Turkish aggressions towards its Kurdish minority are frequently in the news, and the number of human rights violations brought to the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) is rising. However, the ECHR is failing to take effective action in response to these cases, and human rights abuses are continuing.
Hoping to uncover why the ECHR is proving ineffective in Kurdish cases, the EU-funded DEMTUREUROPE project explored how the supranational court is trying to address the concerns of the Kurdish minority within the authoritarian Turkish state.
One aim of the project is to encourage the EU to reassess how the ECHR operates and how its legitimacy can be strengthened. Its findings have far-reaching implications given recent leanings towards authoritarianism in high courts in Member States such as Poland and Hungary.
“In Turkey, the state is engaged in violence against a minority group and is claiming legitimacy by citing counterterrorism. What is a supranational human rights court – the ECHR – doing about it?” asks Dilek Kurban, Marie Curie Fellow at the Hertie School of Governance in Berlin and DEMTUREUROPE project coordinator.
Giving victims a voice
Turkey played a part in drafting the text of the European Convention on Human Rights, which the country then ratified in 1954. Since 2005, it has also been an EU Accession State – a status granted to countries that uphold the rule of law, guarantee human rights and protect their minorities.
The Convention is considered the most effective human rights regime in the world since it was recognised by the ECHR – a court with jurisprudence over 800 million citizens in 47 countries – in 1990. Yet, the court is failing to reduce human rights violations in the Kurdish region. In 2016, the ECHR received 8 300 new applications from Turkey, nearly four times as many as in 2015.
Kurban’s research found that the court was at its most open and bold in Kurdish cases from the late 1990s until the early 2000s, when Turkey’s ties with Europe deepened. In earlier times, the ECHR frequently condemned Turkey for human rights abuses which included executions of Kurdish civilians, torture, forced displacement, destroyed villages, murdered and disappeared Kurdish journalists, activists and politicians, and arbitrary arrests.
Overseeing authoritarian regimes
“The ECHR showed how a supranational court can have a consequential engagement in state violence by documenting it, giving a voice to its victims and discrediting official denial,” says Kurban.
However, her research found that it could have done more in cases of right-to-life and torture, a trend that deepened as the ECHR’s oversight of state violence and infringements of minority rights in Turkey grew. “This reflects a political choice rather than the limitations of the court,” says Kurban.
DEMTUREUROPE showed that the ECHR has not provided effective oversight of the authoritarian regime in Turkey. Referring issues and cases back to domestic legal systems and local governments where majorities overpower minorities, and where the judiciary is complicit in state violence, can legitimise authoritarianism and the disempowerment and repression of minority groups, the project found.
DEMTUREUROPE also revealed that scholarly analysis of the court’s actions in Turkey is lacking. “Instead of analysing whether the ECHR has made full use of its judicial review powers in Turkey, judicial impact scholars have too often excused the court for its inability to overcome states’ resistance to its rulings. Meanwhile, studies at the ECHR on Kurdish legal mobilisation are rare,” says Kurban.
Furthermore, the research showed that the ECHR is ill-equipped to deal with the life-and-death situations faced by domestic lawyers contesting state violence, especially when they belong to the minority communities for whom they are seeking justice.