Turkey’s referendum heightens human rights concerns

Last Sunday, the Turkish public voted by a narrow margin to approve changes to the Turkish constitution and to extend President Erdogan’s powers. The referendum occurred nine months after an attempted coup by elements of the Turkish army. Following that attempted coup, international human rights organisations warned of a clampdown on human rights in the country. The referendum campaign and result has only heightened these concerns. Critics allege that the referendum campaign was held on an “unlevel playing field”, while human rights organisations and experts have expressed their belief that the new powers will allow for a further reduction in human rights in Turkey.

Human rights after the attempted coup

Sunday’s referendum occurred amidst a backdrop of a state of emergency in Turkey. Initially imposed for 90 days following the attempted coup in July 2016, it has been extended three times and is still in place now. The state of emergency allowed for human rights to be restricted, including allowing the executive to dismiss civil servants and officials without an investigation and to confiscate property without any judicial review.

Turkey’s response to the coup has provoked widespread criticism on human rights grounds. In a statement issued shortly after the 90-day state of emergency was first imposed, the EU criticised Turkey for its decisions around the education system, judiciary and the media, and urged Turkey to respect the rule of law, human rights and fundamental freedoms, including the right of all individuals to a fair trial. The United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights expressed serious alarm at the developments and urged Turkish authorities to respect the rule of law. Foreign and Commonwealth Office Minister Baroness Anelay said the UK Government had emphasised the need for Turkey to respect human rights in the aftermath of the coup.

Human rights NGOs have collected very compelling evidence that justify these concerns. For example, Human Rights Watch have reported an increase in accusations of torture and ill-treatment of detainees in police detention, including the stripping and beating of citizens. Amnesty International have found that more than 10,000 people have been detained since the state of emergency was introduced with many of these people subjected to rape, torture and sexual abuse. Open Doors, a charity which serves persecuted Christians, have reported that Christians and other minority faith groups have endured ill-treatment such as graffiti being deliberately placed near church buildings, anonymous threats sent by text and email to church pastors, physical attacks and the restriction of work permits for Christian foreign nationals.

The referendum process

The changes to the constitution which led to the referendum were introduced by the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP). The 18 changes to the constitution will significantly increase the power of the President, by giving him the power to directly appoint top officials, assign one of several vice-Presidents, intervene in the judiciary, and decide whether to impose a state of emergency. The AKP justified awarding more powerful presidential powers on the grounds of three threats: ongoing coup plots; Kurdish separatists; and bombings by the Islamic State.

There have been a number of criticisms of the procedure surrounding the referendum. First, after it was called, the AKP issued a decree suspending the normal rule during an election that requires all candidates to be given equal airtime. As a result, election monitors reported that the campaign in favour of the constitutional changes dominated the media coverage. They found that this - along with restrictions on the media, the arrests of journalists and the closure of media outlets - reduced voters’ access to a plurality of views. Second, members of opposition political parties were also arrested in the build-up to the referendum. While there were reports of opponents of the constitutional changes facing police harassment.

Third, a last-minute decision to allow unstamped ballots in the referendum was considered to clearly breach electoral law. The Union of Turkish Bar Associations, an organisation for Turkish lawyers, found that these changes could have impacted the result. During the counting of the votes, Turkey’s pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party claimed there was a vote manipulation of 3-4% in favour of expanding presidential powers. This manipulation included allowing ballot papers without an official stamp to be used which had not gone through the same levels of authentication.

On Sunday, Turkish authorities announced that 51.4% of people had voted in favour of extending President Erdogan’s powers. Following the announcement of the result, international actors criticised the referendum. The Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), an intergovernmental organisation who monitored the referendum, said that “the legal framework remained inadequate for the holding of a genuinely democratic referendum” and that the referendum campaign was conducted on an “unlevel playing field”. This opinion was shared by observers from the Council of Europe. The US State Department added that it was concerned about observed irregularities on voting day and unequal treatment of the two sides during the campaign.

Opposition politicians have called for the results to be annulled and said it would take its challenge to the European Court of Human Rights if necessary. Despite these criticisms, President Erdogan warned in his victory speech that the opposition parties should not challenge the result.

New powers, new concerns

Many are now concerned about what President Erdogan will do with his new powers. Noah Feldman, a professor of constitutional and international law at Harvard University said he had weakened the free press and free speech with these changes and should be considered a semi-authoritarian leader. The Venice Commission, an advisory body of constitutional law experts which advises the Council of Europe, has expressed its belief that the changes to the constitution place the country on the road to an autocracy and a one-person regime.

Pelin Ayan Musil, an expert on Turkey at the Anglo-American University in Prague, expressed deep concern about the effect of the constitutional changes: “if we look at the constitutional changes, the way it is designed, it really kills the checks and balances. The checks and balances were already damaged to a high degree. Now it makes it much worse.” David Phillips at the Institute for the Study of Human Rights at Columbia University believed that the changes showed Turkey’s western orientation was now over and that it was unlikely that President Erdogan would be more conciliatory in his leadership approach.


For almost a year, there have been strong concerns about Turkey’s approach to human rights. The campaign, result and outcome of the recent referendum on changes to Turkey’s constitution has heightened these concerns. President Erdogan now has extensive new powers with limited democratic accountability. The increased authority handed to President Erdogan by this referendum looks set to allow the human rights clampdown which has occurred since the attempted coup to continue.

Michael Hough is a Research Assistant at Bright Blue