Human rights have been one of the contentious issues in EU-Turkey relations since the 1990’s. After the Helsinki European Council which declared Turkey’s candidate status in the European Union, Turkey started national programmes and political reforms to improve the country’s human rights record. Despite moderate changes to freedom of expression, to a range of democratic rights in the Turkish constitution as well other general laws, too many areas were criticised as ineffective by the EU in terms of Turkey’s accession process.
According to the Turkey Progress Report prepared annually by the European Commission, criticism of Turkey was prevalent in the areas of: prevention of torture and ill treatment; reform of the prison system; access to justice; freedom of expression; freedom of press; freedom of thought and religion; woman’s rights and gender equality; as well as freedom of assembly and association.
Some of these issues, such as freedom of expression and freedom of assembly, have a particular spolight on them as a result of the Gezi Park protests, an attention which has affected EU-Turkey relations negatively.
Gezi Park protests
Istanbul Gezi Park Protests, 1 June 2013/Demotix/Sahan Nuhoglu/All rights reserved
Turkey was dramatically affected by the protests in 2013. In the beginning, this was a peaceful protest, carried out by citizens exercising their constitutional rights and intent on expressing their non-violent opinions concerning Gezi Park and Taksim Square. However, in the early morning of 28 May and 31 May, police used tear gas against a small number of environmentalists to stop their protest and burned down their tents in order to allow the bulldozing to continue. As a result of these police attacks in Taksim Square, more than 100 people were injured, several of them seriously.
Following this, Turkey was engulfed in a series of protests across several cities including Ankara, Izmir, Adana, Hatay and Eskisehir, whilst riot police managed to turn Istanbul's busiest city centre hub into a battleground, deploying tear gas and water cannon against thousands of peaceful demonstrators. These demonstrators did not have any guns nor did they use acts of violence. They shouted slogans such as ‘Everywhere Taksim, Everywhere Resistance’ (‘Her yer Taksim’, ‘Her yer Direnis’). Moreover they opposed some of the AKP’s measures such as the alcohol ban and abortion law which were associated with the rise of political Islam in Turkish political and public life.
The consecutive raids launched by the police on peaceful protesters in all these cities, using tear gas and water cannons, did not prevent the protests growing in scale, with artists, intellectuals and opposition MPs joining their ranks in June 2013. The AKP government and Prime Minister Erdoğan refused to apologise to protesters, instead proclaiming ‘these protestors are looters and vandals’. Turkish police increased their attacks against peaceful demonstrators in many cities throughout June and July. As a consequence, one Turkish police officer died and four demonstrators (Ethem Sarisuluk, Mehmet Ali Ayvalitas, Abdullah Comert and Ali Ismail Korkmaz) lost their lives as a result of the ‘excessive force’ used by civil or official police.Man gives away cigarettes following accusations of looting, 10 June 2013/Demotix/Colin Boyd Shafer/All rights reserved
Reactions against these police attacks did not arise from within; it was external agencies like the European Union who criticised Erdoğan and his government’s policy of justifying the use of excessive force against protestors. The European Parliament discussed these protests and the police offensive in Turkey on 12 June which was immediately followed up with expressions of grave concern by Members of the European Parliament, particularly by the parliamentary leader of the Socialists and Democrats group.
‘There was intensive use of water cannon and tear gas. There were violent scenes in Ankara and Izmir too. Reports of widespread injuries once again underlined these police tactics are a major cause of concern’, said EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton about the police offensive during a European Parliamentary debate on this meeting. After this meeting, the European Parliament issued a statement about the Gezi Park protests and called on Prime Minister Erdoğan to reduce the tension between demonstrators and police. The statement explains that Article 34 of the Turkish Constitution guarantees the right to organise peaceful, unarmed meetings and demonstrations without permission; whereas Article 26 guarantees freedom of expression, and Articles 27 and 28 guarantee ‘freedom of expression’ and ‘unhindered dissemination of thought’.
Moreover, the European Union warned the Turkish government in terms of freedom of assembly. The European Parliament called on the Turkish authorities to guarantee and respect the rights of all citizens to freedom of expression, peaceful assembly and peaceful protest; it called for the immediate release of all peaceful protestors taken into custody and currently detained; and asked for information on the exact numbers of detainees and injured (European Parliament, Motion for a Resolution in Turkey, 2013).Thousands continue to demonstrate in Istanbul over Gezi Park plans, 1 June 2013/Demotix/Akin Aydinli/All rights reserved
Lastly, the 2013 Turkey Progress Report, established by the European Commission in October, criticized the reaction to the Gezi Park protests in terms of freedom of assembly. The Commission points out that the alleged violations of human rights in the context of the protests in May and June across the country underline the need for far-reaching reforms in order to ensure respect for freedom of assembly in line with European standards. On several occasions, there were scenes of violence, leading in several instances to deaths, disruption of demonstrations and disproportionate use of force by the police against demonstrators such as during rallies in support of the Taksim and Gezi Park protests in Istanbul.
It is undeniable that the AKP government has done much to improve the protection of freedom of assembly in Turkey since 2008. Nevertheless, the Gezi Park protests and use of excessive force by the police have damaged this situation. Consequently, it is no surprise that institutional actors such as the European Union have expressed concern about the use of force by the Turkish police. Such criticism was inevitable.