Turkey should listen to the Council of Europe on the rule of law

Turkey should listen to the Council of Europe on the rule of law

It was very unfortunate that the visits of United States Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and Council of Europe Secretary-General Thorbjorn Jagland to the Turkish capital took place on the same days last week. Given the importance of Tillerson’s visit because of highly strained ties between Ankara and Washington, Jagland’s visit and the messages he conveyed were underemphasized and poorly transmitted to the Turkish public.

Apart from his routine meetings with senior officials, including President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, Jagland’s Ankara program included a speech to candidate judges and prosecutors of the Justice Academy. As his visit came just weeks after a Constitutional Court ruling on arrested journalists was rejected by a lower court - in an open violation of the principle of the rule of law - and on the same day as three prominent journalists were given life sentences, Jagland’s address to future judges and prosecutors was significant.

Here are some excerpts from his speech, which started with a reminder to future judges and prosecutors: “Over the coming years you will gain experience, progress in your profession and become the judges and prosecutors who will help shape Turkey’s future: Turkey’s European future. For all that Turkey’s relationship with the European Union remains an unresolved issue, its relationship with the Council of Europe should be clear.”

On unbridled nationalism: “In the aftermath of the Second World War there was a near consensus in Europe and beyond that absolute sovereignty and unbridled nationalism constituted a threat to peace. This was the lesson of the conflict in general and of the Holocaust atrocities carried out by the Nazis and their supporters, in particular. A new system of checks and balances was required to defuse conflict, rebuild trust and ensure that the horrors of war were never repeated on our continent.”

On protection of human rights as a binding obligation: “The Universal Declaration of Human Rights, adopted in Paris in 1948, and without a single member voting against it, was a crucial moment. For the first time, it defined human rights standards for individuals. And it enshrined those rights in international law. The following year the Council of Europe was founded and in 1950 it adopted the European Convention on Human Rights. This made the protection of human rights a binding obligation for Council of Europe member states. The right to life, liberty and security, a fair trial, privacy, freedom of expression, conscience and religion – and freedom from torture, servitude and discrimination.”

On Turkey’s performance: “The overall picture is one of important transformation. Since the year 2000, Turkey has undertaken a series of reforms advancing the interests of the Turkish people, in line with the Council of Europe’s values. Measures have been taken to bolster Turkish democracy and enhance human rights. We have seen the abolition of the death penalty and a zero tolerance approach to torture and ill treatment. Security courts have been abolished and military staff have been removed from civil institutions too. We have also witnessed positive measures to strengthen the rule of law. Domestic proceedings have been improved where the European Court of Human Rights has found a violation of the Convention. The precedence of international human rights law over domestic law has been confirmed, as stated clearly in Article 90 of the Constitution. And, above all, the individual right to petition the Constitutional Court, put in place in 2010, allows people in Turkey to seek protection of their human rights at the national level, on the basis of the European Convention of Human Rights. This has been considered as an effective remedy by our Court. These were meaningful measures.”

Why do people in Europe and around the world worry about Turkey?

On the worrying current situation in Turkey: “Why is it that today people here, in Europe, and around the world are worrying about the current situation in Turkey? Speaking on behalf of myself, it is not that I fail to understand the crime committed by those who were behind the 15th July coup attempt. Nor is it because I do not understand the threat of terrorism that Turkey is facing. On the contrary, I understand these things well … In emergency situations, emergency measures might be required. This must be done in line with the European Convention and the case law of the Strasbourg Court.”

On concerns over the length of emergency rule: “In practice, many of us are concerned today by the length and scope of the ongoing state of emergency. We are concerned that so many journalists, members of parliament, mayors and human rights defenders are deprived of their liberty. These people are central to a functioning and effective democracy. The result of casting the net too widely is to spread a chilling effect across society as a whole.”

On freedom of expression: “Freedom of expression is one of the essential foundations of a democratic society. In a healthy democracy, people have a right to speak their mind without fear of prosecution. And a right to be aware of matters of general interest. As stated by the Strasbourg Court, freedom of expression is essential for journalists to disseminate facts, stimulate debate and inform the public, even where it could offend, shock or disturb. It is crucial for politicians in order to represent and defend the interests of their electorate. And it is essential for members of the public to go about their everyday lives, expressing themselves freely, in line with their own views and conscience. It is in all of our interests to preserve it.”

 On respect for the Constitutional Court: “Recently, the Constitutional Court did just that with regard to freedom of expression and pre-trial detention, making reference to case law from our Court. These decisions are binding. This is guaranteed by the Turkish Constitution. Other courts must abide by them.”

Serkan Demirtaş, hdn, Opinion,