Euro court replaces EU as Turkey’s main anchor to the union
Turkey’s human rights record has never been a bright one. Especially in the 1980’s and 1990’s when Turkey entered a spiral of violence due to the Kurdish issue, human rights violations became a major and shameful headache for Turks.
Over the course of the last two decades important progress has been registered in certain areas. A case in point is torture and mistreatment. The rulings of the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) have played an important role in healing this bleeding wound. The ECHR ruled one after the other against Turkey, sentencing the government to huge compensation fines. While cases might last years in the Strasbourg-based court, the ECHR started to take its decisions automatically without wasting time based on the conviction that Turkish authorities were not conducting effective investigations (especially due to the fact that their superiors never gave the authorization to investigate police officers accused of torture or mistreatment).
As the fines started to snowball, changes were made in the Turkish penal code and detention periods were lowered to European norms.
The government had to act, as it was not sufficient to pay the fine and go on with old practices; member countries who have accepted the jurisdiction of the Euro court are asked to take the necessary measures so that new violations do not take place. But the Council of Europe lacks the leverage to force its member states to take the necessary measures in a timely manner, which delays the improvement process.
In the case of Turkey, the leverage came in the form of accession to the European Union. Eager to start accession talks, Ankara started to make legal amendments known as the famous “adoption packages.” Yet changing the law was not sufficient; what was also critical was implementation. In that sense, the periodic and sometimes surprise visits by the Council of Europe’s Committee Against Torture to police stations and prisons played an important role. The fact Turkish governments chose to cooperate with the committee instead of ignoring its warnings and recommendations was also incremental in improving the statistics about rights violations based on torture and mistreatment. The Justice and Development Party’s (AKP) adopted motto “zero tolerance for torture,” as well as the sensitivity shown by former President Abdullah Gül when he was foreign minister, should be mentioned as well.
Police stations are no longer places of torture in the country. Yet Turkey remains at the top of the list of countries that violate article 3 of the European Human Rights Convention, which is about torture and mistreatment. Turkey gets convicted not because there is an increase in cases of torture or mistreatment, but rather whatever cases exist there still is because of no proper domestic investigation into the claims. In other words we get sentenced due to the culture of impunity that continues to weigh among security officials.
While the AKP fell short of fulfilling its promise of “zero tolerance for torture,” one will hope that there won’t be a reversal with all the legal changes bringing draconian security measures.
At any rate the Euro court will continue to play the role of watchdog for Turkey. It can at least slow down further deterioration while it pushes for further improvement in other areas.
Take the case of the Alevi issue. The demands from Alevis have been one of the issues the AKP has not done much about. Yet the recent ruling of the ECHR with the upcoming one might prove historic in terms of ending discrimination against Alevis.
We should be thankful to late President Turgut Özal, not only for taking the decision to apply for European Union membership but also for taking the decision to accept individual applications to the ECHR. As the European Union lost its leverage over Turkish governments, the ECHR replaced the accession process as the main mechanism to keep Turkey anchored to European human rights values.