Talking Turkey: Human Rights, Cyprus Issues Loom over Turkey's EU Aspirations

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Talking Turkey: Human Rights, Cyprus Issues Loom Over Turkey's EU Aspirations

Jon Gorvett is a free-lance journalist based in Istanbul.

Turkey's march to Europe has never been easy or straightforward. A history of difficulties, ranging from mild misunderstandings to open warfare, has not been helped in recent years by a lack of progress in two major areas. This fall has seen the chickens from both come home to roost.

First of all is human rights. Ever since Turkey first applied for membership in the European Union, or the European Common Market as it was known back in the 1960s, Brussels has been consistent in its condemning of Ankara for a range of serious human rights abuses. Reports from organizations such as Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch and a host of other European and North American NGOs and governmental agencies, have frequently pointed to widespread use of torture in Turkey's jails, detentions without trial, extra-judicial executions, prosecutions for what the Turkish criminal code terms in Orwellian style as "thought crimes," military participation in State Security Courts--at which most serious political offenses are tried--and a variety of other ruptures with the various European conventions on human rights and criminal procedure that Turkey has signed over the years.

The war in the southeast of the country between the army and supporters of the initially separatist Kurdish Workers Party (PKK), which broke out completely in 1984, also added to human rights concerns, as allegations of a "dirty war" in the region were backed up with endless eyewitness stories of atrocities, mainly committed by the army.

So, with Ankara's moves to bring Turkey closer to the EU as part of its historic mission to get Turkey into Europe, hopes were high that the country would have to make substantial reforms in the human rights arena in order to meet the Brussels criteria.

Recent constitutional changes promised much in this regard. A package of 34 measures was passed through parliament this fall and included the removal of prohibitions on broadcasting and publishing in Kurdish. It also improved the lot of the country's women, changing the 1926 civil code to recognize men and women as legal equals, ending the designation of men as heads of the household and giving women a larger share of property in divorce.

The constitutional changes also acknowledged for the first time the principle of proportionality--that any limitation of rights must be proportionate--and the period of detention before trial was limited to four days. Meanwhile, human rights training seminars have been underway for some time in the police force. A number of committees on human rights also have been established, one of which, the Parliamentary Human Rights Committee, achieved some notable successes under its former chairwoman, Sema Piskinsut. It is also now more difficult for a political party to be banned--a fate that has befallen every Islamist party in the country since Welfare, the former ruling party, was proscribed in 1998, while almost all of the country's Kurdish parties have also been closed.

All these changes represent forward steps, as the EU's progress report on Turkey stated when it was released in mid-November. The report also pointed out a whole range of failings in Turkey's reforms, however. First of all, Kurdish language and cultural rights are granted only so long as a court is prepared to rule that they do not endanger "national security." How fragile that security might be thought to be was immediately demonstrated when groups of ethnic Kurdish students lobbying their university administrations for the introduction of Kurdish language courses were threatened by the University Supreme Council (YOK) with dismissal and worse in late November on grounds of "separatism."

As for women's rights, many point to the gulf between legal statements and actual practice, particularly in rural Turkey, where women are still very much inferior within traditional family and village structures. …