Speaker talks US, Turkey politics
In their struggle for a more democratic nation, Turkey has made numerous advancements throughout the last two decades.
The country has been gaining power in multiple areas of international relations, James Harrington said during a Gulen Institute lecture Tuesday at the Conrad Hilton College.
“In the last 10 years, maybe 15, progress in Turkey has been just astronomical, both in terms of democracy and as an economic world power,” Harrington said. “And, as we are seeing, in terms of a foreign policy leader in the Middle East.”
Harrington, a University of Texas Law School professor and founder of the Texas Civil Rights Project, presented his lecture, “Turkey’s Struggle for Greater Democracy: The Role of Its Legal System, the 2010 Constitutional Referendum, and Individual Rights,” which focused on the constitutional changes made by Turkey in the 2010 Constitutional Referendum.
The referendum is meant to further facilitate a bid for European Union membership and to reform individual rights and the legal system in Turkey.
Compliance with the standards of the EU is essential to the membership process; Harrington said membership supporters hope the referendum, which is equivalent to the U.S. Bill of Rights, will bring them closer to securing a spot.
Harrington said he is interested in seeing what we can learn from the Turkish referendum, since the democracy in Turkey has progressed about 10-times faster than it did in the U.S.
Although the 1791 Bill of Rights was an “amazing accomplishment, we have sort of kept ourselves as Americans in 1791 and forgot that the idea of human rights expands, expands and expands,” he said.
Turkey’s original constitution was drafted in 1982 following a history of military coups, which Harrington said were always bloody and awful.
“It’s against that background that you have this phenomenal movement developing in Turkey, in a move to becoming a much more democratic country,” he said.
The amendments to the Turkish constitution exemplify the adaptation of government to modern society by revising the rights of their people, which Harrington said Americans take for granted.
He said it is “pretty pathetic” that Americans take so much for granted that they generally don’t even vote anymore.
When the referendum passed, 74 percent of people in Turkey voted, many of whom had returned from the pilgrimage in Mecca to take part in the election, according to Harrington.
“That’s phenomenal,” he said. “We’re lucky in a presidential election if we have 50 percent turnout to vote.”
Harrington said the 58-42 percent vote was a “pretty significant margin for something like this.”
The Turkish referendum included some key aspects that address significant issues in the country’s government, including an amendment granting the right to privacy, which is not a right in the U.S.
“A lot of people are surprised we do not have a right of privacy in our constitution,” Harrington said. “Not only is there a right to privacy (in Turkey), but you get to go to court to vindicate it if the government violates it.”
He said he is skeptical about the success of the granted right to petition, a process to handle complaints against the government, but said it does show something else.
“What it does represent is the people getting more involved and wanting more transparency in the operation of the country,” Harrington said.
In addition to the reform of individual rights, the referendum confronts the issues regarding the justice system.
Harrington shared an anecdote from a meeting with a judge in Turkey, who provided a different perspective on the workings of the justice system in other countries.
“In a trial in Turkey, the prosecutor sits up next to the judge,” he said. “It’s hard to imagine that’s fair and impartial.”
When addressing the interactions with the prosecutor during a trial, Harrington said the judge told him they just lean over and ask them what they think.
“What’s even worse is that when the judges go back to deliberate, the prosecutor gets to go — not the defense attorney,” Harrington said.
Even though things differ between governments, the communication between countries is important, especially with Turkey, which Harrington said is a large part of world and human rights scenes these days.
“I think in developing human rights and developing our idea of democracy in a fairer and more just world, this interaction is really helpful,” he said.
Freshman political science major Sarah Rush, who did not know much about Turkish politics but aspires to be a lawyer, admires Harrington and his views on justice and civil rights.
“I feel inspired by Mr. Harrington’s words,” she said. “He has really opened my eyes to a whole new world of politics.
“When you fight for justice and civil rights like Harrington has been doing, it’s so admirable and you can really change things in many different ways.”