President of Turkey

Speech made to the Assembly

Wednesday, 3 October 2007

Mr President, distinguished parliamentarians, ambassadors, ladies and gentlemen, it is with strong personal feelings that I address you today, as the President of the Republic of Turkey. I was an active member of the Assembly for nine years. The last time I spoke from this rostrum was nearly five years ago, as the prime minister of a newly elected government. During the last four years, I have represented my country at the Committee of Ministers as the Minister for Foreign Affairs. I gained great experience and had valuable inspiration from my long association with the Council of Europe. Therefore, coming back to this Assembly today is not merely a pleasant occasion to meet many old friends. It is also a deeply emotional moment.

I warmly thank my old friend, President van der Linden for inviting me to the Assembly again. I pay tribute to you, Mr President, for all that you have done to raise the profile and visibility of this Assembly during your tenure. Under your able leadership, the Assembly’s role as a pan-European forum for debate and discussion has been strengthened. The debates you organised on current issues like intercultural and inter-religious dialogue, and the state of human rights and democracy in Europe, testify to the contribution of this Assembly to the European debate.

Mr President, when I addressed the Assembly in January 2003, I outlined the ambitious reform agenda adopted by the Turkish Government and supported by the Turkish Parliament elected in the November 2002 elections. It was an agenda that embodied Turkey’s strong commitments to achieve the highest standards of democracy, the rule of law and human rights. Today, I am proud to say that Turkey has lived up to the expectations it generated by fulfilling the commitments undertaken.

First and foremost among them has been human rights policy. One pillar of this policy has been assuming new obligations by becoming party to core international instruments on fundamental rights and freedoms. I am pleased to inform you that Turkey is now party to all of the seven principal international human rights treaties of the United Nations. Turkey is also party to a large number of Council of Europe conventions and protocols, including Protocols Nos. 6 and 13, abolishing the death penalty in all circumstances.

The second pillar of Turkey’s policy has been legislative reform. In this field, our progress has been significant. Existing laws and regulations have been revised in the light of our international and European commitments. The case law of the European Court of Human Rights and the recommendations of the international monitoring mechanisms have been taken on board. Nine legislative packages and substantial constitutional amendments have been passed by our parliament. Amendments on the Political Parties Law and the Anti-Terror Law, the adoption of new civil and penal codes and the new Law on Associations are among the benchmarks of our legislative reforms.

In this context, gender equality is enshrined as a constitutional principle with an emphasis on the obligation of the state to ensure such equality. All forms of discrimination are banned. Legal and constitutional guarantees on the right to association and assembly have been reinforced. Limits that can be imposed on freedom of expression have been reduced in line with the case law of the European Court of Human Rights. Cultural and religious rights have also been upgraded.

The fight against torture and ill-treatment has been another priority. The zero tolerance policy against torture has yielded impressive results. We have put in place an effective legislative and regulatory framework for combating torture. In the words of the former President of the European Committee for the Prevention of Torture and Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment, today “it is difficult to find a Council of Europe member state with a more advanced set of provisions in combating torture” than Turkey. Human rights reforms in Turkey have been widely acclaimed by the international community from Europe to the Middle East.

I should also point out that the reforms in Turkey did not take place in the most favourable international environment. They occurred at a time when there was a massive war in Iraq, as well as threats of war and other conflicts in our neighbourhood. The world economy was also passing through dire straits.

The ongoing transformation in Turkey corresponds to the aspirations of the Turkish people. The cumulative impact of the democratic reforms is that Turkey today is more pluralist, inclusive and tolerant. The orderly conduct of parliamentary elections with a turnout of almost 85% this summer reaffirms the commitment of the Turkish people to democratic values.

The process is still under way. In a big country with a large population, sweeping reforms are difficult uniformly to implement overnight. The third pillar of our human rights policy, effective implementation, still poses a few challenges. The new Turkish Government has announced that it will give top priority to addressing those challenges. The government has also announced its full commitment to ensure full exercise of fundamental rights and freedoms by every individual.

The political reforms in Turkey were accompanied by sweeping economic reforms, financial discipline and structural changes in economy. Thus, economic growth and dynamism was substantially boosted. Reforms have also led to the flourishing of cultural, literary and artistic life in Turkey, and Istanbul’s designation as the cultural capital of Europe for 2010 and Turkey’s designation as the focus country of the international Frankfurt book fair in 2008 are indicators of that development.

Turkey’s commitment to the reform process will go on. I trust that the newly elected Turkish Parliament, which started its legislative work only two days ago, will address those issues soon. In my speech in the inaugural session of the Turkish Grand National Assembly, I put a strong emphasis on the need for the continuation and deepening of the reform process and its full implementation. I am confident that the level of maturity achieved by the Turkish democracy will enable us to tackle remaining human rights issues effectively.

A lively and wide debate has been taking place in Turkey on the elaboration of an entirely new constitution or a comprehensive amendment of the current one. This broad public debate is continuing with the participation of all political parties, NGOs, professional associations, universities, think tanks, intellectuals, the media and citizens. I am confident that this debate will culminate in improving Turkey’s constitutional norms in line with the requirements of the 21st century.

Today, one of the major global challenges is the growing polarisation of the international community along cultural and religious fault lines. Extremists on both sides irresponsibly exploit this all over the world. I believe that it is time for moderates to be as daring and courageous as extremists.

Troubling events in recent years have made a meaningful dialogue imperative for us all. A true dialogue among nations calls for respect for, and understanding of, other cultures and civilisations. Our basic principles of respect for human rights, democracy and rule of law are universal. Therefore, those principles form a perfect basis for such a true dialogue, because these values are products of mankind’s collective progress and enlightenment.

Today, racism, xenophobia, anti-Semitism and discrimination on religious or ethnic grounds are on the rise in many of our societies. Migrant communities all over the world, in particular Muslims, are specifically vulnerable to acts of prejudice, hatred and intolerance in the post 11 September period. Combating discrimination and hatred of all kinds requires strong political resolve and proactive action everywhere. Similarly, we have to reject the identification of terrorism and extremism with any particular religion or culture. The real fault lines are not among religions or cultures, but among open democracies and authoritarian regimes.

This is why Turkey co-sponsored, together with Spain, the initiative on the alliance of civilisations under the auspices of the United Nations, with a view to promoting dialogue and co-operation among different cultures and religions. Turkey, given its historic multicultural experience, its strong links with a vast geographical area and its position as a home to many civilizations, is fully aware that interaction among different cultures is necessary, possible, fruitful and enriching. Turkey’s own experience is testimony that secular democracy can flourish in a predominantly Muslim society.

The Council of Europe has been at the forefront of efforts to foster unity in diversity. In this age of globalisation, ensuring respect for unity in diversity has become a major challenge, simply because globalisation renders diversity inevitable. The settlement of anachronistic political conflicts in Europe and on its periphery is a must for the future security, stability and welfare of Europe.

Cyprus remains the oldest unresolved conflict in Europe. The overall settlement of this conflict could have been achieved during the simultaneous referenda, which were held on the island on 24 April 2004, on the UN settlement plan. However, that chance was missed due to the rejection of the plan by the Greek Cypriot side. Had this opportunity been seized then Cyprus now could have been a reunified island and represented as such in this Assembly. Isolations imposed on the Turkish Cypriots would have been lifted. The Turkish and Greek Cypriot property issues would have been resolved. The military presence of Greece and Turkey would have reached an agreed solution. A negotiated settlement in Cyprus would have transformed the eastern Mediterranean into a hub of regional co-operation between Turkey, Greece and island of Cyprus. Nevertheless, Turkey remains fully committed to a political settlement: a settlement which will ensure the reunification of the island under the auspices of the good offices mission of the UN Secretary-General, based on the long-established UN parameters.

I recognise the presence of two elected representatives of the Turkish Cypriot people among you. I seize this opportunity to thank the Parliamentary Assembly for taking this modest but meaningful step in helping to ease the political isolation of the Turkish Cypriots.

South Caucasus is another critical region burdened with persisting unresolved conflicts. Its frozen conflicts continue to represent a serious threat to peace and stability in the region. These conflicts provide a major impediment to the region-wide co-operation initiatives. They are also undermining prospects for prosperity of the future generations. Therefore, the resolution of these conflicts constitutes one of the most important and urgent issues in the South Caucasus and beyond. Peaceful solutions should also meet the Azerbaijani and Georgian legitimate concerns over their territorial integrity and sovereignty. Turkey’s approach to the South Caucasus is shaped by its genuine desire to establish comprehensive cooperation in the region. The contribution of all three South Caucasian states would be most preferable.

Turning to south-eastern Europe, the crisis unleashed by the disintegration of former Yugoslavia is back to where it started two decades ago, in Kosovo. Turkey has acted together with the international community in the settlement of Kosovo’s final status. In south-eastern Europe, our focus now must be not on where we were, but on where we would like to head. The issues confronting the region call for bilateral and multilateral co-operation among the Balkan states.

The Black Sea region draws growing attention due to its strategic transportation and trade routes as well as its energy corridors. All Black Sea littoral states are members of the Council of Europe. That provides a common basis for enhanced co-operation. Almost twenty years ago, Turkey pioneered the establishment of the Black Sea Economic Cooperation Organization to help transform the Black Sea into a region of co-operation and integrate it into the global economy. Deeper economic cooperation may also eventually contribute to the resolution of political issues in the region.

I know that your Assembly has been preoccupied with the developments in Iraq. The territorial integrity, political unity and stability of Iraq is of vital importance for the region and beyond. Turkey contributes in every possible way to further the national reconciliation and political dialogue process in Iraq. Arriving at such a political deal will require fair representation of all political elements and equitable sharing of the natural resources of the country. The current situation in Iraq may not be promising. However, one should not fall into the illusion that the current problems can be overcome by the partition of Iraq. This would be the worst scenario for the people of Iraq and the whole region. Therefore, nobody should look for solutions alternative to respecting territorial and political unity of Iraq. This will certainly further complicate the situation.

The situation in Iraq is also of direct relevance for Turkey’s security due to the challenge it poses in combating terrorism. The terrorist organisation PKK continues to use the north of Iraq as a safe haven and to perpetrate violent acts across the boundary. The need for international co-operation in combating terrorism is today self-evident and compelling. The normative work carried out by the Council of Europe in this field is commendable. It provides the legal basis for enhanced European co-operation.

At this point, I would like to thank you, Mr President, for your sincere and prompt reaction to the recent atrocious terrorist attack by PKK against my people in the southeast town of Şırnak. The victims of this attack were a dozen local civilians working for an irrigation project. They were going back their home to break their fast last Saturday afternoon.

Mr President, distinguished parliamentarians. Turkey, as a founding member, believes that the Council of Europe continues to play an essential, if not much publicised, role in Europe. Its standard-setting work has been indispensable in achieving democratic stability in the continent. The comprehensive system of conventions has created a pan-European legal space with monitoring mechanisms. Independent bodies such as the Office of the Commissioner for Human Rights, the European Commission against Racism and Intolerance and the European Committee for the Prevention of Torture and Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment (CPT) carry out very valuable work. The Turkish authorities maintain excellent working relations with them. Our reform process has benefited from their recommendations.

The European Court of Human Rights is a unique institution. The case law that it has developed over the decades has expanded individual liberties for the citizens of Europe. Turkey supports the adoption of more effective working methods and additional resources to the court. The entry into force of Protocol 14 without further delay would be a first step in that direction. There is a large grey area, however, where the protection mechanism provided by the European Convention on Human Rights does not apply. This situation can be corrected by the accession of the European Union to the Convention. Thus, actions directly affecting lives of millions of Europeans would be submitted to the scrutiny of the Court.

Today, Europe enjoys unprecedented democratic stability and prosperity. It is the duty of our generation to take these achievements forward by bringing to a peaceful end unresolved regional conflicts, fostering intercultural dialogue, combating discrimination and terrorism and promoting greater respect for human rights everywhere in the continent. The Council of Europe and, in particular, the Parliamentary Assembly can continue to make important contributions towards these goals. As a former member of the Assembly, I call on you to take this challenge.

Thank you.


We could not have a better promoter of the Council of Europe and its values. Let me express un grand merci for your speech and for accepting questions from the Floor.

I remind members that questions must be limited to thirty seconds and no more. Colleagues should ask questions and not make speeches. The first question is by Mr de Puig on behalf of the Socialist Group.

Mr DE PUIG (Spain) (interpretation)

thanked the President of Turkey, whom he remembered as his former colleague on the Committee on Culture, Science and Education, for his words. He asked what steps were being taken by Turkey to adhere to the resolutions adopted by the Assembly to protect the cultural and political rights of Kurds living in Turkey.

Mr Gül, President of Turkey (interpretation)

reminded the Assembly that the aspiration of Turkey was to become a member of the European Union and said that it was working to fulfil its obligations in respect of its candidacy. Turkey was a country of 70 million citizens and as such, had a richly diverse population. This diversity was expressed in different ways, as could be seen in the variety of books and papers that were published in numerous languages in Turkey. Notable reforms had taken place during the previous five to six years to remove former prohibitions on expression.


As rapporteur in the committee on the monitoring of Turkey, I was impressed by the changes and by the commitments that you made today to universal standards. I was also impressed during the last elections, which were held on 22 July. However, problems remain. In terms of the democratic functioning of institutions, Turkey had the highest threshold – 10% – of the 47 member states. That affects minorities, including the Kurdish minority. There are points to make about the position of the army and the condition of women. I also believe that you should go for more regional responsibility. What is your opinion of that?

Mr Gül, President of Turkey (interpretation)

said that the 10% vote required to win representation in parliament was a reality that would in time be abolished. There had been many coalition governments formed of parties that had been unable to provide political stability. The constitution aimed to promote fairness as well as stability and this had been the main factor behind the introduction of the 10% limit, but it was important to remember that nominees could stand in an independent capacity without needing to reach the limit. In the recent July heat, there had been a turnout of almost 85%. That reaffirmed the commitment of the Turkish people to democratic values. With the strengthening of the economy, it was conceivable that the problems of the 10% limit would be overcome and indeed there was agreement among political parties on this issue.

Mr EÖRSI (Hungary)

Mr President, I join my colleagues in welcoming you back to this Assembly. I am sure that you realise that liberals respect all individuals, whatever their religion. You also know that we stand for a clear separation between religion and state, which Atatürk established in your country. When you were elected as President, there were worries in Europe that the position might change. What is your response to those worries? Perhaps you could highlight for us your vision for the separation of religion and state in Turkey.

Mr Gül, President of Turkey (interpretation)

said that the main principle within Turkey of secular democracy would be maintained with continued separation of the state and the church. Concern should not exist with regard to the future direction of Turkey since her aspiration to implement changes and enact laws to enable membership of the European Union was transparent. Individual liberties and rights would be guaranteed in the same way that they were respected within the framework of the Council of Europe.


In your speech you talked about human rights but you did not mention freedom of speech. I believe that, last year, your Prime Minister filed 59 complaints against journalists and authors for violating his rights and freedoms. The courts have also shut down YouTube and a blog on the Internet called Wordpress. That is a tremendous attack on freedom of speech in Turkey. I would like you to comment on that and on how you intend to change the situation.

Mr Gül, President of Turkey (interpretation)

said that freedom of speech was one of the major forms of democracy and was exercised in Turkey as long as the statements made were not insulting or in praise or support of violence. New regulations and arrangements with regard to this issue were likely to be considered by the Turkish Grand National Assembly in the near future.

People who were criticised had a right to be defended in court. In Turkey, if one were insulted, it was possible that the culprit would have to pay in court. The Turkish courts were independent. This was particularly highlighted by the cases that had recently been rejected – cases brought from all quarters, including some brought by the Prime Minister of Turkey. That illustrated the true independence of the courts.

Mr KOX (Netherlands)

May I ask the former member of this Assembly, Mr Gül, whether he agrees that the President of Turkey did not quite give a clear answer to the question put by my colleague, Mr de Puig, about whether Turkey should respect resolutions accepted by this Assembly with regard to Kurdish rights? In Turkish, there must be a clear word for yes or no or perhaps for “perhaps”. As a former parliamentarian, Mr President, please give us a clear answer.

Mr Gül, President of Turkey (interpretation)

said he would give a clear answer to the question. Any person who had Turkish citizenship was a free citizen. He acknowledged there had been obstacles in the past. However, there had been reforms, and freedom of speech was now a reality in Turkey. He invited members of the Assembly to visit Turkey where they would see billboards, newspapers and television programmes in Kurdish. He was proud that they existed. Turkey was embracing the cultural diversity of its citizens. He accepted these rights had not been available in the past, but it was now possible for all citizens to enjoy this freedom. However, he pointed out that there were laws in Turkey which prevented freedom of speech where it promoted violence and terrorism.

Mr FOSS (Norway)

Mr President, I take this opportunity to reiterate our obligations as Council of Europe members to ensure full compliance with international law on the treatment of prisoners. On previous occasions I have been informed about the severe prison conditions of Mr Öcalan who is in solitary confinement on the island of Imrali. Concerns have been expressed, including from the CPT, about the long-term effects of Mr Öcalan’s isolation. I would therefore like to ask you when and in what manner the Turkish authorities intend to change the prison arrangements for Mr Öcalan. Thank you.

Mr Gül, President of Turkey (interpretation)

said that the CPT regularly visited Turkey. There had been no issues regarding the ill-treatment of prisoners. No views had been expressed against Turkey’s procedure. Individuals found guilty of a crime should expect to be punished; however, there was no violence or torture within the prison system. All the regulations recently enacted in Turkey went beyond those of any other member state of the Assembly. He regretted that propaganda still existed, but was keen to stress that no ill-treatment occurred against prisoners. The European Court of Human Rights had made a judgment stating that it did not find Turkey in breach of the European Convention on Human Rights in this regard.

Mrs DURRIEU (France) (interpretation)

congratulated her former colleague on his elevation to the status of President of Turkey, but said that Europe was concerned that women in Turkey were in danger of losing some of their human rights which they had previously secured from the government. She also asked him to expand his view on the new Turkish constitution.

Mr Gül, President of Turkey (interpretation)

said that, since 1934, women in Turkey had had the right to vote and to be elected to parliament. There had been some inequalities between the sexes, but these had now been eliminated. The number of female members of parliament was at a record high. He would like to see these increase further. Women in Turkey were actively taking part in society.

He did not know what amendments would be proposed to the Turkish Constitution. However, he was confident that a general consensus could be achieved. Turkey needed a new constitution, and he believed it was mature enough to establish this.

Mr BRANGER (France) (interpretation)

said that the President of Turkey had stated in 2005 in an interview that no genocide had occurred in Armenia and that the movement of some Armenians had been voluntary. He expressed concern about the recent murders of journalists in Turkey and asked when Turkey would step away from this history of violence. He also asked whether the murders would be fully investigated.

Mr Gül, President of Turkey (interpretation)

said it was sad that a journalist had been killed so recently. However, the assassin had been immediately caught. He noted that over 100 000 Turkish citizens had protested in the streets about the murder, and he thought that this was worthy of note.

In 1915, Turkey was in the middle of the First World War. Turkey had fought the war on four frontiers. Some citizens had been provoked by neighbour states, and the government had intervened. He accepted there had been tragedy during the war and many people had suffered. However, he did not believe genocide had occurred. Turkey was keen to establish a common history with Europe on this issue. To this end, a Committee on Common History had been established. It consisted of foreign and Turkish academics, and they had been given access to the relevant top-secret Turkish files. Turkey was happy to accept the considered view of the committee, and, until then, would not accept unfair arguments.

Mr NAMI (Cyprus)

First, may I extend a warm welcome to you, Mr President? During your visit to North Cyprus, you addressed the Turkish-Cypriot legislative Assembly and said that your vision for future co-operation in the region includes a new partnership state in Cyprus – a vision that I fully share. However, given the Greek-Cypriot attitude towards using their European Union membership as leverage against Turkish-Cypriots, their decision not to make a commitment to a time frame for solving the Cyprus problem and their rejection of UN arbitration, do you think that our vision is realistic, or is it under threat?

Mr Gül, President of Turkey (interpretation)

said there had been a referendum in 2004 on this issue. The Turkish and Greek Cypriots had not voted as expected. He believed that the realities of Cyprus had to be taken into account. Some member countries of the European Union continued to raise the issue of Cyprus with Turkey. Turkish Cypriots had done everything they could. There had been regulations passed on this issue but they had not been enforced. He recognised that, if Turkey did not fulfil its promise to Cyprus, it would be unable to move forward. Cyprus could be a new area of co-operation.


I call Mr Vis on a point of order.

Mr VIS (United Kingdom)

Will we receive written answers to the questions we have not reached?


No, that is not usual. You can see from the order paper that we took the questions according to the time at which they were tabled – that is the order we followed. It is a pity that we do not have more time. Some 38 members wanted to ask the President a question, and this is not the first time that we have been in this situation.

I thank the President for being so frank, direct and transparent in answering all the questions, which were open. That shows that this house of dialogue and discussion has not taken away any questions from the floor. I am very grateful, President Gül, that you were prepared to answer all the questions that were asked. Thank you very much once again, and may I wish you every success as a president for all Turks and a promoter of the values of the Council of Europe?