Turkey: voicing minority concerns in academic discussions

The European Court of Human Rights has recently ruled against a ban imposed on an American citizen’s re-entry into Turkey for past opinions concerning Kurdish and Armenian issues during her teaching activities in the eighties (Cox v. Turkey). The applicant had allegedly said to her university colleagues and students that the Turks had massacred the Armenians and assimilated the Kurds. She was expelled from Turkey and a ban imposed on her return. The Ministry of Interior held that the expulsion and subsequent ban were due to the applicant’s “separatist activities, which were incompatible with national security.”

The Court found that the ban imposed on the applicant on account of her past statements amounted to an interference with her freedom of expression. It considered “that the ban on the applicant’s re-entry is materially related to her right to freedom of expression because it disregards the fact that Article 10 rights are enshrined ‘regardless of frontiers’ and that no distinction can be drawn between the protected freedom of expression of nationals and that of foreigners.” (para. 31). The Court added that “[t]he applicant is precluded from re-entering on grounds of her past opinions and, as a result, is no longer able to impart information and ideas within that country” (para. 31).

This is obviously not the first time the Turkish government invokes security considerations to justify an interference with freedoms lying at the core of democracy (e.g., freedom of expression, freedom of association) and touching upon issues concerning state-minority relations. In this case, the Court was unable to see in the domestic court’s reasoning “how and why exactly the applicant’s views were deemed harmful to the national security of Turkey.” It found that the applicant was not shown to have been engaged in activities that could be seen as harmful to the state and concluded that the ban was designed to repress her freedom of expression.

Although the complaint was not brought by minority members themselves (or by a political association or party sympathetic to their concerns), the opinion for which the applicant was apparently accused of being engaged in separatist activities was ultimately linked to minorities’ concerns. The Court emphasizes: “The opinions expressed by the applicant related to topics which continue to be the subject of heated debate, not only within Turkey but also in the international arena, with all those involved voicing their views and counter-views. The Court is aware that the opinions expressed on these issues by one side may sometime offend the other side but […] a democratic society requires tolerance and broadmindedness in the face of controversial expressions.” (para. 42)

At first glance, one can think this case is just about the freedom of a non-Turkish citizen to express her opinion on controversial issues. A closer look, however, reveals positive implications for minorities more generally. After all, the opinion for which the applicant was prohibited from re-entering Turkey concerned matters that affect minorities deeply. An opposite ruling would have certainly meant an erosion of the democratic arena to voice minority concerns.  Fortunately, this was not the case.

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