Turkey’s human rights plan ‘ignores attacks on freedoms’

President Erdogan announced a series of reforms aimed at improving human rights in the country on Tuesday, but critics questioned their effectiveness in improving standards. (AP)
President Erdogan announced a series of reforms aimed at improving human rights in the country on Tuesday, but critics questioned their effectiveness in improving standards. (AP)
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Updated 03 March 2021

Turkey’s human rights plan ‘ignores attacks on freedoms’

President Erdogan announced a series of reforms aimed at improving human rights in the country on Tuesday, but critics questioned their effectiveness in improving standards. (AP)
  • High-profile detentions a litmus test for Erdogan proposals, legal experts say

ANKARA: Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s long-awaited human rights action plan fails to acknowledge a significant deterioration in individual freedoms over the past decade, critics claim. 

The plan, which was prepared with EU funding of 1.3 million Turkish liras ($177,000), was unveiled by the Turkish leader on Tuesday.

Erdogan said that the ultimate aim of the action plan “is a new civilian constitution.”

The plan seeks to strengthen freedom of expression, international human rights standards and the judicial system, but neglects to detail specific measures concerning arbitrary detentions, long-term imprisonment or restrictions on demonstrations.  

However, legal experts and ordinary citizens expect not more words, but deeds from the country’s rulers in light of Turkey’s weak record on human rights, with the imprisonment of thousands of journalists, politicians and rights activists on terror-related charges.

These include philanthropist Osman Kavala and Kurdish politician and former leader of the third-largest parliamentary party, the People’s Democratic Party (HDP), Selahattin Demirtas.

The two high-profile cases will be a litmus test for the government’s willingness to meet its pledges on stronger rights and freedoms.  

On Feb. 10, the US State Department urged Ankara to immediately release Kavala, who has been detained for more than three years without a conviction. 

Turkey’s failure to release Kavala — ignoring European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) judgments — is expected to trigger infringement proceedings by the Council of Europe against Ankara.

Both Washington and Brussels have urged Turkey to comply with the ECHR rulings on the release of Kavala and Demirtas. 

Although Erdogan on Tuesday promised that no one could be deprived of freedom because of their thoughts, Kavala’s detention has been repeatedly prolonged by local courts, with Turkey’s Constitutional Court having flouted the ECHR ruling on his right to liberty. 

“We will not water every flower we see. While watering a flower with its head bent means justice, watering a thorn means cruelty,” Erdogan said on Tuesday, hinting that the reforms will be implemented in a selective manner. 

Turkey will also release an annual human rights report, and a specific committee will be charged to monitor human rights conditions in prisons. 

“Without action, Turkey’s rule of law promises only point to its leadership’s own wrongdoings, like systematically labelling dissent and protest as ‘terrorism,’ arbitrary detentions, verdicts pronounced at the political level, ignoring European Court of Human Rights,” Marc Pierini, a former EU ambassador to Turkey and now an analyst at Carnegie Europe, tweeted. 

Sezgin Tanrikulu, an MP from the main opposition CHP, criticized the plan, saying that it shows the government has been violating human rights and is now trying to restore violations committed in the past. 

Turkey is still a leading jailer of journalists in the world.

“In a January communication to the Committee of Ministers on the Kavala judgment, the government made explicit references to the work underway for the human rights action plan to convince the committee of its willingness to improve the human rights situation in the country,” Ayse Bingol Demir, a human rights lawyer and co-director of the Turkey Human Rights Litigation Support Project, told Arab News. 

Demir said that the government’s launch of the human rights action plan comes days before the Committee of Ministers’ March 9-11 meeting during which Turkey’s compliance with the European Court over Kavala and Demirtas judgments will be reviewed.

“This meeting is particularly important as the committee will also consider whether to trigger infringement proceedings against Turkey in relation to the Kavala case due to his detention despite the committee’s two previous decisions and an interim resolution calling for, among others, his immediate release,” she said. 

Demir expects Turkey to continue its efforts to prevent or delay “this exceptional step.” 

“No need to say that the perspective presented to the outside world in the action plan does not correspond at all to the dire reality on the ground and the crisis facing the rule of law in the country resulting from the policies and practices of the very same person who presented it,” she said. 

Although this latest move from the government might receive some “diplomatic welcomes” from the European Council, Demir believes that as long as Kavala and Demirtas remain in detention, “I do not expect any shift in favor of Turkey at the committee level.”

On the same day the action plan was unveiled, the Court of Cassation launched an inquiry into the HDP in relation to a recent indictment against party members. 

This move, which is backed by the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) and its nationalist ally MHP, is seen as another step toward the party’s closure over terror-related accusations that escalated after Ankara claimed Turkish hostages were killed by the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) in northern Iraq last month.

“God willing, we will shut down the HDP in the eyes of the people,” Cahit Ozkan, a deputy parliamentary group chairman for AKP, said on Tuesday after Erdogan’s speech, again sparking concerns about the sincerity of the pledged reforms. 

Thousands of HDP officials and members have already been arrested, while dozens of its elected mayors have been dismissed. 

Turkey ranked 107 across 128 countries in the latest Rule of Law Index by World Justice Project that concentrates on corruption, fundamental rights, regulatory enforcement and civil justice.