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Turkey: Make Rights Reform a Priority

New Government’s Rights Commitment Should Match Foreign Policy Ambitions

(Istanbul) - The Justice and Development Party (AKP) government should put human rights reforms, starting with a new constitution, at the top of its agenda for its third term, Human Rights Watch said today in a letter to Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. The letter from Kenneth Roth, the executive director, also says the new government should uphold the rights of Turkish Kurds, strengthen women's rights, and end an overly restrictive policy on access to the internet and stop blocking access to certain websites.

"If the Justice and Development Party is serious about Turkey being a regional power, it needs to show leadership on rights and the rule of law," Roth said. "A new constitution based on proper consultation with opposition and civil society is the right place to start."

With regard to its role in the region, Turkey should publicly support efforts for a United Nations Security Council resolution demanding an immediate end to the Syrian government's brutal crackdown on its people, Human Rights Watch said.

The Justice and Development Party won a record 50 percent of the vote in the June 12, 2011 general election. It has pledged to begin immediately to revise the 1982 constitution, which is widely seen across the political spectrum as an obstacle to the full enjoyment of fundamental rights and the rule of law.

The governing party's 326 seats in the new parliament is four short of the number required for unilateral action. So the AKP will need to work with opposition parties on constitutional reform.  To achieve that consensus, the government should consult fully with civil society and academics, as well as opposition parties, Human Rights Watch said.

The new constitution should remove restrictions on freedom of expression and association, uphold the rights of all groups in Turkey, and end discrimination against various ethnic groups by removing language referring to ethnic identity, Human Rights Watch said. It should guarantee the separation of powers, strengthen the role of parliament and limit the powers of the president, ensure the independence of the judiciary, and provide for full civilian oversight of the military.

Guaranteeing full rights to the country's Kurdish population should be a key priority for the new government, Human Rights Watch said.

In 2009, the previous government initiated a "democratic opening" to address longstanding  concerns of Turkish Kurds about discrimination and participation in society as well as the  rights of all of the country's ethnic and religious groups. But it failed to translate this initiative into concrete changes on the ground, in part because of a clampdown on officials and activists from the legal pro-Kurdish Peace and Development Party (BDP) for alleged links to the armed Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK).

The government should end restrictions on the right of children to learn to read and write in mother-tongue languages, including Kurdish, Human Rights Watch said.  It should also take steps to end the arbitrary use of terrorism laws against those who express critical opinions, join protests, or engage in nonviolent political activities.

Human Rights Watch also cited a number of other important rights concerns, including the need to strengthen women's rights, to end restrictions on freedom of expression, including restrictions on websites and access to the internet, to end unfair trials, and to combat police violence and impunity.

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