Artists, activists and journalists respond to Turkey’s presentation to the UN Council on Human Rights Universal Periodic Review
On 27 January 2015, Bülent Arinç, Deputy Prime Minister of Turkey, delivered a report on the state of human rights in Turkey to the United Nations Council on Human Rights. Arinç, accompanied by a delegation of over 20 other Turkish officials including from the Turkish ministries of the interior, foreign affairs and justice, came from Ankara to the Palais des Nations in Geneva, under a process known as the Universal Periodic Review (UPR). Under the Review, every four years each of the 193 UN Member States is required to report on their adherence to the UN’s human rights standards and to hear recommendations from other member states on areas that require improvement.
That day, Freemuse, that advocates for freedom of expression for musicians world wide, and Siyah Bant, that monitors censorship of the arts across Turkey, co-hosted an event alongside the Platform for Independent Jounalism, P24, and the Human Rights Joint Platform, İHOP. Over 50 people gathered in central Istanbul to watch, comment and exchange views as the debate from Geneva was broadcast live via the UN’s web-cast.
The audience included a wide range of people – artists, human rights activists, academics and journalists – all interested in promoting freedom of expression, a right that has suffered numerous blows since Turkey last stood before the UPR in 2010. This was the first time that such a diverse group, yet with similar concerns, had come together to observe and discuss a UN debate. There was considerable coverage of the event on social media and the press. The twitter hashtag #uprturkey created to enable users to follow the debate was accessed over three million times, an indication of the importance of social media in Turkey where independent media is under pressure.
In Geneva, Bülent Arinç delivered his country’s report, the core of which spoke judicial reforms that he saw as having delivered progress in the protection of rights. There was increased freedom for religious and ethnic minorities, and ‘tolerance and mutual understanding’ between religious groups. Right to fair trial had been ‘enhanced’. Use of force by police during demonstrations was ‘regulated’ and there was ‘zero tolerance’ towards torture. A raft of laws and mechanisms had been put in place to protect women’s rights. On free expression, of particular interest to our meeting, ‘Turkey has resolutely continued its efforts towards expanding the scope of freedom of expression and the media.’
It was clear that Arinç’s optimistic view was not shared by our audience, and some of the assertions that were made were loudly challenged, and, occasionally were the cause of wry laughter among the group in response to the suggestions that freedom of expression was protected, and had been enhanced by recent judicial reforms. As one participant called out ironically as Arinç closed his speech: ‘Now that is a country I would like to live in!’
During the three hour hearing, 116 state representatives spoke, using their allotted time of only one minute to make a total of 278 recommendations. They included women’s and minority rights, freedom of religious practice, fair trial, sexual orientation and conscientious objection. Of these, 31 countries, the majority from the EU, also made 37 recommendations on freedom of expression. Some were broadly framed calls for protection, others more specific, such as those calling for the repeal or amendment of specific laws including the controversial Article 301. The Norwegian delegation explicitly mentioned artists’ right to freedom of expression. Egypt took the opportunity to castigate Turkey for detaining journalists, internet bans and police violence during protests, surprising in light of its own, similar, abuses. But this was a rare example of a state misusing the UPR platform for entirely political purposes.
Two days later, Arinç returned briefly to the podium at the UN to comment on the outcome. His government accepted 199 of the recommendation while another 52 were being ‘examined’ and his government’s response on these would come later.
27 were rejected outright, notably on issues around Cyprus and conscientious objectors.
37 recommendations related to freedom of expression, of which 18 were accepted, mainly broadly framed calls for protection.
A further 18 are to be ‘examined’, tending to be those that had specific calls for changes to law.
(Only one, submitted by Cyprus, was rejected outright, simply because Turkey does not recognise the Republic of Cyprus, none of whose seven recommendations were accepted.)
Turkey’s UPR report will be adopted formally at the UN Human Rights Council Meeting in June 2015.
After the broadcast, participants at our meeting stayed on to discuss what they had observed. It was clear to them that the progress that the Turkish government claims to have made was not so in practice. There were areas that some felt had been neglected, such as around youth right to employment, the misuse of the term ‘terrorism’, that ISIS insurgents use the Turkish border to enter Syria, and, from a former political prisoner, prison conditions. The absence of recommendations from outside the EU was noted, and it was suggested that the fact that Turkey is a major aid donor in Africa, for example, could be the reason for countries there not to speak up.
Contrary to the government’s claim that civil society had been consulted during this process, the meeting was told that only five groups had been invited to take part in a consultation, and they were limited to one person each, which is far from representative. Turkey had not produced an interim progress report at two years, as recommended by the UN, and information on the UPR was very difficult to find on the government web-site.
The meeting concluded that human rights organisations, artists, journalists groups, academics should work in coalition to shadow Turkey’s adherence to the recommendations to which it had agreed, making sure that the next UPR will have proper input from civil society and reflect more accurately the situation for free expression and other rights. An action network is being set up where these groups’ monitoring reports can be shared, and plans for joint advocacy formed which will ensure they are properly part of the next UPR review and that the Turkey government’s report is a true reflection of the challenges that need to be addressed, and which gives meaningful solutions.
» Freemuse/Siyah Bant submission to the UPR:
» The official UN UPR website:
» UN documentation related to Turkey UPR:
» Archive Webcast of Turkey UPR 27 January 2015: