A quest for power: Erdogan’s attack on human rights

By Vanessa Kamberis, HALC Pericles Research Fellow

The failed coup attempt this summer accelerated Turkey’s descent into political instability and irrationality as President Erdogan initiated a deep purge of state institutions, cracking down on political opponents and free speech. Erdogan’s disregard for the rule of law and human rights reached record highs last year, as Turkish “democracy” shrivels away in the face of Erdogan’s quest for absolute power.

In 2016, Turkey notoriously claimed first place as the leading jailer of journalists in the world. According to the Committee to Protect Journalists, Turkey contributed to over a third of total imprisonments throughout the world. Reporters Without Borders reported that Turkey’s global ranking dropped almost 7 points in the World Press Freedom Index since 2015, ranking the country 151 out of 180 in 2016. The Index also noted that, “The regional context is exacerbating the pressure on the media, which are also accused of ‘terrorism.’ The media and civil society are nonetheless resisting Erdogan’s growing authoritarianism.”

With freedom of speech limited in the fullest regard, it comes as no surprise that Freedom House’s annual report indicated an overall decline in respect for political and social rights in Turkey. The report profiled the country’s net freedom status and press freedom status as not free, ranking Turkey with the second highest decline in freedom worldwide over the last 10 years.

Turkey’s concerning and ongoing negligence for human rights has also elicited concerning reports from the United States and the European Union. The European Commission’s report released at the end of the 2016 year echoed much of the annual State Department’s report for human rights, released in the previous year condemning the country’s overall political climate.

The European Commission noted that “by the end of October, 46 TV channels and radios stations, five news agencies, 55 papers and 18 magazines were closed, while arrest warrants were issued against some 90 journalists, access to more than 20 news websites was blocked and the licenses of 29 publishing houses were revoked.” In addition to the ongoing crackdown on freedom of speech, minorities continue to struggle against policies that inhibit their freedom of religion. Despite Erdogan’s promises and pressure from the US and EU, Halki Theological Seminary remains closed, preventing Greek Orthodox Christians from training their future religious leaders. Additionally, Ankrara continues to deny The Ecumenical Patriarchate, the spiritual leader of the world’s Orthodox Christians, from using the title “ecumenically.” Erdgoan’s aggressive attitude and authoritarian actions are fast becoming government policy, as the report also noted, “The increased use of hate speech by officials including senior representatives of the state is a major concern.”

Erdogan and his ruling party continue to silence opposition in nearly every fashion. In a case that gained international attention, Erdogan got parliament to lift its immunity so that he could detain the two joint leaders of the Turkey’s pro-Kurdish People’s Democratic Party (HDP) along with at least 10 of its MPs, claiming that his political opponents spread terrorist propaganda. In response to the aggressive crack down, international markets plummeted, as fear of renewed violence and a possible rupture with the West filled the minds of investors.

Additionally, this past November almost 400 NGO’s were indefinitely closed in what can only be described as a blatant attempt to silence civil society. Despite international condemnation, minority groups continue to be neglected. The United States Commission on International Religious Freedom 2016 Annual Report appropriately noted, “The overall landscape for democracy and human rights in Turkey has deteriorated over the last several years.”

It does not look like there will be any deviations from the path to authoritarianism in 2017. Recently, the Education Ministry proposed a slew of changes to the school curriculum removing the teaching of evolution from science courses, and adopting coursework that has been described as “religious and nationalist.” While the ministry pledged it would alter its teaching of religion to comply with the European Court of Human Rights, replacing phrases such as “our religion” with the more neutral “Islamic religion”, the changes instead seem bent on promoting the Islamo-fascist worldview of Erdogan’s party at the expense of those who dissent. While the ministry’s pledge seems promising, there is little evidence that it holds true.

Since the coup, approximately 100,000 civil servants have been removed from their positions, including thousands of teachers and academics accused of supporting terrorist organizations. Additionally, over 40,000 people were arrested, making the purge the largest in Turkish history. Amnesty International reported while detained, prisoners experienced cases of rape, torture, and other forms of mistreatment. This is one of the many factors leading the group to conclude the country’s overall deterioration of human rights in the 2015/2016 year.

As the early months of 2017 continue, international leaders have continued to raise concerns and comment on the state of Turkey’s human rights. After visiting Ankara in late January, Theresa May, Prime Minister of the United Kingdom, stated Turkey must uphold its international human rights obligations. In the following weeks, during a bilateral meeting between Germany’s Chancellor Angela Merkel and Mr. Erdogan, Merkel emphasized the need to uphold freedom of speech and opinion throughout Turkey.

While human rights and regard for the rule of law in Turkey continue on a downward spiral, Erdogan’s endeavor to expand his political power picks up steam. Erdogan recently approved a slew of constitutional changes that would grant him unbridled power, and setting a date for a referendum on the changes this April. If the measures pass, changes to the government’s constitution would grant the office of the president increased influence over the Turkish parliament, more control over the hiring and firing of judges, as well as allowing Erdogan to potentially remaining in office until 2029. Should Erdogan obtain his heart’s desire — the Sultan’s throne of his neo-Ottoman dreams — it is safe to say that human rights in Turkey will suffer a blow from which it will not recover for a long time.

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