Human Rights: Is Turkey really worse than the EU?

di Sam Andrea Williams - 23 Aprile 2019

  from Instabul, Turkey

   DOI: 10.48256/TDM2012_00034

A comparison between Turkey’s and the European Union’s Human Rights violations 

Human rights and justice in the EU acquis context

The Khashoggi case made Erdogan appear to be the victim of “bullying” by Saudi Arabia on the international scene. The Turkish government surely was the victim in this case, but the case itself represents an exception. While the Saudis arrested 16 journalists in 2018, for the third year in a row, Turkey won the title of ‘the country with the highest number of jailed reporters’. Indeed, in 2018 alone, Turkish prisons held no fewer than 68 journalists (, 2019). Currently, reporters in jail are 157 (, 2019).

Freedoms and liberties have never been the strongest areas for the Republic of Turkey, but in the last few years the situation has progressively deteriorated. However, Turkey’s alignment with these chapters is essential for the EU to even consider re-admitting Turkey to EU accession talks. Chapters 23 and 24 of the acquis deal with topics such as Justice, Freedom, Fundamental Rights and Security, none of which issues Turkey is especially renowned for. Erdogan knows that the EU will not accept Turkey as a full member without it even trying to comply with the acquis chapters.

Turkey’s human rights violations

Ankara has a lot to offer the EU, and vice versa, but why did it apply to be a full member of the EU if it does not act to comply with its rules? Indeed, there are increasing reports of human rights violations, and the imprisonment of academics, students, and journalists. The history of these violations began long before the creation of the Turkish Republic, and includes violations of the rights of minority groups, notably Kurds and the LGBT+ community, freedom of speech, freedom of association. One notable act by the Turkish government that has been condemned is the 1993 Sivas Massacre, where the Turkish Government is accused of not having done anything to prevent the episode that resulted in 35 civilians – including poets and intellectuals – being burnt alive (Hürriyet Daily News, 2019). The 2011 airstrike on the border with Iraq that killed 34 Kurdish-Turkish civilians is another, similar episode.

Yet the victims have not received justice (Human Rights Watch, 2012). Another milestone in human rights violations took place in 2013, with the Gezi Park protests. This episode led to the life imprisonment of 16 activists (Bianet – Bagimsiz Iletisim Agi, 2019). The EU’s spokesperson for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, Maja Kocijancic, stated that this event ‘raises questions as to the adherence of the Turkish judiciary to international and European standards’ (EEAS – European External Action Service – European Commission, 2019). ). A further recent episode is the Suruc violence, where the state failed to protect citizens when an MP belonging to AKP (the leading Turkish party) shot a civilian in the leg, leading to an armed struggle between the family of the wounded civilian and the MP’s own family and security guards (Bianet – Bagimsiz Iletisim Agi, 2019).

Reactions of the European Union

Turkey has agreed to be a party to the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR), and it is accordingly obliged to follow its rules. Article 2 of the ECHR covers international killings, and situations in which it is permitted to use force that may result in the deprivation of life. It rules that the circumstances in which deprivation of life may occur must be strictly observed (, 2018). However, the Turkish government seems to be ignoring this law. Kocijancic released a statement saying the European Union does not support Ankara’s actions, and that ‘convictions of journalists run counter to the principles of freedom of expression and media freedom, cornerstones of any democratic society (EEAS – European External Action Service, 2019).

Ankara has also been criticized for its new constitutional amendments. Indeed, the European Commission for Democracy Through Law stated that it ‘represents a dangerous step backwards in the constitutional democratic tradition of Turkey’, and stressed ‘the dangers of degeneration of the proposed system towards an authoritarian and personal regime’ (Pierini, 2019). The imprisonment of Turkey’s top Kurdish leader and former co-chair of the pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP), Selahattin Demirtas, has also led to further questions about Turkey’s level of democracy. Federica Mogherini herself openly stated that ‘The independence of Turkey’s judiciary is being undermined. Fundamental rights, such as the presumption of innocence, are often ignored and violated’ (EEAS, 2018). She also called for Turkey to abide by the ECHR’s laws, and expressed concerns over the levels of democracy and human rights violations (Ibid.).

Erdogan Strikes Back.

‘No one can lecture our country about democracy, human rights and freedom’ (Hürriyet Daily News, 2018) Recep Erdogan said. Indeed, Ankara believes that Turkey’s human rights record is no worse than the European Union’s own record. Perhaps he is not all that wrong. Freedom House gave Turkey a score of 6 out of 7, but Hungary did not do much better, scoring 3.5 points (, 2019). Not to mention the fact that the trend of democracy in EU member states is regressing (, 2018). The President of the Turkish Republic released his statement with regard to the jilets jaunes protests in France, and the excessive use of force by the police. Indeed, French police reportedly targeted journalists intentionally, and used force inappropriately (, 2018). Using force against peaceful, unarmed civilians, and using force against violent protesters, are two very different things.

But the European Union has not excelled when it comes to migrants, arguably setting a worse example than Turkey. France has been negating migrants’ rights – even in the case of unaccompanied children – on its southern border with Italy for a long time (, 2018). In Calais, the authorities refused to allow humanitarian organizations to give food to asylum-seekers (Ibid.). Greece may score better than Turkey when it comes to democracy, but its recent violent pushbacks of migrants are not in line with the ECHR, either. Indeed, the Greek authorities reportedly beat and imprison migrants and asylum-seekers, and throw them out of the country (Human Rights Watch, 2019). Italy, as well as France, has drawn up very strict laws on civilians helping migrants.

Is the EU better?

While France imprisons civilians who give food and safety to asylum-seekers (, 2018), Italy persecutes NGOs that save lives in the Mediterranean, and it is currently accused of keeping migrants hostage while trying to strike a deal with the EU (, 2018). In the meantime, Interior Minister Salvini’s decree led to migrants, victims of sex-trafficking, and mentally ill children becoming homeless (Tondo and Giuffrida, 2019). In June 2018, Spain was portrayed as a benefactor when it rescued the migrants on board the “Aquarius” who were denied entry to Malta and Italy (, 2018). However, Madrid itself does not have a particularly good history in granting rights to migrants and asylum-seekers. In 2014 it openly admitted to shooting and killing migrants swimming from Morocco and trying to reach Europe (Govan, 2014). Other episodes of shootings by Spanish authorities at migrants on the southern border took place even after that (Ibid.).

Human Rights violations in the EU

The list of violations of migrants’ rights in the European Union could go on, but human rights violations are not limited to violence against asylum-seekers. Budapest is no better than Italy, Greece, France and Spain when it comes to the treatment of migrants, denying them basic needs such as food and shelter (Human Rights Watch, 2018).

Turkey has more refugees than any other country (DailySabah, 2018), and integration seems to be working. Refugees can easily access the health system, education, and the labour market, or at least do so more easily than in the EU (World Bank, 2018). Even though the unemployment rate is rather high in Turkey, Syrians are motivated to find jobs. Of course, in areas with a larger percentage of Syrian refugees, it is harder for Syrians to be employed. Nonetheless, since 2016 they have been granted formal work permits. Were it not for the fact that unemployment in Turkey is already at its highest ever level, Ankara’s struggles to help refugees get out of social assistance would be even more effective. Could this be a lesson for the EU?

Media and the EU

However, the EU seems to be doing better than Turkey as regards press freedoms. According to the 2018 world press freedom index, Turkey is among the last 30 countries, but European Union member states are not performing much better (RSF, 2018). Hungary is actively worsening its position on journalists’ freedoms and rights. Indeed, independent media are close to disappearing. The courts’ freedoms are increasingly being curbed, and NGOs are constantly under fire (France 24, 2018). Athens is ranked slightly worse than Budapest. Due to the economic crisis, media freedom is heavily affected, straining the resources and capabilities of private news outlets, and creating a polarized political environment that encourages political and legal pressure on journalists (, 2018).

Nevertheless, Poland’s record seems equally poor. Public media have been formally renamed the “national media”, and have been turned into mouthpieces for government propaganda (RSF, 2018). Indeed, there is a zero-tolerance policy towards neutral or dissident employees of state-owned media (Ibid.), highlighting the polarization of the press. Meanwhile Croatia’s policies on the press seem very similar to Turkey’s policies. Indeed, the country falls within the bottom few EU countries in terms of freedom of the press (RSF, 2018). This is due to government strategies, such as imprisonment for insulting ‘the Republic, its emblem, its national hymn or flag’, or the criminalization of ‘humiliating’ media content (RSF, 2018).


In the west – or at least in the EU – there is this widespread concept of an authoritarian Turkey. However, as far as Ankara fails on many levels when it comes to democracy, migration and freedom of press, it is not the only responsible for certain violations. The European Union takes prestige in declaring that it grants Human Rights to all people. But wouldn’t some self-criticism lead to improving things at home, rather than criticizing Turkey? It would be useful to study more closely potential Human Rights violations in the European Union member states, and act to improve their status in such matter.

Maybe, the problem Turkey faced was exactly this one. It condemned too much actions outside of its borders and completely disregarded Human Rights issues within its own territory. The EU has a lot to learn for the Turkish Republic. Member states must be crafty not to continue to commit the same mistakes, and some tips from their refugees integration might also help.



Bibliography (Human rights and justice in the EU acquis context)


Bibliography (Is the EU Better?)


Autore dell’articolo*: Sam Andrea Williams , Studente in ‘International Relations’ alla University of Kent, nonché visiting student presso la Bogazici Universitesi, Istanbul.


Nota della redazione del Think Tank Trinità dei Monti

Come sempre pubblichiamo i nostri lavori per stimolare altre riflessioni, che possano portare ad integrazioni e approfondimenti. 

* I contenuti e le valutazioni dell’intervento sono di esclusiva responsabilità dell’autore.

Editor’s Note – Think Tank Trinità dei Monti

As always, we publish our articles to encourage debates, and to spread knowledge and original and alternative points of view.

* The contents and the opinions of this article belong to the author(s) of this article only.