Table Of ContentsNext Page

Recent Reports 
 Support HRW 
About HRW
Site Map
Human Rights Watch - Home Page


At its summit in Helsinki in December 1999, the European Union (E.U.) recognized Turkey as a candidate for membership in the union, subject to the understanding that actual negotiations for membership will not commence until Turkey meets the political criteria for E.U. membership established in Copenhagen in 1993. As is E.U. practice with all applicant states, the European Commission is in the process of preparing an Accession Partnership document, identifying the steps necessary for Turkey to meet the Copenhagen criteria, which include "stability of institutions guaranteeing democracy, the rule of law, human rights, and respect for and protection of minorities."

Once adopted by the Commission and the E.U. Council of Ministers in late 2000, the Accession Partnership document, which will also include economic and institutional requirements, will become the E.U.'s formal list of tasks that Turkey must complete in order to accede to the union. Turkey will then produce a national program for accession that mirrors the Accession Partnership, and progress will be monitored by means of the annual 'Regular Report from the European Commission on progress towards accession' on the basis of the Copenhagen criteria, as is done for all applicant states.

Turkey's history of gross and widespread human rights violations has been thoroughly documented by non-governmental organizations, including Human Rights Watch, and by international governmental organizations including the United Nations (U.N.) and the Council of Europe. As a consequence of Turkey's persistent failure to follow the recommendations of such bodies, serious violations persist today.

In the past, fellow governments in Europe have sometimes been reluctant to press too strongly for reform, fearing that Turkey might disengage from dialogue altogether. This patience (also motivated, in some cases, by commercial and security interests) has been exploited by successive Turkish governments unable or unwilling to stand up to the ruthless and conservative forces deep within the state. Meanwhile the Turkish public has been left unprotected against torture and repression. The preparation of the Accession Partnership is a unique opportunity to motivate significant lasting reform in Turkey.

While Human Rights Watch does not oppose or support Turkey's E.U. candidacy, it has consistently urged E.U. member state governments to use all diplomatic channels, including the accession process, to encourage the Turkish government to protect human rights. For that purpose, we have prepared this briefing to summarize the main patterns of human rights violations in Turkey and suggest a number of remedial steps that could be included in the Accession Partnership document.

This briefing does not entail an exhaustive list of problems and needed reform, but rather the minimum that should be addressed through the accession process. The briefing's recommendations are nonetheless detailed and specific. Human Rights Watch believes that the Accession Partnership will not achieve its aim unless it defines its goals in fine detail. The Turkish state has shown itself to be adept at improvising half-way measures and empty initiatives in order to placate critics. In September 1999, for example, the temporary release of Akin Birdal, imprisoned for a speech he gave while president of the Turkish Human Rights Association, and the partial amnesty of journalists in the same month, were clearly maneuvers to avoid official embarrassment at the E.U. Helsinki Summit in December. Akin Birdal was rearrested in early 2000, and prosecutions of journalists continue. If the benchmarks established for the accession process are completely unambiguous and measurable, the E.U. will not be constantly obliged to give credit and advantage for insubstantial gestures.

At the same time, detailed recommendations can give the Turkish government confidence that it will receive credit from the E.U. when due. Suspicions have been voiced in Turkey that E.U. member states have used human rights as an excuse for resisting Turkey's membership, while the "real" reasons could be traced to various politicalconsiderations, including Turkey's sometimes strained relations with E.U. member Greece, and xenophobic fears about including a populous, predominantly Muslim country in a border-free Europe. These suspicions, justified or not, seriously undermine the efficacy of any human rights agenda in the E.U. accession process. Therefore, a transparent process based on clear and objectively measurable benchmarks is essential. It will signal to the people of Turkey that the E.U.'s human rights goal posts are to be taken seriously, but will not be moving perpetually out of reach.

Each fall, the E.U. Commission publishes a regular report on the progress of each applicant state toward accession and the European Council reviews the accession process on the basis of this report. The E.U.'s 1998 and 1999 regular reports on Turkey accurately identify the main problem areas, and correctly point to the woeful lack of progress since 1997. The first real indication from the Turkish side of their state of readiness for the Accession Partnership appeared in the February 28, 2000 Report on the Political Criteria of the Special Committee on Turkey-E.U. Relations (hereinafter, the Report) prepared by the Special Committee on Turkey-E.U. relations attached to the Turkish Prime Minister's office. Human Rights Watch has also examined an undated document entitled Calendar for Democracy, the Rule of Law and Human Rights (herein after the Calendar) produced by the Secretariat of the High Coordinating Council for Human Rights of the office of the Prime Minister in mid-2000, after publication of the Report.

These two documents contain a large number of proposals for constitutional, legal and administrative reform in the direction of extending freedoms and protecting fundamental rights. They include measures for reshaping the National Security Council, abolishing the death penalty, redrafting laws in order to ensure freedom of expression, establishing judicial police, abolishing incommunicado police detention and combating domestic violence. The documents also proposed signature and ratification of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) and the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR). That Turkey went on to sign both covenants on August 15, 2000 was encouraging, and it is to be hoped that ratification - without extensive reservations -will soon follow. As a general expression of readiness to consider change, then, these proposals give cause for optimism.

The omissions, on the other hand, and the lack of precision as to the final shape of such reforms, leave room for concern. Most obviously, these documents do not remove the remaining obstacles to the use of minority languages in all spheres of daily life and to the free expression of ethnic identity. The Report refers briefly to the problems with language, but understates them, referring to "basic freedoms granted, shortcomings in practice." It restates the official concept of "constitutional citizenship" according to which "everyone living in Turkey and feeling Turkish is a Turk," but does not address the situation of those who do not feel Turkish, except to say that such matters "can be met on the basis of individual rights." The Calendar ignores the language issue entirely.

The Report and the Calendar contain no reference to a number of safeguards against torture that have been specifically recommended by intergovernmental mechanisms (including a prohibition on blindfolding and independent prison/police station visiting schemes); no detailed suggestions as to how children are to be protected from torture; no proposals for immediate release of people imprisoned for the peaceful exercise of their rights of expression; no proposals to resolve the problems surrounding the wearing of the Islamic head scarf in, for example, institutions of higher education and parliament; no provisions for investigation of "disappearances" and extrajudicial executions in the southeast and no arrangements for lifting Turkey's geographical reservation to the 1951 Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees.

The time line for reform indicated in the Calendar gives further cause for disquiet. The European Commission will articulate its Accession Partnership proposals in the form of short-term and medium-term measures. Short-term measures are expected to be effected within a year, while medium-term measures are for introduction within approximately three years. Many of the measures outlined in this briefing should be enacted now. Reform on torture and freedom of expression is long overdue. The dramatic reduction in attacks by illegal armed groups offers an unprecedented window of opportunity, which should be used to enact measures to build confidence and end the repression that such violent groups have used to excuse their own abuses. The current Turkish government has been frittering this opportunity away. It is extremely disheartening to find that, according to the Calendar, necessary draftchanges to the Criminal Code will only be ready for submission to parliament by the end of 2001, and the end of 2002 in the case of the Anti-Terror Law. Prisoners held for expressing non-violent opinions should not be left to languish in jail, captive to Turkey's timetable for accession.

The Calendar puts a similar leisurely time line on the abolition of incommunicado detention, suggesting submission of draft changes to the Criminal Procedure Code at the end of 2001. In January 2000, Mehmet Ali Irtemcelik, then State Minister with responsibility for Human Rights, included abolition of incommunicado detention among his "short term goals,"1 foreseeable in the European Commission's one-year short-term time frame. The schedule of the Calendar therefore shows some slippage from this prior public undertaking.

Human Rights Watch considers that the proposals in this briefing, many of which protect fundamental liberties and all long overdue, deserve to be tackled within the first year. The Accession Partnership is itself due to emerge already a full year into Turkey's E.U. candidacy-a year which, so far at least, the Turkish government has not used to great effect.

This Human Rights Watch briefing contains no recommendations on the constitutionally assigned role of the Turkish armed forces, which is not strictly a human rights issue. Nonetheless, it is clear that the structure and operation of the National Security Council, its role in ousting Prime Minister Necmettin Erbakan in 1997, the pronouncements of the Office of the Chief of General Staff on education, broadcasting and language, the armed forces' extensive industrial holdings and the fact that the armed forces are not subject to the Defense Ministry, are all highly anomalous. The armed forces and other conservative elements within the state that have had overriding political influence for the past twenty years must bear considerable responsibility for the sorry human rights situation, and for the recent succession of humiliating judgments against Turkey at the European Court of Human Rights. There is unlikely to be much improvement while these forces remain in the driver's seat and therefore the Accession Partnership's proposals in this respect will be significant for the human rights situation.

In some areas, the Turkish government may question the imposition of standards that are not yet met by some existing members of the European Union. The right to a non-punitive alternative to military service proposed in this report, for example, is not yet fully in place in Greece. In such areas, the E.U. should work for consistency among member and applicant states in conformity with international standards, rather than settle for a lower common denominator.

The recommendations on torture contained in this report are particularly extensive and include some measures that are not applied in some other E.U. candidate states, or indeed some member states. These are made necessary by the persistence and severity of the problem in Turkey.

The following discussion of Human Rights Watch's recommendations for the Accession Partnership addresses nine key areas of needed reform: preventing torture, safeguarding freedom of expression and the right of conscientious objection, ensuring language and minority rights, combating restrictions on the head scarf, improving prison conditions, lifting the death penalty, ending repression of civil society, contributing to stability in the southeast, and protecting refugees. Each recommendation is followed by an indication of how the Turkish government's Calendar and Report deal with that issue.

1 Milliyet (Nationhood), January 6, 2000.

Table Of ContentsNext Page