Are human rights Turkey’s domestic or foreign policy issue?


Human rights issues have always been a difficult subject for Turkish diplomats. At the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the field of human rights is not considered as an area of expertise like NATO/arms control questions or matters pertaining to Cyprus/Greece. The reason for this is that one would often come across human rights questions at any stage of one’s career. At the Turkish embassies abroad, one would routinely have to respond to criticisms directed against Turkey. Our colleagues working at multilateral field endeavor to prevent the insertion of clauses to documents that might be exploited against Turkey in the future. This is simply because Turkey’s human rights record has never been perfect in any part of our history.


The reaction of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs to responses to the events at Boğaziçi University has again drawn attention to the foreign affairs dimension of the issue of human rights.


Cases of double standards


It is true that we see frequent examples of double standards by states in the international arena. When I was the director-general at the Minister of Foreign Affairs in charge of human rights and throughout my time at the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), I witnessed many such examples. On the day, Ömer Haluk Sipahioğlu, a member of my own batch at the ministry, was assassinated in Athens on 4 July, 1994, when an OSCE meeting was under way in Vienna. The Austrian authorities allowed a demonstration by PKK militants armed by stones and sticks in the grounds of the Hofburg Palace. A week later, during a visit by the Chinese premier, the very same Austrian authorities moved a bus stop outside the visiting delegation’s hotel on the famous Kartner Ring to a different location in order to prevent a demonstration by Tibetans.


Still during my time as ambassador in Vienna, the secretary general of the Austrian Ministry of Foreign Affairs once summoned me to his office to protest the suspension of internet service in Turkey. He was unable to say anything at all when I asked him if they were also considering to invite the Egyptian ambassador to the ministry because of the death sentences handed that very day to 563 people.


I cannot forget these cases. It is also possible to cite many more such examples. However, that is not the purpose of this opinion piece. 


Ministry statement on Bosphorus University


I was perplexed by the Feb. 4 statement of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs titled “Press release regarding the statements made by certain circles abroad on events at Boğaziçi University.”


In recent years, there has been a tendency to issue official statements on every development in line with the understanding that “the more press statements we release, the stronger the impression that we are pursuing an active foreign policy.”


Official statements on natural disasters in other countries is not a common recurrence in diplomatic practice. However, we now routinely issue statements as a matter of course on even small-scale floods or minor train accidents abroad.


Statements by the ministries of foreign affairs are major sources of information for embassies worldwide. It is best not to overdo it. Diplomacy is about courtesy. It is the art of delivering even grave messages without causing offence. The British are the best at this. They skillfully let you know they do not share your viewpoint even without uttering the word “no.”


The current practice for Ministry declarations is to issue them for domestic political consumption, and not diplomatic purposes as originally intended. Phrases such as “Let them look in the mirror” or “They should know their limitations” have no place in diplomatic parlance.


No reciprocity in human rights


The office of the spokesperson is one of the most important positions in foreign ministries. In those days when we first joined the Ministry, this function was entrusted to senior ambassadors. However, in an effort to be in the limelight themselves, ministers have ended this practice, handing the job to younger officers in an “acting” capacity.


At first glance, the Feb. 4 statement on the events at Boğaziçi University appears to be based on a case of “the pot calling the kettle black.”  Yet, diplomacy has taught us that the principle of reciprocity is not valid in the field of human rights. For instance, one cannot tell Greece “I will not re-open the Halki seminary until you build a mosque in Athens?”


Pursuing human rights issues does not constitute interference in domestic affairs


The most appalling aspect of the statement is the sentence to the effect that “No one is entitled to interfere in Turkey’s domestic affairs.” Numerous binding legal and political documents bearing Turkey’s signature emphasize that commitments undertaken in the field of human rights do not belong exclusively to the internal affairs of the state concerned. The  Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe (CSCE) 1991 Moscow Document, the CSCE 1992 Helsinki Summit Document and the OSCE 1994 Astana Commemorative Declaration are but a few examples.


According to the 1999 Istanbul Summit Document adopted at the end of the Third OSCE Summit, which we hosted in Istanbul, participating states are responsible to their citizens and to each other for the implementation of OSCE commitments. These commitments are regarded as important common achievements. They are matters of direct and legitimate concern to all participating states. The program of action adopted at the end of the 1993 World Conference on Human Rights held in Vienna emphasizes that the promotion and protection of all human rights is a legitimate concern of the international community.


Furthermore, our acceptance of the right to individual petition to the European Court of Human Rights in 1987 signals our recognition that issues of human rights do not fall exclusively within the realm of our internal affairs. 


In the light of the above, is it possible to claim the issue of human rights is a matter of our internal affairs?


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