In a footnote to the previous post on the role of human rights in the history of the League of Nations, over the last week the government of Turkey has agreed to return property seized during the last 80 years from Christian and Jewish foundations to head off losing in the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR). Turkish human rights lawyers had brought suit against Turkey on behalf of various Christian and Jewish foundations that had had their property seized (orphanages, churches, hospitals, schools, &c.) by successive Turkish governments. The lawyers argued that this was a violation of their minority rights as outlined in the 1923 Treaty of Lausanne, which recognized the Republic of Turkey and ended the foreign occupation of Anatolia. The Turkish government had lost cases like this before and Prime Minister Erdogan is a cagey politician who understands that the multi-billion Euros this settlement (which only returns a fraction of the properties expropriated from non-Muslims) entails is a small price to pay for further integration of Turkey into Europe.
For me what is interesting about this case is how 1920s-style “minority rights” have been transformed into “human rights.” This constitutes a move from merely recognizing the specific and conditional rights of non-Muslims to own property through collective foundations to a general statement of their human rights.
“Minority rights” in this sense are group and not individual rights, something that contrasts with the fact that human rights are often understood as being borne by the individual. There are vestiges of group-rights thought and practice in contemporary human rights thinking – the best example of the blending of group and individual rights is seen in the common understanding of the crime of genocide: the crime is a series of human rights violations (child transfer, rape, murder) that is cumulatively a crime against a people (genos) or even nation, in the old-fashioned sense.
What this case also highlights is how nation-states in the 1920s and 1930s could pick and choose what constituted a minority. According to the Treaty of Lausanne, minority for the new Republic of Turkey meant only non-Muslims and this has been Turkish government dogma since. In the treaty no ethnonyms were employed to define who or what the minorities were. This silence or even erasure is critical to understanding Turkish (anti)ethnic politics over the last century and how this ideology remains a serious challenge to the promotion of human rights in that country.
Certainly, years of discrimination and brutality against Turkey’s non-Muslims – 130,000 Armenians, Greek Orthodox, Assyro-Chaldeans, Catholics and Protestants and 25,000 Sephardic Jews — are a potent symbol of the problematic nature these politics.
But a much more important issue is the reality that Turkey’s Muslim population is ethnically diverse. Of a population of nearly 70 million, non-Turks make up 20 million. These are Kurds, Laz, Arabs, descendents of Muslim immigrants from the Balkans and the Caucasus; not counted are the perhaps 1,000,000 grand- and great-grand-children of Armenian women and girls enslaved during the Armenian Genocide who had children by Muslim men.
These minorities, who often represent, like the Kurds, majorities in parts of Turkey, have no official recognition and indeed, the Turkish state doesn’t produce any demographic data on ethnicity in Turkey. Enforcing the homogenization of a country that diverse has been at the root of some of Turkey’s worst human rights abuses in the past – from press censorship to extra-judicial killing.
Anneannem: Anlatı (Istanbul, 2004); English trans., My Grandmother (London, Verso: 2008).
Carole Fink. Defending the Rights of Others: The Great Powers, the Jews, and International Minority Protection. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2004.
And Aimee Genell’s review
Pablo de Azcárate, League of Nations and National Minorities: an Experiment (Washington, D.C.: Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, 1945)