Historical explanations to Lack of Human Rights Reform in Turkey

Khatera Alizada, PhD Candidate Old Dominion University

September 2014

This paper was submitted as part of the Rumi Forum Fellowship program


What explains Turkey’s lack of human rights reform?  This paper will be more specifically looking at the historical explanation for the oppression of freedom of speech and press in Turkey, the cultural rights for the minorities, the right to association and political participation. These human rights issues have been chosen among others because they are among the criteria for Turkey’s European Union accession negotiation.

This paper argues that the notion of protection of secularism and the territorial integrity has resulted in the establishment of institutions that have not allowed for the realization of the human rights reform since the establishment of the Republic in the 1920s. In fact, military, judiciary and the police have been a part of the path dependency. They are not by themselves the critical juncture. However, these institutions have been historically the defenders of the secular state of the Republic and the territorial integrity. It shows that critical juncture was set in the point in time during the establishment of the Republic.

In its attempt to meet the requirements for accession to the European Union, there have been some reforms. Then, there has been a shift towards more authoritarianism in recent years, this paper only focuses on the historical explanation of the lack of reform from the establishment of the Republic until the ruling party, Justice and Development (AKP) came to power.

Theoretical explanation: Path dependency

According to Banchoff (2005) historical-institutionalists claim that institution formed at critical junctures frame succeeding policy trajectories. He further states that path-dependent scholarship defines three causes that show the relationship between institutions and outcomes. First, actor constellation is formed through institutional legacies. Actor constellation includes the actors who have sufficient power to set the agenda. “Second, those legacies generate powerful networks of state and societal actors with a stake in institutional practices, shifting the balance of interests in favor of the status quo” (Ibid, p.207). Third, state institutions and their political legacies set the legislative agenda to prevent the alternative policy, which does not go along the status quo.

According to Banchoff (2005) difference between constitutional framework and policy framework is that the former sets the structure for the later. The later is specific, law, rules that form and regulate a state’s activities. These two illustrate causal path between constitutional framework, and policy framework with the actor constellations. The constitutional framework and policy framework empower actor constellation and allocate the power on a certain issue to the legislative, judicial and executive branch. State institutions are linked to the balance of interest especially through policy framework. “Established policy norms and practices generate uneven flows of material benefits, information, and networking opportunities over time” (Ibid, 208). The ones who benefited from the policy legacies become defenders of those legacies. Third causal pathways link institutions with legislative debate. “Constitutional and policy frameworks and their associated political legacies can narrow the range of policy alternatives considered within a given national context and provide rhetorical resources for supporters of incremental as opposed to radical change” (Banchoff, 2005, p.209).

Conceptualization: Dependent and interdependent variables

For the purpose of this study the human rights issues are limited to the cultural rights for the minorities, which include the right to use of language and other cultural practices. The minorities are specific to Kurds and the Alevi religious minority group. The political rights and associations are confined to political parties. The political parties are limited to those parties with pro Kurdish agenda and those parties with pro Islamic affiliation. The freedom of press includes the right to broadcast and prevent without censorship with special focus on the imprisonment of journalists. These human rights issues are selected because they are the top of the list of requirement criteria for the accession of Turkey into the European Union. Their lack of reform is also associated with the idea of territorial integrity and the secular state of the republic.

The dependent variable is the human rights reform. The independent variables are the constitutional framework/ policy legacy and its affect on the actor constellation, which is the military, judiciary, police, nationalists and other actors who benefited from the resources, information, and networking opportunities. The affect of constitutional framework/legacy policy on the legislative debate is also analyzed to identify the causal path.

The measurement of the human rights reform or the lack of reform is evaluated based on the number of amendments of the constitution. The number of political parties being shut down, the number of political imprisonment, the number of journalists being detained could be good measurement for the variation in the dependent variable. The use of language other than Turkish is used as the indicator of cultural rights for the Kurdish minority. Were there radios/TV channels that broadcast in Kurdish language? Was the use of Kurdish language allowed in the political campaigns and in the education system? How many people have been jailed because of their use of Kurdish language? The reform for the Alevi religious minority was through permitting them to call their place of worship as a religious place whether they were allowed to allocate a specific location for their worship place. Were they banned from practicing their religious rituals?

The involvement of military into politics is assessed based on their exercise of power. They were member of the National Security Council and the decision they made in that council needed to be evaluated. Were these decisions imposed on the government or did they have advisory role.

The role of judiciary can be measured by their interpretation of the law on the specific cases because some of the laws are vague and they need the interpretation on the nature of specific cases. Did they make their interpretation to maintain the status quo or are they interpreting cases to implement the amended laws with a consideration of human rights standards. It is also important to look at the trial length. How did the cases get processed?

Specification of data

The study uses data from various sources including journal articles, human rights reports, and the European Union reports on human rights situation in Turkey. Amnesty International and Human rights Watch provide annual country reports on the human rights situation in different countries. They can be used to see the variations in human rights reform across years. The United States department provides human rights reports.  Freedom House ranks countries based on their political and civil liberties, which can be a good indicator of human rights improvements and actual implementation of human rights laws and standards.

There are a couple of books on the human rights situation in Turkey that have been selected to be used for this study. Kerim Yildiz and Mark Muller’s book (2008), “The European Union and Turkish Accession” provides background information on the Kurds and the Turkish Republic, which is used for identification of various actors, their motives and their role in regards to human rights. It can provide essential information about actor constellation. The book has a specific chapter on Turkey and the EU, which can be used for understanding the criteria that the EU has placed on Turkey for its improvement of human rights in order to, become a member of the European Union. It is important to understand the role of external actors in the human rights reform in Turkey. Because all the important players in Turkey’s politics are in favor of its accession to the EU, those who want to maintain the status quo of secularism and the territorial integrity sees EU’s membership as the guarantee for this idea. The current ruling party by supporting accession to EU ensures its legitimacy. The minority groups perceive EU as the body who press for their rights as a powerful external entity.

The article by William Hale (2003) entitled,” Human Rights, the European Union and the Turkish Accession Process,” explains the whole process that Turkey has been in order to initiate the accession talks. It describes the Copenhagen criteria. The article illustrates different measures that Turkey has taken in order to meet those criteria. It provides the details about closure of certain pro Kurdish and the pro-Islamist parties that have been closed because of being accused of separatism, ties to PKK and endangering the notion of secular republic. This article talks about amendments in the constitution by providing the original texts and the amended texts. It has specific sections on the involvement of military in the politics, the ethnic minorities and their human rights, freedom of expression, association and the political parties.

Human Rights in Turkey (2007) is another good edited book with several edited topics on freedom and antidiscrimination, international affairs and interactions and many other topics. There is one specific article on linguistic human rights and the rights of Kurds, which is relevant to our area of interest.

Path dependency and human rights reforms in Turkey

After the collapse of the Ottoman Empire who ruled for centuries, Turkey was occupied by Greece, Great Britain, France, and Italy after World War I. While Turkey was under occupation, there was the intention of division of the remaining Ottoman territory among Kurds, Armenians, and Greeks in the treaty of Sevres of 1920 (Aksan, 2005-2006, pp. 24-5). The loss of more territory was a matter of integrity for the Turks. One of the aims of the Kemalists was to preserve integrity and stability. The collapse of the Ottoman Empire was already humiliating and the Turks did not want to lose more land and they resisted and suppressed any more revolts (Aksan, 2005-2006, pp. 24-5). However, with the policy of Turkification, which was seen as a denial of the Kurdish existence, in addition when the Kurds were not given autonomy as promised during the Independence War (1919-23),the Kurds felt that Mustafa Kemal, the founding father of modern Turkey, had betrayed them (Bozarslan, 2003, p.30).

Kurds demands included the use of Kurdish language at schools, “release of political prisoners, an end to military operations against Kurds; and removal of the threshold of ten percent of the national vote for political parties to enter parliament (Champion & Oz, 2011). The moderate Kurds do not demand secession rather they want benefit from the newfound prosperity in Turkey. However, for the Turkish nationalist any kind of autonomy for the Kurds means jeopardizing the national unity while other Turks see acceptance of ethnic diversity as a solution for the endless conflict (Owen, 2010, p.14). Military has been seen as the main opponent to negotiating any kind of deals with the Kurds.  In addition, the rebels have lost confidence in achieving secession from Turkey after their stronghold in Iraq has been under military raids and air strikes (Owen, 2010, p.14).

According to New York Times reports, the insurgency has cost the lives of 40,000 people. Even though there is about 12,000 rebels still hiding in Northern Iraq and Turkish border, Partiya Karkari Kurdistan (PKK-the Kurdistan Workers’ Party) PKK has lost its popular support (New York Times, 2009). On a number of occasions in the past PKK has ended ceasefire. In one occasion PKK released a statement in its website Firat that it will end its six month unilateral ceasefire. Even though the reason for ending the ceasefire was not apparent,  PKK blamed Turkey’s ruling Justice and Development AKP Party for not moderating itself (Champion (2011).

Since Turkey was recognized as an official candidate to eventually become a member of the European Union (EU) in Helsinki summit of December 1999, Turkey has been under the European Union’s pressure for human rights reform.  EU has put conditions on Turkey to improve its human rights in order to become a part of the European Union. “Turkey’s accession to the EU could offer an opportunity for political reconciliation and genuine democratization” (Sayari, 2007, 560-61). The external pressure with the support of internal actors has led to a series of human rights reforms (Hale, 2003, 108). Following the reforms in December 2004 the European Council has opened the accession negotiations, which were preconditioned for fulfillment of Copenhagen criteria of human rights reform (Yildiz & Muller, 2008). These reforms have been possible because within the political dynamics in Turkey, accession to EU has been favorable and without these reforms accession talks would not begin.  However, according to Yildiz and Muller (2008) who question some of these reforms, consider them insufficient and call the opening accession negotiation premature (p.39).

According to Yildiz and Muller (2008) “systematic practices of the state designed to silence dissent, repress non-Turkish identities, intimidate those expressing views which differ from official state lines and preclude disfavored groups from having a say in the running of the country” (p.39). The freedom House gave Turkey’s political rights and civil liberties a score of three and four respectively on a scale of one to seven where number one indicates the most freedom and number seven indicates the least freedom (Freedom House Reports, 2014). Committee to Protect Journalists reported in their 2010 prison census a number of four journalists imprisoned in Turkey; however, one journalist being imprisoned was reported in their 2009 report. In a 2011 report the Committee reports that a number of twelve journalists were imprisoned in less than a month. The Committee also reports a number of twenty journalists have been killed since 1992 (Committee to Protect Journalists, 2009-2011).

Political participation and association is another important human rights issue in Turkey. In the past before the ruling party, AKP,  came to power a couple of pro Islamic parties and pro Kurdish parties have been shut down by the government for accusation of threatening the secular state of the republic and the territorial integrity of the state. According to Hale (2003) Welfare Party (Refah Partisi RP) pro-Islamic party was closed in 1998. Its successor, Virtue Party (Fazilet Partisi-FP) was closed down in June 2001 (Hale, 2003, p.109-112).

A number of Kurdish parties closed down for accusation of separatism, supporting PKK or being contrary to the territorial integrity. Since 1970s People’s Labour Party (HEP), Democracy Party (DEP), People’s Democratic Party (HADEP), Socialist Party of Turkey (STP) have been closed down (Yildiz and Muller, 2008, pp. 69-71). Occasionally their members have been imprisoned or banned from political participation for using Kurdish language, not Turkish language in their public speech.

The military’s influence into politics has decreased in the last few years. However, historically the military involvement into politics, judiciary, and the police undermined human rights reform (TurkeyReview, 2011). The military and the police have been accused of being corrupt and act with impunity. They arbitrarily arrested the civilians. The judiciary was called inefficient because of lengthy trials. There have been laws that were not in accordance to the international human rights standards.

Turkey’s officially recognized non Muslims as the only minorities based on the Lausanne Peace Treaty, which was signed in Lausannne on 24 July 1923, between British Empire, France, Italy, Japan, Greece, Romania, and the Kingdom of Serbs, Croats, and Slovenes on one side and Turkey on the other side (Oran, 2007, p.35).  The Treaty only recognized the three largest non Muslims minority groups (Greeks (Rum), Armenians, and Jews); it left out the smaller Christian minority groups (Ibid, 38). The Alavis and the Kurds did not get recognized as minorities.  While the Alavi’s are Muslim, but their practice is different from the Sunni Sect, they could have been recognized as a minority (Ibid, 37). The section 81 of Law No.2820 on Political Parties,” prohibits parties from claiming that are minorities in Turkey or protecting or developing non-Turkish culture and languages” (Yildiz & Muller, 2008, p.68). Yildiz & Muller further state that the law is a legacy of the Kemalists, who view ethnic diversity as a threat to the integrity of the states.

Article 14 of the constitution after amendment in October 2001 in regards to freedom and political associations again referring to the notion of territorial integrity and the secular state of the republic states that:

None of the rights and freedoms embodied in the Constitution shall be exercised with the aim of violating the indivisible integrity of the State with its territory and nation, and endangering the existence of the democratic and secular order of the Turkish Republic based upon human rights. No provision of this Constitution shall be interpreted in a manner that enables the State or individuals to destroy the fundamental rights and freedoms embodied in the Constitution or to stage an activity with the aim of restricting them more extensively than stated in the Constitution. The sanctions to be applied against those who perpetrate these activities in conflict with these provisions shall be determined by law.


In the case of Turkey the three causal factors that link constitutional framework, policy framework, actor constellation, and legislative debate is conceptualized here. The constitutional framework is the notion of secular state of republic and the territorial integrity, which became the basis for penal code and other legislative that regulated the state function. These empowered the actor constellation, which were the military, judiciary, police and the other interested actors to protect the notion of secular state of republic and the territorial integrity. The institutions were provided with certain material benefits, information, and networking opportunities over time. In order to protect these benefits, they became the natural defenders of the policy legacy. The constitutional framework and policy framework has created the environment in the legislative debate that anyone who came with alternative debate was seen as a threat to the republic and the territorial integrity.




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The views expressed in this paper does not reflect the views of the Rumi Forum, its executives or staff.