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Human Rights Watch Analysis of the 2001 Regular Report on Turkey
December, 2001


On November 13 the European Commission published its annual “Regular Reports” on progress made by applicant states toward membership in the European Union. On December 10-11 the General Affairs Council will give final consideration to the Reports before they will be considered by the Laeken European Council of December 14-15.

Related Material

Turkey: Genuine Reform Has Not Happened Yet
HRW Commentary, Financial Times, October 15, 2001

Turkey: Parliament Misses Big Chance for Change
HRW Press Release, September 28, 2001

The report on Turkey, its fourth (including the Progress Reports that pre-dated Turkey's formal candidacy), has become an important annual measure of progress on the political elements of the Copenhagen Criteria for membership, which require "stability of institutions guaranteeing democracy, the rule of law, human rights, and respect for and protection of minorities." Unfortunately the 2001 report records little more than superficial signs of reform on these issues. A look beneath the surface suggests that there can be no meaningful progress on Turkey's candidacy until the Turkish military becomes unequivocally and transparently engaged in the process.

Turkey's 2001 Regular Report

The announcement in 1999 of Turkey's formal candidacy for E.U. membership created an important opportunity for change. Nonetheless, close observers of the process argued that only a detailed and fully transparent human rights dialogue could dispel mutual suspicions and produce meaningful reform in the context of the accession process. Any other approach would be susceptible to the kind of half-way measures and empty initiatives that successive Turkish governments have repeatedly improvised to placate critics while quietly permitting abuses to continue.

On this score, the E.U. Accession Partnership document adopted in late 2000 was a disappointment. Sometimes described as a "road-map for reform," the Accession Partnership document was vague and omitted significant elements of reform needed to bring Turkey in line with European and international standards. The Turkish government's National Plan for accession, adopted in March 2001 in response to the E.U. Accession Partnership document, exploited all of the gaps in the E.U. document and attempted to bargain down the E.U.'s human rights demands.

In a welcome development, the European Commission's recently published 2001 Regular Report offers a more clear and useful map for Turkey. It shows how little distance has been travelled on what remains a very long road. The general picture presented in the 2001 Regular Report is accurate, and so too, for the most part, is the detail. It gives an authentic flavor of what some Turkish citizens are having to endure: economic hardship and corruption; torture and ill-treatment in police custody; excessive and arbitrary restrictions on freedom of expression, association, and assembly; and repression of cultural and language rights.

The report fairly documents positive steps that the Turkish government has taken on paper, but consistently balances this with an assessment of what is happening in practice. On freedom of expression and cultural rights, for example, the report lists the constitutional reforms that ease restrictions on publication in languages other than Turkish, and it mentions a culture and arts festival in Diyarbakir that included a panel discussion on multiculturalism-but it also records the prosecutions, confiscations, broadcasting bans and imprisonments that demonstrate there has been no general change of heart on the part of the authorities. The report rather boldly notes that many of those jailed for membership or support of armed opposition groups are actually imprisoned for "crimes connected to freedom of expression," and it describes how the "cumbersome" law on association is trammeling the development of civil society. To illustrate the harassment and intimidation of human rights organizations, it mentions a police raid on a treatment center for torture victims and official efforts to shut it down.

On a number of points, however, the report does fall short. For example, there is insufficient emphasis placed on the need to end incommunicado detention, although both the European Committee for the Prevention of Torture and the U.N. Special Rapporteur on Torture have said its abolition was the single most important step necessary to bring an end to the systematic use of torture in Turkey. The Turkish state is determined to postpone the day when lawyers will be going in and out of police stations and gendarmeries as part of their normal business, dramatically altering the way criminal justice is administered in Turkey. The E.U., perhaps because some E.U. member states still use incommunicado detention themselves, do not address the Turkish government, police, and gendarmerie sufficiently seriously on this point.

In the same vein, E.U. members states' own unsteady performance on the rights of students and civil servants to wear the headscarf may explain why Turkey's exclusion of thousands of women from higher education has not been tackled in the Regular Report. And the omission of the right to conscientious objection may be explained by Greece's continued shortcomings in this area.

The report does not describe how the Higher Education Council (YÖK), a creature of the 1980 military junta, restricts academic freedom. It is also disappointing in its treatment of progress toward the return home for the 250,000 villagers, mainly Kurdish, who gendarmes forced out of their homes in the early 1990s. The report repeats government statistics on the rate of return, apparently without checking those against the facts on the ground. Human Rights Watch investigations suggest that the government village return program is largely fictional and most abandoned settlements remain no-go areas, in some cases occupied by government-armed village guards.

The Commission charitably cushions depressing facts with optimistic hopes, perhaps in order to avoid worsening the economic crisis into which the Turkish government plunged itself in February. The Regular Report makes as much as it can of the amendments to Turkey's constitution adopted in October, although the regular reports are supposed to measure progress up to September 30, 2001 and not take into account legislation or measures planned or in preparation. The Turkish government is fortunate that those preparing the report bent those rules because, apart from the constitutional changes (which have yet to be cast into new legislation), the government has almost nothing to show for the past twelve months. In the area of fundamental rights, the main elements of the constitutional changes were abolition of the death penalty for common criminal offences and a shortening of the maximum incommunicado detention period from seven to four days (though detention periods will still be extended in the four southeastern provinces under emergency rule). But even these measures fell short of the mark. Full peacetime abolition of the death penalty is the European standard, and, as mentioned above, to bring an end to torture in Turkey, the complete abolition of incommunicado detention should be the goal.

The Regular Report's general assessment that "compared to last year, the situation on the ground has hardly improved" looks very much like the assessment from last year-and the year before that. As a "road-map" the report shows that Turkey has made very little progress at all. The picture is certainly much better than it was in the years of armed conflict in the southeast between 1991 and 1995, but it is still very bad. In 2001 two Kurdish politicians "disappeared," the largest parliamentary political party, Virtue, was shut down, civilians were imprisoned by military courts and writers by State Security Courts. Women, including a police rape victim, who organized a conference on sexual assault in custody were put on trial for "insulting the State authorities," and human rights defenders were charged with terrorist offences because they reported on a prison crisis that has claimed more than seventy lives. As the Report says, "the situation as regards torture and mistreatment has not improved since the last Regular Report and still gives serious grounds for concern." In fact, the Turkish Human Rights Association has reported an increase in reports of torture in the past year, and children are among the victims.

While the reforms that really count are not being tackled, tinsel and varnish are being applied to give the impression that the government is on the case. The proliferation of dubious "human rights" institutions is a case in point. The Report mentions the law of October 2000 that installed a Human Rights Presidency, a High Human Rights Board, Human Rights Consultation Boards, and the Human Rights Investigation Boards. For a decade successive Turkish governments have been fiddling about setting up such human rights institutions, one or two highly effective, but most of them useless

The Way Forward for Turkey and the E.U.

The Turkish government is gridlocked over the European project and the fundamental reforms that it necessitates. The extreme right wing partner in the ruling coalition, the National Action Party (MHP), opposes several of the key reforms contained in the Accession Partnership document, particularly an expansion of cultural and language rights for Turkey's minorities. Those in the government who want to see progress in order to further the E.U. candidacy cannot move for fear of a counterattack from the military, which regularly repeats that it is ready to intervene in politics, and has potentially devastating power to mobilise the press and media against any politician who challenges them. On some issues, such as incommunicado detention, the opposition to change arises from straightforward institutional self-interest and fear of change. But with respect to the issues that are simultaneously most fundamental to European democracy and difficult in Turkey-freedom of expression and language and cultural rights-the military and the MHP believe that the restrictions they defend are appropriate cautionary measures against forces (religion- and ethnic-based politics) that they fear could tear the country apart.

The 2000 Regular Report published a year ago mentioned that "a positive development since the last regular report is the launching in Turkish society of a wide-ranging debate on the political reforms necessary for accession to the EU." In fact, a full, free and public discussion of Turkey's European project has not happened yet, and cannot happen while restrictions on freedom of expression remain in place.

Discussion of European integration is tightly constrained in Turkey, particularly when it comes to the implications that Turkey's bid for E.U. membership must have for the roles of ethnicity, religion and the military in the public and political sphere. One can write and speak about almost anything in Turkey, but writing or saying the wrong thing about these topics can bring prosecution and imprisonment (under article 312 for incitement to religious or racial hatred, or under article 159 for insulting the military). Many journalists and politicians have faced charges for breaking taboos. Last year three party leaders were prosecuted and convicted under article 312, and one served a term of imprisonment. For many there are consequences more permanently inhibiting than imprisonment. For the media, overstepping the chalk line on these issues can be very expensive, racking up fines and legal fees. Newspapers are confiscated and television broadcasting suspended. Such penalties are meted out almost every day. For politicians, the risks are even higher: a misjudged phrase can end your career because a conviction also means loss of political rights, specifically, a prohibition on founding or joining a party or standing for election.

The public debating chamber is ring-fenced by article 312 and the other constraints on freedom of expression. Yet in the privacy of the National Security Council (a body established by the post-coup constitution), the military is uniquely free to express its views to leading ministers and president; the military chiefs' role in the council is theoretically "advisory," but their influence is widely regarded as overriding. Chief of Staff of the Turkish armed forces General Kivrikoglu, on October 29, made the peculiar boast that behind the closed doors of the NSC meetings, where soldiers wear civilian clothes, there is "real democracy .… Everyone is free to say what they want. Article 312 does not apply." This is what one retired general described as "military democracy," and begs the question: why shouldn't ordinary Turkish people have the same right to discuss their future?

General Kivrikoglu went on to say that as long as there was "reactionary danger," coded language for the threat of religion in politics, the military would be ready "for a thousand years" to intervene in politics, as they have four times since 1960. There can be little confidence in the stability of democracy and law, while the military openly threatens democratically elected politicians in this way.

The Regular Report gives news of what, under other circumstances, would be an impressive list of valuable human rights gains: planned accession to the Ottawa convention on landmines, signature of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, and signature of the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights. But it is impossible to give wholehearted credit while there is a yawning gap in the middle of the program.

The main message of the 2001 Regular Report is that Turkey has not yet fully committed to undertake the kind of meaningful reform that could bridge that gap and make its candidacy truly viable. A profound conflict within the political and military establishment over the European project is clearly getting in the way of needed reform. Unless this conflict is addressed and resolved, it can be expected that the Turkish government will spend one more year improvising cosmetic measures to embellish its human rights record to brighten up another disappointing regular report.

The implications of European integration need to be discussed and accepted in Turkey. But where can this conversation take place? The NSC discussions, free ranging according to General Kivrikoglu, are closed to the public. When Mesut Yilmaz, the deputy prime minister responsible for the accession process, has tried to open up the issues he has repeatedly been slapped down by the military. When the magazine Idea Politika asked the question "What is the army for?" in its fall issue, the magazine was confiscated at the demand of the military and the author subjected to a criminal investigation. Columnists and politicians are inhibited by the heavy potential cost of asking the wrong questions. The High Council for Radio and Television has temporarily or permanently suspended scores of independent broadcasters and in August banned BBC World Service and Deutsche Welle on the grounds that they "threatened national security."

The E.U. may be able to ease things forward. So far, the E.U. has been discussing Turkey's candidacy almost exclusively with the Turkish government, even though it appears that the military will have a say in the decisions that lie ahead. Perhaps it is time to see that the military takes part in the E.U. dialogue with the Turkish government.

If the E.U. decides to make such an overture, the General Staff may try to be coy and pretend that they are not mandated to discuss foreign policy. This would be disingenuous, since agendas of past NSC meetings have covered international affairs as well as the economy, education, corruption, the media and much besides.

The E.U. should ask that the government include the military in a discussion of how the Copenhagen Criteria can be met without risking the instability the military and nationalist politicians fear. In the aftermath of the September 11 attacks, when the E.U. is itself grappling with the appropriate balance between security and civil liberties, it is well placed to engage Turkey on the same issues. The discussion should examine whether fundamental freedoms are restricted in Turkey due to legitimate security concerns or mere institutional conservatism or self-interest. It should address the extent to which restrictions on democratic freedoms may do more to fuel instability than quell it. This forum should be as open and transparent as diplomacy can possibly admit. Once these parties are talking, it will not be long before the Turkish public joins the conversation. If it is truly unfettered, this conversation would itself be an important step in the right direction.