Bureaucratic Intimacies
Translating Human Rights in Turkey
Elif M. Babül



Standards and Their Tinkering

There are . . . few historical accounts of such imposition and transmission of ideas; and the historical process by which people, in both assessing and using the ideas presented to them, actually resist them, is scarcely considered.

—Carolyn Kay Steedman1

In the summer of 2013, Turkey became the subject of heightened attention due to the widespread urban riots that swept across the country. What started as a contained demonstration against the demolition of Gezi Park in Istanbul for commercial purposes quickly spread to other neighborhoods and cities. Hundreds of thousands poured into public places to express their grievances against the Justice and Development Party (Adalet ve Kalkınma Partisi, or AKP) government.2 Following a series of clashes with the police, the protesters set up an Occupy-style encampment in Gezi Park, which lasted over a week. Similar camps were erected in public parks in Ankara and Izmir in solidarity. When a series of negotiations between the government and the activist coalition Taksim Solidarity yielded no results, the police retook the square, violently evicting the protesters. The demonstrations in the end succeeded in preserving the park.3 The uprising did not go as far as ousting the government. Nevertheless, it made an important mark in the country’s recent political history. What became known as “the Gezi spirit” brought to the fore a fresh repertoire of political action, incorporating new strategies for organizing and a new language of opposition.4 Pulling together a diverse group of protesters that included environmentalists, secularists, workers, feminists, LGBTQ activists, anti-capitalist Muslims, professionals, students, football supporters, nationalist Turks, Kurds, Sunnis, and Alevis, it generated a new political experience and memory, especially among the country’s youth.

In addition to sparking much-needed inspiration for progressive politics,5 the Gezi revolts also elicited a spectacular display of state violence that until then had prevailed in less visible places such as southeastern Kurdish provinces or maximum-security prisons. Circulation of the footage of police raids against peaceful demonstrators in social media was arguably the most important reason that the protests attained such a massive scale. During the demonstrations and in their aftermath, the scale of violence has also been the primary issue highlighted in domestic and international critiques towards the government’s handling of the riots.6 The European Union (EU)—Turkey’s most conspicuous international interlocutor—immediately issued a resolution stating EU’s “deep concern at the disproportionate and excessive use of force by the Turkish police” and stressing “the need for continued intensive training for the police force and the judiciary.”

This critique alluded to a deep paradox, which serves as the departure point for this book. While the Gezi revolts were under way, the Turkish National Police was in fact running a project on the prevention of disproportionate use of force, which was being financed by the EU itself.7 This €6 million project was conducted together with a German-Austrian consortium that included the German Foundation for International Legal Cooperation, the Federal Criminal Police Office, the Austrian Security Academy, and the Ludwig Boltzman Institute of Human Rights.8 According to the latter’s website, 452 officers were going through training on disproportionate use of force in May and June 2013, just as their colleagues were being ordered to crack down on the Gezi protests using tear gas, water cannons, and mass arrests.9

How to make sense of this situation? Does it suffice to say that the project is just another instance of the Turkish state paying lip service to meeting governmental standards required for EU membership? Or should it compel us to look more closely at the process with which these standards are implanted in Turkey’s governmental realm?

Although attaining EU membership has been a national priority for Turkey since 1987, the relationship between the two parties has been deteriorating since 2005-2006. This downfall is visible in the deployment of anti-EU rhetoric both by president Erdoğan and the AKP government, as well as the Turkey-sceptic declarations of several EU officials. Notwithstanding this glaring rift, European standards of development, modernization, and good governance have been seeping into the lexicon of various state institutions since at least 2004. Particularly since the approval of Turkey’s candidacy for EU membership in 1999, civil and military bureaucracies—including the police, the judiciary, the army, and healthcare services—have been employing lucrative tools of harmonization for “capacity building” to comply with membership criteria. Although Turkey seems to be drifting away from the prospect of EU membership, various harmonization instruments such as EU projects, twinning programs, and Technical Assistance and Information Exchange are widely used to organize meetings, workshops, training programs, and country visits for developing the administrative and judicial capacity of Turkey.

The conviction resulting in the research underlying this book was that projects aiming to build the Turkish state’s capacity for good governance are far from unproductive, useless sites of whitewashing that help the Turkish state to continue business as usual. My curiosity about what actually takes place in the events and gatherings through which such projects are operationalized led me to a journey between 2007 and 2014 during which I conducted fieldwork alongside eleven different training programs—all with the stated goal to improve the government workers’ ability to respect and implement human rights. The topics of trainings ranged from torture and maximum-security prisons to violence against women and children’s rights. The target audience included judges and prosecutors, the police, prison guards, teachers, religious officials, and health care professionals.10 In this ethnographic study of human rights training programs, I aim to scrutinize both the everyday governmental configurations of Turkey’s EU accession and the effects of a particular framing of human rights engendered by the accession process.

In a nutshell, my findings reveal that the projects, trainings, and other tools of harmonization serve as key mediums of encounter between Turkish governmental agents and their various European interlocutors. It is by participating in such projects that the government workers both engage with and learn to manage the real-life effects of EU membership and the governmental standards that they entail. A close study of the training programs shows that human rights need to go through translation in order to be integrated into the governmental domain. Trainings accomplish this translation by disassociating human rights from their radical political connotations, and reframing them instead as relevant to and compatible with everyday practices of national governance. To this end, human rights are formulated as a requirement for expertise and professionalism to which all government workers should subscribe in order to better perform their jobs. This ethnography details how this reframing is administered and how it is received by the training audiences, who are socialized to be suspicious and reactionary towards the politics of human rights.

Overall, the ethnography of human rights training programs complicates the dominant conviction that EU accession is an all-progressive path for the advancement of human rights and democracy in Turkey. The good governance framework of EU renders human rights synonymous with governmental competence that is devoid of critical oppositional politics. This reframing ultimately carries the potential to delegitimize grassroots human rights movements in Turkey, which have historically been committed to speaking out against state violence in its various forms—such as discrimination against ethnic and religious minorities, economic exploitation, environmental decay, and gender disparity. With an aim to change the government workers’ perception of human rights as “rights for terrorists,” most training programs contribute to the transformation of human rights from a political tool to resist state violence into a resource that the state can employ to govern its subjects.

Nevertheless, it would be equally problematic to assume that human rights trainings completely neutralize the power and effect of human rights politics in Turkey. My research rather suggests that both the EU accession and human rights training programs emerge as dialogical processes, which involve negotiation, strategizing, and indeterminacy. The main analytical lens of this book invites the readers to view Turkey’s EU accession as a pedagogical process, which revolves around the uneven yet dynamic relationship between the learner and the learned. Although pedagogical relations are primarily based upon (and reproduce) the clear demarcation between the educated and the non-educated, everyday educational situations are nevertheless saturated with dialectical encounters that generate contradiction and resistance (Bourdieu and Passeron [1977] 1990, Willis 1977). Seen from this perspective, everyday sites of EU harmonization emerge as fields of sociocultural production and encounter between multiple actors who have varying stakes in harmonization. Rather than clear-cut diplomatic positions whose outcomes are extensively discussed by policy analysts, these encounters instead produce diverse and unstable meanings, practices, performances, and feelings vis-à-vis human rights, national governance, the West, and Turkey’s EU membership.

Harmonization as Standardization

Human rights training programs are part of a larger “harmonization process” Turkey has to undergo for successfully completing its accession into the EU. An important means of the European integration, harmonization attempts to integrate the candidate countries’ governments and their populations “not by overt coercion, but by instituting a host of ‘harmonized’ regulations, codes, and standards” (Dunn 2005, 175). Understanding Turkey’s EU harmonization in terms of standardization highlights its processual characteristic. This is particularly important at a time when Turkey-EU relations are highly unstable. One of the most important points emphasized by the prolific literature on standardization is the need to pay attention to the long dureé rather than its end result. The multifarious networks, relations, practices, and rationalities that go into the making, implementation, and negotiation of standards often remain invisible, despite their influence in shaping the societies in which standards get operationalized. In a similar vein, although most commentators agree upon the near impossibility of Turkey’s accession into the EU anytime soon, harmonization displays an ongoing dynamic process that generates encounters, prompts negotiations, assembles projects, and allocates resources in Turkey. It continues to influence the funding structures, work habits, and performances of productivity and accountability at government offices and beyond. These influences and the ways they infuse into the national governmental realm deserve attention regardless of whether Turkey attains EU membership in the end.

Another aspect of standardization that makes it a useful conceptual tool for understanding harmonization is the complexity it introduces into the power relations that mark transnational encounters such as those between Turkey and the EU. Standardization is heavily associated with acting at a distance on unfamiliar events, places, and people (Latour 1987) and with global neoliberal governance that attempts to create seamless, frictionless regulatory circuits for capital and power to function swiftly (Türem and Ballestero 2014). Standards seek to streamline procedures, regulate behaviors, and predict results primarily with an aim to render the standardized societies legible and intervenable (Collier and Ong 2005, 11). In addition to enabling intervention for humanitarian, developmental, and commercial purposes, standardization also involves evaluation of the people, products, practices, and techniques instituting technical, social, and moral hierarchies in standardized places (Coles 2002, 2008, Dunn 2005). Nevertheless, a detailed examination of the everyday sites of standardization also reveals the complications that take place during this seemingly straightforward process by exposing the amount of effort that is required for making, maintaining, and disseminating standards (Latour 2005, 227).

Despite pretence that standards have an inherent universal quality, social and technical engineering that go into them, as well as the political work that goes into persuading governments and publics in their efficacy, attest that they are in fact much less established than they seem. Focusing on the practices and processes of standardization opens up the spaces where standards are not just passively taken as matters of compliance but are also actively engaged with as issues of contestation, negotiation, and management. As Martha Lampland and Susan Leigh Star (2009) show in their influential work on standardization, instead of facilitating social processes, standards oftentimes end up frustrating people. Compensation and tinkering emerge as the primary modes of engagement with standards due to that reason—more so than simply conforming to them.

Finally, despite connotations of standardization as containing, streamlining, and reducing the things that are standardized, a closer look at its management shows that standardization in fact adds to the “vibrancy and multiplicity of its objects, potentially rendering them more complex and volatile” (Hetherington 2014, 57). In that respect, the ethnography of standardization refutes homogeneity as the final result. It also calls into question the immutability of what Bruno Latour calls “immutable mobiles” (1987, 227), referring to the devices through which standardizations are carried out.11 As we shall see in the remainder of this book, principles of human rights and good governance that serve as the metrics of governmental harmonization in Turkey hardly remain constant throughout the standardization process. As they get translated into indices that would make them relevant for the everyday practices of various government workers, they get transmuted, at times deformed, resulting in situations close to what Julia Hornberger (2011) calls “forgery” or “fakery.”

It might be tempting to read these mutations as deviations from the original intent and content of human rights. However, research on the local configurations of universal human rights discourse suggests that these in fact expand the transnational human rights register in a way to include multiple—even contradictory—meanings and practices (Allen 2013, Engelke 1999, Englund 2006, Goodale and Merry 2007, Merry 2006, Osanloo 2006, Slyomovics 2005, Tate 2007). In line with this argument, I also contend that the translations we come across in Turkey must be seen as constitutive of the European human rights repertoire. As much as they reflect the particular local conditions under which they are carried out, these translations also provide an important insight into the contours of the transnational regime that promotes them.

These contours become all the more visible in light of the readmission agreement signed between Turkey and the EU on March 18, 2016, according to which the EU agreed to instigate visa liberalization for Turkish nationals and promised to provide up to €6 billion in exchange for sending irregular migrants entering the EU from Turkish territory back to the country. Signed in the wake of the biggest refugee influx into the continent since the Second World War, the agreement particularly seeks to stop the Syrian refugees from entering Europe. Since the EU Asylum Procedures Directive allows readmissions only to a “safe third country,” the agreement both assumes and declares that Turkey is a country that can guarantee effective access to protection for refugees and asylum seekers.12 In light of widespread reports of labor exploitation, forced marriages, and child abuse, as well as the illegal detention and deportation of asylum seekers in Turkey, the agreement means an active disregard of the plight of 3.5 million Syrian refugees (and many others) on the part of the EU.13 Signed in the midst of an alarming erosion of freedoms, as well as the return of violent securitization policies particularly in the Kurdish regions in the country, the agreement also demonstrates the ease with which the EU officials can overlook their interlocutors’ abusive, authoritarian practices to pursue their own interests.14

At the local level, human rights translations for government workers reveal the sensitivities, moralities, and rationalities that shape the governmental field in Turkey. Examining the performances and conversations that accompany these translations shows how the actors work to navigate that uneven field, which is rendered even more volatile and unpredictable by transnational standardization. Human rights training programs add to the complexity of governance in Turkey despite their stated goal to regularize and systematize the governmental actors, procedures, and activities. Those added complexities in turn lead the government workers to develop new strategies to mitigate the contradictory demands of national governance and transnational standardization, which results in the transformation of the governmental field in Turkey in unexpected ways.


1. Steedman 1992, 76.

2. The riots were the culmination of a number of government policies that fueled the dissent of Gezi protesters. These included increased pressure on organized labor through privatization and subcontracting, drafting of legislation to limit women’s reproductive rights, stricter regulation of the sale of alcohol, increasingly sectarian Sunni-oriented policies that led the government’s war against the Asad regime in Syria, naming the new Bosphorus bridge after the Ottoman Sultan Yavuz Süleyman, who had ordered a massive Alevi slaughter, and government proposals to build new hydroelectric and nuclear plants. In Istanbul, the number of people who joined the protests reached 1.5 million people, corresponding to 16 percent of the city’s population. (Yörük and Yüksel 2014).

3. Although Gezi Park continues to exist at the time of this writing, President Erdoğan’s recent declarations indicate that the government’s urban renewal plans for the neighborhood are still on the table:

4. See Alessandrini, Üstündağ, and Yildiz 2013.


6. According to the Turkish Medical Association report, police intervention had caused eight deaths and thousands of injuries, among them 106 instances of severe head trauma and eleven cases that included the loss of an eye. ( Many people suffered from beatings and sexual harassment during mass arrests. Answering a parliamentary question posed by a member of the main opposition party, the Ministry of Interior declared that, in twenty days, the police used 130,000 cartridges of tear gas and three thousand tons of water to disperse the protesters (—gazi-ve-su-kullanildi/haber-215796).

7. The full name of the project was: “Implementation Capacity of Turkish Police to Prevent Disproportionate Use of Force” (CRIS Number: TR2009/0136.07):ıFaaliyetRaporu/?H%20Faaliyet%20Raporu%2002.08.2013.pdf.

8. The project consisted of two parts: first, analysis of existing conditions for the use of police force in Turkey, their comparison with German, Austrian, Dutch, and Spanish standards, and the development of police service regulations “for the topical fields of leadership, tactical communication, crowd control, and use of force”; second, training of trainers in a total of sixteen one-week courses on the developed service regulations. The second part of the project was inaugurated on May 6, 2013. The European Commission evaluated the mid-term performance of the project as “good to very good.”


10. In total, I undertook participant observation in thirty-five human rights trainings and interviewed over one hundred interlocutors, among them, foreign and international human rights experts, foreign and national civil society workers, academics, and government workers who participated in the trainings.

11. Latour’s definition of immutable mobiles shows slight variations between his earlier and later writings. While in his earlier work Latour defines immutable mobiles as rather rigid forms that are used in the universalistic stratification of locally variable phenomena (1987), he later revises this definition by attributing more contradictory qualities to those metrics that may seem immutable at first glance. He writes, for instance, that immutable mobiles themselves get transformed as they are transported into various places. He also pays more attention to the making, fine-tuning, dissemination, and upkeep of immutable mobiles that testify to their malleability (2005). Borrowing from Latour, many anthropologists use the concept “immutable mobiles” to study globalization and standardization processes in various places (Collier and Ong 2005, Dunn 2005, Kayaalp 2012). Despite the nuances involved in Latour’s definition of the concept, however, many of those studies take immutable mobiles as fixed forms that can be abstracted, translated, compared, and combined to transform locally specific phenomena without being transformed themselves (also see Star and Griesemer 1989).