The worsening outlook in the rule of law and fundamental rights and freedoms in Turkey precipitated a flurry of criticism amongst 193 United Nations member states at a discussion on Turkey at the Human Rights Council (HRC) in Geneva on Tuesday.
Among the most cited complaints leveled against the Turkish delegation, led by Deputy Prime Minister Bülent Arınç, were problems in Turkey concerning rights to freedom of speech and expression, political interference in the judiciary and various forms of discrimination against people and groups based on gender, race, ideology and other affiliations.
The debate on Turkey was held under the UNHRC’s mechanism called the Universal Periodic Review, which aims to improve human rights situations on the ground in each member state. The UN reviews each member state every four-and-a-half years, and it was Turkey’s turn on Tuesday to be comprehensively reviewed.
Arınç and his delegation, composed of officials from the ministries of justice, foreign affairs and family and social affairs, were grilled by many member states questioning the track record of Turkey on human rights and fundamental freedoms.
Britain voiced its concerns over freedom of expression and association in Turkey, criticizing police crackdowns on peaceful protests, while urging Turkey to uphold international obligations. It recommended Turkey further implement rights of minorities and Kurdish people. Sweden recommended that Turkey ensure the independence and freedom of media, and said the government currently pressures media into self-censorship. It also urged Turkey to tackle child marriages and child labor.
In a question written in advance, Belgium asked what steps the Turkish government has taken to ensure that “human rights defenders and journalists can pursue their profession without fear of prosecution or other forms of harassment.”
Netherlands expressed concern over the recent enactment of a law that allows the judiciary to issue arrest warrants based solely on a “reasonable suspicion,” an amendment that opposition parties in Turkey describe as evidence for the abuse of the criminal justice system by the ruling party to go after critics and opponents. A representative of the Dutch government asked what guarantees the government could offer to make sure “such arrests warrants will not be issued lightly, with the risk of the law being abused to suppress free media.”
While many other member states also expressed their concerns on curbing press freedoms in Turkey, Turkish delegation head Arınç brushed off criticism, saying there are no journalists in jail in Turkey. He also went on to claim that the judiciary is independent of the executive branch in Turkey — when, in fact, President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has openly called for the investigation of his opponents, bashing judges who have not issued verdicts to his liking and asking for witch-hunts against critics, among them journalists.
Arınç also claimed that Dec.14 police raids on media outlets in Turkey were not related to press freedom. Media freedoms hit new lows when the government conducted police operations against independent media outlets on Dec. 14, 2014. Ekrem Dumanlı, the editor-in-chief of the Zaman daily, and Hidayet Karaca, the general manager of Samanyolu TV, were both detained in an operation that targeted journalists and TV scriptwriters. Karaca was subsequently arrested and jailed pending trial.
Yet Arınç claimed that jailed journalists in Turkey have nothing to do with freedom of the press. Responding to criticism from Norway, Germany and Sweden, Arınç said that journalists work freely in the country.
The Turkish Journalists’ Union (TGC) released a written statement earlier this month in reply to Erdoğan’s claims that the Turkish media is the freest in the world, saying, “We are unhappy being the freest media in the West.”
The TGC board of directors released a statement on Jan. 10 for Working Journalists’ Day, saying: “The ruling party thinks that Turkey has the freest media in the West. We are unhappy being the freest media in the West when over 200 journalists enter and leave prison for writing their opinions,” continuing: “We are unhappy being the freest country in the West in an environment where the ruling party controls 80 percent of written and visual media and independent journalism cannot be done. We are unhappy because of the oppression of media bosses influenced by the government towards their employees.”
Turkey’s main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP) Deputy Chairman Veli Ağbaba wrote in an October report titled “Journalists Fired Under Government Pressure” that Turkey is the world leader in media personnel dismissals, with 1,863 journalists having been fired over the last 12 years. He added that this was the “tip of the iceberg.”
The US brought forward allegations of discrimination against members of religious minorities in Turkey, citing the refusal to recognize cemevis as Alevi places of worship and not allowing the ecumenical patriarchate to reopen its Halki Seminary. Washington also raised concerns over rising anti-Semitism in Turkey, asking whether the government could condemn anti-Semitic statements promptly and forcefully.
The status of religious minorities was also brought to the agenda by Switzerland, whose representative said “the lack of legal personality makes it in particular difficult for non-Muslim communities to enjoy their property rights, to have access to justice, or to obtain residence and work permits for their foreign clergy. Training of their clergy is also still restricted.”
Germany also joined in the big chorus of member states criticizing Turkey with regards to press freedoms. Recalling recent Freedom House reports on press freedom in Turkey that rated the country in the “not free” category, and a Reporters Without Borders (RSF) list that ranked Turkey 154th among 180 countries in terms of freedom of the press, German representatives asked the Turkish government what concrete steps Turkey wants to take “in order to guarantee independence and freedom of the media.”
Just like the US and Switzerland, Germany expressed its concern on discriminatory practices against religious minorities as well, raising the issue of non-recognition of legal personality for religious and belief communities.
Norway questioned Turkey on the independence of the recently established National Human Rights body while expressing concern over freedom of expression in all forms. “How will Turkey work to reduce state censorship and self-censorship of the media due to threats and hate speech often instigated by officials?” a Norway representative asked Arınç. Norway also brought up problems in regarding the right to association and peaceful assembly in Turkey, asking whether those facing trial because of the Gezi protests of May 2013 will get just and impartial trials.
Spain criticized Turkey for not mentioning any effort made to guarantee access to inclusive education for persons with disabilities in their national report submitted to the HRC. Moreover, “What specific measures have been adopted to guarantee access to education to the children of temporary workers in agriculture and to Roma children?” it asked.
Many countries, including Palestine, Sri Lanka and Somalia, asked Turkey to adopt measures against the discrimination of women and urged Turkey to improve the status of women. Some countries also asked Turkey to battle human trafficking. Rwanda advised Turkey to increase the representation of women in governmental decision-making bodies as well.
Many member nations also criticized Turkey for not acceding to the conditions of the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court (ICC), despite the Turkish government’s public commitment to ratify the statute.