The case of Turkey shows how human rights have been (mis)appropriated by the new global right in an increasingly authoritarian context. In our article for a forthcoming symposium published in the International Journal of Constitutional Law, we make two central claims: First, Turkey shares important similarities with global trends with respect to human rights appropriation practices at the expense of women’s and LGBTQI+ rights.
Second, Turkey has distinct contextual features in terms of shifting frames of human rights appropriation; the state-driven nature of the appropriation practices; and the enabling role played by the appeasement shown by international institutions, in particular the European Court of Human Rights’ newly found emphasis on the principle of subsidiarity.
Growing scholarly attention on the uses of human rights for anti-pluralist purposes has so far focused more on Christian actors’ appropriation frames and strategies. The case of Turkey, however, provides insights into how frames of human rights appropriation have shifted from secular to Islamist variants in the last two decades.
Old and new frames of human rights appropriation
Efforts to demarcate “authentic” from “inauthentic” human rights holders has been part and parcel of the political and legal history of human rights in Turkey. This demarcation has traditionally relied on two key frames: the protection of national security and public order, and the defense of secularism. These frames identified women wearing headscarves, the advocates of political Islam, communism, and minority rights (in particular the rights of Kurds) as inauthentic human rights holders.
With the consolidation of power by the Islamist Justice and Development Party (Adalet ve Kalkınma Partisi), who has had repeated election victories in the past twenty-one years, the protection of the idea of the pious Sunni Muslim family and nation has replaced the protection of secularism. This shift has put women’s and LGBTQI+ rights advocates at risk of human rights appropriation practices by the state, which uses the right to family and protection of public morals as key frames of appropriation against these advocates.
Turkey’s March 2021 withdrawal from the Council of Europe Convention on Preventing and Combating Violence against Women and Domestic Violence (the Istanbul Convention) epitomizes this shift. The official explanation provided for the withdrawal argued that “the Istanbul Convention, originally intended to promote women’s rights, was hijacked by a group of people seeking to normalize homosexuality—which is incompatible with Turkey’s social and family values.” President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan subsequently targeted feminist organizations for their criticism of the withdrawal from the Istanbul Convention and accused them of abusing women “for the sake of their deviant ideological agendas.”
National security and public order frames continue to be key to the repression of dissenting voices against the government’s political agenda. The routine of resorting to public order and security alongside public morals to ban the activities or gatherings of LGBTQI+ organizations further shows how old and new forms of human rights appropriation are now intermingled.
New actors, globally familiar strategies
While old forms of human rights appropriation in Turkey were typically employed by traditional branches of the state, the shift from a secularist to a religious frame has fostered the proliferation of new institutional actors. Turkey is perhaps unique in that both the state’s own presidency of religious affairs (Diyanet) and the country’s national human rights and equality institution (Türkiye İnsan Hakları ve Eşitlik Kurumu) have promoted these new forms of (mis)appropriation, pointing to the pervasive state-driven nature of shifting frames.
However, the strategies of new (mis)appropriation in Turkey by old and new actors follow familiar global patterns. Human rights are represented as zero-sum games, as exemplified by the juxtaposition of the rights of LGBTQI+ people versus pious families. New human rights appropriations are further justified by positing a particular legal hierarchy of rights. In line with the transnational conservative trend toward “human rights originalism,” a congress TIHEK organized, for example, concluded that the rights of the family in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights is hierarchically above the subsequent human rights instruments preserving women’s and LGBTQI+ rights.
The transnational dimension
The shifting frames and strategies of human rights appropriation in Turkey in the last decade cannot be seen in isolation from the overall transnational context. State-driven human rights appropriation practices in Turkey benefit from this transnational dimension. Turkey frequently asserts that it is not alone—not only in the Islamic world but also in the Christian world in its attempts to reshape human rights. The press release issued by the president’s Directorate of Communications following the withdrawal from the Istanbul Convention notably says “Turkey is not the only country that has serious concerns with the Istanbul Convention.”
In addition, Turkish officials assert that its appropriations of human rights can and should be accommodated by the open-ended language of international human rights law, relying in particular on the principle of subsidiarity and the doctrine of margin of appreciation afforded to national authorities to protect rights domestically, a doctrine famously developed by the European Court of Human Rights. This doctrine has gained further traction in the age of democratic backlash against the Strasbourg Court following the 2012 Brighton Declaration. It is now echoed in the recent case law of the Turkish Constitutional Court, as well as in public statements made by the Turkish Ministry of Foreign Affairs to justify mis(appropriation) practices in an authoritarian context.
The Turkish case calls for some measure of caution in addressing new forms of (mis)appropriation to reconfigure human rights in pursuance of populist or authoritarian agendas as an entirely new phenomenon. Resorting to exclusionary frames to delineate “authentic” and “inauthentic” human rights bearers has a longer history beyond appropriation predating the recent rise of the global right. More research and comparative learning, as well as global solidarity against the local appearance of this now transnational phenomenon, are needed to make domestic and international human rights movements and institutions more resilient to the efforts of those who do not reject human rights but seek to reshape them in their own image.