The Turkish President, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, recently defended his country as a state of law. Many, however, would describe Turkey as a state under siege. Erdogan has purged Turkey of opponents to his administration and has jailed journalists, media critics, and human rights activists in response to a failed coupagainst him in July 2016. An April 2017 referendum, which took place under the state of emergencydeclared after the coup, introduced constitutional amendments to change Turkey from a parliamentary to presidentialsystem of government that further consolidated Erdogan’s executive power.
Under the amended constitution, the Turkish President would control the budget, lead his political party, and appoint judges. If reelected in November 2019, Erdogan could serve two additional terms, permitting him to govern the country until 2029. In principle, the Turkish Constitution guarantees fundamental rights and freedoms of thought and opinion, and clearly states that “the press is free, and shall not be censored.” Turkish people have the right to a fair trial before courts, as well as the right to engage in political activity. The Constitution, however, also permits the President to declare and respond to state emergencies which threaten the country or its constitution, giving him wide latitude to curtail those rights. The state of emergency Erdogan declared in 2016 provided the cover to pursue unlawful restrictions on freedoms of speech and human rights. The government’s intolerance of criticism continues unabated, and Erdogan defends actions against opponents as necessary for and defense, including a purge of people having ties to Fethullah Gulen, an exiled cleric living in the United States, whom Erdogan holds responsible for the coup attempt.
Founded in 1923 by Mustafa Kemal, Turkey focused on creating a secular and unitary state. While constitutionally secular, the country is ninety-five percent Muslim. The tension between secularism and religious fundamentalism has never been reconciled. Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP) came into power riding a wave of anti-secular sentiment. In 2003, Erdogan became Prime Minister. He aligned with the Islamic cleric Gulen to rid the government of Kemalists. In 2011, a power struggle between the two men ensued, resulting in Erdogan ridding Tukey of Gulenist influence by declaring in May of 2016 Gulen supporters a terrorist organization. Erdogan blamed Gulen for the abortive military coup the following July.
Efforts to arrest those who participated in the coup turned into a purge of all political opponents. In the eighteen months since the coup, TurkeyPurge.com reports that the Turkish government has issued thirty decrees which dismissed 151,967 public servants and academics, detained 132,668, and arrested 64,358. More than three thousand schools and universities have been shut down, 4,463 judges and prosecutors dismissed, and 319 journalists arrested. The state of emergency has been extended in three-month intervals since the coup attempt, and it allows individuals to be held in pre-trial detention for thirty days without charge. Turning the failed coup into a power grab, Erdogan has called it a “gift from God.”
Erdogan’s aggressive response to the coup has alarmed the international community. The community is now faced with a geopolitical dilemma of balancing Turkey’s strategic location in the Middle East in the fight against ISIS with antipathy to Turkey’s domestic human rights violations. In February 2018, US Secretary of State, Rex Tillerson, reaffirmed the deep and important relationship between the US and Turkey as a “time-tested alliance” built on common interest and respect. As a member of NATO, Turkey ascribes to the alliance’s founding treaty which requires all members to safeguard the freedom, common heritage, and civilizationof their people” based on democracy, individual liberty, and the rule of law. NATO, however, has no process to hold members accountable to that rule of law. NATO members also reaffirm their commitment to the UN Charter. The UN Human Rights Council has expressed concern about civil and human rights violations in Turkey, as well as the use of power in ways that are “inconsistent” with obligations under the International Covenant on Civil and Political Right and the European Convention on Human Rights. Turkey justifiably earned Amnesty International’s 2017 ranking as one of the top ten global hotspots for major human rights violations based on the government’s crackdown on journalists, political and human rights activists. Words are not actions.
In a study published in February 2018, the Brookings Institute concluded that there are no solutions readily available to solve the conundrum and warned the west to “buckle up” for the bumpy ride ahead. Urging constructive engagement, cooperation, and candid discourse on governance concerns, the Institute held out the possibility of better relations in the future.