National Minorities in Turkey: From Lausanne to the European Union

Located at the crossroad between Europe and Asia, the territory of today’s Turkey for centuries has been under the rule of many empires. Thus during its history, Turkey has felt different ethnic, linguistic, cultural, and religious influences.

As a result, Turkey is now inhabited by many national, ethnic, linguistic, and religious minorities, but recognizes only three groups of minorities by naming them “non-Muslims”.

Thus the national minorities in Turkey are considered to be Armenian, Greek, and Jewish Communities, whose status and rights have been defined by the treaty of Lausanne, signed on July 24, 1923.

The second part of the Treaty of Lausanne is about the protection of minority right in Turkey. According to Articles 38 to 44, “the Turkish Government undertakes to assure full protection of life and liberty to all inhabitants of Turkey, irrespective of their nationality, language, race, and religion”.

According to Article 39, alongside the official language, which is Turkish, languages of national minorities are also allowed to be used. “No restrictions shall be imposed on the free use by any Turkish national of any language”.

According to Article 40 non-Muslim minorities have equal rights to establish and manage charitable, religious, social institutions, schools, and other institutions for instruction and education at their expanse, with the right to use their language and the exercise their religion in these institutions.

According to Article 42, the Turkish Government will undertake the full protection of churches, synagogues, cemeteries, and other religious institutions of the minorities.

The aforementioned Articles of the Treaty of Lausanne on legal guarantees of the minority rights refer only to the non-Muslim minorities (the treaty of Lausanne did not recognize non-Turk Muslims, including the Kurds and the Alevis, as minorities).

After signing the Treaty of Lausanne, the Turkish authorities drastically changed their policies toward national minorities. The policies towards the Kurds changed, too. Moreover, the Turks very soon declared that there are no national minorities in Turkey and all of them are Turks.

This was fixed in the 1924 Constitution, the 88th Article of which said: “The inhabitants of Turkey, irrespective of their religion and race, according to their citizenship are considered to be Turk”. In other words, anyone who is a Turkish citizen is considered to be a Turk.

It is worth mentioning that this point is also included in the current Constitution of Turkey. Article 88 of the 1924 Constitution has become Article 66 of the 1982 Constitution. Consequently, there is no reference to the national minorities in the Turkish Constitution. The Turkish statistics tried to present the country’s population as homogeneous as possible by reducing the number of national minorities. Turkey does not organize an official census based on national affiliation.

With the adoption of the UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948, the process of adoption of numerous international documents began. Turkey has joined many international agreements on human rights protection, but many of them have been ratified with special reservations, because of minority rights issues (for example, Turkey signed the 1965 Convention on “The Elimination of all Forms of Racial Discrimination” in 1972 and ratified in 2002, but still it has not recognized the eligibility of the Committee for Combating Discrimination to receive individual applications).

At the same time, Turkey has not signed numerous important international documents (1960 UNESCO Convention “Against Discrimination in Education”, 1955 Framework Convention for the “Protection of National Minorities” of the Council of Europe, 1992 “The European Charter for Regional or Minority Languages” of the Council of Europe, etc).

However, not being a signatory to the aforementioned documents does not exempt Turkey from the obligations to guarantee the protection of the national minority rights, as Turkey is a full member of the European Parliament.

Turkey has also not joined many important UNESCO cultural heritage protection conventions and declarations. In the progress reports of the European Union Turkey is still being criticized for the protection of minority rights, and Turkish policies towards its national minorities (to become an EU member, according to the Copenhagen Criteria, Turkey is obliged to protect human rights, respect and protect the rights of the minority rights).


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