February 4, 2013

Does Turkey Care About Things More Than People?

By: Elisha Maldonado

When it comes to civil liberties, Turkey is the poster child of hypocrisy.

For an example — and they abound — one could look to Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan saying in September that Turkey “is now going through a period where freedom of expression is at its peak.” When, in actuality, the country has more jailed journalists than Iran and China combined, at nearly 100.

One could also look to Turkey’s duplicity toward France last year, when it suspended military, economic and political ties after the lower house of France’s parliament passed a bill that would make it illegal to deny the Armenian genocide. Quite guilty at home of squelching citizens’ voices, Turkey was outraged that another country would try to emulate them.

And no discussion of Turkey’s human rights abuses ought to pass without mention of the so-called “Kurdish issue.” The nearly three-decade-long armed fight for independence in Turkey’s southeast, which has given rise to the terrorist Kurdistan Workers’ Party, or PKK, resulting in more than 40,000 dead since 1984, according to the International Crisis Group, or ICG.

Despite his 10 years in office and recent attempts at negotiations with the PKK, Erdogan hasn’t made any strides in finding a solution to the issue.

Instead, he has capitalized on the existence of the PKK to stifle dissent. Erdogan has ramped up military and political exercises against the Kurds, arresting thousands of Kurdish students and lawyers, politicians and activists, under the vague pretense of terrorism ties.

Turkey’s latest offense involves an Istanbul court’s Jan. 21 decision ordering the pre-trial detention of nine human rights lawyers who have largely focused on human rights cases involving police violence, according to Human Rights Watch, or HRW.

“In the past few years, Turkey’s overbroad anti-terrorism laws have been used against an ever-widening circle of people, charged for non-violent political activities and the legitimate exercise of freedom of expression, association, and assembly,” HRW reported.

The charges are usually partnered with prolonged pre-trial detentions, which, HRW said, “cannot be justified under international standards” and “constitutes arbitrary detention in violation of human rights norms.”

But what is particularly laughable — if one can be permitted to find the absurd in people getting arrested for nothing and everything — is that in the same week the pre-trial detention of the human rights advocates came to light, so did Turkey’s plan to use human rights law to get back ancient relics housed in Western museums.

Usually splintered on the very touchy subject on how to dole out the rights of humans, Turkey has found a united front among lawyers, civil society and government to file a lawsuit with the Strasbourg, France-based European Court of Human Rights, or ECHR, to get back their goods, Turkish journalist Ceylan Yeginsu reported for the International Business Times.

“Turkey will most likely put a unique spin on Article 1 of the First Protocol of the European Convention of Human Rights, filing suit against the British Museum on the grounds that ‘every natural or legal person is entitled to the peaceful enjoyment of his possessions,’” Yeginsu said.

So, basically, the Turkish government has a right to the peaceful enjoyment of possessions, but Turkish people do not have the right to personal freedoms. This “unique spin” gives the impression that Turkey values objects above its own people.

Oft criticized for not appreciating enough the importance of these historical artifacts they now want back, Turkey claims to have learned how to appreciate and care for its cultural heritage. Too bad the same can’t really be said for its people, who perhaps are a greater testament of its culture. They are, after all, the ones creating the future’s relics.

“There was a lack of awareness in the past,” former Culture Minister Ertugrul Gunay told the Hurriyet Daily News last year. “But today, the world has reached a certain level of development and we have caught up with that level of development, and we are now establishing museums above world standards.”

Meanwhile, the country’s human rights standards continue to fall short of world expectations. And international human rights advocates are shouting it louder than a daily call to prayer, penning a letter to President Barack Obama urging him to speak out against Prime Minister Erdogan’s blatant efforts to clamp down on civil liberties.

In the Jan. 10 missive to Obama, the Freedom House, the Foreign Policy Initiative, the Project on Middle East Democracy, and Reporters Without Borders, wrote:

“An October 2012 report by the Committee to Protect Journalists state that Turkey now has ‘the disreputable distinction of being the world’s worst jailer of the press’ — an analysis shared by Reporters Without Borders. These developments have had a detrimental effect not only upon Turkey internally, but also hinder Turkey’s contribution on the world stage.”

It concludes with the advocates pleading with the president “to make rule of law and political freedoms a priority” in his diplomatic endeavors with Erdogan.

For now, though, Turkey is concerned more with regaining its artifacts than with its own citizenry, which raises the question: If Turkey can’t even protect its own people, why should anyone believe they are capable of taking care of ancient relics for the rest of time?

Elisha Maldonado is the editorial page editor for the International Business Times. Image of the British Museum courtesy of Big Stock Photo.