25 May 2015

Dahrendorf Workshop “Democracy and Justice in Turkey and Europe”

Location IPC, Istanbul
Beginning 10  Ending 18

On 25 May 2015, the Working Group Europe & Turkey held their first workshop, titled “Is Democracy in Turkey Possible Without Justice” at the Istanbul Policy Center in Istanbul. The focus-group was attended by an expert group of 20 distinguished researchers and civil society actors in the field.

The Workshop Panels

The workshop consisted of three panels, each exploring a different aspect of the central question “Is Democracy in Turkey Possible without Justice”:

The first area of inquiry, procedural justice, took a closer look at the system of democracy and justice in Turkey. The experts discussed issues such as majoritarianism versus substantive democracy and the controversy over a presidential system in Turkey. The drift towards autocracy that can be observed in other regions in Europe (both inside and outside the EU) was discussed and whether this can be considered a threat to the ideal of liberal democracy. Some participants pointed out that the actual challenge to democracy lay before the procedural requirements in the attitudinal dimension of mutual trust and value in the concept of democracy. Such trust is central in to the question of legitimacy in consolidated democracies, a value, which in Turkey remains historically lacking. Above all, Turkey’s significant failings in the legal system have led to a deficiency in the link between law and justice.

Beyond the threats, however, new forms of civil participation by use of the law are becoming a critical form of engagement with a bottom-up approach that moves away from the failure of the judicial system. In the cases of cause lawyering the political use of the law is instrumentalised for e.g. urbanisation projects. This use of the law rests on a history of legal mobilization by minority groups, in particular the Kurdish movement and in particular since the early 1990s. These groups have furthermore been instrumental in making use of legal institutions beyond the nation-state legal institutions, e.g. the European Court of Human Rights.

The second panel focused on aspects of socio-economic justice in a system which entails labour exploitation, high income inequality, poverty and social exclusion. The socio-economic development of the country was discussed in light of Turkey’s neoliberal restructuring, which gathered considerably in pace in the 2000s. AKP majority rule brought about not just losers. It has also brought to the fore winners and an emerging new elite.

The debate on welfare reform was a central area of inquiry in the second panel. The participants pointed out that a massive inclusion into the public health-care system has taken place in Turkey. However, this massive inclusion is also creating a new rift between citizens with and without social security. While the health reform and social service packages are welcomed by most citizens, the reform in fact extends state power and authority by subcontracting family members, in particular women as carers. In Turkey only 27% of women participate in the labor force with a considerable share working in the low paid service sector, while 47% of women work as honorary and unpaid family workers.

The third panel, an inquiry into justice with regard to past atrocities, discussed the history of state violence and crimes in Turkey which remain officially unacknowledged and non-remedied. In this focal area the discussants investigated aspects of democracy in light of the recent and not-so-recent past by discussing the Kurdish issue, the effects of the new anti-terror law and the Armenian genocide.

A central area of discussion was the question memory and reconciliation in the case of the Kurdish conflict. Multi-dimensional approaches to the state crimes in the Kurdistan region need to be developed and a common struggle against impunity must take shape. But it is not only the Turkish state that has not fulfilled its responsibility, civil society too has not used the space it could have carved out for its concerns.

The Turkish government has been willing to engage in some memory work in the past years. However, it is very resilient when it comes to the question of justice.


Conclusions for the Working Group Agenda

In the concluding remarks, three areas were identified as routes for further investigation:

  1. Legal mobilization and rights litigation, namely the use of the law and the courts to circumvent the failure of the political system and to remedy the democratic deficit in Turkey. The bottom-up approaches of resistance through the use of the law and the courts, both at the national and the transnational level, constitute a form of civil participation and democratic contestation. Here we wish to look closely into the legal mobilization of the Kurdish movement since the early 1990s, domestically before the Turkish courts and transnationally before the European Court of Human Rights.
  2. Turkey has a long history of state violence and crimes against civilians which remain officially unacknowledged and non-remedied. The relatively new yet growing grassroots efforts, coupled with academic research, seek to construct an alternative and civil collective memory by documenting past injustices such as the Armenian genocide and the systematic gross violations against Kurdish civilians in the 1990s. This is by no means a question of the past, however, not only because impunity for human rights abuses continue in Turkey but also the accountability of the state is an indispensable aspect of democracy.
  3. The recent turf wars between the current government and various political groups vividly demonstrate the competing notions of justice prevalent within both the state and the society. The subjectivity in which justice is claimed and denied reveals not only the vulnerability of the justice system in Turkey but also the lack of common democratic values.