The United Nations convened on Tuesday, 28 January, to assess the human rights situation in Turkey.
The United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC) holds a Universal Periodic Review (UPR) into the situation in member states with the intent to “improve the human rights situation in all countries and address human rights violations wherever they occur”. This process started in 2008. For Turkey, this is the third time it has been assessed—previous sessions were held in 2010 and 2015 because of concerns about the direction the state was drifting in. The rapporteurs or “troika” overseeing the review for Turkey were: Bahrain, Slovakia, and Somalia.
The UPR is based on three sets of documents, which “are:
1) National Report—information provided by the State under review;
2) information contained in the reports of independent human rights experts and group, known as the Special Procedures, human rights treaty bodies, and other UN entities;
3) information provided by other stakeholders including national human rights institutions, regional organizations and civil society groups.”
Turkey’s National Report argues that the context of events in Turkey since the last review in 2015, namely the “unprecedentedly large-scale and brutal coup attempt organized and perpetrated by the Fethullahist Terorist Organisation (FETÖ)” in July 2016, has to be taken into account, since this was the reason a state of emergency (SoE) was implemented until July 2018, at which point it was terminated and a “reform agenda” was begun. The document argues that Ankara has acted to meet the recommendations of the last session on everything from the rights of children and human trafficking to the interdiction of foreign terrorist fighters transiting its territory.
The UPR session began with a presentation from the Turkish government, in the form of Faruk Kaymakçı, the Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs. Kaymakçı argued that Turkey allowed in human rights monitors during the whole period of the SoE, demonstrating an openness and commitment to human rights even during a time of crisis. Kaymakçı added that the reforms of the judiciary after the SoE was ended have already shown results, and another package is coming. The Turkish state protects citizens freedoms in line with the standards of the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR), says Kaymakçı, including the right to protest. Kaymakçı concluded that the Turks’ situation was “not properly understood, nor did they receive the proper support from some … partners”, but Turkey continues to “raise the bar” for human rights standards and to “remedy any shortcomings”.
Needless to say, this was contested.
Before the UPR event, the International Observatory of Human Rights (IOHR), which is a group based in London devoted to the study of human rights violations, held a panel that focused on press freedom. On the panel, Nurcan Baysal, a Kurdish journalist, noted, “We (Turkish citizens) are censoring ourselves” because of fears of reprisal from Turkey, even when people are outside the country. “Everything that I say has an effect on not only my life, but of the lives of my children and family,” Baysal added. Also on the panel was Yavuz Baydar, a member of the Hizmet, the Islamist brotherhood led by the Pennsylvania-based imam Fethullah Gülen, who said: “No state or power can decide who is a journalist, it is the domain for professional organisations and should always be separate from power”. The Turkish government accuses the Gülenists of being behind the 2016 coup attempt.
At the UPR session, responding to Turkey’s report, a number of states—like Qatar and Venezuela—were generally supportive. Most others were critical of the Turkish judiciary, recommending major revisions to ensure its proper independence from political pressure so as to prevent arbitrary prosecutions, and there was particular concern about the erosion of the rights of women. Western states from Australia to Ireland repeated the complaint about Turkey’s judiciary suppressing free speech, as did nearly every other delegation.
Armenia raised the issue of racist hate speech against Armenian Christians, Kurds, and Roma people in Turkey, plus Turkey’s continuing failure to provide an accounting of the missing persons in Cyprus. Iraq raised the problem of Turkey respecting the borders of other countries, as did Syria, which also accused Turkey of supporting terrorists on its territory.
The United Kingdom’s recommendations said that Turkey had much work to do in preventing child marriages and reforming the judiciary to protect basic rights, among them media freedom. The United States concurred that the judicial situation and counter-terrorism laws as currently constituted are a menace to free speech in Turkey, adding that “arbitrary arrests” are ongoing against journalists and other dissenters from the government line, such as religious minorities.
In other submissions, Armenia and Bosnia echoed the UK and US in bringing attention to the ongoing threats to free expression in Turkey and the use of hate speech against minorities that undermined the principle of equality. Croatia, Haiti, India, Japan, and Kyrgyzstan pointed to the problem for women in Turkey, with gender-based discrimination. Canada and Malta were particularly worried about the situation for homosexuals in Turkey, noting that Pride events had been banned for the last five years.