Neither Cultural Never Universal


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April 21, 2022

Neither Cultural Never Universal

Human rights in Turkey

  • Democracy
  • Human rights
  • Turkey
Mdozturk, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons:
Photo: A mural describing human rights in Turkey outside of the public education building in Bayramic Turkey, 25 May 2009. Author: Mdozturk, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons.

Two fundamental dilemmas that have always existed in the realm of human rights affect every aspect of our lives today more than ever. The first of these is the dilemma between freedom and security, and the other is the dilemma between cultural relativity and universality. While these dilemmas form the basis of authoritarian national regimes based on prohibitions that lead to profound rights violations, they make effective struggle on the international stage increasingly difficult. In this presentation, I will discuss the human rights discourse and the policies of the AKP government based on these dilemmas and try to discuss how far we are from the notion of universal human rights and their justification by assessing the current period we are experiencing through “prohibitions” in Turkey.

But as the title suggests, although I will take the AKP period as a basis, I will of course briefly touch on the pre-AKP period as well, because at the point the AKP has reached today there are many similarities it draws from and shares with the Kemalist period.

When we look at human rights in the context of freedoms, we come across a very simple equation: the equation between freedom and security. On the one hand, there are those who predict that if we have our fundamental rights and freedoms, our security is automatically guaranteed, and on the other hand, there are those who say that in order to be free, we must first ensure our security. In this very simple equation, those who say “freedom first” come to the fore from time to time, albeit imperfectly, in different time periods and in different examples around the world. But as citizens of Turkey, we have always been governed by governments that put security first by restricting our freedoms, and these policies have always led to violations of fundamental rights.

Although the concept of “universal human rights” weakly evolved over time during the Kemalist period and was accepted in principle, the rhetoric and policies of security have always come first and have been defended by governments as a “legitimate” reason for restricting rights. Today, the AKP adheres to this rhetoric and policy of securitization. The difference with the Kemalists is that AKP cadres criticized the “universal” as a label of the West and tried to develop a cultural approach to human rights. 

Since the 19th century, the prevailing impression in Turkey, both among governments and the public, has been that “human rights are an instrument of Western interference in Turkey.” This perception is shared by the Kemalist regime and the AKP. The difference between these two actors lies not in their distrust of the West, but in their conceptualization of the West. The Kemalists rely on this perception with an orthodox defensive nationalist reflex, but despite the potential or real threat they perceive from the West, they have not adopted a different human rights perspective or goal from the West and have also identified themselves as Westerners. Of course, this path, which is full of contradictions, has a very different background that we cannot go into in this presentation. However, we should emphasize again that conceptually, for the Kemalists, there was only one “West,” with all its dynamics from politics to economics. The AKP, on the other hand, has long relied on a dichotomy between Islam and the West, because historically the Islamic conservative tradition in Turkey has evolved from this distinction from the Ottoman period to the 21st century. For this reason, the AKP has tried to establish itself as an actor that is more just than the West and can enforce the fundamental rights specific to “these lands.” It was this state of “authenticity” that placed the AKP on the side of cultural relativism in the debate between the universality of human rights and cultural relativism. From this perspective, they criticized the universality of human rights, and of course they were right in many ways in their criticism of the hypocritical human rights policies of the West. But while making these criticisms, they also recognized Islam as the fundamental culture of Turkey and gave it a dominant position.

Therefore, the struggle for human rights in Turkey has been waged by human rights defenders against all governments with much difficulty and little progress. While there have been steps from time to time, for example in the context of the EU accession process, the hypocrisy of these steps has come to the surface very quickly in each government term; because neither the AKP nor its predecessors have taken human rights out of the security equation and discussed it on the basis of merely being “human.”

When the AKP was still in search of intellectual legitimacy for itself, human rights were conceptualized in a cultural framework by putting society first. The emphasis on the “authenticity of these lands” refined the discourse on justice and rights. This “authenticity” that they meant was, in fact, Islam . However, during the AKP’s first term , it also pursued a two-faced human rights policy and, in line with its alliances with liberals in Turkey and Western countries abroad, portrayed Islam as the most important “cultural feature” of these countries. Until 2004, not even the “universality” of the West was really criticized in public. Basic human rights conventions were ratified, and for a short time a relative “refreshment phase” of and for human rights began.

So when exactly did the backward movement on human rights begin?

I think the first break occurred in 2007 with the Ergenekon, Sledgehammer (Balyoz), and KCK cases. The illegality in these cases weakened trust in the judiciary in Turkey, and important rights, like the right to a fair trial, were severely damaged . However, during this period when the AKP was acting in alliance with the Gülen community, the discourse and promise to break the military tutelage in Turkey was on the agenda and the support from the actors with whom it was allied at the national and international levels continued. Many unfair practices in these cases took a back seat in public opinion because of this long-awaited promise. I think this was a point at which we should also aim the arrows of criticism at ourselves. While the AKP used these cases to break through the threat to its power posed by the “old” regime, the emerging violations were almost not addressed in public because of the poor record of violations by the old regime. The distinction between the truly guilty and the innocent became blurred during this period, and anyone stigmatized by the government was placed on the same level in the name of punishment.

The second break occurred in 2013 during the Gezi movement. Eight civilians were killed and pressure on freedom of expression, assembly, demonstration and press intensified during the anti-government demonstrations which were interpreted, especially by Erdogan, as another coup plot against him. This time, the intention behind the increasing violation of rights was to prevent the emergence of “new” critical and oppositional movements that could pose a threat to the AKP’s power.

The third and decisive break was the coup attempt of 2016. The particular dynamic of 2016 was that the AKP abandoned its understanding of human rights and its policies based on cultural relativity. There were two main reasons for this abandonment. First, the state of emergency, which in practice continues to this day, and the new presidential system reinforced each other, so that a legitimate basis for human rights policy and rhetoric was no longer necessary. “For the survival of the state and the nation” became sufficient legitimation for any kind of violation under a one-party/one-man regime. The second reason was the AKP’s new alliance with the old forces of the deep state and the Nationalist Movement Party, which grew stronger after the end of the alliance with the Gülen movement in 2013. While these new alliances accelerated the dismissal of leading names in the party’s old cadres, they also paved the way for the post-2016 security policy and created new cadres in recent years.

For the AKP, which defined democracy as majority rule from the beginning, it was about suppressing the minority, especially after the introduction of the one-man/one-party regime. Even if we talk about these three breaking points, the violations of rights and discrimination against Kurds and non-Muslims continued during all these years. After 2016, we see that not only the Kurds or other groups, but also all those who are against AKP are classified as threats. The alliance between all these oppressed groups has become the AKP’s greatest fear, which also feeds these repressive authoritarian policies.

When we talk about human rights in Turkey today, we can talk about a regime of prohibitions. Everything is banned and bans are the daily practice to which the citizens of Turkey have become most accustomed since the old regime. In a political climate where attempts have always been made to suppress the critical mind, the culture of prohibitions, nourished and deepened by religion and nationalism, is a common denominator between the AKP and the Kemalists.

No prohibition at all? Sure, but against what? Against torture, against hate speech, against discrimination, against inequalities, against arbitrary arrests…

Since I exist as a human being, the state in which I live must protect me as a human being with such prohibitions. These prohibitions should exist so that we can live together. In Turkey, we cannot speak of such prohibitions at the moment, but many violations in this context are rewarded with impunity.

What about the other fundamental rights listed in many human rights conventions? Almost all of them are banned or restricted in Turkey. 

What can we not do if we are not “loyal”? We cannot think, we cannot speak. We cannot assemble. We cannot go to Women’s Day or Pride in big crowds. For example, LGBTİ+ people still cannot hold events in Ankara. It is forbidden. The Istanbul Convention was abolished overnight. We cannot work if we criticize the government. We are not equal before the law. We are not considered innocent until proven guilty. As dismissed academics, we were not allowed to travel for a long time and there was no legal basis for it. We can extend this even further, from political bans to bans on the mother tongue, or from freedom of the press to academic freedom. Any public space where a critical mind can flourish is littered with bans.

In short, under human rights principles and articles, those that should be banned – such as torture, such as discrimination – are free, and those that have established our existence as human beings are banned, such as freedom of thought and others. 

In the climate of fear created by this prohibitive regime, those who break the prohibitions cling to those who have the potential to break other prohibitions, like the sword of Damocles. But I believe in the alliance of all the oppressed, even if we are not there yet. But the fact that we are not there yet does not mean that we should despair. We still have a long way to go by persistently and repeatedly fighting for democracy and universal human rights for all. We are once again in a different phase of world history, and all these ambiguities could benefit us this time.

As mentioned in the headline, human rights have never been universal or cultural in Turkey, but is there any place where this has been the case?

Elçin Aktoprak, was Assistant Professor at the Faculty of Political Sciences, Ankara University, Turkey, until she was dismissed as per the emergency decree in February 2017. Her research interests are theories of nationalism, minority issues in Europe, the Kurdish question, conflict resolution and peace studies. Recently she is the project coordinator of an EU funded project called the School of Human Rights.


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