be allowed to form political parties, trade unions, NGOs, and other associations. The ability and capacity for citizens to come together and unite for a common purpose is critical in the fight against human rights violations (Cinar & Sirin, 2017). For example, when the draconian social media censorship laws in Turkey take effect, people should be allowed to form associations and protest against such a move.
Unfortunately, Turkey is one of the countries that heavily restricts the freedom of association. The country’s Constitution under Article 34 recognizes FOA, and as such, people seeking to come together do not have to inform authorities before they do this (Fontenille, 2019). Despite such an allowance, the Turkish government has over the years disbursed meetings for lack of requisite permission, even though the law allows people to freely associate without having to seek permission. Although the country has a relatively long history of restricting the freedom of association, the situation worsened after the unsuccessful coup d’etat of 2016 (Fontenille, 2019).
According to a report by Amnesty International, Erdogan’s government instituted blanket bans on all assemblies across the country (Amnesty International, 2019). With such a directive in place, law enforcement authorities then began violently breaking up any assembly, arresting and detaining members of human rights watch groups and other associations, intimating they support terrorism. For example, in November 2017, the Ankara governorate imposed a ban on all LGBTIQ events. However, this ban got overturned in May 2019 by a court. In response to this, Middle East Technical University (METU) students organized a pride march within the institution (Amnesty International, 2019). Despite the fact that the ban no longer existed, the university’s management banned the event and called in law enforcement personnel to break up the March. As expected, these officers used unnecessary and excessive force to do this.
In March this year, local authorities in the city of Istanbul banned the International Women’s Day March using tear gas and other violent means to shut down the March (Amnesty International, 2019). Any person from the opposition, be it Kurdish women, mothers, prisoners, or socialists, would more often than not get arrested, with the government pointing to national security and public order offenses. All these actions are geared towards restricting the freedom of association. Even though Turkey ratified ILO Conventions such as Convention 98 that gives workers the right to come together and form unions to advocate for their welfare, the government still finds a way to limit such freedom.
Just as it happens to violations of FOE, the Turkish Judicial system is doing little to elevate the suffering of numerous citizens deprived of their freedom to associate with whomever they please. The government even went ahead and passed a law that would change the landscape and functions of bar associations (Freedom House, 2020). The legal profession in Turkey is one of the remaining politically independent institutions within the country. As such, they provide an independent oversight mechanism, protecting citizens from the excesses of the government. Most legal scholars around the world argue that such a law is an attack on bar-associations freedom of association. The Turkish Parliament passed legislation that altered the structure of these associations.
Initially, lawyers within a province could only be represented by a single bar association (Freedom House, 2020). Such a situation allowed bar associations to gain considerable power and influence not only within their provinces but also nationally. However, the new law seeks to erode such power by allowing multiple bar associations to operate within a single province. The government diluted the power of these associations by artificially creating competition within the Union of Turkish Bar Associations. By eroding their power, the government ensured that members of these associations would not have enough power and influence to challenge the various human rights violations taking place within the country (Freedom House, 2020). Initially, lawyers fighting against the government took comfort in the fact that their bar association would support them, and considering the influence they have, authorities would not mistreat them arbitrarily. However, the new law puts all this at risk, taking away the peoples’ last line of defense against human rights violations.
From the discussion above, it is clear that the Turkish government, under the stewardship of Erdogan, is preventing citizens from enjoying their constitutionally guaranteed freedoms of expression and association. Journalists, personnel from human rights watch groups, political opponents, and even individual protestors can no longer feel free to express their opinion or even come together and work towards a common goal. They fear the government will harass them, detain, and prosecute them. The country’s Judiciary should protect them against the arbitrary exercise of power. However, the lack of independence and political influence from the Executive makes it harder to do this. I believe it is high time the international community, more specifically the United Nations and the European Union, plays an active role in helping bring the dire situation in Turkey to an end. Rather than continuously criticizing the country, the EU and the UN should institute more punitive measures to force human rights compliance within the country. Finally, people should work towards strengthening the country’s Judiciary.
Amnesty International. (2019). Turkey 2019: Annual Report. Retrieve from https://www.amnesty.org/en./countries/europe-and-central-asia/turkey/report-turkey/
Amnesty International. (2020, July). Turkey: Draconian Social Media Law Poses Grave Threat to Freedom of Expression. Retrieve from https://www.amnesty.org/en/latest/news/2020/07/turkey-draconian-social-media-law-poses-grave-threat-to-freedom-of-expression/
Article 19. (2020, March 2). Turkey: Failure to Act on European Court Judgements put Freedom of Expression at Risk. Retrieved from https://www.article19.org/resources/turkey-failure-to-act-on-european-court-judgements-puts-freedom-of-expression-at-risk/
Bianet. (2020, August 21). Report on Freedom of Expression Violations in Turkey in July. Retrieved from https://m.bianet.org/english/human-rights/229393-report-on-freedom-of-expression-violations-in-turkey-in-July.
Cinar, OH & Sirin, T. (2017). Turkey’s Human Rights Agenda. Research and Policy on Turkey, 2(2), 133-143.
Dural, B. (2012). The Leadership of Mustafa Kemal Atataturk: Turkish Independence War Introduction. European Journal of Scientific Research, 8(21), 184-200.
Fontenille, M. (2019, June 7). In Turkey, the Right to Freedom of Association and Unionization Remains Under Threat. Equal Times. Retrieved from https://www.equaltimes.org/in-turkey-the-right-to-freedom-of?lang=en#.X8lgSx6Ear_
Freedom House. (2020, July 28). Turkey: New Law on Bar Associations an Attack in Freedom of Association. Retrieved from https://freedomhouse.org/article/turkey-new-bar-associations-attack-freedom-association.