- Human Rights in Turkey
Human rights, in the sense of an itemized list of individual liberties protected by legal safeguards, are relatively recent political innovations. The earliest appearance of such legally supported guarantees came in the English Bill of Rights of 1688 – 89 at the conclusion of a tumultuous civil war that lasted most of the seventeenth century. Against this background the American Bill of Rights emerged some one hundred years later, appended to the constitution for the new republic of the United States. These liberties are still debated in the courts. In arguing the case for a legislative authority in matters of national defense in this new constitution, Alexander Hamilton wrote in Federalist 26 that the idea rests not on historical speculation but on “habits of thinking which we derive from the nation from which the inhabitants of these States have in general sprung,” by which he meant England and the English Bill of Rights.
In other words, the invention of human rights in their contemporary meaning can be claimed by the English and their American cousins, so it is no accident that these rights occupy a prominent place in Washington’s foreign policy — unhappily, often honored more in rhetoric than in actual practice. If those who can claim authorship of modern human rights — first conceived philosophically in classical Greece — still observe them only fitfully and controversially, then one can only imagine how such rights are faring in nations with dramatically different historical pasts. One such country is modern Turkey.
Human Rights in Turkey, edited by Zehra F. Kabasakal Arat, Juanita and Joseph Leff Distinguished Professor of Political Science and Women’s Studies at Purchase College of the State University of New York, now allows those interested in this subject to [End Page 122] move beyond impressions about Turkey’s human rights policies to a comprehensive, scholarly treatment of this subject in the research of twenty-one scholars from Turkish and other academic centers. One may even hope that governmental officials charged with various aspects of America’s very complex relations with Turkey will avail themselves of both the analytical spirit and copious information found in this volume.
As for analytical spirit, the editor makes clear that no unified human-rights theory building will take place in this book. At the same time, however, the analysis of all the authors seems to focus on the interaction between domestic and international dimensions of Turkish politics, especially in the period from the founding of Turkey as an independent nation-state with a written constitution in 1921 by Mustafa Kemal Ataturk to the present.
The essays are grouped under six headings: (1) freedoms and antidiscrimination, (2) social and economic rights, (3) the rights of the displaced, (4) women’s rights, (5) civic and educational efforts, and (6) international affairs and interactions. Each essay ends with a handy conclusion for those who may have lost their way in the narrative. Over the entirety of this ambitious undertaking stands the ultranationalistic and modernist figure of Ataturk together with the efforts of his successors to refine and in some cases redirect his influence.
A subtext also runs throughout this narrative: the constitutional empowerment of Turkey’s military to defend, whatever the cost to human rights, the integrity of a republic based on a single, Turkish, religious-ethnic identity. It is this all-pervasive guardianship by the armed forces that has, on important occasions, collided with efforts to modify substantially if not change radically the Ataturk vision. And it is in this collision of political values that Turkey’s record on human rights has continued an uneven course, especially in relations with the European Union.
It should be evident to even untutored observers that the domestic cultural distance between the United States and Turkey, close allies in the North Atlantic Treaty Organization during and after the Cold War, is substantial in certain aspects of their respective approaches to human rights. This would even seem to apply in a more limited...