An attempted coup occurred on July 15, 2016 in Turkey’s capital, Ankara. Segments of the Turkish army declared martial law during the early evening of July 15 and announced they had taken control of the government. The rogue faction of the military sent tanks and soldiers into the streets of Ankara and Istanbul, and for several confusing hours it was unclear who had control of the country. Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan called the attempted coup “a clear crime of treason” shortly after his pro-government forces regained power after multiple armed clashes between the two parties.
The leaders of the uprising were allegedly disaffected members of the Turkish military who opposed President Erdoğan and the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP). However, it is still unclear which political forces orchestrated the coup attempt. President Erdoğan and his supporters claim that the coup was masterminded by his political opponent Fethullah Gulen. Gulen is a well-known Islamic cleric, who has been living in exile in the United States since 1999, and denies any involvement in the coup attempt.
Turkey’s foreign ministry estimates that at least 290 people were killed, and another 1,400 people wounded during the failed coup. In what has been referred to as a “purge,” 10,000 people have been detained for allegedly taking part in the uprising, 13,000 government and military officials have been suspended or permanently removed from their positions, and thousands of educators have been forced to resign.
To the chagrin of the human rights community, a national state of emergency was declared on July 20, 2016, which is set to last for three months. President Erdoğan has said that the purpose of the national emergency is to cleanse the “viruses” in the military and the government. Since then, Erdoğan has charged 118 of Turkey’s Generals and Admirals with involvement in the coup. These actions have raised significant concerns to human rights observers and Turkish citizens alike.
Unfortunately, the concept of prolonged martial law is familiar to many Turkish citizens. Turkey has experienced four separate military coups since 1960, all of which involved some form of martial law afterwards. The last instance of a prolonged “emergency rule” occurred between 1987 and 2002 in Southeastern Turkey during a period of conflict between the Turkish government and the minority Kurdish population. During that time, authorities claimed the power to make and enforce curfews, issue search and arrest warrants with less evidence, and restrict public gatherings. The human rights community is concerned that the current state of emergency will last much longer than three months, and that Turkey will permanently suspend its obligations under the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR). If this happens, it will severely erode the civil and political rights of all people living in Turkey.
In 2003, Turkey acceded to the ICCPR and is therefore bound to the treaty’s provisions to respect the civil and political rights of its citizens. The government’s sweeping detentions and ‘purging’ from public office raise concerns that Turkey may exceed its emergency powers under international law. Article Four of the ICCPR states that a government has the right “in time of public emergency which threatens the life of the nation” to “take measures derogating from their obligations under the present Covenant to the extent strictly required by the exigencies of the situation provided that such measures are not inconsistent with their other obligations under international law.” This means that a country may suspend the ICCPR only if a national emergency occurs and the government deems it absolutely necessary to suspend certain freedoms for the safety of the nation. This clause only allows a signatory to suspend clauses in the ICCPR that are relevant to the current crisis, rather than a blanket suspension of the treaty.
However, Article Four also explicitly states that, even during an emergency, a state cannot extract itself from, and is therefore still bound by, Article Six of the Covenant (right to life for all people), Article Seven (prohibition of torture), Article Eight (prohibition of slavery), Article Fifteen (ex poste facto crimes), Article Sixteen (right to legal recognition), and Article Eighteen (freedom of religion and conscience). The suspension clause of the ICCPR only allows derogation of the other articles when “strictly required by the exigencies of the situation.” Therefore, Turkey is only allowed to suspend articles that otherwise may pose a threat to the immediate security of the nation.
Despite the state of emergency, Turkey is still bound by certain obligations under the ICCPR. As such, human rights groups and civil society organizations, such as Amnesty International, have voiced growing concern over the treatment of those detained in connection with the coup, as photographs surface showing arrestees kneeling partially naked in a horse stable. Credible reports suggest that detainees have been beaten, kept in stress positions for over 48 hours, denied food, and even sexually assaulted while in government custody. Such reports call into question whether Turkey has already violated ICCPR’s Article Seven prohibition of torture. A person’s fundamental right to protection against torture is one of the cornerstones of modern human rights law, and Turkey’s violation of this right could further diminish its global reputation.
Moreover, Turkey may also be violating its obligations under the Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman, or Degrading Treatment or Punishment (CAT). Per CAT Article Two, “No exceptional circumstances whatsoever, whether a state of war or a threat of war, internal political instability or any other public emergency, may be invoked as a justification of torture.” Thus, an internal crisis – like Turkey’s attempted coup – is never a justification for the abuse of detainees. Article One of CAT defines torture as “any act by which severe pain or suffering, whether physical or mental, is intentionally inflicted on a person for such purposes as obtaining from him or a third person for information or a confession, punishing him for an act he…has committed or is suspect of committing.” Enforced starvation, severe beatings, sexual assault, and forcing detainees to spend days in stress positions are violations of the non-derrogable right enshrined by CAT.
There is no doubt that the attempted coup caused a dangerous and confusing period for Turkey. However, while the government initially had the right to suspend the ICCPR based on the internal security crisis, it is not excused from obligations to protect its citizens from torture – both under the ICCPR and CAT. Both conventions prohibit torture under any circumstances, and Turkey’s alleged treatment of detainees would be violative of both. Signatories may only suspend the ICCPR during times of great national danger. As the Turkish government regains control and order, it must abide by its human rights obligations or sacrifice them in favor of a prolonged state of emergency. The world is watching to see which road Turkey takes.