Around midnight on Wednesday, Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan announced the decision to place Turkey under a state of emergency – no reward for Turkey’s population, which, when confronted with a military coup attempt last weekend, opted for democracy by pouring onto the streets to resist the tanks. At least 250 people paid for it with their lives.
Why is the imposition of a state of emergency worrying in such an environment? Because it gives the government the means to intensify its campaign against its critics.
The decision, which places Turkey under exceptional rule for three months, comes after mass detentions of soldiers, the suspension from their jobs of more than 50,000 civil servants, including 15,000 teachers, the forced resignation of more than 1,500 university deans, and a purging of the judiciary: 979 judges and prosecutors were detained, about 632 jailed and another 2,745 judges suspended.
So alongside legitimate detentions related to criminal conduct, the start of an investigation into the coup has provided alarming signs that the authorities are erasing the distinction between criminal activity and sympathies for a religious movement the government accuses of orchestrating the coup.
The state of emergency gives the cabinet, headed up by the president, the powers to impose rule by decrees which are published and rushed through parliament for approval the same day. This is the bluntest indication of how this form of governance dispenses with real parliamentary scrutiny. Any possibility of review by the Constitutional Court is curbed. This means that decisions by the executive are not subject to any meaningful checks. It also contravenes the principle of the separation of powers.
Beyond that, there is plenty more scope for imposing curfews, banning demonstrations, confiscating newspapers, searching people, and extending police detention periods. The Minister of Justice announced this would be 7-8 days in the first instance.
On Thursday, I was called by the journalist Sibel Hurtas. She is the wife Orhan Kemal Cengiz, a respected human rights lawyer and columnist who had just been detained at the airport as he was heading to a meeting in London. His detention is shocking and he should be released immediately.
What about human rights? The Turkish government has told the Council of Europe it wants to temporarily deviate (“derogate”) from the human rights protections required under the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR). But it is unclear whether the current situation meets the “threat to the life of the nation” criteria for derogation. Even if it is able to do so, the prohibition on torture and other key rights in the ECHR will remain in effect, and the UN treaties like the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights will still apply.
The Turkish government has explicitly pointed to France to justify the state of emergency powers and ECHR derogation. France’s state of emergency powers, which its parliament extended after the recent attack in Nice, has led to clear human rights violations during police operations – even though it does not limit parliamentary or constitutional court review of legislation.
The context in Turkey is different. A state of emergency imposed where there are clear signs that the government is ready to crack down more broadly – combined with far more scope for unchecked executive action – is an alarming prospect. It risks further undermining democracy by providing a legal – if not justifiable – basis for a crackdown on rights.