On International Human Rights Day, global outlook on human rights is grim. Shrinking civic space and the erosion of fundamental rights and freedoms around the world have become a hallmark of 2019, just as they have been for the years previous. We are no way near the international wave of optimism that surrounded the world after the fall of the Berlin Wall. On the contrary, the rise of right-wing populist leaders openly scornful of or simply disinterested in human rights principles have affected the entire globe. “Refugee-phobia” has poisoned the debates on human rights and turned disrespect of human rights into the norm.
While the world is doing worse in human rights records in general, some countries are doing even worse than average.
Turkey’s declining record on human rights has become a matter of global debate and a source of criticism in recent years. How about Turkey’s public: what do they think? What are their attitudes towards human rights and principles? Amnesty International’s Turkey branch has just concluded a research project in partnership with the polling agency MetroPOLL on “Turkey’s Perceptions on Human Rights.”
This research reveals some very interesting facts:
First, the public perception of human rights in Turkey is very clear: 76 percent of the public thinks that all people are born with inalienable, immutable human rights, regardless of their status. Only 16.9 percent think otherwise. Likewise, 81 percent believe that human rights are universal. As far as principles are concerned, the support of Turkey’s public for human rights is evident. Around 84 percent affirm that “all human beings have equal rights regardless of their ethnicity, sexual orientation or religious stance.” Moreover, nationalist and/or conservative voting bases also hold similar views. In fact, while political and social polarization created a sharp division of opinion in almost every other case, this particular research and some others reach similar conclusions: when it comes to rights-based issues, the public in Turkey is united, and this agreement cuts across all party bases. While the youth is more emphatic on the issue of rights, there still is consensus generally that women’s rights, children’s rights and all human rights ought to be protected and prioritized.
“Philosophically,” Turkey’s public embraces human rights principles. What about the actual practice?
Especially in the last few years, although the right to freedom of assembly is protected by the constitution, public demonstrations have simply become impossible in Turkey as there is a heavy police intervention to disperse the crowds in almost all cases. Just as I was writing this article, General Secretary of the Platform to Stop Femicide (Kadın Cinayetlerini Durduracağız Platformu), Ayşen Ece Kavas, and several other women’s rights activists have been under custody for a day following a public demonstration condemning violence against women. The demonstration took place on December 8 in the Kadıköy district of Istanbul to stage the “Las Tesis” dance performance, a global wave of women’s activism that originated in Chile.
When we turn to public opinion, there is overwhelming support for peaceful demonstrations and marches: 75.3 percent of the public think that people can hold peaceful public demonstrations and marches on any issue they are concerned with.
In case their rights are violated, the primary direction that the public in Turkey turns to is the security forces: around 38 percent of the public states that they would first turn to the police and other security forces in such cases. But at the same time, people are not willing to tolerate police violence. Around 76 percent of respondents affirm that “the police have no right to inflict violence on detained criminals.” Do note that question was posed specifically using the term “criminals” in order to aggravate the meaning — but still, support for human rights prevailed. In a similar vein, around 75 percent believe that the “police have no right to hit people.”
While Turkey’s public clearly stands by the protection of human rights, according to Amnesty’s report, they do not actively engage in any tangible act to actually support human rights organizations. They are neither willing to donate nor take part in advocacy campaigns. On the other hand, the report indicates that people in Turkey are not biased against human rights organizations: for example, they do not regard human rights activists as a “fifth column.” So, the lack of active participation in human rights activity seems to be simply because there is a physical gap between civil society and the people: human rights NGOs are not present in peoples’ lives.
My working hypothesis is that Turkey’s public psyche has become more sensitive towards human rights and people have internalized the importance of human rights because their own rights are increasingly under threat. Other field research I personally participated in shows that many people, including nationalist and conservative voter bases, either personally face or witness rights abuses. Hence, rights and freedoms are increasingly on peoples’ agendas.
The fact that the majority of the population is developing a very positive perception on human rights values may not translate into action today, but the politics of the next generation will be shaped by rights-oriented sensitivities. That’s what the grassroots will demand.
Amid the coronavirus outbreak several European leaders have called launching an all-encompassing Marshall Plan-style public investment program to mitigate the economic impact. Turkey was a part of the Marshall Plan as it was automatically considered to be a part of Europe and the Western bloc back in 1951. How about now?
Hungary’s new “COVID-19 State of Emergency Law” allows Prime Minister Viktor Orbán to rule by decree indefinitely. he COVID-19 crisis may pass, but the dagger in the back is there to stay. And Hungary’s new legislative turn may prove to be the real “epidemic”: draconian systemic changes going viral.
Schengen is one casualty of COVID-19, but not the only one. The European Stability Pact, which requires member states to uphold a less than three percent budget deficit is another casualty. The EU had to lift the budget cap on March 20, guarded by the European Stability Pact.
Is the first casualty of the coronavirus the European Union itself? There are now more confirmed cases of coronavirus globally than there are in China, and Europe has been defined as the “epicenter of epidemic crisis” by the World Health Organization. And when it comes to facing the crisis, it’s almost as though the European Union does not exist as an institution.
Money is an important part of the issue for Ankara; but so is its safe zone plan. The polls indicated that the public supported the military incursion into Northern Syria first and foremost because they believed that a safe zone for Syrian refugees to return may be created. As Turkey’s public opinion sours vehemently on the refugee issue, the “promise of sending back the Syrian refugees” is political gold in terms of returns in political capital.
This is our darkest hour with Europe and the European Union. And I do not think that either the public in Turkey or Turkish politicians in general are aware of the grimness of the situation. Turkey’s public psyche has gone berserk with all sorts of negative emotions, and are unable to recognize that relations with Europe are completely wrecked beyond repair.
While Ankara may not receive the solid backing from NATO that Turkey is seeking against Russia now, dialogue channels with NATO are stronger compared to other international institutions — for example, the European Union. Despite all the conflicts of interest and tensions that Turkey and European states, as well as Ankara and Washington, have endured, their links with NATO are still intact.
In Turkey’s case, beyond Ankara and Erdoğan’s foreign policy line, perceptions are changing, and the West is clearly not winning when it comes to public perception. A recent survey by MetroPOLL showed that Russia is the “most trusted country” in Turkey, followed by Japan, China, and Hungary, respectively. While love of Japan and Hungary extend back to Ottoman times and might be due to imagined cultural affinities, trust in Russia and China are novel developments in Turkey.
Várhelyi’s statement on a “revised methodology” for EU enlargement and the official document for this new approach do not even refer to Turkey. Or, in other words, as far as enlargement is concerned, Turkey is not remotely on the mind of the EU.
Since March 2018, obtaining a visa through the Ankara Agreement got increasingly harder. The UK Home Office made an unexpected announcement at midnight on March 16, 2018; declaring that new applications will not be accepted until further notice.Real impact of Brexit over Turkey may be on trade front though: Britain has signed 18 free trade agreements with 55 countries so far.
2020 seems already to be ridden with unexpected crises erupting all around the world: Turkey had to face one of its worst fears, an earthquake. The warmest responses came from the EU countries with which Turkey has the coldest relations: France, and at a far warmer level, Greece.
One of the most tangible outcomes of the Berlin Conference turned out to be worsening Greek and Turkey relations. Already the Eastern Mediterranean question was the elephant in the room in relations between two countries; now the state of crisis has become permanent and “East Med” issue is right in middle of everything. Troubles with Greece will lead to worsening of already dreadful relations between Turkey and the European Union institutions, too.
U.S.-Greece relations are on track despite Trump’s reluctance to condemn Ankara. Perhaps military sales compensate for that by producing tangible results that reduce Greece’s anxieties concerning Turkey.
Clear goal of the EU and the major European states is saving the nuclear deal. As Trump was threathening to bomb 52 sites in Iran in allusion to the same number of diplomats taken the 1979 hostage crisis in Tehran, the EU’s new foreign policy chief Josep Borrell invited Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif to Brusells. However, at the moment, there seems to be no clear European vision ahead or roadmap.
If I had one way to describe this year, it would be “bittersweet. While I am more optimistic about Europe in general, I am less optimistic about Turkey and Greece as we slowly step into 2020.
Can local governments and municipal leaders counter centralized, majoritarian populist national governments by creating an alternative “spaces to breathe” for politics? Looking at Budapest, Warsaw, Bratislava, Prague and Istanbul’s determined struggle for “freedom”; it looks like we will comeback to this question more and more in 2020-and beyond.
Former Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu made a formal comeback on Dec. 13 with the new party he founded, the “Future Party.” Former Finance Minister Ali Babacan’s new party is counting down the days to its launch and is due to take off either by the end of December or in the early days of January. There is also a surprise movement making its debut in Turkey: the pan-European movement DiEM25-Democracy in Europe Movement 2025.
At first glance, Turkey may seem to be missing the “climate activism” heyday that’s on-going in Europe. Afterall, it is not the best of the times for any sort of grassroots activism in Turkey. But if you probe deeper, you will come across a diligent and robust climate activist movement budding all over the country.
According to Sept. 2019 data, almost 90% of the public believes that violence against women has increased in recent times. And the public holds the judiciary and the political sphere culpable for increasing violence against women. Around 65% believe that the judiciary is not working effectively when it comes to cases violence against women, and 66% think that politicians are not doing enough to prevent such cases.
As Budapest’s new mayor (and also a political scientist by profession) Karácsony pointed out, maybe the cities are winning at the expense of the populist center specifically because “the correct answer is to strengthen representative democracy, complement this with the institutions which are part of the participative democracy and involve people more in decision-making.”
At the end of the day, the gist of the Erdoğan-Orbán camaraderie is displaying an image of strength to the EU. Their policies regarding Europe, popular domestically, aim to push their own agenda at the expense of Brussels.
The speed at which Germany’s “international safe zone plan” was thrown off the table was only matched by the speed at which it was proposed in the first place. While the proposal became passé almost as soon as it hit the headlines, it was useful for one thing: reflecting on the current state of political affairs in Germany and the relationship between Germany and Turkey.
All eyes were on Ankara’s relations with Washington after Turkey launched its “Operation Peace Spring,” and speculation abounded that the once-allies had parted ways for good. But in fact it is Turkey’s relations with the EU and Europe that took the real and probably most lasting blow.