POMED Notes: Human Rights in Turkey


On Thursday, March 27, 2014, the Tom Lantos Human Rights Commission held a briefing entitled, “Human Rights and the Rule of Law in Turkey.” The panelists for the briefing included Dr. Kemal Kirişci, Director of the Center on the United States and Europe’s Turkey Project at the Brookings Institution, Dr. Aaron Lobel, Founder and President of America Abroad Media, and Dr. Howard Eissenstat, Assistant Professor at Saint Lawrence University and Country Specialist on Turkey for Amnesty International. The panel was moderated by Jim Zanotti, Specialist in Middle Eastern Affairs, Foreign Affairs, Defense, and Trade Division for the Congressional Research Service.

For complete notes, please continue reading or click here for the PDF.

Jim Zanotti opened the briefing by discussing how Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan was “grandly received” by President Barack Obama last May, saying that the conventional wisdom in Washington was that, while the human rights situation in Turkey was not ideal, there has been a great deal of progress under Erdoğan’s rule. Zanotti mentioned that the common perception was that there had been positive economic reform, the military no longer controlled civilian politics, and there was a peace process underway with Turkey’s Kurds. People also believed that, while there were issues in Turkey regarding religious freedom and freedom of the press, Erdoğan was elected by the people, and there was no guarantee that another leader would be better than Erdoğan. Zanotti then posed the question, given what has happened in the past 10 months, has the conventional wisdom changed, and, if so, how? He also asked what the panelists believed the most imminent human rights concerns are and how Turkey can address them through its own political processes. Lastly, he asked what role U.S. policymakers can play and how these concerns affect the United States and its relationship with Turkey.

Congressman Gus Bilirakis (R-FL), Co-Chair of the Congressional Hellenic-Israel Alliance and the Congressional Caucus on Hellenic Affairs, was also in attendance, and spoke briefly about his concerns over human rights violations in Turkey, particularly focusing on their treatment of the Eastern Orthodox religious minority. Bilirakis said, “I’ve never been able to understand how Turkey, a country positioning itself for entry into the European Union, can continue to deny its citizens even basic human rights such as freedom of religion, freedom of speech, and freedom of expression.” He added, “Ankara’s threats to convert the Hagia Sophia into a mosque and to shut down Twitter and YouTube are but two examples of intolerance unbecoming of a NATO member. An ally of the United States must respect democratic values.”

Zanotti then turned the floor over to Howard Eissenstat, who said he planned to highlight how the Justice and Development Party (AKP), which had initially “been such a positive force for democratization,” has “embraced the very worst aspects of Turkish politics” since 2011. He called the AKP “an impressive political machine” that “has delivered real benefits to the people of Turkey,” noting in particular that “hyper-inflation has been tamed, Turkish exports have expanded rapidly, the military’s taste for meddling in politics has ended.” Eissenstat then spoke about how the AKP’s reforms now “seem mostly aimed at cementing its own hold on power.” He said that the AKP has made efforts to control all aspects of Turkish political life, “the courts, the bureaucracy, business, and the media all feel the heavy weight of government pressure.” He mentioned that there are “few meaningful checks and balances” in Turkey, and “those who clearly support the AKP have risen farther and faster.”

Eissenstat then explained that the AKP found the “sweet spot that has dominated Turkish politics:” the center right. He expanded on what he believes are the four components of the AKP’s success: “a reputation for clean, effective government, an embrace of private enterprise, a greater tolerance for Islam in the public sphere, and general liberalization of Turkish society to bring it into line with Western norms.” He focused in particular on the latter two. He spoke about the cosmetic judicial reforms Turkey has implemented in response to judgments from the European Court of Human Rights. He said, “There have been some improvements, for example, in the overly vague language of anti-terrorism statutes, but these laws are still broad and liable to abuse. Intellectuals, journalists, lawyers, and activists who have neither engaged in nor advocated violence remain in prison.” He added that the reforms the AKP has made are mainly aimed “at protecting the interest of its own core constituents.”

Eissenstat then spoke about the Gezi protests saying that they “weren’t different because of what the government did, these abuses reflect long-standing practice. The Gezi protests are different because this time, the police violence inflamed rather than suppressed the protest and it became a national event and caught the world’s attention.” He explained that he is not as confident as some who believe that the Gezi protests would “spark a new era in Turkey.” He then outlined some of the outcomes from the protests including the police’s continued use of “unlawful violence with impunity,” and the government’s consolidation of power and increased restrictions, as exemplified by the Twitter and YouTube ban. He also mentioned the politicization of the Alevi population and the increased factionalization the protests created in Turkish society. He concluded by discussed the diminishing influence the West has in Turkey, saying, “Erdoğan has determined that the criticism will not undermine the fundamentals of Turkey’s relationship with its Western allies and, moreover, that he can politically profit from such criticism by burnishing his nationalist credentials.  It is unlikely that we will have much influence on policy in Turkey until after the presidential elections.”

Aaron Lobel began by asserting that Turkey is in danger of becoming “an elective despotism,” saying that a popularly elected leader who destroys the rule of law and consolidates power is not representative of a democracy. He spoke about how much freedom of the media has declined in Turkey, referencing a recent Turkish law allows the government to block any website. He also mentioned that a few recordings of Erdoğan pressuring media executives to stop criticizing the government have been leaked and said “clearly the pressure has succeeded,” saying that at least 60 journalists have been fired. Lobel added that Turkey is the top jailer of journalists in the world. He discussed other factors that have contributed to the weakness of Turkey’s media environment including the fact that many leading media outlets are owned by business conglomerates. and a 2011 decree that “effectively eliminated the autonomy of media regulatory agencies,” Lobel asserted that they are now essentially an “arm of the Prime Minister’s office.” He concluded by presenting a few recommendations on how the U.S. should respond. He suggested that the U.S. should shift its focus from Turkey’s role in the region and make Turkey’s internal stability a higher priority. He also recommended that the U.S. be more vocal about condemning human rights violations, specifically ones related to the media crackdown. He said that “the limitation on civil liberties has been among the most blatant examples of backtracking in Turkey.”

Kemal Kirişci opened by discussing how the past decade in Turkey saw a rise of democrats for the first time as well as the expansion of the middle class and civil society. He then spoke about how Turkey is facing both an internal and an external dilemma: the internal dilemma is that Turkey has a leader who “has not yet absorbed the notion of checks and balances” and is capable of mobilizing a large part of the electorate. He compared the situation in Turkey to Thailand and Venezuela saying “these are leaders who have won elections comfortably but there are minorities who are uncomfortable with the way these leaders are governing.” The external dilemma is that “Turkey is living in a very difficult neighborhood.” Kirişci spoke about how both the public and people within Erdoğan’s party are challenging him, but “that challenge is not always put into a very conspicuous and confrontational manner.” He spoke about the power struggle between the Prime Minister and the Gulen Movement.  Having said that, he also mentioned that “local elections are arriving at a time when significant developments and economic decline hasn’t bitten the public yet.” In terms of recommendations for the U.S. government, Kirişci said that, unlike countries like Russia and Iran, Turkey’s economy must function for it to survive. He suggested that the U.S. needs to develop a long-term strategy and Turkey needs to continue to be anchored to the transatlantic community.

Zanotti then opened the floor for Q&A. He asked the panelists what role they think third parties play in helping to establish a check on the Prime Minister’s power. Lobel responded first by saying that it appears as though Erdoğan has gained legitimacy from his relationship with the U.S. and that this is something that should be drawn on at a moment like this. Eissenstat spoke about the factions within the AKP that have been accelerated by the protests serving as a type of check. He also said that he thinks international institutions matter because Turkey takes its memberships in these institutions very seriously. The last point Eissenstat made was that, while there is virtue in the U.S. being honest and public about its criticisms, he doesn’t think the U.S. can have much of an effect until the elections are over. He said that the U.S. has only a 21% approval rating in Turkey and that the opposition often refers to Erdoğan as “America’s lackey.” Kirişci suggested that the U.S. voice its complaints but also make it clear that the West will engage Turkey in transatlantic relationships in the long-term. He added that “the carrot of membership that is dangled in front of Turkey is effective.”

In response to a question about whether the U.S. should focus more on taking a political or economic stance, Lobel explained that the challenge is developing a policy when it appears that the Prime Minister seems less interested in being a part of the West. He said that the U.S. has to design a policy with a carrot that also addresses the conditions in Turkey and the direction it is headed in. He also added that a lot of what has happened recently could be considered “election politics.” He concluded by saying, “at a minimum, even if it is, the damage the Prime Minister is doing is deeply disturbing and cannot be easily rectified.” Eissenstat responded saying that leaders from the center right like Erdoğan need finances and exports and a “functioning market economy” to survive and, because of this, Erdoğan needs a relationship with the West. He then added that, while Turkey’s relationship with the West is more complicated now than it was back during the Cold War, “they need us and we need them, and our opinion counts.”

In their closing remarks, Lobel said that it’s “devastating” that the AKP has gone “so far off the rails.” He also said it’s important to know whether the Prime Minister is willing to give up power, pointing out that “so far his reactions to people questioning his power are troubling.” Kirişci spoke about how the AKP is a coalition and explained that within the AKP, there are instrumentalists who want to “transform Turkey from a secular western-oriented Turkey to something else” and there are people within the AKP who want to see religious freedom for Muslims and a more liberal democracy. Eissenstat discussed the upcoming elections, saying he was concerned about the fairness of both the elections and the “chatter itself.” He said he thinks the AKP can win and believes that “there are a tremendous number of people in the opposition who are deluding themselves as to their chances.” He concluded by saying that if the AKP wins, they will “emerge with less legitimacy and a greater sense within the opposition that they have no hope to work within the system.”