A Historic Judgment by the European Court
By YAVUZ BAYDAR , Zaman 31/3/08
Mar 31, 2008 - 10:59:17 AM

And in Greece, a minority not very well known abroad is also hard to handle, even by its free press. I am referring to the Turkish minority in the Western Thrace region, located in the northeastern part of Greece. There are around 150,000 of these people; they speak Turkish, are Muslims (mainly Sunnis, a few Alevis) and are remnants of the Ottoman Empire -- similar to the Greek minority in Turkey who speak Greek and are Orthodox Christians.


  One socio-tragic fact of the implosion of the empire and the nation-building process first for the Greeks and then the Turks was the large population exchange agreed upon by the Greek and Turkish governments in the early 1920s. Tens of thousands of Turks and Greeks left their respective homelands and settled in their new, "ethnically identical" territories. The eastern Balkans were largely emptied of native Turks and Anatolia lost its native Greeks.

  But some remained, mainly in ?stanbul and Western Thrace (Komothini and Xanthi regions). The status of these minorities was determined by the Lausanne Treaty, which strictly defined them as "non-Muslims" (in Turkey) and "Muslims" (in Greece).

  The knowledge and demands of ethnic identities were thereby shelved. As "Turk" or "Rum," they never existed as such in official documents or rhetoric. Even worse, they had become hostages of never-ending hostile policies, the tit-for-tat tactics of Ankara and Athens, suffering deeply as human beings after having been denied of their basic rights. Their story is told in a heart wrenching manner in a wonderfully bitter Greek-Turkish movie titled "A Touch of Spice," a film that I highly recommend.

  In the past 80 years we have witnessed a constant erosion of the Greek minority in Turkey (due to suppression, now down to some 5,000, mostly elderly) and Turkish minority members in Greece (over 65.000 of them had been denied Greek citizenship until Greece abolished a repressive constitutional article).

  One part of the problem was a constant denial of recognition of Western Thrace minority members as "Turks."

  Just as the Turkish press once did with state rhetoric, not identifying Kurds as "Kurds," the Greek press to a large extent still refers to Turks of Western Thrace as "Muslims."

  But now this is about to change by way of a historical judgment by the European Court of Human Rights last Thursday.

  Based on complaints of Turkish women and a group of Xanthi Turks, the court ruled that Greece had not respected either of the former's ethnic identities.

  Tourkiki Enosi Xanthis was founded in 1927 under the name "House of the Turkish Youth of Xanthi." Its purpose was to preserve and promote the culture of the Turks of Western Thrace. In 1983, however, it was prohibited from using the term "Turkish" on any document, stamp or sign.

  In 1986 the Greek courts dissolved the association on the grounds that its aims ran counter to public policy. The Thrace Court of Appeals upheld that judgment; it found that the applicant association was not in conformity with the Treaty of Lausanne and that some of the members presented the Muslim minority of Thrace as a "strongly oppressed minority." The appeal was finally dismissed in February 2005.

  In 2001 seven women in the region founded the Cultural Association of Turkish Women of the Region of Rodopi. Its aim was to create a "meeting place for women of the county of Rodopi" and to work for "social, moral and spiritual improvement and establish bonds of sisterhood between its members."

  But the Greek courts dismissed a request for registration of the association because its title might "mislead the public" regarding the origin of its members. The court reiterated that in the Treaty of Lausanne only a Muslim minority, not a Turkish minority, had been recognized in the region of Western Thrace. An appeal was dismissed in April 2005.

  Both Turkish minority groups thought these cases were in violation of articles 11 (freedom of assembly and association) and 14 (prohibition of discrimination) of the European Convention on Human Rights.

  The European Court of Human Rights agreed.

  The following are some excerpts from the judgment:

  "The court observed that even supposing that the real aim of the association had been to promote the idea that there was an ethnic minority in Greece, this could not be said to constitute a threat to democratic society. There was nothing in the statute to indicate that its members advocated the use of violence or of undemocratic or unconstitutional means."

  "The court observed that even supposing that the real aim of the applicant association had been to promote the idea that there was an ethnic minority in Greece, this could not be said to constitute a threat to democratic society. It reiterated that the existence of minorities and different cultures in a country was a historical fact that a democratic society had to tolerate and even protect and support according to the principles of international law."

  "The court considered that freedom of association involved the right of everyone to express, in a lawful context, their beliefs about their ethnic identity. However shocking and unacceptable certain views or words used might appear to the authorities, their dissemination should not automatically be regarded as a threat to public policy or to the territorial integrity of a country."

  As a human rights observer, I salute the applicants for their civic courage. May this be a lesson for both Greece and Turkey, suffering from a deep "ethnophobia."

  But there is apparently a problem now: The Lausanne Treaty contradicts some parts the European Convention on Human Rights. It is, basically, too "outdated" in the context of identifying ethnicities today. It is used as a pretext for denial.

Source: Ocnus.net 2008