Fear reigning over the law in Turkey

Fear reigning over the law in Turkey

The Freedom Research Association, a relatively new Ankara think-tank run by Hacettepe University political science professor Bican Şahin, organized a conference on the rule of law in Istanbul on Oct. 15.

During his opening speech, the former head of the Constitutional Court Haşim Kılıç accused Turkish highbrows for staying mum at a time when fear was reigning over the law, which reminded me of Pastor Martin Niemöller’s poetic statement about the cowardice of German intellectuals after the Nazis’ rise to power and the subsequent purge of their “enemies” one by one.

Kılıç also set the tone for the rest of the conference: It was extremely informative, though equally depressing, to hear from the country’s foremost legal experts on specific examples of erosion in the rule of law. However, the highlight of the day for me was the presentation on a globally comparable rule of law index by Joel Martinez of the World Justice Project (WJP).

The index uses household and expert surveys, including both subjective and objective questions, “to measure how the rule of law is experienced in practical, everyday situations by ordinary people around the world.” The headline number is made up of 44 sub-indices in eight categories: Constraints on government powers, absence of corruption, open government, fundamental rights, order and security, regulatory enforcement, civil justice, and criminal justice.

The press release that was published with the latest indices on June 2 notes that “Turkey’s overall rule of law performance places it at 12th out of 13 countries in the Eastern Europe and Central Asia region, 29th out of 31 among upper/middle-income countries, and 80th out of 102 countries worldwide.” The country’s ranking is worst in constraints on government powers (95th) and fundamental rights (96th).

Turkey has lost a lot of ground in these two categories in addition to, unsurprisingly, absence of corruption, since 2014, when it had ranked 59th out of 99 countries overall. In his presentation, Martinez explained the plunge in the former to declines in judicial independence as well as oversight and sanctions of misconduct, and the latter to freedom of speech and assembly. These are not huge surprises to anyone living in Turkey.

Of course, no country is perfect. The U.S., from where the WJP hails, is ranked 12th, scoring rather weakly, also unsurprisingly, in sub-indices regarding discrimination. But it is important for governments to notice their flaws regarding the rule of law and try to improve on them. As Martinez highlighted in his presentation, that’s exactly what one president has been trying to do.

Soon after coming to power, Colombia’s Juan Manuel Santos noticed that his country was getting a score very close to zero on the effectiveness of the criminal investigation system, and that the government, judiciary and congress needed to work together for a more efficient and effective criminal justice system. Five years later, at 62nd, Colombia is ranked much better than Turkey overall, and only slightly worse in the criminal justice category - for now.

In sharp contrast, we can all imagine what Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan thinks of the WJP and its rankings. That’s actually why I am so worried about my country, not just because of an index. That’s why today is bleaker than yesterday, and why tomorrow will be bleaker than today…