New lows for human rights in Turkey

The arrogant tone adopted by Erdogan and his cabinet ministers towards Western institutions and figures is now expected in Ankara.
Sunday 25/11/2018
Activists hold protest against Turkey’s human rights abuses outside the European Council building in Brussels. (AFP)
For the rule of law. Activists hold protest against Turkey’s human rights abuses outside the European Council building in Brussels. (AFP)

It’s increasingly argued that lawlessness has become the norm in Turkey. ”You have left nothing of the rule of law!” recently wrote Professor Baskin Oran, one of Turkey’s most prominent experts on domestic and foreign policy. ”Let alone international law, you have been breaching the legislation of the Turkish Republic!”

The professor went on to explain exactly who he was addressing. It is “the One Man Regime,” he said, adding, ”I will not call you to rule the country properly, because after all these things that happened, it’s very difficult. Just don’t trample on the law, that’s all.”

Oran was obviously addressing President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his inner circle. What made him write such a strong piece was the Turkish president’s open defiance of a ruling by the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR). It had ruled strongly on the case of jailed Kurdish leader Selahattin Demirtaş, saying he has been held for two years as a “political prisoner” and must be released immediately.

The Turkish government’s response can be summed up in Erdogan’s furious remarks. He declared the ECHR’s ruling null and void and spoke about “countermeasures.” In legal terms, Erdogan had already crossed the line. But the Turkish president’s furious speech also underlined the absence of the rule of law. It was itself a breach of clause 90 of the Turkish Constitution, which declares that all international treaties, such as the European Treaty of Human Rights, are ultimately binding on Ankara.

It was always likely that the new presidential regime, as many describe Erdogan’s powerful executive presidency, would clash with the human rights court. The question was when, rather than if. Over the past five years or so, Ankara has gradually distanced itself from the court, though it has been legally bound to abide by its rulings. It has ignored nearly half of the ECHR’s criticisms. One spectacular example is the victorious case of the Alevi community, whose freedom of religion the court ruled had been violated. The Erdogan cabinet systematically sweeps the ECHR rulings under the carpet.

The arrogant tone adopted by Erdogan and his cabinet ministers towards Western institutions and figures is now expected in Ankara. The outrage against the ECHR, reflected in the government-controlled media in the form of screaming headlines, preceded a key visit by two leading EU figures on November 22. When Federica Mogherini, the EU’s foreign policy chief, and Johannes Hahn, the bloc’s enlargement commissioner, tried to bring up what they see as the arbitrary treatment of critics and dissidents, they received a sharp putdown by Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu. He suggested that the detention of dissidents and others was necessary and that the EU should stop harbouring terrorists who aim to destroy Turkey.

“It is meaningless for the EU to defend people who carried out actions to topple the elected government in Turkey simply because they are civil society members,” he said.

It is apparent that Erdogan no longer sees any use for the ECHR or the EU. He has achieved absolute power and considers it superfluous for anyone to raise concerns about even the most basic human rights issues. The ECHR and EU were valuable for Erdogan a long time ago. When he was sentenced to jail for reciting a poem, Erdogan appealed to the ECHR. He took the same approach in two later cases in which he saw himself as victimised by Turkish law. And then when Erdogan took office as prime minister and felt threatened by the military, the term “EU” was frequently on his lips.

But just as he once used those institutions, Erdogan now skilfully plays on their weaknesses. He saw how Vladimir Putin’s Russia and Ilham Aliyev’s Azerbaijan corroded the ECHR’s efficiency and credibility by ignoring its rulings or playing for time even as they kept people locked up for years.

Erdogan possibly knows — and gambles upon the fact — that the Council of Europe can’t just freeze, let alone expel Turkey. It is toothless and there is also the ever-present case for realpolitik, which is to say the high cost of excluding Turkey from the Council of Europe.

The same applies to the EU and its approach to Turkey. The accession process, just short of being declared over, has diminished to a transactional partnership, bound by economic concerns. The tragic part is, everyone knows this but refrains from saying it.

In the course of one week, the world once more witnessed the Turkish regime’s total disregard for the law. On November 16, Turkey arrested 13 academics and NGO activists, accusing them of trying to overthrow the government through the Gezi Park protests five years ago. Erdogan went so far as to call George Soros “that Hungarian Jew lurking behind them (the Gezi Park protesters).”

As for Demirtas, Erdogan was eager to repeat the official line that he was nothing but a terrorist who received his orders from the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK). Fearful of what could happen if Demirtaş is released from prison, Erdogan does not have the option of letting his courts free him.

The bottom line, of course, is that once authoritarianism gets this far, the only path open to tyrants is the one they have chosen. Those who appease them are in denial.