16 March 2005 Edition

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Attack on women's march highlights Turkish human rights record

On Tuesday 8 March, women all around the world demonstrated, congregated and celebrated International Women's Day. In every other country in Europe, the day was marked by token government and media gestures; nothing too dangerous or exciting. However, it was on the fringes of that so-called Europe that something very wrong happened: police, armed with truncheons and tear gas, charged a crowd of about 100 people who refused to disperse after an International Women's Day protest in Istanbul, Turkey, on Sunday 6 March.

State repression is nothing new to Turkish people, but at a time where the eyes of the European community are on the country — as the possibility of Turkey joining the European Union increased after the European Parliament voted on favour of initiating negotiations with the country's government — the brutality of this attack against basic civil and human rights was played on TV screens across Europe.

The European Union condemned the use of "disproportionate force" by Turkish police against women demonstrators. The foreign ministers of Luxembourg and Britain, who share the EU presidency this year, and enlargement commissioner Olli Rehn, urged the Turkish Government to ensure that the incident will not be repeated.

"We were shocked by images of the police beating women and young people demonstrating in Istanbul in connection with International Women's Day," they said. "We condemn all violence, as demonstrations must be peaceful... on the eve of a visit by the EU, during which the rights of women will be an important issue, we are concerned to see such disproportionate force used against demonstrators," as television pictures showed police kicking protesters on the ground; one policeman beat a woman to the ground with his baton, then another ran up and kicked her in the face.

Turkish Foreign Minister Abdullah Gul promised a full investigation into the incident, and authorities blamed the police attack on overzealous officers who had yet to take in the new changes to the law incorporating respect towards human rights that not so long ago the Turkish Government had asked them to actively ignore.

And some within the European Union seem anxious to accept "the official version". Rehn praised Turkey's efforts to comply with EU demands on human rights but warned Ankara: "Turkey has done very bold and significant reforms to improve human rights, and it is understandable that there is a breathing phase, but it is extremely important Turkey keep up the momentum in legal, political and increasingly economic reforms."

Clearly, the changes adopted by the government and parliament in Turkey have not filtered to grassroots levels. This calls into question the Turkish government's commitment to implementing the EU's requirement of respect for human rights and civil liberties, after European leaders agreed last December to start membership talks with Turkey later this year.

The European Parliament supported the opening of negotiations with Turkey by 407 votes in favour, 262 against and 29 abstentions on 16 December. The votes were kept secret. Before this definitive vote took place, the MEPs rejected two amendments to the text, one denying Turkey the possibility to become a full member of the Union and the second calling for the European Commission and the Council of Europe to put together a proposal for a "special collaboration status" with Turkey. Both amendments were strongly opposed by the Turkish government, which wants to become a full-rights EU member.

However, one of the 84 amendments presented was passed by the MEPs, calling for Turkey's formal acceptance of the "historical reality of the 1915 genocide against the Armenians and the opening of the border between Turkey and Armenia according with resolutions passed by the Parliament between 1987 and 2004", something that the Ankara administration has opposed for nearly 90 years.

It also asked Ankara to recognise the Republic of Cyprus — the island is divided due to Turkey's occupation of the north of the island. The southern part of Cyprus is now an EU member state. Turkey was asked to open negotiations with the government of Cyprus and to initiate the demilitarisation of the island, where Turkey maintains 30,000 soldiers.

The amendment also mentioned the plight of the Kurdish people, but not their struggle for independence, as the text of the EU resolution defined them as "an important component of Turkish society", which clearly legitimises and supports the occupation of Kurdistan by Turkey.

The US administration has been Turkey's main ally in its efforts to join the European Union. Washington wants to keep happy a country that holds many NATO and US military bases and which is considered the main outpost of the US in terms of the Middle East and former Soviet states.


Population: 70 million

Territory: 780,576 sq Km, with about 90% in Asia and the rest in what is considered Southeast Europe. It shares borders with Greece, Bulgaria, Iran, Georgia, Armenia, Iraq and Syria.

Capital city: Ankara

Language: Most of the population speaks Turkish; about six million speak Kurdish languages and a few hundred thousand speak Arabic.

Religion: 90% Islamic, most of them Sunni. There are small Jewish and Greek-orthodox communities.

Government: Constitutional Republic with 550 MPs. General elections take place every five years and presidential elections every seven. The current prime minister is Tayyip Erdogan, of the Development and Justice Party (AKP).

Economy is a mix of modern industry, mostly textile manufacturing, and trade, with 40% of the workforce working the land.

Modern History: The Turkish Republic was declared in 1923 on the remains of the Ottoman Empire. The leader was Mustafa Kernal, better known as Ataturk, and considered the "father" of modern Turkey. The country joined NATO in 1952 and became an official candidate for EU membership in 1999.

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