The International Human Rights Framework on the Right of Peaceful Assembly
Turkey is a state party to the 1966 International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR). Article 21 governs the right of peaceful assembly, providing that:
The right of peaceful assembly shall be recognized. No restrictions may be placed on the exercise of this right other than those imposed in conformity with the law and which are necessary in a democratic society in the interests of national security or public safety, public order (ordre public), the protection of public health or morals or the protection of the rights and freedoms of others.
Turkey is also a state party to the First Optional Protocol to the ICCPR, which allows individuals to petition the Human Rights Committee if they believe the state has violated their human rights as protected under the Covenant.
At regional level, Turkey is a state party to the 1950 European Convention on Human Rights. Article 11 governs freedom of assembly and association:
1. Everyone has the right to freedom of peaceful assembly and to freedom of association with others, including the right to form and to join trade unions for the protection of his interests.
2. No restrictions shall be placed on the exercise of these rights other than such as are prescribed by law and are necessary in a democratic society in the interests of national security or public safety, for the prevention of disorder or crime, for the protection of health or morals or for the protection of the rights and freedoms of others. This Article shall not prevent the imposition of lawful restrictions on the exercise of these rights by members of the armed forces, of the police or of the administration of the State.
The Domestic Legal Framework on the Right of Peaceful Assembly
According to Article 34 of the 1982 Constitution of Turkey:
Everyone has the right to hold unarmed and peaceful meetings and demonstration marches without prior permission.
The right to hold meetings and demonstration marches shall be restricted only by law on the grounds of national security, public order, prevention of commission of crime, protection of public health and public morals or the rights and freedoms of others. The formalities, conditions, and procedures to be applied in the exercise of the right to hold meetings and demonstration marches shall be prescribed by law.
The primary legislation regulating assemblies in Turkey is 1983 Law No. 2911 on Meetings and Demonstrations. Secondary legislation regulating the implementation of Law No. 2911 includes the 1985 Regulation on the Implementation of Law on Meetings and Demonstrations; Law No. 2559 on the Duties and Discretion of the Police; Law No. 3713 on The Prevention of Terrorism Acts; and Law No. 5326 on Misdemeanors.
Law No. 2911 significantly limits the right to peaceful assembly. In accordance with Article 34 of the Constitution, rights to assembly and demonstrations may be restricted with a wide range of reasons such as “preservation of national security”, “public order”, “prevention of crime”, and the protection of “public morals” and “public health.” Under Article 10 of Law on Meetings and Demonstrations, all members of the organising committee must sign a declaration 48 hour prior to the assembly and submit it to the district governor’s office during working hours. If they fail to do so, the administration considers it an illegal assembly and has the right to take all measures to disperse it.
The Legal Framework on Use of Force During Assemblies
The Use of Force
International Legal Rules
Under international law, the duty on the state and its law enforcement agencies is to facilitate the enjoyment of the right of peaceful assembly. According to the 1990 United Nations Basic Principles on the Use of Force and Firearms by Law Enforcement Officials:
In the dispersal of assemblies that are unlawful but non-violent, law enforcement officials shall avoid the use of force or, where that is not practicable, shall restrict such force to the minimum extent necessary.
All force used by police and other law enforcement agencies must be necessary for a legitimate law enforcement purpose and proportionate to that purpose.
Under Section 24 of Law 2911 on gatherings and demonstrations allows use of force to disperse an unlawful gathering. Where this occurs or "in the event of an attack on the security forces or on the property or individuals they are protecting; or where there is effective resistance, force will be used without any need [to issue] an order".
Article 16 of the Law 2559 on the Powers and Duties of Police provides generally that: "if a person or group resists and prevents the police from carrying out their duties the police can resort to force to the extent required to eliminate this resistance".
The Use of Firearms
International Legal Rules
According to the 1990 United Nations Basic Principles, in the dispersal of violent assemblies, a law enforcement official may only use a firearm against a specific individual where this is necessary to confront an imminent threat of death or serious injury or a grave and proximate threat to life.
With respect to firearms, Section 16 of Law 2559 provides that the police
may use firearms for the purposes of arresting a person against whom an arrest or custody warrant has been issued ... or a suspect in the act of committing an offence, within limits that are commensurate with the fulfilment of that purpose.
Before making use of firearms, the police ... must first call out ‘stop!’ ... If the person continues to flee, the police may fire a warning shot. If, despite those warnings, the person still continues to flee, and if no other means of stopping the person can be envisaged, the police may use firearms for the purposes of stopping the person, within limits that are commensurate with the fulfilment of that purpose....
In 2015, the Law amending the powers and duties of the police was adopted by the Turkish Parliament. The law authorises the police to use firearms to protect property where there is no imminent or grave threat to life in violation of international law.
State Compliance with its Legal Obligations
Views and Concluding Observations of United Nations Treaty Bodies
Turkey has not come before the Human Rights Committee in recent years.
There have been many cases in which Turkey has been found in violation of the right of peaceful assembly by the European Court of Human Rights. Many of these cases also involve unlawful police action.
Abdullah Yaşa and others v. Turkey
The first applicant, who was 13 years of age at the time, was struck in the face by a tear gas canister which he claimed had been fired directly into the crowd by a law enforcement official during a demonstration. The public prosecutor decided to take no further action, without examining whether the force used had been proportionate, on the grounds that the law enforcement agencies had acted in the interests of maintaining public order and to defend themselves against a hostile crowd.
The European Court of Human Rights found a violation of Article 3 of the European Convention on Human Rights because it had not been established that the use of force had been appropriate in the circumstances. Furthermore, at the relevant time, Turkish law did not specifically regulate the use of tear gas canisters during demonstrations nor had guidelines on their use been issued to law enforcement agencies. The Court noted that on 15 February 2008 a circular laying down the conditions governing the use of tear gas had been sent to all the security forces. Nevertheless, the safeguards surrounding the proper use of tear gas canisters needed to be strengthened by means of more detailed legislation and/or regulations, in order to minimise the risk of death or injury resulting from their use.
Güleç v. Turkey
This case concerned spontaneous and unauthorised demonstrations, shop closures, and attacks on public buildings in the town of Idil. The applicant’s son was hit and killed from a ricochet bullet fired by a gendarme to disperse the demonstrators. Evidenced by the damage to movable and immovable property and the injuries sustained by the gendarmes, the European Court accepted the Commission’s assessment, which described the demonstration as "far from peaceful" and which could constitute a ‘riot’ within the meaning of the Convention. But it held that the authorities should have provided their law enforcement officials with alternatives to firearms to disperse the assembly: the government had produced no evidence to support its assertion that terrorists were among the demonstrators, which might have justified recourse to live fire.
Ataykaya v. Turkey
This 2014 judgment concerned a youth who found himself in the middle of a demonstration as he was leaving his place of work and was struck in the head by a tear-gas canister fired by the security forces. He died shortly afterwards. Investigations failed to identify the person who had fired the fatal shot. The Court found
that the domestic authorities deliberately created a situation of impunity which made it impossible to identify members of the security forces who were suspected of inappropriately firing tear-gas grenades and to establish the responsibilities of the senior officers, thus preventing any effective investigation....
Views of Civil Society
According to Freedom House's 2019 report on Turkey:
Although freedom of assembly is theoretically guaranteed in Turkish law, authorities have routinely disallowed gatherings by government critics on security grounds in recent years, while progovernment rallies are allowed to proceed. Restrictions have been imposed on May Day celebrations by leftist and labor groups, LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender) events, protests by purge victims, and opposition party meetings. Police use force to break up unsanctioned protests. In August 2018, a weekly commemoration in Istanbul held by Saturday Mothers, a group that has protested forced disappearances since 1995, was broken up by police after authorities announced that the demonstrations would be banned; many participants, including elderly people, were arrested.