Turkey’s Authoritarian SlideTuesday 10/10/2017

On October 29, 1923, a young Turkish statesman named Mustafa Kemal Ataturk proclaimed the birth of the Republic of Turkey and became its inaugural President. Following the aggression and regional hegemony of the Ottoman Empire up until the end of the Great War, the Turks’ new state was envisaged to fulfil their self-determination without the imperialist and theocratic proclivities of the Sultanate.

To a large degree, this has been the case for most the last century. Apart from its occupation of Northern Cyprus and its intermittent crackdowns on Kurdish communities, it bore little resemblance to the empire of old. Defined more by its secular constitution and burgeoning economy, Turkey relinquished its former role as Islam’s political authority.

However, under the Presidency of Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, the Republic has begun a gradual, creeping recession into authoritarianism.

The first signs of this slide appeared in relation to the media. Following the anti-Erdoğan Gezi Park protests of 2013, the government responded with sweeping new laws aimed at stifling the media. Incidents involving restrictions on the media included:

Alarmingly, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists, Turkey has 81 journalists incarcerated as of December 1 2016. This is the highest of any other country, including all the journalists currently jailed in North Korea, Cuba, Russia and China combined.

The undermining of Turkey’s separation of powers is also concerning. The governing powers and functions in Turkey are divided between the executive, the legislative and an independent judiciary. By design, the religious inclinations of Erdoğan’s Justice and Freedom Party (AKP) are at odds with the historically-secular judiciary. In January 2014, the President purged the judiciary of several officials either for their secularist credentials or those whom he thought to be aligned with his rival Fetullah Gülen. Many of these sacked judicial officers were later replaced by AKP supporters. This was followed by another purge of the judiciary in July 2016, where 2,745 Turkish judges (36% of all judges in Turkey at the time) were removed from duty and ordered to be detained.

Turkey again made international headlines when it held a constitutional referendum in April of this year. The referendum, which succeeded with a ‘yes’ vote of 51.41% to a ‘no’ vote of 48.59%, essentially undermined the liberal founding principles of the Republic and the constitutional constraints on the Presidency. Opposition leader Mithat Sancar stated that a successful ‘yes’ vote and its corresponding amendments would cause the country to ‘quickly become an autocracy’ and eventually a ‘pure dictatorship’. These amendments included:

  • Removing the requirement that the judiciary be neutral
  • Widely expanding the responsibilities and powers of the Presidency
  • Enhancing the President’s powers during a state of emergency
  • Dissolving the position of Prime Minister

Following a coup attempt in late 2016, the government initiated a crackdown to purge the military, judiciary, government and civil service of not only those who were implicated in the coup attempt, but also those deemed to be disloyal or dissenting to President Erdoğan. Over 100,000 officials have been dismissed or suspended, including 28,000 teachers. At least 2,200 judges were jailed pending investigation, with 3,400 permanently dismissed. The government also temporarily derogated from many of the key provisions of the European Convention on Human Rights and the International Convention on Civil and Political Rights. The state of emergency also weakened the safeguards against abuse in detention, leading to increased reports of torture and ill-treatment in police detention such as the beating and stripping of detainees as well as threats of rape.

Furthermore, the Turkish government has intensified actions that intimidate and target the country’s Kurdish minority. Curfews have been enforced in Southern Kurdish towns and cities and, as estimated by Amnesty International, up to half a million people have been forced out of their homes because of security operations by Turkish authorities. Many homes and historic buildings of cultural significance to the Kurds, such as in the city of Diyarbakir, have been shelled or demolished. A report by the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights released in February 2017 accused Turkish authorities of killing hundreds of Kurdish people between July 2015 and the end of 2016.

Importantly, Turkey is bound by a wide range of human rights obligations under international law. Among other treaties, they are a party to the International Convention on Civil and Political Rights, the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights and the United Nations Convention Against Torture. Thus, it is increasingly alarming that the government is engaging in such flagrant violations of their international legal commitments. Although faced with the undeniable threats from terrorism, military mutinies and corruption, President Erdoğan has exaggerated these threats to justify the suppression of free speech, freedom of assembly and the required impartiality of Turkey’s judicial branch of government. Along with his government, he should be subject to extensive further inquiry into these human rights abuses.

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