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The quite different states of emergency in France and Turkey

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The quite different states of emergency in France and Turkey

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The extraordinary recent events in Turkey and France have led the governments of both countries to declare and extend, respectively, extraordinary measures: a national state of emergency.

In other words, the rights of the people of Turkey and France are not guaranteed as they normally would be by their constitution.

In the case of France, a state of emergency was first announced last November in response to the coordinated Paris attacks that left 130 people dead. It has now been extended until the end of January, meaning that if it goes the whole term, the country will have been in a state of emergency for an unprecedented 14 months.

Turkey is certainly no stranger to extraordinary rule; it even spent most of the 1980s under Martial Law – a state of emergency with the military in power. It was last week’s attempt by the army to seize power that prompted this latest period of emergency.

What exactly a state of emergency is depends on where and by whom it is declared. In general though, governments argue they are a necessary response to a clear and present threat. Human rights groups have denounced them as a means of eroding personal freedoms.

There was perhaps a certain irony when French Foreign Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault cautioned the Turkish government against suppressing opposition in its post-coup crackdown. An irony not lost on Turkish President Erdogan who told Ayrault to “mind his own business”. “If he wants a lesson in democracy,” Erdogan added, “he can very easily get a lesson from us.”

But how similar are the French and Turkish states of emergency?

Both have effectively given themselves the right to partially derogate from the European Convention of Human Rights. Certain articles of the ECHR (right to life, prohibition of torture, prohibition of slavery and prohibition of punishment without law and abolition of the death penalty) must still be upheld, but Article 15 of the ECHR allows for certain rights to be waived “in a temporary, limited and supervised manner”.

Those “certain rights and freedoms” that may be derogated are up to individual governments to determine.

FRANCE

In France, the government says on its website that authorities can:

  • Put under house arrest any person whose activity is considered a threat to security and public order
  • Dissolve groups that take part in, incite or facilitate acts that pose a serious threat to public order
  • Restrict movement of people or traffic in certain areas (impose a curfew)
  • Ban people deemed to be a threat to public order from French territory
  • Carry out searches of property, luggage, vehicles, bags and pockets (without judicial warrants)
  • Break up protests, meetings and close places of congregation or worship.

Back in April, even before the state of emergency was extended, Human Rights Watch criticised the measures as “a dangerous example to other countries that could use France as an example to justify their own endless restrictions on freedoms.”

HRW has documented what it says are “abusive and discriminatory” raids and asked the government to explain “why it cannot ensure public order and safety with the wide range of laws and powers already at its disposal.”

Amnesty International has echoed these concerns, claiming that “sweeping executive powers, with few checks on their use, have generated a range of human rights violations. It is difficult to see how the French authorities can possibly argue that they represent a proportionate response to the threats they face.”

TURKEY

If France’s extraordinary rule has come under fire for being vague, disproportionate and draconian, Turkey’s is seen by many as being even more so.

Even before the Turkish parliament had approved the state of emergency on Thursday, tens of thousands of teachers, soldiers, police officers and judges had been hounded out of their jobs. Academics had been banned from travelling abroad. The WikiLeaks website had been shut down in Turkey before publishing almost around 300,000 emails sent by members of the ruling AK Party. Journalists had been arrested or had their press cards revoked.

Although the state of emergency did require parliamentary approval, now that approval has been given President Erdogan – whose critics accused him even before the failed coup of ever-rowing authoritarianism – can bypass parliament to enact laws.

The measures the state of emergency allows are perhaps even more vague than the French ones, which themselves are very open to interpretation. They include:

  • Searches of people, vehicles and property
  • Curtailing right to assembly
  • Banning the printing, copying, publishing and distribution of newspapers, magazines, books and leaflets
  • Examining all sorts of written texts, image, film, disc, vocal and visual tapes and all sorts of vocal publication, registering or banning them if necessary
  • Censorship of plays and films
  • Closure of restaurants, clubs, bars, hotels, campsites, theatres…
  • Seizing control of businesses in sectors including energy, agriculture, health, retail, transportation…

There has even been talk of restoring the death penalty despite that contravening the ECHR (see above).

President Erdogan has sought to calm fears over rights and freedoms, while at the same time pointing at the French situation to help justify an eventual extension of the current three-month state of emergency in Turkey. In an interview with Reuters he said:

“This state of emergency is not a curfew, people will still be on the street minding their own business and getting on with their daily life.

“France declared an initial state of emergency for three months, then prolonged it for a second three months, and now they have prolonged for yet another three months (sic). So there is no obstacle in terms of prolonging it. After three months we can ask for a second three-month period and extend it.”

The circumstances that led to the states of emergency in both France and Turkey were in themselves extremely worrying. But the extraordinary measures taken by the governments are proving for many residents of those countries a source of even further concern.

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