Ius Gentium

University of Baltimore School of Law's Center for International and Comparative Law Fellows discuss international and comparative legal issues


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Lèse-majesté in 2016: Erdoğan’s New Ottoman Empire and the European Press

Shane Bagwell

On April 15, 2016, German Chancellor Angela Merkel authorized the prosecution of comedian Jan Böhmermann under Article 103 of the German Criminal Code, a lèse-majesté law prohibiting “defamation of organs and representatives of foreign states.”[1] The Article is so rarely used and outdated that many jurists were unaware of its very existence until recently. The case now heads to the German judiciary for potential prosecution, though the outcome is hardly certain to any of the parties involved. The Chancellor’s announcement represents the broader situation in Europe, which is facing a refugee crisis, culture clash resulting from thousands of migrants entering the EU, and dwindling influence outside of its borders.

Lèse-majesté is an ancient concept dating back to the Romans, who made it a criminal offense to injure the sovereign power of the Roman people. The concept has shifted in its use over the years, and now includes certain crimes against the government as well. The current German law dates back to 1871, when  Kaiser Wilhelm II expanded the definition to include non-royal heads of state in an effort to secure the country’s ability to conduct diplomatic relations more effectively.

Turkey has been an associate member of the European Union since 1963, has been waiting for membership since 1987. However, numerous concerns about issues ranging from human rights to free speech have blocked their accession in one way or another. Since the outbreak of the Syrian Civil War though, Turkish influence over Europe has increased dramatically. A recent agreement between the EU and Turkey provides for more asylum seekers to remain in Turkey in exchange for EU cash assistance and other concessions (including renewed talks of Turkish accession).

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As Europe has grown ever more reliant of Turkey and President Erdoğan for support during the refugee crisis, the Turkish government’s sway over Brussels (and Berlin) has grown drastically. Although Germany was previously one of the leading and most vocal critics of Turkish accession to the EU, Chancellor Merkel’s government has aggressively sought a warming of relations, some would say to the detriment of her own country’s power and prestige. And, with recent German municipal elections strongly favoring a fresh tide of right-wing, anti-immigrant sentiments, she has reason to worry. Not only does the crisis have the power to potentially bring down her government, it could well lead to a collapse of the Union itself. As countries within the Schengen area have closed their borders to prevent the flow of asylum seekers, the cracks within Europe are beginning to show.

Within the last several months, Turkey has arrested scores of journalists and academics critical of the regime. Two journalists from the Turkist newspaper Cumhuriyet were tried for espionage after publishing a video that allegedly showed Turkey’s intelligence agency funneling weapons into Syria.[2] In March, two cartoonists were sentenced to 11 months and 20 days in prison for insulting Erdoğan on the cover of Penguen magazine, on which a cartoon figure of Erdogan is welcomed to the presidential palace by a public servant. Erdoğan tells him, “But this is so dry. We could have at least slaughtered a journalist.”[3] (A prime example of the President’s penchant for irony) The crackdown on journalists and academics syncs up with the Turkish government’s crackdown on Kurds in the southeast of the country, which has been subject to a media blackout, and has been harshly criticized by the free press group Reporters without Borders, whose Turkey page provides a truly damming assessment of free speech within Turkey. [4]

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Unable to resist the temptation of lampooning Turkey’s President over his increasingly dictatorial approach to governance, German comedian Jan Böhmermann released a video entitled “Erdowie, Erdowo, Erdoğan.”[5] The video shows footage of Erdogan’s most absurd public moments, intercut with crackdowns on protesters. “Equal rights for women: beaten up equally,” the song goes, as police beat women with batons.[6] Shortly after the video was aired on German television, the German ambassador in Ankara was summoned before the Turkish government to answer for the affront.[7] Within days, Böhmermann was at it again, this time specifically to test the limits of the free speech laws in Germany. The German ambassador was summoned once again, but this time rather than a verbal lashing, it was to receive a formal complaint that was required for prosecution under Article 103. Chancellor Merkel was faced with a tough decision: support the free speech rights of the Germans (indeed all of Europe), but risk the deal that had been hard worked between the EU and Turkey, or bow to Turkish pressure and cede German prestige and power to assure the agreement’s future. Unfortunately, Chancellor Merkel failed to remember that petulant and brutish tyrants such as Erdoğan will only be emboldened by concessions, a lesson which the rest of the world learned dealing with Germany in the 1930’s.

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Erdoğan’s response to Böhmermann has been to say, “I’m not some sort of tyrannical leader that is hostile to a free press, and to show it, I’m going to request that a foreign government prosecute a comedian for making fun of me.” The inability to recognize the irony of the situation only stands to bolster the argument that Erdoğan might need a lesson in what a “sense of humor is.” Free speech advocates around the world have lined up behind Böhmermann, not because his crass and offensive poem itself was valuable to the public discourse, but because art sometimes requires a shock to the senses in order to stimulate the discussion which this affair has.[8] The authorization for prosecution by Chancellor Merkel represents Germany’s bowing to the power of the new Ottoman Empire, and an abandonment of the core values which Europe seeks to protect. Perhaps the greatest joke here is that concerns such as these have been the largest impediment to Turkey’s accession to the Union. Now we wait to see who has the last laugh.

Shane Bagwell is a 3L at the University of Baltimore School of Law, and a graduate of West Chester University with a Bachelor of Arts in Political Science. He currently serves as the President of the Military Law Association. His interests are Middle Eastern politics, international conflicts, and the law of land warfare. He is currently a law clerk for the Office of the State’s Attorney for Baltimore City, Economic Crimes Division.

[1]Strafgesetzbuch (StGB) (Penal Code) § 103

[2]‘I’m not at war with press,’ says Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, CNN, 31 March 2016, http://www.cnn.com/2016/03/31/middleeast/recep-tayyip-erdogan-amanpour-interview/ (last visited 17 April 2016)

[3]Cartoonists convicted for insulting Turkey’s President, Zeynep Bilginsoy and Ivan Watson, CNN, 26 March 2016, http://www.cnn.com/2015/03/26/world/turkey-cartoonists-conviction/ (last visited 17 April 2016)

[4]Reporers Without Borders, Turkey, https://rsf.org/en/turkey (last visited 17 April 2016)

[5]https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=R2e2yHjc_mc

[6]Erdowie Erdowo Erdogan The Video That Made Turkey Mad Enough to Summon the German Ambassador, Foreign Policy Watch, http://foreignpolicy.com/2016/03/29/watch-erdowie-erdowo-erdogan-the-video-that-made-turkey-mad-enough-to-summon-the-german-ambassador/ (last visited 4/15/2016).

[7]Turkey asks Germany to prosecute comedian over Erdoğan poem, The Guardian, 11 April 2016, http://www.theguardian.com/world/2016/apr/11/turkey-germany-prosecute-comedian-jan-bohmermann-erdogan-poem (last visited 17 April 2016)

[8]Künstler solidarisieren sich mit Böhmermann, Die Zeit, 13 April 2016, http://www.zeit.de/kultur/film/2016-04/jan-boehmermann-satire-solidaritaet-prominente-offener-brief (last accessed 17 April 2016) (auf Deutsch) (in German)

 

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Turkey’s Breach of the Principle of Non-Refoulement

Yasmine Akkad

Non-refoulement is a fundamental principle in international law that was first laid out in the UN Convention relating to the Status of Refugees in 1954.[i] Article 33(1) of the convention provides that: “no Contracting State shall expel or return (‘refouler’) a refugee in any manner whatsoever to the frontiers of territories where his life or freedom would be threatened on account of his race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion.”[ii] Recently, Turkey breached this principle of non-refoulement by illegally returning thousands of Syrian refugees to war-torn Syria.[iii]

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According to a report conducted by Amnesty International, about 100 Syrians have been sent back to their war-torn country every day since January.[iv] This news comes shortly after Turkey struck a deal with the European Union (aimed at stemming the flow of refugees arriving in Greece), agreeing to accept refugees in return for aid and political concessions.[v] Under the agreement, all “irregular migrants” arriving in Greece from Turkey on 20 March onwards will face being sent back.[vi] The agreement further stipulates that the EU will take in one Syrian (who has made a legitimate request) for each Syrian migrant returned to Turkey.[vii] The process, which is known as “one in, one out,” is meant to discourage illegal migration into Europe.[viii]

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Amnesty says this latest report exposes the flaws in the deal between Turkey and the EU.[ix] Critics of the deal say the EU is irresponsibly returning Syrian refugees to an unsafe country, in a desperate effort to seal its borders.[x] In the Amnesty report, John Dalhuisen remarked, “in their desperation to seal their borders, EU leaders have willfully ignored the simplest of facts: Turkey is not a safe country for Syrian refugees and is getting less safe by the day.”[xi]

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Turkey’s recent breach of international law is symptomatic of a larger issue. There is no end in sight for Syria’s civil war, and the number of people fleeing Syria will only increase. Since Syria’s civil war began more than five years ago, Turkey has taken in more refugees than any other country worldwide.[xii] Put simply, Turkey is overwhelmed. The country has struggled to accommodate the refugees, who are putting a strain on Turkey’s economy and healthcare system.[xiii] While it is not acceptable for Turkey to return refugees to war-torn Syria, it is also not acceptable for the world to sit idly by as thousands of Syrians flee the ongoing violence and hostility in Syria.

Yasmine Akkad is a third year law student at the University of Baltimore School of Law J.D. Candidate (’16). She holds a Bachelors of Science in Law and American Civilization and a minor in English from Towson University. Her primary interests include international law and international human rights law. In addition to being a CICL Fellow, she competed in the 2014-2015 Jessup International Moot Court Competition, Mid-Atlantic Region, and is an active member of the American Society of International Law.

[i] http://www.unesco.org/new/en/social-and-human-sciences/themes/international-migration/glossary/refoulement/

[ii] Id.

[iii] http://www.bbc.com/news/world-europe-35941947

[iv] Id.

[v] Id.

[vi] http://www.theguardian.com/world/2016/apr/04/eu-turkey-deal-syrian-refugees-germany-istanbul-hanover

[vii] http://www.bbc.com/news/world-europe-35956836

[viii] http://www.ibtimes.com/syrian-refugees-forced-back-war-zone-turkish-authorities-eu-turkey-agreement-goes-2348127

[ix] Id.

[x] Id.

[xi] Id.

[xii] https://www.mercycorps.org/articles/iraq-jordan-lebanon-syria-turkey/quick-facts-what-you-need-know-about-syria-crisis

[xiii] http://www.ibtimes.com/syrian-refugees-forced-back-war-zone-turkish-authorities-eu-turkey-agreement-goes-2348127


2 Comments

The Precarious Situation of Turkey

Carolyn Mills

Turkey has long been awaiting the day that it can be welcomed into the European Union (EU). Unfortunately with the rise of the Islamic State (ISIS) in Syria, the thousands of Syrian refugees fleeing to Turkey’s border, its internal conflict with the Kurds, and human rights abuse allegations; Turkey may never have the chance to receive that welcome.

Turkey has been an associate member of the EU since 1963, all the while hoping to become a full-fledged member.[1] In May, the EU struck a deal with Turkey in which Turkey agreed to house migrants fleeing the violence in Syria in exchange for $3 billion Euros. Further, it came with a dangling carrot that promised to restart the stalled accession talks that have been ongoing since 2005. Even German Prime Minister Angela Merkel has thrown her support behind Turkey in exchange for its agreement to house the refugees.[2]

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It seems as though Turkey is fighting a losing battle. With tensions between Turkey and Russia mounting since Turkey gunned down a Russian fighter jet, Turkey is facing an even more intensified battle within its own borders with the Kurdistan Peoples Party, or the PKK.[3] The conflict between the government and the PKK is not something that is new; the government’s efforts have increased to quell the efforts of what it labels a terrorist organization. [4]

The PKK has also been deemed a terrorist organization by the US and others in the international community. Since a breakdown of a truce between the government and the PKK in mid-2015, tensions have heightened and violence erupted in the southwest quadrant of the country. Not only is the country inundated with nearly 70,000 more migrants (adding to the nearly 2 million migrants currently there)[5], but Turkey itself cannot even contain the pre-existing violence and tensions within its own borders. Most recently violence erupted in the Kurdish town of Cizre with reports of innocent women and children being caught in the crossfire. [6]

Human rights abuses in Turkey are an ever-increasing concern. Recently, Turkish military forces shot 10 unarmed civilian Kurds, 2 of which were killed, with no recourse. As a result, the UN has called for an investigation. This also calls into question Turkey’s ability to comply with EU directives. EU member states who hold the fate of Turkey’s accession have been silent amid the accusations.[7]

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My fear is that the EU and the rest of the international community are putting entirely too much strain on Turkey. Last year EU Member States agreed to help resettle 22,500 refugees from Turkey and only 779 have been resettled as of the end of January.[8] A recent corruption scandal found that the government exercised too much power over state agencies (read police, military and the judiciary).[9]

It is as if the international community is waiting to place the blame on Turkey if and when something does go horribly awry. With the myriad of struggles facing Turkey both internally and externally, and their clear desire to join the EU there is a waiting game to see is Turkey has the capacity and ability to provide stability for themselves, and abroad.

Carolyn Mills is a graduate from of Bowie State University  and holds a Bachelor of Arts in Political Science. Carolyn is a 2L at the University of Baltimore School of Law. She serves as 2L Representative for the International Law Society.  Her interests and focus areas are on Central America and West Africa; she has traveled to both Guatemala and Honduras and hopes to visit Ghana this summer. She is currently a law clerk for the Department of Homeland Security’s Human Rights Law Section.  

[1] http://www.euractiv.com/enlargement/eu-turkey-relations/article-129678

[2] http://uk.reuters.com/article/uk-europe-migrants-germany-turkey-idUKKCN0SC08020151018.

[3] http://www.bbc.com/news/world-middle-east-35495157

[4] http://www.telesurtv.net/english/analysis/A-History-of-the-Turkish-Kurdish-Conflict-20150728-0042.html

[5] http://www.bbc.com/news/world-middle-east-35495157

[6] https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/worldviews/wp/2016/02/03/as-syria-burns-turkeys-kurdish-problem-is-getting-worse/.

[7] http://www.nytimes.com/2016/02/02/world/europe/un-turkey-human-rights.html?_r=0

[8] https://www.hrw.org/news/2016/01/29/turkey-alone-cant-solve-europes-refugee-crisis

[9] https://www.hrw.org/world-report/2015/country-chapters/turkey.