Are young Turks occupying Gezi park model European citizens?
by Niccolo Milanese
The massive street protests in Turkey over recent weeks – triggered by plans to build a shopping mall in Gezi park and spiralling into expressions of widespread discontent at authoritarian government and forceful attempts to quieten dissent – have solicited the European institutions to give a response. This response has been ambiguous on the part of the High Representative for External Affairs, who has called for ‘restraint on both sides’ – that is to say both on the side of the protestors and of the government – and much stronger on the part of the European Parliament which adopted a joint-party resolution condemning “disproportionate and excessive force by the Turkish police in its response to the peaceful and legitimate protests” and deploring the arrogant attitude of Turkish Prime Minister Erdogan to those in disagreement with his policies. Erdogan, for his part, reacted angrily to the resolution of the EU parliament, asking “who do they think they are?” It is opportune to re-examine the relations between Turkish people and ‘Europe’ and thereby reconsider the meaning of ‘European Citizenship’. On the basis of this reconsideration, a profound answer can be perhaps given to Erdogan which is likely to be more troubling to him than he might anticipate.
As is forcefully argued the Enacting European Citizenship research project led by Engin Isin of the Open University, ‘European citizenship’ is too frequently reduced to ‘citizenship of the European Union’, which is only conferred on citizens of member states of the European Union. The current and past activism of Turkish citizens can serve as a useful reminder that European Citizenship – when looked at from the individual citizens’ perspective – is the right to claim rights through a wider set of ‘European’ institutions including the Council of Europe and the European Court of Human Rights, as well as the invocation of a set of ‘European’ values and rights which are embodied in the idea of the European Union and its associated institutions.
As Bahar Rumelili and Fuat Keyman point out in their studies of European Citizenship in Turkey as part of the same ENACT research project, Turkish citizens have over recent years been articulating claims as European citizens through many of these institutions and invoking many associated values. They have made appeal to the European courts as well as the European Parliament to claim the right to conscientious objection – recognised in all Council of Europe member states except for Turkey and Azerbaijan – for example. Similarly, youth organisations in Turkey take part regularly in European Union supported ‘Youth in Action’ projects. The program of the EU explicitly promotes “a sense of active citizenship, solidarity, tolerance among young Europeans and to involve them in shaping the Union’s future” – and thereby admits that young Turks, despite not being EU-citizens, have a role in “shaping the Union’s future”. A Turkish youth organisation sits on the advisory council of the Council of Europe, and thereby has a say in policy affecting all Council of Europe countries from a youth perspective. The accession negotiations are another significant opportunity for civil society and citizens to articulate their demands. Rumelili and Keyman give the examples of gender equality organisations that have lobbied for the importance of the creation of an Equal Opportunities Commission in these negotiations, and Kurdish citizens who have made the Kurdish question a central issue of EU-Turkey relations. Many more examples could be given.
To act as a ‘European’ citizen does not mean to accept unquestioningly the ‘European’ standards, values, decisions or institutions associated with Europe. The example of young Turks appealing to the European courts to claim a right to conscientious objection is a good example to show this, as well as perhaps revealing something profound about the current protests and the reaction they have had from the Turkish political establishment.
There are reportedly over 5000 cases of objectors in Turkey, although not all of them are publicised. The examples Rumelili and Keyman give are of two objectors in the late 1990s, Osman Murat Ülke and Halil Savda. Ülke was called to the conscription office in 1995 and stated his objection. In 1996 he was charged with “cooling down the citizens’ enthusiasm for military service” under the anti-terrorism law Article 318, and spent 701 days in prison. In 1997 he made an application to the European Court of Human Rights claiming that recent developments in Europe have shown that conscientious objection is a fundamental human right. That is, he claimed rights as a European, based on what is the case for citizens of the European Union, without being a EU citizen himself.
In a landmark judgement, the Court found Turkey to be in breach of Article 3 of the European Charter on Human Rights, and sentenced the Turkish State to pay 11000 euros to Ülke. Article 3 is an article on the individual’s rights never to be subjected to torture or inhuman treatment. The Court also noted that the Turkish state needed urgently to come up with some legal arrangements ensuring the right of conscientious objection, although no steps have subsequently been taken in this direction.
Ülke himself was critical of the court for not referring to Article 9 of the Charter which refers to freedom of belief and conscience. Ülke asserts that conscientious objection is an ethical stance against the militaristic structure on which not only the Turkish state, but all nation-states are built. So it is not a matter of a particular individual’s ill-treatment by the state, but rather an issue of the structure of all nation-states.
Ülke has been supported in this argument by another conscientious objector, Halil Savada, who objected to military service in 2004 and was imprisoned for 17th months. In 2008 he was found to be “not fit for military service” by a military health council, which based its report on his alleged “anti-social behaviour, lack of masculinity and Turkishness”. Savada has been critical of the EU and European Court of Human Rights in its relation with Turkey in this question. If these European bodies were interested in promoting the right of conscientious objection, Savada argues, Turkey would be penalised not only for breaching the law against torture or ill-treatment, but also for not guaranteeing the right to conscientious objection on religious, philosophical or ethical grounds.
Furthermore, Savada emphasised like Ülke that the right to conscientious objection is an ethical demand which requires transforming the basis of the ground on which the nation-state is built. Savada argues that Europe has taken a step towards doing this in the creation of the EU, but has shied away from fulfilling this ethical imperative by allowing the prerogative for protecting human rights to remain with the nation-states. As such Savada is articulating a demand relating to the EU citizenship-regime, as well as with regards to the Turkish citizenship regime.
Although the current protests in Gezi park may seem quite distant from these questions of conscientious objection, this context provides an important angle from which to understand these peaceful, youthful protests and the violent reaction to them from the police and the state.
The Turkish constitution adopted in 1982 still includes article 58 on the ‘Protection of Youth’,
The state shall take measures to ensure the training and development of the youth into whose keeping our state, independence, and our Republic are entrusted, in the light of contemporary science, in line with the principles and reforms of Atatürk, and in opposition to ideas aiming at the destruction of the indivisible integrity of the state with its territory and nation.
In a country where schoolchildren are still taught from textbooks which assert that only “those who have performed their military service can become citizens who can contribute to social life and be valuable members of society”, the act of conscientious objection is understood as an “idea aiming at the destruction of the indivisible integrity of the state with its territory and nation”. The peaceful protests in Gezi park are also perhaps being understood in this way by the state: as anti-Turkish, anti-militaristic and as contravening the role assigned to ‘youth’ by the constitution. This also perhaps partly explains the way Erdogan continues to characterise the protests as a foreign conspiracy, and said that the protestors include many foreigners, as well as characterising the protestors as thugs and anti-Turkish. Widespread allegiance to this national idea of Turkey, enshrined in the constitution, can be an explanation for why Erdogan is able to generate public support with such statements.
If we understand the protestors demands from this perspective, the European Union has indeed an important role in upholding its non-national vocation to promote ‘unity in diversity’ and the respect of fundamental rights: as an actor which is not based on the nation-state or its logic. This is where the unique ‘legitimacy’ of the European Union and the European Parliament to comment and condemn with regards to what is happening in Turkey comes from. It is a moral legitimacy which should particularly trouble Erdogan and his neo-Ottoman ambitions.
From this perspective we can also understand the protestors as themselves articulating a demand on Europe – much like the conscientious protestors Savada and Ülke – to not shy away from the consequences of its principles and to demand changes to the nature of the nation-state as a result, as much inside the European Union as outside. Some of the latest calls to give new impetus to the accession process as a response to the crisis in Turkey can be seen in this perspective, although we could also understand the reticence of many young Turkish people to see the European Union in its current phase – dominated as it is by conservative forces halting the emergence of transnational politics – as a kind of saviour.
Perhaps then the significant solidarity of young people throughout Europe with the occupation in Gezi is the sign of a wider movement of citizens making demands on many governments at many levels. At least one of the things these citizens are paradoxially doing is calling for an alternative Europe through expressing support to the occupation of a park in Istanbul.