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Dispatches: From Turkey, Mixed Signals on Reform
September 30, 2013

Prime Minister Erdoğan’s speech today announcing the long-awaited “democracy reform package” is the Turkish government’s first attempt to turn the page after the harsh clampdown that began in May with the Taksim Gezi park protests. It has also been seen as a test of whether the government intends to push forward the peace process with the Kurds. The signals on both fronts are mixed.

Positive elements of the package of proposed legislation and executive orders include an end to the ban on headscarves for most civil service women – the rule remains for women in uniformed professions like judges, police officers, and military personnel. Gone too is the old-fashioned and nationalistic ritual of making primary school children pledge to be a good Turk at the start of each school week.  Another change could pave the way for parliament to lower the 10 percent election threshold, which has limited the representation of minority parties, notably Kurdish ones.

A proposal to end the ban on mother-tongue education would only apply to private schools, so would do little to help the vast majority of Kurdish children. Yet it could set a precedent for application to state schools in the future. Lowering the election threshold and mother-tongue education are central demands of Turkey’s Kurds.    

These steps to promote a more democratic Turkey should be welcomed. However, the package does not tackle some of Turkey’s entrenched human rights concerns, many disproportionately affecting Kurds.

The reforms won’t end the prosecution and extended pretrial detention of thousands of people – including journalists, students and political activists – for participating in terrorist organizations, although they’ve done nothing that could remotely be described as terrorism.

Nor will the changes announced lift the many legal restrictions on free speech, end police violence against demonstrators, or bring justice for the victims of police abuses.

Another simple step not included – though widely anticipated – is to recognize Turkey’s large Alevi minority as a distinct group by granting status to their place of worship, the cemevi.

The limited steps in today’s announcement are positive, but much more needs to be done to address Turkey’s fundamental human rights problems.