’Truth commissions better than courts to deal with difficult past’

’Truth commissions better than courts to deal with difficult past’

Timothy Garton Ash (Photo: Today's Zaman, İsa Şimşek)

April 08, 2012, Sunday/ 15:12:00/ YONCA POYRAZ DOĞAN

A distinguished professor of contemporary history has said that truth commissions are better than courts for dealing with difficult past events, such as Turkey's Sept. 12, 1980 coup d'état,  many people are responsible to different degrees.

“The problem with the prosecution is that it just takes a few individuals to account for criminal responsibility, whereas if you have a truth commission, a larger process, then you can explore the whole historical background and understand all the connections without having to do with [the] very specific thing of proving ... criminal responsibility,” said Timothy Garton Ash, the Isaiah Berlin professorial fellow at St. Antony's College, Oxford, for Monday Talk.

The Ankara 12th High Criminal Court has begun to hear the case against retired general and former President Kenan Evren as well as former Air Forces commander Tahsin Şahinkaya -- the two surviving leaders of the bloody 1980 coup that shaped the country for three decades. The trial of the coup leaders was made possible by a government-sponsored reform package, approved by a referendum in 2010, that annulled a constitutional article that had served as a legal shield for the coup leaders.

The Sept. 12, 1980 military coup was the bloodiest and most well-planned in Turkish history. A total of 650,000 people were detained during this period and records were kept at police stations on 1,683,000 people. A total of 230,000 people were tried in 210,000 cases, mostly for political reasons. A further 517 people were sentenced to death, while 7,000 people faced charges that carried a sentence of capital punishment. Of those who were sentenced to death, 50 were executed. As a result of unsanitary and inhumane living conditions and torture in prisons, a further 299 people died in custody.

Many had to flee the country and thousands were fired from academic and government offices. The Sept. 12 coup has also had the longest-lasting effects of all of Turkey's four coups; Turkey's current Constitution and several government agencies, such as the Higher Education Board (YÖK), are remnants of the Sept. 12 period.

During his working visit to İstanbul, Garton Ash answered our questions on the coup trial and elaborated on other topics.

You're in Turkey at the time of an important process; more than 30 years after the Sept. 12, 1980 military takeover, a criminal court has begun to hear the case against two retired, surviving leaders of the 1980 coup. Would you share your thoughts with us regarding this process?

It's something I thought about a great deal, because the general question is how ... countries deal with [a] difficult past, and almost every country in Europe and in the world have some difficult past -- a dictatorship, a military regime, an occupation, a war, a genocide, a civil war. We have Northern Ireland in Britain, the Basque Country in Spain, and Poland's relations with Jewish and Ukrainian citizens. Wherever you look, there is some such difficult issue. And it is important for a democracy that it knows its own history and faces up to [its] difficult past. In principle, it is a good thing. I myself think that putting very old men and women on trial can be a rather problematic way to go about this, because there are many individuals, many officers in a structure, in a system; that's what you have to get at. And unless it was one charismatic individual -- Adolf Hitler, [Francisco] Franco, Idi Amin or whoever it might be -- I worry about the use of a criminal trial many many years later for that purpose. To give you another example, something I personally experienced directly was the imposition of [a] so-called state of war in Poland in 1981, when General [Wojciech Witold] Jaruzelski used the Polish Army to crush the Solidarity movement. So I'm no friend of General Jaruzelski. Do I think that at the age of -- whatever it is, high 80s, early 90s -- he should still be in court? No, I think he should be in a truth commission where he's forced under oath to tell the truth, to apologize [for] what was done.

Many human rights groups and associations also hope that the trial will shed light on a number of deadly incidents that are now known to have been orchestrated by behind-the-scenes groups working to legitimize the coup. Do you think this is possible?

In an illegitimate and oppressive situation, many people are responsible in different degrees, and the problem with the prosecution is that it just takes a few individuals to account for criminal responsibility, whereas if you have a truth commission, a larger process, then you can explore the whole historical background and understand all the connections without having to do with [the] very specific thing of proving ... criminal responsibility. In truth commissions, rather than having to deny what they did for fear of going to prison, people can make amends by telling the truth, which is what happened in South Africa.

‘Danger of war has not disappeared'

You said at a conference in Turkey that Turkey is a swing state for the future of Europe just as China is a swing state for the future of the world. You also said that Turkey is a swing state for freedom of expression. Would you elaborate on those ideas?

Turkey is a swing state for Europe in the sense that the future of Europe depends on its relationship with its wider neighborhood, in the east and the southeast toward the Middle East. I don't need to tell you that Turkey is pivotal to that future. Plus, Turkey's very favorable demography, young population and plus the economic dynamism of this country -- all of that makes it a swing state for Europe. A swing state for freedom of expression because if you can demonstrate that a majority Muslim country with an Islamist party in the government in a quite “unfree” neighborhood actually can have consistent standards on freedom of expression, that would be a very important signal for the West and the wider neighborhood.

Shall we say Islamic party or Islamist for the ruling party of Turkey considering the negative connotations attached?

There is a tendency in the West to equate Islamists with terrorist. It's quite important to emphasize there is a category of Islamist party, that is to say political Islam, and which is not in any way connected to the use of violence and which can respect the rule of law. Don't get me wrong; I don't think this government in all respects all the time does that; vigilance is needed. But it has certainly moved a long way in the right direction. If I think about the future of Egypt, for example, where, as you know, different Islamist parties won the last election, if their future moved in the Turkish direction -- soft or moderate Islamist parties respecting the basic rules of democracy -- that would be very good news indeed. It would be wonderful if we could have Islamic democratic parties in the way we have Christian democratic parties in Western Europe. Remember, [the] Roman Catholic Church fought liberalism for centuries, fought it very hard, and gradually accepted liberalism in the sense of an equal liberty for all, a level playing field. And the political expression of that was [a] liberal Christian democratic party, Angela Merkel's CDU [Christian Democratic Union of Germany]. If the AK Party [Turkey's ruling Justice and Development Party] can be understood as part of a rather complex, difficult evolution in that direction, it would be a very good thing indeed.

I'll come back to the free speech issue, but since you mentioned some divergences in the world with regards to respecting and adopting universal values, I'd like to ask you how nations of the world will be able to reach a consensus on global issues.

This is the biggest question of our time because the danger we face is that the world we are moving into is like 19th century Europe. We in the European Union, 20 years ago, had the naïve illusion that the world was going to become like us -- liberal, internationalist, shared sovereignty, ever increasing cooperation. The world we are in is the world of sovereign nation states competing for power -- China, India, Brazil, Russia, Turkey and America. The European Union is [the] exception rather than the rule. The danger would be if the competition between those divergent, very different sovereign states became more acute. And I want to emphasize that the danger of war has not disappeared at all in the world. Periods of power shifts, rising and falling powers -- China rising, America falling -- are periods of increased danger, increased tension. We have to start from that and how we can avoid war and achieve international cooperation in this transformed situation.

‘It's a mistake to lump Muslims all together'

At the same conference, distinguished economics professor Raghuram Rajan raised the question whether this is going to turn [people] against foreigners, immigrants. And you said yes, it already has.

In Europe, it already has. If you look at the party of Marine Le Pen in France, if you look at Geert Wilders in the Netherlands, if you look at the English Defense League, if you look at the True Finns -- wherever you look in Western Europe, I could go on, xenophobic populist parties “scapegoating” the foreigners are getting 15, 18, 20-25 percent of the vote; they [have] already started to influence the mainstream politics. This is extremely worrying, and, of course, the economic crisis and unemployment feed into that. There is an anti-capitalist left which blames the crisis on capitalism, but much more xenophobic populists who blame the foreigners.

Who are the foreigners?

Many of them are Muslims. Actually, you have to take that apart, because Kashmiris in Bedford are very different from Moroccans in Madrid, who are different from Turkish [people] in Germany. It's a mistake to lump them all together. But that's what all those parties do -- a very serious danger.

And there are racist attacks happening in Europe. Are politicians to blame?

There is plenty of blame to go around. It's the oldest story in the book, when things get tough, blame the other. It happens in this country [Turkey], too; it's hardly surprising. I think that media has a significant responsibility. I quoted one headline from a British tabloid: “Muslims rob neighbor's house” -- not Christians, not thieves. That's stereotyping. Mainstream politicians -- for example, [French President] Nicolas Sarkozy would be a good example -- and opinion leaders and intellectuals have not done enough to counter this. There is a strong current in European intellectual discourse which says Islam is the problem and does not differentiate all the different ways in which people of the Muslim faith behave in different circumstances, behave in democracies. Everyday in Oxford, I interact routinely -- in the pharmacy, in the grocer's shop, in the university, at the dentist -- with Muslims. It's part of [the] everyday, normal fabric of life.

‘Law should do minimum necessary when limiting free speech'

Should there be legal limitations to free speech? First of all, you advocate a code of ethics, a code of behavior that we should adopt without thinking about laws. But you also say there should of course be laws. Would you explain that?

The law should do the minimum necessary. Drawing up a hate speech legislation which is effective in protecting vulnerable minorities of all kinds is extremely difficult to do. I think the law should target, above all, incitement to violence of any kind, actual violence and what Susan Benesch calls dangerous speech, that is to say, speech in a certain context which makes kinds of violence or discrimination more probable. Beyond that, as adults we should take responsibility ourselves. We as scholars, we as journalists, we as members of a particular community -- be it a university, a town, a place of work -- take responsibility with how we live with other people. And the more we can do it for ourselves, the better. Your project on media ethics [ is the website of the Media Ethics Platform for Turkish journalists] sounds to me [like] exactly the kind of thing we should do. It is much better that journalists should themselves work out the codes of practice voluntarily than it is imposed on them by some state apparatus or legal apparatus which almost has invariably has some political agenda behind it.

You also advocate no bans on Holocaust denial or on the denial of the much-debated Armenian genocide. And some countries try to bring or have already brought restrictions on that. Would you explain the dangers here?

One of our 10 draft principles on freedom of expression [] is that there should be no taboos in the discussion and dissemination of knowledge. It applies to scientific knowledge, medical knowledge or historical knowledge, to the extent that we cannot find historical truth at all, that is found by testing all hypotheses, including the most extreme ones, against the available evidence and then having free historical debate. So let one scholar say what happened to the Armenians in 1915 was ... genocide; let another argue that it was not. And then let us have free historical debate, testing against the evidence by the known laws of historical scholarship. Then citizens will make up their own minds on what happened. That should be true of the Holocaust of the European Jews, it should be true of what I would call the Armenian genocide, because I think it qualifies for it, but I think the word around which the whole hysteria comes -- “genocide” -- is less important than the fact of mass dying, of mass suffering, of mass killing. So I argue that there should not be laws criminalizing the denial of the Holocaust of the European Jews, the denial of the Armenian genocide. There should also be no laws like Turkey's Article 301, used to put people in court for arguing that it was [genocide]. History should be the subject of free debate.

You have some worries about Turkish practices in that regard.

Absolutely; there are some areas [in] which, unfortunately, Turkey is not doing very well. The obvious ones are the Article 301 issue and the way it's been used, the overbroad use of national security claims -- Turkey is not the only country in that regard. In many countries, this is one of the most-used ways to close down [freedom of expression] even in the United States and Britain in the name of the war on terror. And the question on genuinely open and diverse media -- this is not only about the number of journalists in prison, even though this is hotly debated in Turkey at the moment. It is also a matter of media ownership, a matter of atmosphere for self-censorship, a matter of entanglement between people in different kinds of power -- political and economic power -- and journalists and so on. Having a strong, open, diverse media is really vital to a liberal democracy.

‘Shocking oppression in Syria, but Turkey should not go alone'

It is quite clear now that recent messages relayed by Turkey to the general region have created expectations, certainly among Syrians, that Turkey will be embracing a more active role in Syria. How would you evaluate this situation?

I was hesitant at the beginning but later decided to support intervention in Libya because it was pretty clear that [Muammar] Gaddafi was planning a massacre in Benghazi, and the moral trigger for humanitarian intervention is the mass murder of civilians. [Syrian President Bashar] Assad has already done it in Homs and elsewhere. What happened there under the eyes of the world is quite shocking. And the way some Syrian people continued to go on the streets and demonstrate peacefully is extraordinarily impressive in the face of such violence. So, in principle, something should be done. However, it is almost invariably a bad idea for one country on its own to interfere in the affairs of another country by force, saying we know best. That was wrong when the United States intervened in Iraq. I suspect something in the direction of humanitarian corridors and no-fly zones may come and may even be needed, but it's crucial how it's done. It has to be done in a context of multilateral support. Even if the Turkish military might be a significant part of the actual manpower and firepower, the support of the Arab League, the support of other neighbors and the support [of] as many as possible of the world's democracies [and], if possible, a degree of UN support -- there you have the problem of Russia and China -- is essential. Yes, there is a strong case for ratcheting up the elements of humanitarian intervention against the really shocking oppression that is happening in Syria, but it would be a great mistake if Turkey has decided to go alone.

With the exception of Russia and China, you've been stressing that this is quite an important issue. What if those countries insist on their divergent positions?

This is the bad world that we might get into, which is a 21st century world like 19th century Europe, where you had these competing great powers. Russia has a direct national and economic interest; it has a special relationship with Syria, defending its interests with a hypocritical argument that we have to look at all the armed groups. And in this particular case, China is following the Russian lead because China does not have a direct stake in Syria. It simply takes a position in defense of state sovereignty. Here, the real problem is with Russia.

‘If Turkey went in the BRICs direction, it would contribute to global disintegration'

You say the winners of globalization have been Brazil, Russia, India and China -- BRICs -- plus Turkey, as they have been providing energy for the world economy. But you placed Turkey in a category of its own. What is it that makes Turkey different?

That is the Turkish question of the moment. It has a dynamic, fast-growing economy; cheap, skilled labor; considerable regional ambition; national pride; attention to national sovereignty; pride in the Ottoman heritage -- all these are characteristics of BRICs-type countries. On the other hand, the incredibly close ties with the United States, long-term membership of NATO [and] close ties with Europe in many ways put it in a quite different category. Turkey is a swing state in that sense. If it went decisively in the BRICs direction, it would contribute to the global disintegration, divergence. If it says, “We can best realize our own national and regional interests in the larger context of the European Union” -- which I hope it will do -- then it will contribute to a more integrated and a well-ordered world.

What would you say about the reality of a lack of or a diminishing will on both sides for Turkey's European integration?

It's been going up and down. Nobody is saying no. Both sides say yes in principle. My message to Turkey would be please don't give the enemies of enlargement in Europe pretext for continuing to delay to keep Turkey out. As you approach membership in the EU, you have to be whiter than white, cleaner than clean... There is a certain hypocrisy in that, because once you're inside, the standards are lowered -- look at Berlusconi's Italy, look at Hungary today. Nonetheless, as someone who believes that Turkey needs Europe, Europe needs Turkey, I hope Turkey does not supply those pretexts for Europe to continue to say a “yes” which in fact means no.


Timothy Garton Ash, a prominent voice in contemporary world politics

The author of nine books of political writing or the “history of the present,” which have charted the transformation of Europe over the last 30 years, Timothy Garton Ash is a professor of European studies at the University of Oxford, an Isaiah Berlin professorial fellow at St. Antony's College, Oxford, and a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution of Stanford University. His essays appear regularly in The New York Review of Books and he writes a weekly column in the Guardian, which is widely syndicated in Europe, Asia and the Americas. Throughout the 1980s, he reported and analyzed the emancipation of Central Europe from communism in contributions to The New York Review of Books, The Independent, The Times and the Spectator.

Professor Garton Ash directs -- in 13 languages -- which has 10 draft principles on global free expression that were thrashed out in discussions with free speech experts, lawyers, political theorists, theologians, philosophers, activists and journalists from around the world.

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