Human Rights and Counter-Terrorism in Turkey and the UK


A review of The Balancing of Human Rights and Counter-Terrorism: A Comparative Analysis of Turkey and the UK, by Ipek Demirsu.

Ipek Demirsu has written a very comprehensive thesis on the counter-terrorism regulations in the UK and in Turkey by using a comparative methodology. Her starting point is that there is a tense relationship between human rights and counter-terrorism and this issue needs more scrutiny in academia. Her contention is that the current environment of constant securitization and panic, especially after 9/11, paved the way for erosion of certain democratic values under the disguise of counter-terrorism measures. In order to better understand how state actors maintain the thin line between these measures and basic human rights, Demirsu formulated a multi-method study that combines policy analysis as well as frame analysis of parliamentary discussions in both countries. In her own words, “in an attempt to by-pass human rights obligations, state actors securitize areas of political life replacing them beyond the boundaries of normal politics by invoking a sense of exceptionalism” (p. iv). With this argument resting at the heart of the dissertation, she makes a very strong statement: “The institutionalization of the state of exception in the long-run brings grave ramifications for the status of human rights and the functioning of democracy” (ibid.). It is hard to contest this statement. The current period of securitization brings an atmosphere with it that feeds the counter-terrorism narratives which in the end find its way to policy outcomes that gradually endanger human rights. As she points out, these policies are not only used for preventing “terrorist acts” but also used for silencing dissent in both contexts albeit in different ways. There is no doubt that today’s world would surprise or even horrify Huxley and Orwell. It seems like we are living both their scenarios all at the same time.

Demirsu has elegantly researched her topic, established a solid theoretical framework and has conducted rigorous empirical analysis which makes her thesis a great contribution to the literature. In the Introduction chapter, she starts with giving examples from Turkey and the UK. At a first glance, one might wonder why she has chosen these two countries; the first one is an established democracy with a long tradition of respecting human rights if not innovating the whole concept and the latter is a country which has been struggling with democratization for a century and miserably failed in the recent years with its shift towards authoritarianism. One might then ask what is to compare between these two cases? What can be similar? Does the author try to show that their implementation of counter-terrorism acts differ immensely? Her findings actually show that when it comes to national security interests, human rights can take a backseat in both cases. That is why among other research questions, she asks “why does the United Kingdom as a long-established liberal democracy display similar tendencies found in a yet democratizing country like Turkey?” (p. 4).

In the first part of the dissertation, Demirsu focuses on theoretical debates in securitization literature. She starts with deeply analysing the concepts such as security and sovereignty which constitute the background of this dissertation. After discussing the realist and constructivist approaches to security, she moves to Critical Security Studies and the Copenhagen School which are discussed in detail. She then moves to another discussion on sovereign power and the ‘state of exception’ where she references prominent scholars and philosophers while discussing the limits of state sovereignty-if any. Borrowing from Agamben and Schmitt, she discusses the U.S. Patriot act and the UK’s Anti-terrorism, Crime and Security Act which give extraordinary powers to the state, sometimes breaching the law, in order to sustain national security. In another section she brings out the discussion on international norms and human rights in order to set the background for highlighting contradictions between the security paradigm generated counter-terrorism acts and human rights. The following section then focuses on terrorism and counter-terrorism which are concepts that are too stretched in today’s world that nobody knows what they actually refer to anymore. It can even be argued that terrorism as a concept is going through semantic crisis. In a post- 9/11 environment, states have increased their power and might over their citizens and others by firstly utilizing this environment to create feelings of insecurity among masses which paved the way for legitimizing their actions. In a world full of ‘terrorists’, ‘terrorism’ and ‘security threats’, human rights and international norms could be sacrificed in order to sustain national security and prosperity. From this departure point, Demirsu constructs a methodological tool to demonstrate to what extend this happened in tandem or differently in Turkey and in the UK. Both the theoretical background and the methodology chapters are very well written and give the reader the impression that the author has solid theoretical knowledge of previous and current discussions on this topic. The section on adjoining methodology and theory is all the more useful for the reader to better understand where the author is coming from.

The second part of the thesis is dedicated to comparative policy analysis where the author scrutinizes the evaluation of counter-terrorism policies in both countries and tries to answer the question of how states balance human rights commitments and national security concerns. The third chapter focuses on the UK. Demirsu underlines that the counter-terrorism measures in the UK did not start with the 9/11 paradigm but it was already there as the country was a scene for fighting between the British forces and the Irish Republican Army starting from the 1970s. The issues pertaining national security were already on the table. However in the post- 9/11 period, there was another critical juncture when the UK declared its loyalty to stand side by side with the U.S. on its war against ‘terror’. By declaring that the British society was vulnerable to terrorist threats more than ever, the government took several measures and passed laws that limit individual liberties despite the fact that it is considered the country where these concepts were born. Demirsu then proceeds with explaining the human rights legislation in the UK in details putting emphasis on the fact that ‘the institutionalization of human rights norms has not been an easy process’ (p. 93). She also reminds the reader that the Terrorism Act 2000 was already there before September 11 attacks and the definition of the concept of ‘terrorism’ was very broad and vague even then. The chapter includes policy as well as textual analysis of the British approach towards the clash between human rights and counter-terrorism actions that aim to strengthen national security. International laws and treaties that are binding the UK and how the British government found a way to create its own aura of security measures is explained in great detail. London bombings on 7/7 accelerated the implementation and regulation of these matters. Policy discussions regarding the increasing number of British citizens joining jihadist groups in the Middle East and targeting not only countries that are far from the UK but also British citizens in the UK become dominant after mid-2000s. It is possible to see a growing trend that focuses on more measures and less stress on freedom of speech and other liberties and the Counter Terrorism and security Act 2015 is an example of that. This issue has also been addressed by many authors such as Boon-Kuo et al. and Sentas. These authors argued that these laws are actually alienating diaspora populations from host societies and making it harder to initiate a peace and reconciliation process in many cases. Concurring with these authors, Demirsu concludes that the UK accommodates controversial counter-terrorism measures despite the fact that it is an established democracy. At the end of the chapter, she also provides a list of all counter-terrorism policies in the UK by outlining their content and significance which makes the arguments much more clear and visible.

Chapter four is dedicated to the security policies in Turkey this time focusing on the clashes of human rights with counter-terrorism acts in a country which did not complete its democratization process. Demirsu starts with this sentence: “In Turkey, human rights principles have never acquired a higher ground either in the minds of the people or the policy makers” (p. 123). This is such a strong statement but throughout the chapter Demirsu explains very well why this is the case. She sets the background by mentioning the political culture in Turkey, military coups and prioritization of national security over anything else. She then argues that although in the post-9/11 securitization environment, many Western countries started taking measures regarding counter-terrorism which curbed individual liberties to a certain extent, there was an interesting trend in Turkey: amelioration of human rights and international norms thanks to the adoption of the EU acquis. At that time, Turkish policy makers had the desire to become a member of the European Union therefore during the early 2000s they were eager to implement the Copenhagen Criteria that was set by the EU as a requirement to fulfil for full membership. Demirsu starts with explaining Turkey’s EU bid with its ups and downs and how the ‘Europeanization’ process took place gradually. Then she moves to a new discussion on the role of the military in Turkish politics as this was one of the main critical points that the EU Progress reports laid out each year. Turkey’s attitude towards human rights was always shadowed with concerns of national security and more importantly the raison d’état. Furthermore, Demirsu’s take on the AKP and its handling Europeanization is quite interesting. She mentions that while the military’s influence is weakened in Turkey another challenge for democratization emerged: counter-terrorism regulations. What is more is that currently, the anti-terrorism discourse  is used in a way to criminalize the opponents of the AKP from different walks of life including journalists, academics, politicians and activists-let alone the ordinary people who happen to use social media to criticize the government. Turkey is moving towards a more authoritarian regime and the counter-terrorism acts and discourses are enabling the government to legitimize their actions that target to curb opposition. That is why this thesis carries great importance with regards to understanding the current state of affairs in both contexts.

Part III consists of three chapters where the author implies her frame analysis methodology to the data she gathered from parliamentary discussions and policies by the help of the programme ATLAS.ti..This part is extremely ambitious and despite the complexity of issues, the author managed to present a balanced account that flows well. She dedicated a chapter to each case study and discussed the security and rights frames. In the conclusion part she compared these two cases and found both similarities and differences between the two cases. One of the most striking findings was that the definition of terrorism was vague in both cases which sometimes limited human rights and criminalized certain segments of society by depicting them as potential terrorists.

All in all, the dissertation was very well researched and written and it makes contributions to both theoretical and empirical literatures. Today, both countries are still discussing these tensions between human rights and counter-terrorism laws but in a different manner. For instance, in Turkey there are numerous investigations and the groups that are opposing the government are punished by counter-terrorism regulations while in the UK there is still a solid discussion on measures such as PREVENT, which aims at preventing radicalization at schools and universities by using educators reporting on students with suspicions of terrorism. It seems like these topics will remain on the agenda for a long time and this is why Demirsu’s work is a very timely and valuable contribution to the literature.

Dr. Bahar Baser
Research Fellow
Coventry University

Primary Sources:
International Documents
National Legislation
Parliamentary Debates

Dissertation Information:
Sabanci University, 2015, 324 pp. Primary Advisor: Meltem Müftüler-Baç

Image: A mural describing human rights in Turkey outside of the public education building in Bayramic Turkey.

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