Turkey Tribunal keeps human rights in the public eye


A Flemish initiative will assemble an international panel of judges in Geneva and present it with human rights violations happening in Turkey

Providing legal weight

This September, a tribunal will be held in Geneva to consider human rights violations in Turkey. But while the venue is Swiss, the initiative is Flemish, the brainchild of Johan Vande Lanotte, professor of law at Ghent University, and law firm Van Steenbrugge Advocaten.

The idea to set up the Turkey Tribunal was inspired by a series of human rights cases that the Van Steenbrugge firm had handled involving Turkish citizens. These were heard before the United Nations Human Rights Committee, the European Court of Human Rights and Belgian courts.

“Individual actions are important, of course, but there is frustration that this stays individual,” says Vande Lanotte (pictured), who is also a senior legal counsel with the firm. “We had the impression that something more structural was going on, something that people were not well aware of, and so we thought we should put together a panel to deliver judgements.”

Vande Lanotte’s interest builds on his work on human rights as a law professor, but also a lifetime of political activity. A long-standing member of the SP.A party, he has held several ministerial posts at the federal level, and served as deputy prime minister in three governments.

The reports will be based on national and international conventions, and the obligations that are not being fulfilled

- Professor Johan Vande Lanotte

“Social engagement has always been a part of my life,” he says. “Of course, it’s completely different if you do this as a politician, or as a lawyer, or by presenting a report to a tribunal like this, but essentially you are always fighting for a cause you believe in.”

The Turkey Tribunal has several famous forebears. These include the Russell Tribunals, which began in the 1960s by investigating the Vietnam War, and the International Monsanto Tribunal, which in 2016-17 investigated the company’s impact on basic human rights.

“These are the examples we are following, but they were often more about moral judgements than the legal aspects,” Vande Lanotte explains.

The intention is that the Turkey Tribunal have solid legal foundations. “The reports to the Tribunal will be based on national and international conventions, and the obligations that are not being fulfilled.”

Lawyers protested in Turkey at the weekend in response to government plans to reform the bar associations. Last year Turkish authorities proclaimed the Progressive Lawyers Association a terrorist group, jailing 18 of its members
© Depo Photos/Abaca/BELGA

Six reports are currently being assembled for presentation to the Tribunal. These cover torture; the impunity that seems to exist for those suspected of infringing human rights; legal aid for victims; medical assistance for people in custody; forced disappearances; and freedom of expression and of the press.

The costs of this work, and of holding the Tribunal itself, are being met by a crowdfunding campaign. It is estimated that €150-€200,000 will be required, with individual donations capped at €5,000 to preserve the project’s independence.

Vande Lanotte is writing the report on torture, together with Eric Sottas, a former secretary general of the World Organisation Against Torture. The aim is to put a persuasive case before the Tribunal, but to strike a balance between information coming from campaigning organisations and the position of the Turkish government.

“We need to work with both and make sure that what we say cannot be disputed as far as the facts are concerned,” he says. “And that is keeping me very busy!”


What this does not involve is travelling to Turkey, however much he would like to confront people more directly. “We do not recommend that our reporters go to Turkey because we are not sure that everything will be OK, and we do not want to ask for guarantees.”

Some of the other reporters are Turkish, and are naturally in a more delicate position. “We have to be cautious, but we are not doing anything wrong. We are just asking for information.”

Even so, the group of Turkish lawyers putting together the report on legal aid have asked to remain anonymous. “So we will have that report audited and certified before it is presented to the Tribunal.”

If a Turkish ambassador wishes to address the Tribunal, we will certainly allow that

- Johan Vande Lanotte

All the reports will be published online on 15 August, so that the Turkish government can respond if it wishes. Vande Lanotte has already met with the Turkish ambassador in Belgium, to explain the project. “Will they answer? I don’t know, but we will give them the opportunity.”

Even if the government stays quiet, its responses to past cases and reports will be included in the files presented to the Tribunal. “We are advocating for human rights, so we do not take lightly the right to a defence,” Vande Lanotte says. “We cannot defend that right on one hand, and not apply it to ourselves.”

The ideal would be for the Turkish government to be represented at the Tribunal itself. “If a Turkish ambassador wishes to address the Tribunal, we will certainly allow that. But at the same time we cannot say we will not proceed just because they don’t answer.”

Powerhouse panel

While the outcome of the Tribunal will have no legal force, the aim is for it to have both legal weight and moral authority. For this, everything depends on the six judges, whose combined experience extends over national and international courts, human rights institutions and academia.

“We have three former judges from the European Court of Human Rights, one of them – Françoise Tulkens – a vice-president,” Vande Lanotte says. “We have Johann van der Westhuizen, who started the University of Pretoria Human Rights Centre under Apartheid and then became a judge on the Constitutional Court of South Africa.”

There is also Elizabeth Abi-Mershed of the Washington College of Law, a former deputy executive secretary of the Inter-American Court of Human Rights. “And we have John Pace, who was secretary to the UN Commission on Human Rights for 16 years and has seen it all.”

It is possible, of course, that the judges will not agree with the positions put by the reporters, or deliver a more nuanced judgement. “As reporters, we are the ones who are saying there is a problem, but it is for the judges to decide,” Vande Lanotte concedes. “And we have not chosen judges who are easy to convince. They are high-level people, with a lot of experience, and none of them is susceptible to outside pressure.”

But simply holding the Turkey Tribunal and putting the evidence into the public eye fulfils an important goal. “The slogan of the whole project is that the worst enemy of human rights is silence. We want to speak up.”

Photo top ©Jimmy Kets/ID photo agency