UCL European Institute


Protests, Rights and Democracy in Turkey

01 June 2013, 12:00 am

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Dr Başak Çalı
June 2013

Like millions inside and outside of Turkey, I spent the last three days and nights glued to my phone switching between my Facebook and Twitter accounts. Whilst local news channels showed a beauty contest, a couple of cooking shows and perhaps ironically a bunch of penguins, hundreds and thousands of people took to streets all over the country.

You only knew the scale of the events if you were on the streets, or on social media or watched foreign news channels. It has been a distressing couple of days getting instant updates about which of my friends and family have been gassed, beaten or water cannoned - even some who wanted nothing to do with protests, but simply had errands to run. I have also had difficulties explaining to colleagues in Europe that no, the environmental movement is not that strong in Turkey and, yes, it was indeed a bunch of trees in a tiny park called Gezi (wonder) that sparked the protests.

The trees in Gezi Park illustrate a larger discontent amongst Turkish citizens. The voices on the streets are saying that the government is not listening to them and that it insists on devising and carrying out policies with little or no consultation with those that do not agree with them or do not support them. The government's response to all discontent principally is the same: that the people spoke at the ballot box and that they talk on behalf of the majority for over 10 years. In the recent 2011 elections, the AKP got 21,399,020 (49,83 %) of the total of 42,931,763 votes and won 327 of 550 seats in Parliament. This overwhelming majority in seats is due to the distorting effects of the 10 per cent election barrier that is designed to keep smaller parties from entering parliament - but which disproportionately favours the party with the largest number of votes.  So each time the government decides to make a move, it gives the signal that it will make that move regardless of what anyone else - or as the Prime Minister called them on Saturday 'the minority' - thinks.

It is against this backdrop that the simple 600 trees of Gezi Park mobilised such a large group of citizens. For the most part, they demand respect for their citizenship rights and participation in the democratic decision-making processes. This is a protest for democracy. It is being crushed in its name. 

Mass protests are dynamics events, and their ownership shifts over time. Regardless of how these protests unfold, there are three sets of facts that no actor should disregard, underplay or excuse.

First, the police in many cities have attacked peaceful protesters with pepper gas, water canons and physical force. Eyewitness accounts of premeditated attacks are countless. These premeditated attacks on civilians constitute a crime under Turkish law. They violate the Turkish Constitution and the Turkish state's international human rights law obligations - including the European Convention on Human Rights. If these attacks are part of a larger policy and continue to be widespread or systematic, they may even constitute a crime against humanity as defined in the Statute of the International Criminal Court. We are yet to hear confirmation from an official as to who ordered these attacks - but what is clear is that ordering attacks on civilians is a crime. Those who ordered them and carried them out need to be immediately investigated and punished. Under Turkish law, no government officer can be investigated without the clearance of his superior. To investigate the governor of Istanbul for example, one needs the permission of the Ministry of Interior. To investigate the latter, one needs the permission of the Prime Minister.

Second, even in instances where the forces of order were trying to balance the rights of protesters with the right to public security, their actions carry all the hallmarks of disproportionate use of force. Turkey's record in Strasbourg on the use of disproportionate use of force is poor to say the least. It is clear the Ministry of Interior is unable or unwilling to train the police to respond adequately to mass protests, or teach them their foremost duty is to protect the public - including the protesters and not punish them on the spot for protesting. Those who had to use force, but did so disproportionately have to be investigated and punished. If the heads of the security forces have been unable to offer tactical direction to their forces, they, too, have to be investigated. One would think that they would resign.

Third, throughout these days of mass protests across the country, the Prime Minister and the members of parliament from the his party have made statements to the effect that the minority has to follow what the majority says and that people who go on the streets 'deserve' the gas they get.  These discourses are not simply disappointing, but also unconstitutional. Article 34 of the Turkish Constitution unequivocally protects the right to peaceful protest without prior permission. The government is there to protect all citizens - including those who voted against it and those who protest against it.  The fact that government representatives from the rank of prime minister to the rank of member of parliament refuse to condemn the police brutality - both the premeditated and disproportionate versions - but are taking the side of such brutality sends alarming signals both for the accountability of police officers and their political bosses.

Political opinion polls suggest that the AKP may still indeed be the biggest winner if there were elections tomorrow. How do you ensure the accountability of a government that does not listen, but is only keen to punish those who disagree with it with impunity?  Turkey is no usual place. A crisis of human rights entangled in a crisis of democracy across two continents under clouds of pepper gas and smoke.