by Julian de Medeiros. Originally published on 2013/12/03
The issue of Human Rights in Turkey should not be solely considered within the framework of European a priori accession requirements.
Turkey’s history with the EU is a complex one, and the pressure to ensure adherence to Human Rights’ standards is merely a contemporary feature of what has been a longer struggle. Turkey has already signed the Ankara Agreement in 1963, according to which the European Economic Union would treat Turkey as an associate member until the accession was later to be formalized. Malta and Cyprus both agreed to similar deals in 1972. However, the Turkish invasion of Cyprus did much to hamper the accession process, not to mention the high number of Ethnic Kurds killed in the 1980s. Greece, which signed the same agreement a year before Turkey, was admitted into the EU in 1981. Turkey, on the other hand, only became a candidate as late as 1999. This was seen in Turkey as the latest development in a series of events that started to fuel a cultural paranoia going back to historic fears of a Greek- Byzantine territorial expansion. (Müge Göçek, 2008) Such fears of disintegration still fuel Turkish nationalistic rhetoric to the extent that it has become a cultural phenomenon in its own right. Dubbed the ‘Sèvres Syndrome’, harkening back to the post-World War One treaty signed by the Western powers to divide and reallocate the Ottoman Empire, such insecurities lace Turkish geopolitics and domestic protectionism until this day.
In addition to such fears, the fall of the Berlin wall and the subsequent integration of the former Soviet Union only set the bar even higher for political and social accession (Elver, 2005). While undoubtedly the issue of Human Rights has become a crucial normative component of the EU’s self-legitimizing as a moral actor, the requirement of a member State to ensure adherence to Human Rights’ standards constitutes both a ‘constraining and disposing force’ (Waltz, 1979:65) with which it had been expected that Turkey would skip to the beat of the West. To a certain extent, this expectation was met, and the Turkish government treated the Europeans like royals. At least until the onset of the economic crisis in 2008, after which the EU membership was deemed significantly less appealing to the Turkish public.
But a critique of the relevance, or more precisely, the universalism of Human Rights practice (enforcement) can all too easily be manipulated into propaganda, or what are deemed attacks against, the ‘viability of Turkish Democracy itself’ (Watts, 1999).
In this way, the issue of Human Rights goes from constituting the responsibility of the State to protect its citizens and guarantee the responsible implementation of Rousseau’s ‘Social Contract’ (Rousseau, 1762), to a novel way of delegitimizing any State that does not adhere to ‘Western’ normative humanist principles. Humanist, not liberal, as the states ‘offense’ is the lack of social (multi-ethnic) cohesion within the society, not the ‘liberal’ nature of its markets or political system.
The Turkish government has repeatedly and fantastically stated that the police brutality was a justified response against foreign conspirators seeking to destabilize the country. Both pro-European and pro-Turkey parties, such as the German Green Party, have been quick to condemn the violence as a breach of Human Rights, and as yet another example of why Turkey should never be granted access to the EU’s hallowed ranks until it undertakes some major governmental reform. But the protests have become all too quickly embroiled in such a normative Eurocentric debate, rather than as a discussion of Turkish civil society and social protest.
As Žižek has pointed out, such reasoning plays into the hands of capitalist apologists who argue in favour of ‘extra-economic’ injections to ‘sustain the cycle of social reproduction’. (Žižek, 2010). Effectively, such arguments reproduce and excuse the inequality engendered by unchecked competitive market forces as a necessary evil with which to ‘serve the social democratic Welfare State’.
The paradox, which ensues, that of inequality justified by the push for increased equality, should be considered as part of a larger obfuscation of post-modern ‘zero-institutions’ as self-negating practices in which function becomes detached, first from form and then from meaning. Žižek writes: ‘Is this not also our predicament? In bourgeois societies, we are split between formal-legal equality sustained by the institutions of a democratic state, and class distinctions enforced by the economic system (ibid.).’
In other words, how then can the unrequited liberal demand for universal Human Rights not be met with derision by any State ‘mature’ enough to recognize it can renounce effective Human Rights implementation, as long as it panders to market practice and global capitalist consumerism? Is this not the only tangible value of Turkey’s post- millennium market confidence – that it calls the humanist bluff, that there is no inherent dualism in globalization other than a Western renunciation of social ideology in favour of a push towards an increase in corporate capital? What belies the systematic promise in systemic theory, is that it renders morally acceptable the complicit inequality engendered by free market capitalism, wrought in the name of a ‘universal’ Kantian federation of free states, a world citizenship bound by capitalism, not republicanism.
In this way, Turkey’s recognition as a ‘mature’ state, to be ‘rewarded’ accession to the EU correlates subversively with the inherent humiliation of accepting its ‘unenlightened’ nature in the eyes of the European Community. This ambivalent relationship to the EU also harbours a deep-seated suspicion of the EU’s political intentions and its assumed sympathies with ethnic minorities. In 2005, General Özkök gave a speech at the Istanbul War Academy in which such fears were effectively demonstrated. In his talk, he claimed that promoting cultural diversification would only serve to inherently fuel PKK terrorist activity. He critiqued especially the EU’s tendency to, in his own words, ‘under the guise of democratization and human rights’ promote terrorist activity in Turkey, in an effort to ‘plainly target the unitary structure of the Republic of Turkey.’ (Patton, 2006) Such fears still resonate strongly in a country well aware of its Ottoman history. Of course the reverse also occurs in Europe, where the Europeans, despite referring to Turkey as ‘the sick man of Europe’ instead of ‘the terror of Europe’ maintain a deeply rooted suspicion of Islam. Amidst newfound fears of multiculturalism and the distant memories of clashes such as the 1683 battle with the Ottoman Empire at the gates of Vienna, resonate in differing, yet obstructive ways (Elver, 2005). Ultimately, the Turkey-EU relationship will depend on whether or not the tug of war between Europe and Turkey can be separated from such culturally internalized negative images and multicultural paranoia.