EU ombudsman urges Turkey to review its secularism

September 26, 2008 at 8:54 am Leave a comment

P. Nikiforos DiamandourosTurkey should take a second look at its understanding of secularism, as Turkish secularism is the most rigid form in Europe, European Ombudsman P. Nikiforos Diamandouros has said.

Diamandouros also encouraged Turkey to create an office of ombudsman, as advised by the European Union, stating that it was a loss for the Turkish citizens not to have one.

Turkey is the only EU candidate country that does not have an ombudsman, despite repeated calls by the 27-nation bloc to establish one without delay. A law for creating the ombudsman office was vetoed by former President Ahmet Necdet Sezer and later taken to the Constitutional Court by the Republican People’s Party (CHP). But most experts say in a country like Turkey, where adversarial politics is the norm, an ombudsman could be a big relief, alleviating the burden on the courts.

Olli Rehn, the EU’s enlargement commissioner, touched on the issue when he stated last spring that having an ombudsman could help Turkey sort out its problems more easily, particularly on the much-disputed principle of secularism.

“As Turkey is negotiating with the EU, it could be good to take another look at how secularism can be interpreted in line with modern democratic thought within the framework of the European legal tradition,” Diamandouros said in an exclusive interview with Today’s Zaman. “Indeed, Turkey’s secularism, as it emerged in the 1920s, is a very rigid one, more rigid than the EU member countries.”

Diamandouros, however, explained that an ombudsman can have little impact on sorting out complicated controversies like secularism. “I have not come across the idea that an ombudsman can play a role in the interpretation of the principle of secularism. We simply attempt to alert public administrations to the proper application of laws, promoting the rule of law,”

Diamandouros, a Greek academician who knows and follows Turkey very closely and has also written extensively on the political culture of Turkey, said: “I am very aware that secularism and its importance in Turkey are the legacy of [Mustafa Kemal] Atatürk and the establishment of the republic. Any doctrine evolves with time and it is up to Turkey to evaluate it. Having said that, it is the fundamental role of the courts to decide on the interpretation of the constitution.”

Debates over secularism have intensified recently, particularly following the Justice and Development Party’s (AK Party) rise to power in 2002. Critics claim the ruling party has a hidden agenda to turn Turkey into an Islamic state, but the AK Party, which was re-elected by a record high vote of 46 percent last summer, denies the charges, saying it is a conservative democratic party committed to promoting Turkey’s bid to become a member of the EU. Tensions peaked when the military issued a statement on April 27, 2007, suggesting that secularism was under threat due to the prospect of then-Foreign Minister Abdullah Gül being elected as president and warning of its willingness to intervene to protect secularism. The military considers itself the guardian of the republic and its main principles, most notably secularism.

But Diamandouros rejected the idea that the military could act as an ombudsman on controversial matters. “The military is a very different institution compared to the ombudsman. Defining the military as the ombudsman of a country is a very novel formulation I have never heard of. I have never encountered such an idea. As a rule, in modern democracies, the military has a very specific mandate, namely defending and protecting the country from external threats,” he said. “A modern democracy, by definition, is a constitutional arrangement in which every citizen is subject to the rule of law and no institution is above it. Popular sovereignty, which is obtained through free and regular elections, is a fundamental principle. Civil-military relations are governed by the principle of the subordination of the military to civilian authorities,” he added.

‘Turks miss a lot by not having ombudsman’

All EU members, with the exception of Germany and Italy, have national ombudsmen. Germany and Italy have regional ombudsmen and very strong petition committees, instead.

“Without the office of ombudsman, the Turks are lacking an independent body watching over the good, proper and efficient application of law by the public authorities. The office of the ombudsman is a cheap, fast, flexible, very user friendly institution that helps the citizens enjoy the rule of law,” Diamandouros said.

He acknowledged that courts were fundamental in a democratic system, but added that, without an ombudsman, people rely too heavily on the courts. “Without an ombudsman, courts are becoming the only channels for justice. A democracy is mature when it can tell its citizens that they have alternatives,” he said, adding: “Court proceedings are costly and lengthy. They give their verdicts in a more rigid way.”

Unlike the courts, an ombudsman cannot issue binding decisions, but they work for “friendly solutions,” he explained. “We try for a win-win outcome, thereby using the power of persuasion. And we are more flexible than the courts,” he added. An ombudsman can also help fight corruption, though indirectly, he said. “Generally, corruption tends to emerge with public administrations, which are usually very slow in reacting to citizen’s cases, thereby creating long queues. And once you have long queues citizens tend to seek alternative — and often illicit — routes for a speedy solution. That is where corruption comes into the picture. We are the guardian of transparency.”

“The ombudsman is not a superman and does not have magical powers. So it would not be correct to argue that without the office of ombudsman there would not be a proper democracy. It is just one of the institutions creating a counter-weight to executive power within a modern democracy,” Diamandouros stressed.

Recalling his experience as the first ombudsman of Greece, Diamandouros said the citizens of Greece gradually became aware of the fact that “the ombudsman was there to simplify their life vis-à-vis the public administration.” He explained: “We are urging the public administrations to deal with the citizens in a polite, efficient and fast way. In secular terms, we have created the ‘Holy Book’ of good administrative behavior, the ‘code of good administration.'”

Diamandouros said he can receive complaints from the citizens of Turkey, but that he will look at such complaints in a rather informal way, since Turkey is not an EU member yet. However, he can still launch an inquiry after receiving a complaint from a Turkish national on his own initiative if he deems it an important matter.

But records show that most Turks are still confused about what the European ombudsman can and cannot do. Since 1995, there have been 82 complaints from Turkey, of which only three were admissible. That is, only three complaints concerned alleged abuses by the EU administration, Diamandouros said. “The reason that so few cases were admissible is simply because most people do not really know about the boundaries of my mandate. They come to my office for many different reasons but I can only look into the violation of common law by the EU institutions. If, for example, the Turkish government applies an EU law incorrectly, there is nothing I can do. I can, however, interfere if a Turkish citizen or a Turkish company has a problem with one of the EU institutions.”

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Entry filed under: Diplomacy, News, Politics.

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