Events

Turkey's Direction in Human Rights and Foreign Policy

December 02, 2009 // 1:00pm2:30pm

Given the rapid pace of urbanization, a rising middle class in Anatolia and the emergence of groups claiming minority status, it can be said that Turkey is experiencing a climate of change. In response to these changes, Riza Turmen argued that the old republican elite has failed to adapt, while the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) is trying to socially-engineer Turkish society according to its own political and religious vision. The effect, according to Turmen, has been that the changing environment has coincided with an unfortunate shift from authoritarian military rule to "electoral authoritarianism," characterized by a high degree of intolerance and increasing Islamization.

The 2007 elections proved to be a turning point, when AKP abandoned the reforms that had been initiated in pursuit of EU membership in order to move towards its own political goals. According to Turmen, the phenomenon of electoral authoritarianism is essentially a populist vision of democracy, in which the state abandons democratic principles, such as the protection of individual and minority rights; eliminates checks and balances between state institutions; and undermines the rule of law in favor of what AKP determines to be the popular will. Increasingly, Islamization seems to drive public policy. For example, smoking and drinking bans are now being imposed widely, especially in rural areas, and calls to prayer are prevalent. Such measures are justified as increasing democracy, since they offer a more visible role for Islam in opposition to the strict secularism of the former government. However, the reality is that this "democratization" process has resulted in increased violations of civil liberties.

The most troubling indication that the AKP government has abandoned democratic principles is the so-called "Ergenekon case." In July 2008, the state initiated a legitimate inquiry into an alleged plan to oust the Prime Minister Recep Erdogan's government by an influential network of military, police and former government officials and businessmen, which has been named "Ergenekon." However, Turmen claimed that this inquiry quickly turned into an instrument of intimidation, which aimed to suppress any and all criticism of the AKP. The tactics used by the AKP-led government included pre-dawn raids directed against unlikely suspects; lengthy detentions without indictment; indictments based on phone tapings not appropriately authorized by judges; and systematic leaks to pro-AKP media, meant to influence public opinion against the defendants. Moreover, the Ministry of Justice has assigned inspectors to monitor the activities of judges currently hearing cases against suspected Ergenekon members, which Turmen believes is meant to ensure compliance with AKP: it is assumed that judges who question the integrity of the indictments risk becoming targets of the investigation themselves. These measures are a clear threat to judicial independence, and are in line with other attempts by the government to exert pressure on and rein in the judiciary through the judicial council (dominated by the Minister of Justice) and by tapping judges' telephones.

While Turkey had a problematic human rights record under the previous government, what has been transpiring of late is particularly dire, Turmen argued. For example, although Turkish law provides for wire tapping only as a last resort, in recent years the government has brought telecommunications effectively under its direct control and therefore has the means to conduct wire taps, with or without judicial supervision. As a result, the fear of wire tapping has become so prevalent in Turkey, that people have become afraid to use their mobile phones.

Turmen also mentioned mounting pressures limiting freedom of religion, especially among non-Muslim minorities such as the Alevi and the Roma. This is also clear in that universities have been forced to accept AKP-friendly presidents and deans. Increasing Islamization has also impacted the freedom and visibility of women, who have increasingly been encouraged to remain in the private sphere.

Press freedoms have also been targeted. In 2008, a story surfaced in several Turkish newspapers exposing evidence that AKP leaders had embezzled some 17 million euros based on German court documents. In response, the prime minister called on people to boycott those newspapers and imposed a large fine on that media group. Moreover, Turmen criticized the current administration for resorting to heavy-handed measures to intimidate the media. He raised, as an example, the recently amended Article 301 of the Turkish Penal Code, which subjects journalist to heavy penalties for violating vaguely defined "official taboos" and "sensitive issues of national interest."

Turmen did not reserve his criticism solely for the AKP, and was fervent in opposing any move towards reverting to the military interventions of the past. Rather, he suggested that creative democratic solutions could help overcome the current dynamic. One option might be to reform the electoral law so that existing political parties could more easily form new coalitions and that would make elections more competitive. Turman urged the secular elite to redefine themselves and adapt to the changing environment. The demand for democracy is widespread among the Turkish population; therefore the opposition should focus on bringing democratic principles back into the practice of governance. Tolerance between both the secular and Muslim camps will be essential for Turkey to successfully democratize and integrate into Euro-Atlantic institutions.

During the discussion, Turmen was criticized for presenting a one-sided litany of complaints against the AKP government, ignoring positive developments such as the recent opening vis-à-vis the Kurdish minority and ambivalence in the attitude of Turkey's Western allies.

Experts & Staff

  • Christian F. Ostermann // Director, History and Public Policy Program; Global Europe; Cold War International History Project; North Korea Documentation Project; Nuclear Proliferation International History Project
  • Emily R. Buss // Program Assistant

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