TRAVELING THROUGH TURKEY: A PERSONAL EXPERIENCE

In October 2010, I was invited by UNDP-Turkey for an official visit to attend a high level conference in Istanbul. The purpose of my visit was twofold: first, I had to participate and moderate a session at an international conference on judicial reforms and second, I had to visit ‘local development’ projects of UNDP that is headed by a Canadian colleague.

The international conference on judicial reform brought together 19 supreme court presidents/judges from around the world, including Canada, Argentina, Italy, France, Egypt, Spain, and of course Turkey. The event was organized by UNDP and throughout the two days, participants discussed key reform issues including judicial independence. This of course is a very sensitive issue in Turkey, coming soon after the constitutional referendum that redistributes the balance of power between the Executive and the Judiciary on judicial appointments.  The judicial independence issue was the most important element of the international gathering. While we did not openly discuss Turkish political issues, we were mindful of the implications of the discussions on Turkish judicial independence.

If the outcome of the conference was not clear to us, the UNDP Resident Co-coordinator made it clear to me and to the other moderators that we were to come up with an ‘Istanbul Declaration’—the verdict of the conference—on judicial independence. It was quickly clear to me what we were asked to produce and I announced to UNDP colleagues that I would hold the pen and co-ordinate the drafting of the declaration document and organize the work with other moderators from the European Union and the Council of Europe.

At the end of day one, we developed a rather political statement and shared it with the President of the Court of Cassation of Turkey, Mr. Hassan Gercheker, who was our host.  There were several changes to the text throughout the day.

I was moderating the last session of the conference on ‘Global Governance’ and my two speakers were Mr.Gercheker and Mr Richardo Lorenzetti, the Supreme Court President of Argentina. I introduced myself to the mainly Turkish audience who were high level judges from all over the country and other senior officials…. ‘Annie Demirjian from Canada and head of the democratic governance of the regional centre, etc, etc.’ While introducing Mr. Gercheker, I was very graceful and grateful of UNDP/Turkey partnership under his presidency.  At the end of his presentation,  when he concluded his speech I complemented him for highlighting ‘democratic governance principles’ which I would have done it myself but that he did a better job. There was plenty of applause and Mr. Gercheker was genuinely pleased and thanked me.

Mr. Lorenzetti’s speech covered global governance and he touched on ‘crimes against humanity and genocide’ from the Argentinean perspective and he gave two examples of legal cases from Argentina to make his point.

A Canadian-Armenian moderating a global governance session to a Turkish audience of judges and helping them prepare a declaration on judicial independence so that Turkey’s highest court can make a point to the political masters….. one can well imagine what I was going through emotionally, intellectually, and physically. When I took the podium and introduced myself I thought I was going to die with all the Turkish eyes on me wondering how on earth I got there and how was I to moderate this important session. I thought, on a very personal level, I was making history. I was given this once-in-a-life opportunity to stand up in front of an important Turkish audience and how would I handle it. I thought the only way I could make a personal and professional statement, on behalf of many Armenians, is to be graceful, warm, generous and thoughtful.  I praised the Turkish chief justice for his presentation on the selection process of the Supreme Court presidency in Turkey, summarized his speech within the principles of democratic governance and underlined the spirit of his words. My ability to rise to the occasion even surprised me.

Mr. Lorenzetti was absolutely fabulous. I had read his paper earlier and introduced myself to him. We were on the same wavelength on the issues he covered.

The next day, I had helped conclude the compromise document for Mr. Gercheker and UNDP and we attended the farewell dinner. As all the guests were saying goodbye to Mr. Gercheker I also went to say goodbye to him.  He took my hands in his hands and he said to me, all in Turkish, how pleased he was with my work: moderating his session and getting the ‘declaration document’ out on time. He also added that a night earlier all the Turkish judges were only talking about me and how gracefully I moderated his session. He said I was the talk of the conference and added that we will meet again, in Turkey.

The next two days, I did my field visits and met regional governors, mayors, deputy mayors, secretary general of the Ministry of Interior and others. With some we had open and frank discussions about political developments in Turkey, human rights, minority rights, women’s rights (I even raised the issue of honor killing) and talked about Canada’s experience on multiculturalism.  Some were apprehensive at first, others bewildered, and many others quite genuine towards me. I connected quickly with all the professional women I met. But was wondering what some of these senior officials were thinking about this Canadian-Armenian’s official visit and what was going through their minds. I was showered with gifts and invitations (had to buy a second bag for my gifts).

I also had discussions with the international judges on political developments in Turkey. Coming soon after the referendum the situation appears to be tense to outsiders. On daily basis, the newspapers carry more than 3-4 articles on the headscarf issue. October 29th was the Republic Day and the President, Abdullah Gul, was presiding over the official ceremonies and reception. The Turkish military officials boycotted the reception because Mrs. Hayrunnisa Gul was participating and she wears the headscarf. Turkish newspapers also cover Turkish-Armenian relations. It was interesting to read in the English Daily News that Kemal Ataturk’s official signature, which appears on all official documents, was written by an Istanbul Armenian handwriting expert, who now lives in NY. Go figure.

For a social democrat from Canada it is interesting to witness some of the socio-economic and legal reforms in Turkey. It may not look like much to outsiders but the constitutional/legal changes that are shaping Turkey are quite fundamental and far-reaching. A Canadian friend of mine told me it is important to build bridges between Armenian Diaspora and Turkey and I have started on this project – building bridges between Armenians and Turks at the very personal and sometimes at the institutional level. And in the spirit of building bridges we hope that the judicial, political and social reforms continue to shape the future of modern Turkey and its relationship with Armenia and Armenians. Perhaps next door Armenia can learn from Turkey’s judicial, legal, and economic reforms.

by Annie Demirjian
Senior Fellow, Policy Forum Armenia

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