Can Europe Make It?

Chronic human rights problems of Turkey during the EU accession process

Will the European adventure that has continued for years with both sides escalating the tension and turning their backs on each other, finally end?

Ozgur H Cinar
2 May 2018

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and German Chancellor Angela Merkel attend the G20 summit in Hamburg, July 2017. Matt Cardy/Press Association. All rights reserved.For a long time the Republic of Turkey has been associated with violations of human rights. Despite Turkey being a signatory to the fundamental conventions on human rights it has been unable to demonstrate stability as regards safeguarding these rights.

In the human rights sphere Turkey made progress with reforms that began with the European Union (EU) accession process that started in 1999, and advanced further with radical changes to the constitution in 2004 made with the participation of deputies from the Justice and Development Party (AKP). The harmonisation laws introduced as an extension of this process and of the judgments of the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR) brought in at least developments on the normative level. However, these normative changes were not sufficiently reciprocated in practice and were not sufficiently internalised by public mechanisms, in particular the security forces.

The fact that in this period certain steps, albeit formal, were taken for a resolution of the Kurdish question raised hopes for peace in some circles. In this context great significance was attached to the constitutional amendments made in 2010, but the changes were unable to make a contribution to the resolution of age-old problems. 

The latest stage in the period of increasing authoritarianism was the unsuccessful coup attempt of 15 July 2016. The government stated that the Gülen movement was behind the attempted coup, and the other parties expressed similar views on various occasions. On 20 July 2016 a state of emergency (OHAL) was declared for 90 days (no. 2016/9064). Following its first proclamation the OHAL has been extended six times.

Human rights violations in the state of emergency

According to the latest data that has been reported in the media, the human rights violations caused by OHAL are as follows: more than 108,400 public servants have been suspended, 60,161 public servants have been dismissed and 62,864 teachers have been suspended or dismissed, 28,163 of whom have been sacked. Procedures have been initiated against a total of 6,792 academics and administrators. The number of police officers dismissed is 10,026. The number of members of the Turkish Armed Forces that have been sacked is 3,939. In addition, 35 health institutions, 1,061 educational establishments, 800 student hostels, 223 courses, 129 foundations, 1,125 associations, 15 universities, 19 trade unions and 4,262 organisations have been closed down.[1]

While the judicial mechanism should be effective as regards the development of human rights, during the OHAL process, twenty per cent of judges and prosecutors have been dismissed and their property seized.  Some of these have been arrested and remanded in custody, including two members of the Constitutional Court.[2] The rejection of cases filed against measures based on these decrees, the consequent failure of the Constitutional Court to scrutinise dismissals based on these decrees or its keeping them waiting, and on the other hand the delay in appointing members of a commission which it is said will examine such measures, and, finally, the ECtHR finding two cases inadmissible has driven victims of these decrees to despair.[3] These examples are important as regards demonstrating the gravity of the situation.

As for the subject of freedom of expression (Article 10 of the Convention), after 15 July 2016 one hundred and sixty two journalists languish in prison.[4] This figure has raised Turkey to the top of the global list as regards imprisoned journalists.[5] Besides this, more than 200 journalists have been detained (66 of them was arrested) during OHAL and 2,308 journalists have lost their jobs. 28 TV channels, 5 news agencies, 55 newspapers, 18 magazines, 35 radios and 26 publishers have been closed down. More than 20 news websites have had access obstructed and 29 printing houses have had their licences revoked. Amongst these, 23 out of 39 television and radio stations broadcasting in Kurdish and several Kurdish newspapers have been closed down.[6]

People who were alleged to have links to the Gülen movement have been subjected to widespread suspension, dismissal, arrest and suffered loss of rights in other fields. For example, persons who were dismissed by the KHK also had their passports invalidated and found that other procedures in public offices came to a halt. However, these operations have gone beyond targeting the Gülen movement and begun to include anyone who is an opponent of the government. The operations have affected the whole of society, from the judiciary, police, gendarme and military to public servants, local administrators, teachers, academics, lawyers, the media and the business world. Many companies have been closed down and their assets seized, or assigned to public institutions.[7] Pressure has also been applied to human rights organisations.

Apart from all this, the declaration of OHAL has had a negative impact on the Kurdish question. For instance, 9 MPs, including both Co-Presidents, of the Pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) are currently in jail.[8] Many of the HDP’s elected representatives and mayors have been suspended, dismissed or arrested on terror charges. 79 municipalities have been taken over by the Interior Ministry, with trustees appointed in place of the elected mayors.[9] In this respect, the Kurdish issue is experiencing a sort of deja vu reminiscent of the 1990s.

It is important that these figures give us an up to date picture of the pessimistic tableau that is the situation of human rights in Turkey. As French President Emmanuel Macron has told his Turkish counterpart, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, there is no chance of progress towards Turkey joining the EU at present.[10] However, as the President of European Commission, Jean-Claude Juncker, stated that everything depends on how Turkey approaches the EU even though it seems that it is currently moving away.[11]

What will Turkey and the EU do?

The question that needs to be asked here is what Turkey and the EU will do. Will the European adventure, that has continued for years with both sides escalating the tension and turning their backs on each other, finally end? For the EU to close all doors to Turkey will ensure Turkey’s further isolation from the EU. Such a situation will not be in the interests of either party, when the joint security, energy and economic interests of the EU and Turkey in the Mediterranean, Middle East and Europe are taken into consideration.

For instance, it may lead to Turkey joining other blocs, such as with Russia, the Turkstream pipeline project being an example of this. Additionally, Turkey has for two months been carrying out military operations in the Afrin region of northern Syria with the support of Russia.[12] The fact that Turkey has ignored EU calls for it to halt these operations is an indication of the dimensions of this partnership. 

At this juncture, according to the agreement made in March 2016, the EU must fulfil its promise (to provide Turkey with 6 billion Euros for Syrian refugees and to grant visa-free travel to EU countries for Turkish citizens). In return it is high time Turkey fulfilled the conditions listed below as part of the EU accession process. If this does not happen it is apparent that there will be economic, political and cultural losses on both sides.[13] At this point, the fact that the EU recently agreed to send Turkey 3 billion Euros as part of its pledge has raised the question as to whether this will restore EU/Turkey relations to the necessary level.[14] There is also interest as to how Turkey will respond to this provision of funds by the EU. 


In conclusion, the Turkish Government must urgently comply with its international obligations including the Copenhagen political criteria. The following recommendations could be made, but obviously they are just the urgent steps with a great possibility of significant extension. 

Firstly, the Government should immediately stop extending the OHAL. It must ensure that any measure is taken by taking into account the principle of rule of law including the test of necessity and proportionality. It should ensure that every single person has a right to have a fair trial or equitable administrative process, freedom of expression, minority rights and so on.  According to the principle of the separation of powers the executive and legislature should not comment on rulings of the judiciary and avoid exerting pressure on it. In this regard, the Turkish Constitutional Court has a crucial function in resolving problems affecting the independence of the judiciary. In addition, there should be a legal and political environment for judiciary to perform its duties in an independent and impartial manner. Finally, the legal, financial and administrative environment also needs to be more conducive to the development of civil society.[15]

 [1] See Altɪok. Zeynep. 2017. “OHAL Bilançosu, Hak İhlalleri Raporu” [Balance sheet of State of Emergency, Report of Rights Violations].

[2] “Son dakika! HSYK, 107 Hakim ve savciyi gorevden ihrac etti.” [Last minute! The High Council of Judges and Prosecutors has dismissed 107 judges and prosecutors] Karar. May 2, 2017; “Anayasa Mahkemesi üyeleri tutuklandı.” [Members of the Constitutional Court were remanded in custody] Hürriyet, July 20, 2016.

[3] Mercan v. Turkey, Application no. 56511/16, 08 November 2016; Zihni v. Turkey, Application no. 59061/16, 29 November 2016.

[4] “161 gazeteci ve medya çalışanı cezaevinde.” [161 journalists and media workers are in prison] TürkiyeGazeteciler Sendikasɪ. May 29. 2017.

[5] “En çok tutuklu gazeteci Türkiye’de.” [The most journalists in custody are in Turkey] Hürriyet. December 14, 2016.

[6] EU Commission. 2016. “Turkey 2016 Report”. Brussels: European Commission. Accessed May 29, 2017, pp. 72-73; Altɪok 2017

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