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Concept of Minority in Turkey and Its Obstacles For Joining the EU

Turkey-EU relations started off strong, with the Association Agreements on 12 September 1963. Yet, since then, the relationship has consisted of many ups and downs. Obstacles to full EU membership emerge from the question of whether Turkey will comply with the Copenhagen Criteria. According to the declaration, “membership requires that the candidate country has achieved stability of institutions guaranteeing democracy, the rule of law, human rights and the respect for and protection of minorities.”[1]While respecting the Copenhagen criteria, there are still some so-called“redlines” that challenge the Turkey-EU negotiation process. Briefly, they are:[2]

  • The Cyprus issue 
  • Extension of cultural rights 
  • Infringement of human rights 
  • Protection of minority groups in practice 
  • Stabilization of the economy 

Within the accession negotiations, human rights is one of the greatest challenges against Turkey's successful candidacy to the EU. In this regard, minority rights represent an unsolvable problem in Turkey’s membership process due to implementing human rights laws that defend minority rights in Turkey is seen as a mean to demand the right for self-determination —a process that is perceived as the first step towards independence.[3]Minority rights has become more of a priority over the years—hence the need for more detailed research on this subject. This article will comparatively focus on the concept of minority rights in the EU and Turkey, and by extension, Turkey’s obstacles in joining the EU. It will not only provide an overview of Turkey’s minority policy in light of the EU criteria, but will also explore why minority policies have become a vital issue in the international area.

Concept of Minorities in the EU

The term “minority” is not a binding and clearly defined concept in international law today. Even the international agreements which regulate minority rights prefer not to clearly define it.[4]In fact, neither the EU nor international law documents include a recognized definition of a minority.[5]The lack of a standard definition can be explained by states' wishes to remain committed to their own arbitrary definition.[6]However, EU authorities have agreed on some common features of a “minority”, and as a result, constant and continuous characteristic aspects were developed by some EU agencies: 


  • Numerical inferiority - a group of persons who are numerically smaller than the rest of the population
  • Non-dominant position – those who may not be in governing positions, and thus, are unable to make decisions
  • Distinctive characteristics – those who show a specific ethnic, religious, or linguistic characteristic that allows them to be qualified for residency 
  • Citizenship of the country of residence – whose members have to be citizens of their country of residence
  • Explicitly expressed affiliation and solidarity – those who have declared their membership and solidarity with their group of people[7]

There is no consensus on the definition of what a minority is, although it gained importance with the enlargement process of the EU towards Eastern Europe. The adopted measures of the concept of the minority have a dynamic nature, therefore, the EU does not have any restrictions or determined norms on minority rights. As a result, there are many different approaches within the EU. For example, France bases its minority policyon equal treatment,[8]and therefore, does not prefer to categorize minority groups differently from other EU member states’ concept of minorities. However, France’s policy on minorities includes features similar to Turkey's policies, differing from the minority approaches of other[9]EU countries. Moreover, based on its constitutional definition as an “indivisible” Republic,[10]France's policy is centered around the idea that there are not minority groups, hence its refusal to sign the Framework Convention for the Protection of National Minorities.[11]The only other country to not sign was Turkey.

Turkey’s Traditional Minority Regime

Minority rights are not regulated in the 1982 Turkish Constitution. As a result, Turkish policy regarding minorities has been developed in line with the statement, “the status of the group is determined by bilateral or unilateral agreements accepted as minorities” from the constitution.[12]Turkey defended the same approach in international frameworks,[13]such as in the 1990 Moscow Document and the 1992 Helsinki II Document.[14]

The laws surrounding minority rights in Turkey are based on Articles 37-44 of the 1923 Treaty of Lausanne, under the title “Protection of Minorities”.[15]Although the international treaty is directly applicable according to Article 90 of the Turkish Constitution, minority rights are not mentioned. Thus, Turkey’s minority regime is based on the legal framework of the Treaty of Lausanne in addition to the views of the Turkish state and society.[16]


On the authority of Lausanne, only non-Muslim communities are identified as minorities, and are conferred rights to establish religious, educational, and social welfare institutions, as well as the rights of freedom of religion, travel, and migration.[17]It is important to be defined as a minority under the charter of Lausanne because of rights granted, such as right to life,[18]religious beliefs, and migration[19]; the rights of legal and political equality[20]; the right for one to use their mother tongue in court,[21]open schools or similar institutions,[22]and to hold religious ceremonies.[23]The Lausanne refused any distinct status for non-Turkish Muslims. Although the treaty does not mention any specific non-Muslim groups, according to the Millet system of the Ottoman administration, only Greeks, Armenians, Christians, and Jews were formally acknowledged as minorities[24](1925 Bulgarian Turkey Friendship Agreement Protocol added the Bulgarians who are Christians of Turkish origin, however, it did not have a significant result due to the lack of Bulgarian minority in Turkey). Since they were not considered a part of the Milletsystem, other groups such as Assyrians, Chaldeans, Nestorians, Baha’is, Yezidis, and believers of the Syrian Orthodox Church were denied rights despite being non-Muslim.[25]

As mentioned earlier, the Council of Europe’s Framework Convention for the Protection of National Minorities, which includes many legal obligations and political commitments to respect and protect minority rights, has not been signed by Turkey.[26]The  convention does not have a precise definition of a national minority.[27]However, it allows states to retain the precedence on minority issues by not forcing them to fulfill any of the Framework Convention requirements, and instead, encourages them to create the conditions for implementation. These rights range from minorities learning their mother tongue to establishing educational institutions.[28]This is particularly important given that minorities are often subject to de factodiscrimination, and meet with difficulties related to administrative and military activities.[29]

Clearly, this policy negatively affects Turkey’s position in the international area. Although Turkey does not address concerns over the issue of minorities, according to the Constitution and Lausanne, it replies to these pressures as a unitary republic.[30]In this regard, according to Turkey, further international action is not necessary. This opinion is supported by Article 3 of the Constitution which states: “The State of Turkey, with its territory and nation, is an indivisible entity. Its language is Turkish.”[31]Moreover, Kemalist opinion promotes this policy with Mustafa Kemal Atatürk’s famous and most known quote: “How happy is the one who calls himself/herself as a Turk!” From the Turkish perspective, Lausanne and the Constitution’s statements on minorities suffice, and therefore, signing the Convention is not a necessity. 

The EU Challenge to the Minority Regime in Turkey

The gap between the concept of minority rights in the EU and the legal framework of Turkey’s minority regime causes disputes in the practical context. The Treaty of Lausanne does not recognize minority groups as “ethnical, religious and linguistic minorities”. Instead, the concept of minority is limited to non-Muslim minorities, however, non-Muslim communities are not the only demographic minority in the country. Although it clarifies the concept as non-Muslim communities, it does not encompass all non-Muslim communities, as the definition is limited to only Jews, Greek, and Armenians. However, international organizations frequently contend that EU’s Copenhagen criterion of “respect for and protection of minorities” should not only be applied to Jews, Greeks, and Armenians who are protected by the Treaty of Lausanne, but also to Assyrians, Kurds, Laz, Romani, and other Turkish minorities.[32]Over the last few years, minorities have been frequently mentioned in the Commission’s reports. Assyrians have been referred to as a non-Muslim religious minority, the Kurds as an ethnic minority, and the Alevis as a Muslim religious minority. As a result, EU’s wide-range of descriptions have become an obstacle in Turkey’s EU membership process.  

Furthermore, language rights and the right to education in one’s mother tongue are matters of importance to minority groups. Article 42 of the 1982 Turkish Constitution states: “No language other than Turkish shall be taught as a mother tongue to Turkish citizens at any institution of education. Foreign languages to be taught in institutions of education and the rules to be followed by schools conducting education in a foreign language shall be determined by law. The provisions of international treaties are reserved.”[33]This article ousts minority languages besides the ones that are recognized by the Treaty of Lausanne.[34]According to the EU’s recommendation in 2000, the Turkish government needs to respect and protect its language minorities (e.g., abolish language restrictions on media and repeal Article 42).[35]


In 2004, the Commission’s report stated that Turkey had took important legislative steps in regard to minority rights and problems faced by non-Muslim religious communities. The 2008 report underlined the importance of enacting new legislations, particularly, in relation to the management of minority schools.[36]Following these reports, the Democratization Package that was announced in 2013 allowed:


The conduct of political activity in languages and dialects other than Turkish, education in languages and dialects other than Turkish in private schools, the removal of criminal sanctions for the use of the letters Q, X and W used in Kurdish and the change of names of villages back to the versions which preceded the 1980 military coup.[37]


However, the response of package was only halfway. While mother tongue education would be permitted in private schools, education in a language other than Turkish would not be permitted in public schools.[38]But private courses were already permitted legally by the 2003 amendments on the  Law Act No. 2923 “Foreign Language Education and Training” passed in October 1983.[39]This amendment on the law act was already mentioned in the 2004 report stated as "private courses in Kurdish" being allowed for the first time.[40] However, the education in Kurdish faced difficulties in August 2005 when the owners of every single existing course took the decision to shut down the five remaining schools, in fact, one of these schools was closed despite opening a few months ago, in April, in Mardin. Two schools - in Adana and Batman – had already shut down earlier in the year due to monetary challenges.[41]Although the right to education in the mother tongue was legally granted in private schools, the practice could not continue due to difficulties in implementation.


Furthermore, the Democratization Package that was released in 2013 does not establish new rights on this subject and provide a new solution to the problems that occurred in 2005.Despite being Turkey’s largest minority group, Kurds are still not officially recognized. Thus, the“Kurdish issue” is one of the most vital issues in relation to minorities. The Turkish state’s denial of Kurdish existence, identity, culture has an essential role in this issue.[42]As a result, the guidance of  EU reports are neither effective nor sufficient. Although the protection of and access to education in the mother tongue are the biggest steps to protect the community’s history, identity, and culture, unfortunately, Turkish legal framework does not allow these steps to be taken.

It is important to note that, as a member of OSCE and Council of Europe, Turkey needs to abide by international standards and has to comply with its membership responsibilities to qualify as an EU member. Despite the EU’s pressure on Turkey to sign and ratify the “Framework Convention for the Protection of National Minorities”, Turkey does not consider the situation of  minorities as an essential aspect of its membership process to the EU.[43]Turkey does not want to jeopardize the current status of its citizens, and thus, approaches the issue based on the principle of equality in the constitution.[44]The European Commission Against Racism and Intolerance (ECRI) has released reports on Turkey, in 1999, 2001, and 2005.[45]The reports urge authorities to find a way to guarantee the sufficient working of minority schools and to reconsider Article 42 of the Constitution, which forbids the teaching of any language other than Turkish as a native language in state schools. The report also features the significance of securing an adequate arrangement for kids whose first language is not Turkish to gain proficiency in Turkish. Evidently, the pressure of the EU on Turkey to reform its traditional minority regime based on the 1923 Treaty of Lausanne is increasing. It is clear from these reports that Turkey needs to have a more extensive legal framework based on universal norms in relation to minority issues.[46]







[1]“The European Council in Copenhagen- Conclusions of the Presidency,” European Council, (22 June 1993), p. 13,

[2]“Negotiating Framework For Turkey 2005,” European Commission, 3 October 2005,

[3]Allan Rosas, “The Protection of Minorities in Europe: A General Overview,” in John Packer and Kristian Myntti, (eds.), The Protection of Ethnic and Linguistic Minorities in Europe(Åbo: Åbo Akademi University, 1993), pp. 9-13. 

[4]Aziz Aydın, “AB Ülkeleri, ABD ve Türkiye Cumhuriyeti Anayasalarında Azınlıklarla İlgili Düzenlemeler” [Regulations on Minorities in the Constitutions of EU states, the US, and Turkey], TBMM Araştırma Merkezi, November 2011, p.3. 

[6]Naz Çavuşoğlu, “What is a Minority?” Turkish Yearbook of Human Rights, Vol.19-20 (1997-1998), p.93.

[7]Arndt Kunnecke, “The Turkish Concept of ‘Minorities’- An Irremovable Obstacle for Joining the EU”European Scientific Journal, (2013); TawhidaAhmed, The Impact of EU Law on Minority Rights(Oxford: Hart Publishing, 2011) 20 et seq.; G.H. Gornig, “Die Definition des Minderheitenbegriffs aus historisch-völkischer, Sicht,”in Dieter Blumenwitz, Gilbert H. Gornig, and Dietrich Murswiek (eds.),Ein

Jahrhundert Minderheiten- und Volksgruppenschutz(Cologne: Publishing House Science and Politics, 2001) p.35 et seq.; Künnecke (2007), p.60 et seq.; See also Frencesco Capotorti, Study on the Rights of Persons Belonging to Ethnic, Religious and Linguistic Minorities, (New York: UN, 1991)

[8]Jeremie Gilbert and David Keane, “How French Law Makes Minorities Invisible,”The Conversation, 13November 2016,

[9]Aziz Aydın, “AB Ülkeleri, ABD ve Türkiye Cumhuriyeti Anayasalarında Azınlıkların Dil Hakları” [Regulations on Minorities in the Constitutions of EU states, the US, and the Republic of Turkey], TBMM Araştırma Merkezi, (November 2011), pp.38-9.

[10]Constitution of France, (1958), Article 1.

[11]Fulya Özerkan, “Turkey denies minority deal,” Hurriyet Daily News, 28 December 2008,

[12]Şeref Ünal,Milletlerarası Hukuk Açısından Güneydoğu Sorunu ve Terörle Mücadele [The Southeastern Issue and Combatting Terror in Terms of International Law], (Ankara: TBMM Kültür, Sanat ve Yayın Kurulu Yayınları, 1997), p.127

[13]Ünal (1997), p.127.

[14]Naz Çavuşoğlu, Uluslararası İnsan Hakları Hukukunda Azınlık Hakları [Minority Rights in International Human Rights Law], (Istanbul: Bilim Yayinlari, 1998), p.18.

[15]Cemil M. Bilsel, Lozan [Lausanne], Vol. 2 (Istanbul: Ahmet Ihsan Matbaası, 1933).

[16]Sule Toktaş and Bülent Aras, “The EU and Minority Rights in Turkey,” Political Science Quartely, Vol.124, No.4(Winter 2009-10), p. 699.

[17]Jacob C. Hurewitz, “Diplomacy in the Near & Middle East: A Documentary Record 1914–1956,” The American Historical Review, Vol. 2, (January 1956), p. 122.

[18]Laussane Peace Treaty, (1923), Article 14.

[19]Laussane Peace Treaty, (1923), Article 38.

[20]Laussane Peace Treaty, (1923), Article 39.

[21]Laussane Peace Treaty, (1923), Article 39/5.

[22]Laussane Peace Treaty, (1923), Article 40.

[23]Laussane Peace Treaty, (1923), Article 40.

[24]“World Directory of Minorities”(London: Minority Rights Group International, 1997) p. 379.

[25]Otmar Oehring, Human Rights in Turkey: Secularism= Religious Freedom? (Germany:

Internationales Katholisches Missionswerk e.V. Human Rights Office, 2002), p. 13.

[27]Kinga Gal, “The Council of Europe Framework Convention for the Protection of National

Minorities and Its Impact on Central and Eastern Europe,” Journal on Ethnopolitics and Minority Issues in Europe, Vol. 1 (Winter 2000), p.2.

[28]Naz Çavuşoğlu, “Azınlıkların Korunmasına İlişkin Uluslararası Normlar” [International Standards in Relation to the Protection of Minorities] in Ayhan Kaya ve Turgut Tarhanlı (eds.), Türkiye’de Çoğunluk ve Azınlık Politikaları: AB Sürecinde Yurttaşlık Tartışmaları(Istanbul: TESEV, 2005), pp. 241-61. 

[29]“Turkey 2005 Progress Report,” European Commission, (2005).

[30]Toktas and Aras (2009–10), p.708.

[31]“Constitution of the Republic of Turkey,” p.11,

[32]“2000 Regular Report on Turkey’s Progress Towards Accession,” European Commission,8 November 2000, pp. 10-21.

[33]Constitution of the Republic of Turkey, UNHCR,7 November 1982,

[34]Nurcan Kaya and Clive Baldwin, “Minorities in Turkey, Submission to the European Union and the Government of Turkey,” Minority Rights Group International, (July 2004), p. 4.

[35]“Regular Report on Turkey's Progress Towards Accession,” European Commission,(2002).

[36]“Turkey 2008 Progress Report,European Commission,(2008). 

[37]“Turkey 2013 Progress Report,”European Commission, (2013). 

[38]Ergun Özbudun, “The Turkish ‘Democratization Package,’” Middle East Institute, 15 October 2013,

[39]“Restrictions on the Use of the Kurdish Language,” Human Rights Watch, (1999),

[40]“2004 Regular Report on Turkey’s Progress Towards Accession,” European Commission,6 October 2004.

[41]“Turkey 2005 Progress Report,”European Commission, (2005). 

[42]Hamit Bozarslan, “Kurds and the Turkish State” in Reşat Kasaba (ed.), The Cambridge History of Turkey, Vol. 4 (Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2008), p. 337. 

[43]Fulya Özerkan, “Turkey Denies Minority Deal,” Hurriyet Daily News, 28 December 2008,

[45]Toktas and Aras (2009-10), p.709.

[46]Toktas and Aras (2009-10), p.709.

Ekin Kurt
Ekin Kurt

Ekin Kurt is a student of the European Law Master’s Program at Marmara University, Turkey. 

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