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  • Human Rights Research Center

Turkey’s Human Rights Regime: A Blueprint for Despair?

June 12, 2024

Turkey has many problems in terms of democracy and human rights, despite the process of democratization that started in accordance with the European Union’s (EU) Copenhagen criteria.

The Justice and Development Party (AKP), which has ruled Turkey since 2002, initially took promising steps to make Turkey a better place in terms of human rights and democracy. However, in the aftermath of the first decade of its rule, the AKP began to lose ground in protecting democracy and freedom. Turkey’s human rights record has been on decline for more than a decade. According to Human Rights Watch 2023 Turkey Report, government’s rising authoritarianism regularly targeted government critics and political opponents and exerted control over the media and judiciary.

This article aims to analyze the situation of the human rights regime in Turkey over the last four decades. The time span under scrutiny covers 1982 to 2023. Turkey’s constitution was adopted in 1982, it is still in use despite many amendments made so far. Since then, the 1982 Constitution has been heavily criticized by human rights activists, but no government has managed to renew it completely.

Turkey: Country Profile

Turkey was founded by Atatürk in 1923 in the ashes of the Ottoman Empire. After single-party rule, the country switched to multi-party politics in 1946, and since then, there has been democratic politics – at least in procedural terms – despite some interruptions due to military interventions that broke out in 1960, 1971, 1980, 1997, and 2007 (e-memorandum).

The failed coup attempt that occurred on July 15, 2016, caused mass human rights abuse in the country. On July 23, 2016, a decree ordered the closure of 15 Turkish universities, including Fatih University (the university from which the author of this article earned her doctoral degree) in connection with a state of emergency. The decree ordered the closure of many institutions that are accused of having links to Fethullah Gülen and being in communication with the “Fethullah Terrorist Organization (FETÖ)”.

The coup attempt caused a major transformation in Turkish politics. In 2018, Turkey replaced its parliamentary system with presidential system. For more than two decades Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s AKP has been ruling the country as a single party government. On May 28, 2023, Erdoğan has won presidency in a runoff election with 52.14% of the votes and became the president again for another period of 5 years.

Turkey has a strategically important geo-political location at the crossroads between Europe and Asia. The country gained official candidacy status for European Union in 1999. However, since 2016, accession negotiations have stalled. The EU has criticized Turkey for human rights violations. In 2023, Freedom House rated Turkey’s human rights at 33 out of 100 (not free).

The population of the country has been 86,750,408 as of March 2023. The population is relatively young, with 22.4% aged between 0–14. After the outbreak of the Syrian civil war in 2011, a huge influx of refugees came. With a GDP of roughly $906 billion, as of 2023, Turkey is the 19th-largest economy in the world.

Human Rights in Turkey: Theory and Practice

Human rights in Turkey are protected by various international treaties, and in theory, they take precedence over domestic legislation according to Article 90 of the 1982 Constitution. Turkey is a state party to the nine core international human rights treaties, in addition to regional human rights treaties to which it is bound as a member state of the Council of Europe. The human rights issue is of high significance in negotiations with the European Union. Despite this, due to severe human rights abuses, Turkey has been repeatedly punished by the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR). For example in June 2023, the ECHR ruled that Turkey should compensate a Kurdish politician with over $18,000 for punishing him after he mentioned the word “Kurdistan” during a parliamentary session.

One of the major causes behind such human rights abuses is related to the politicization of the judiciary. Critical media actors, oppositional figures including academics, students and authors are falsely accused of “being a member of a terrorist organization”, “insulting the Turkish President” and/or “revealing state secrets” get criminalized and punished. While there are several people behind bars on unfair terms according to universal human rights practices, it is routine to see that real criminals remain unpunished and commit crimes repeatedly. In 2023, a man who killed his third wife was sent to prison. He committed this third murder after walking free from prison despite his past two murders.

History & Current Context: A Poor Record of Human Rights

Turkey’s record of human rights has been poor in most of its history. In the aftermath of the 1980 military coup, a three-years-long military regime ruled the country. In that period, many human rights violations occurred, including acts of torture committed under police custody and prisons. The official figures stated that 171 persons were killed through torture.

The 1990s witnessed numerous human rights violations over the Kurdish issue and freedom of expression. Extra-judicial killings by security forces during house raids or demonstrations had become common in Turkey after the Anti-Terror Law entered into force in 1991. Between 1991 and 1994, 174 people died during demonstrations and house raids. In 1998, several police officers faced trial for extra-judicial killings.

As noted earlier, the first decade of the 2000s in Turkey was promising with regard to human rights. The year 2004 was a milestone in the context of human rights because of several important legal improvements related to EU harmonization policies. The 2004 Regular Report published by the Commission of the European Communities stated that Turkey made important progress in human rights through constitutional amendments. However, since the AKP’s third consecutive victory in 2011, Turkish politics has become increasingly associated with democratic backsliding rather than consolidation. This has caused an increase in human rights violations. Turkey’s move in the repressive direction became clear with the Gezi Movement that started in 2013.

In Gezi protests, even peaceful protestors were subjected to judicial harassment, including criminal prosecution. In April 2023, the Constitutional Court ruled Dilan Alp’s rights were violated when he was severely injured by a tear-gas canister fired by police and that the police intervention during Gezi demonstrations was unlawful. At the time then-Istanbul Governor Hüseyin Avni Mutlu referred to Alp, then age 17, as “marginal, a member of a terrorist organization.”

The authoritarian slide became more intense following the 2016 failed coup. The number of human rights violations has increased significantly. The failed coup caused a massive government crackdown on civil servants and civil society with the alleged links to “FETO”. There was evidence of the torture of detainees in the wake of the coup attempt. Following the 2016 failed coup, nearly 90,000 civil servants were dismissed, and many media outlets and NGOs were closed down. Through the wide-ranging use of state of emergency laws, the government has infringed on the rights to freedom of expression, media, and association.

In the years that followed, several negative developments occurred at the expense of human rights. In 2021, Erdoğan withdrew Turkey from the Istanbul Convention which had been signed to prevent violence against women. In 2022, a social media law came into force. This law criminalizes the dissemination of “false information” and tightens state control over social media and news websites.

The Annual Human Rights Violations Report for 2022 published by Human Rights Association describes the human rights violations as follows:

“[f]reedom of expression and freedom of association are under severe pressure as never before. People are arrested without question for the articles they write, the speeches they make, the tweets they post, and especially Articles 9 and 10 of the European Convention on Human Rights are constantly violated. Many intellectuals, writers, artists, politicians who are currently imprisoned for their thoughts are being held in prison in violation of international conventions. There are many sick prisoners with fatal diseases in prison…”

The prevalence of human rights abuses in various contexts is one of Turkey’s biggest problems requiring urgent solutions. To combat human rights abuses, it is necessary for the government to adopt measures such as the transformation of state institutions and leadership, and the implementation of preventive measures, including education and legal provisions. While these steps are urgent, they cannot combat human rights abuse problem without the support of civil society leaders, opposition parties, and media actors.



  • Authoritarian: Of, relating to, or favoring a concentration of power in a leader or an elite not constitutionally responsible to the people.

  • Copenhagen Criteria: These criteria are related to the adoption of the economic, and political criteria that were determined at the Copenhagen Summit in1993. They set out the conditions the candidate countries should have in order to become full members of the EU.

  • Coup: A sudden decisive exercise of force in politics and especially the violent overthrow or alteration of an existing government by a small group.

  • European Court of Human Rights: The European Court of Human Rights is an international court set up in 1959. It rules on individual or state applications alleging violations of the civil and political rights set out in the European Convention on Human Rights. Since 1998 it has sat as a full-time court and individuals can apply to it directly.

  • Extra-Judicial Killing: Extrajudicial killings, or extrajudicial executions, happen when someone in an official position deliberately kills a person without any legal processes.

  • FETO: Acronym used for “Fethullah Terror Organization”, a derogatory term coined to refer to the supporters of Fethullah Gülen (a religious figure who lives in the U.S.A.) who are alleged to be a part of the failed coup attempt in 2016. Today, almost all the segments of society including the political opposition prefer to use that term as a kind of hate speech against the “other”.

  • Gezi Movement: On May 28th, 2013, a group of environmentalists in Gezi Park, in Istanbul’s Taksim Square was united in opposition to plans for razing the park in order to build a shopping mall. What had begun as an environmental protest then turned into a mass anti-government uprising.

  • Judiciary: A system of courts of law.

  • Memorandum: An informal written record of an agreement that has not yet become official.

  • Parliamentary: Enacted, done, or ratified by a parliament. A parliament is a formal conference for the discussion of public affairs.


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