European justice is Turkish delight

Violations of freedom of religion, equality before the law, human rights: a great many Turks bypass their own legal system to put their case directly to the European Court of Human Rights. A phenomenon that vexes jurists no end, but is gradually changing the Turkish mindset.

Published on 19 February 2010 at 15:25
Take that, Ankara. Turkish Kurd celebrating at the European Court of Human Rights, Strasbourg. (AFP)

The Turks have replaced their old adage “Fortunately, there are still sovereign judges in Ankara” with a new one: “Fortunately, there are still sovereign judges in Strasbourg.” When they seek justice, Turks knock en masse at the door of the European Court of Human Rights [a branch of the Council of Europe, not to be confused with the European Court of Justice]. While that is good for the victims, it is causing no end of vexation on the home front: “Can’t we handle it ourselves?”

After the recent ruling by the European Court of Human Rights, Ebuzet Atalan, a Turkish national, poses beaming for reporters with his Turkish ID card in his hand. This adept of the Yazidi religion will soon be rid of the letter X under “Religion” on his identity card. The Turkish authorities had refused to recognise Atalan’s faith. Likewise, the 15 million odd Alevi in the country are not allowed to mention their creed on their identity papers either. The only religion that makes it onto a Turkish ID card is Islam. So one of them took legal action. The Turkish judges quashed his suit, but, as so often happens, the European justices begged to differ. So now the government has to make up its mind: either Turkish ID cards don’t mention the holder’s religion at all, or they show the religion of his choice.

The primacy of the state

“Turkey just can’t seem to change its way of thinking,” explains Semsi Aslanker, an Istanbul jurist. “For the vast majority of Turkish judges, the interests of the state take precedence over those of the individual. And they’re not the only ones who think that way, almost all Turks do too. We need to instil a new mindset in this country, or else it will be the other countries that set us straight.”

The thousands of times the court in Strasbourg has called Turkey to order [Turkey joined the Council of Europe in 1949] and the millions of euros the country has had to pay in damages to its own victimised nationals are increasingly regarded as a national humiliation. Giving vent to this mounting irritation, an illustrious intellectual recently quipped: “It seems that, as a people, we are incapable of governing our country. We ought to just let the court do it for us.”

13,000 cases pending

And there is reason for exasperation. The judges in Strasbourg, for their part, have to put in extra hours poring over petitions from Russia and Turkey. Close to 13,000 cases from Turkey are currently pending. And experience shows the court hardly ever finds for the Turkish authorities.

The Turks can grouse and grumble to their hearts’ content: the fact is the European Court of Human Rights has changed the country. The condemnations of human rights violations in the Kurdish zone, the damages disbursed to victims, the court’s championing the teaching of the Kurdish language and tasking the authorities to do a better job of protecting women have really brought the country closer to the European Union. And without any resistance from the political establishment.

Jurist Aslanker concludes: “It’s easy enough to ask the Human Rights Court to do the dirty work, but what cements a country together ought to be honour. A country that takes itself seriously needs to roll up its sleeves. However thorny the issues may be.”


Enter Ankara the peacemaker

After more than a century, Turkey is once again active as a diplomatic force in the Balkans, where it is attempting to resolve differences between the bitterly opposed republics of the former Yugoslavia. This new initiative was marked by a tripartite meeting between Turkey, Serbia and Bosnia and Herzegovina which recently took place in Ankara. The framework for diplomatic relations between Belgrade and Sarajevo already exists, but to date dialogue between the two states has been virtually non-existent. Turkey's efforts have enabled the two countries to reach an important milestone in the normalization of relations. For Ankara's diplomats, this is the only way to achieve a lasting peace in the Balkans, where Turkey believes that "European historical prejudice" and Europe's "limited understanding of the region" have led the EU to adopt a discriminatory policy with regard to Bosnia, which is ultimately destabilizing.

Europe's inability to cope with the break-up of the former Yugoslavia is a perfect illustration of this reality. In Turkish diplomatic circles, it is often said that "if Bosnia and Herzegovina was promised a clear opportunity to join the EU, which is now being offered to Serbia, a largely different situation would prevail." Rather than making this pledge, the EU has waived a visa requirment for Serbian citizens — even though their country is not yet part of the Union — while no such gesture has been made to Bosnia. Some European capitals are uncomfortable with the development of closer ties between Serbia and Turkey, two countries that were involved in an ongoing cold war barely two years ago. In his time, Bismarck declared that "the Balkans is not worth the bones of one Pomeranian grenadier," and it appears that Europe has yet to set aside this attitude, while Turkey is convinced that a positive initiative with regard to Bosnia will necessarily improve Sarajevo's chances of accession to the EU. Semih Idiz, *Milliyet*(extracts)

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