European Court of Human Rights: Cancellation of Turkish academics’ passports threaten academic freedoms

On 5 March 2019, the Turkey Litigation Support Project, Amnesty International, ARTICLE 19 and PEN International submitted a third party intervention before the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR) on the key case concerning the cancellation of passports of three academics from Turkey – Alphan Telek, Edgar Şar and Zeynep Kıvılcım. In retaliation for signing a petition calling for peace in Southeast Turkey known as the “Academics for Peace” petition, the three scholars were dismissed from their jobs, had their passports cancelled and banned from public service under Turkey’s state of emergency legislation.

The intervention highlights the importance [and cross-cutting nature] of academic freedom, and the risks that restrictions such as the one in this case pose to academics’ right to private life and the right to freedom of expression.  It also stresses the right to an effective remedy as a non-derogable right, even under a state of emergency.

Helen Duffy, the co-supervisor of the newly formed Turkey Litigation Support Project, which coordinated the intervention, said “our joint intervention reminds the Court of the vital importance of academic freedom, democratic debate and access to effective remedies – all of which are under serious attack in Turkey today.

Sarah Clarke, ARTICLE 19’s Head of Europe and Central Asia, said, “restrictions to academic freedom, as a result of the exercise of free opinion through the signature of a petition calling for peace are unacceptable. ARTICLE 19 has previously expressed concern over the violation of the right to freedom of expression in the “Academics for Peace” case and submitted an expert opinion on this case at national level. We now encourage the ECtHR to closely scrutinize any interference against the legitimate exercise of human rights in this case, and clearly question the effectiveness of domestic remedies in Turkey”.

Carles Torner, Executive Director of PEN International, added, “these three individual cases illustrate the growing intolerance for critical voices in Turkey. Over 6000 academics have been dismissed under emergency decrees since July 2016, with devastating effects. The Academics for Peace case is a warning to all academics and intellectuals who would dare express dissenting views. With the effectiveness of domestic remedies for human rights violations being questioned by many, the ECtHR has a crucial role to play – in this particular case and beyond.”

The UN Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights highlights that despite the absence of a specific definition of academic freedom, this involves an institutional, individual and a public dimension. It is precisely in its latter dimension that academic freedom links with the building of a diverse and vibrant society. Any restriction on academic freedom may interfere with various other rights, including freedom of thought, expression, association, the right to education, liberty and security, freedom of movement and the right to a private life.

According to UNESCO, restrictions on academics’ freedom of movement between states impedes the “interplay of ideas and information among higher education personnel throughout the world”, which the organisations submitting this intervention fear it represents an attack to academic freedom. Under international law, States should not only refrain from restricting such freedom, but also create and maintain a “conducive environment” for it to flourish, without imposing any restraints. Even in situations of emergency, restrictions on academic freedom must be in accordance with the law, must be necessary and accompanied by basic safeguards. In addition, restrictions imposed during an imposed state of emergency should be “exceptional and temporary” and should cease when the public emergency is over.

The third party intervention also questions the existence of an enabling environment for the fulfilment of the right to effective remedy in Turkey. The UN Human Rights Committee underlines that “even if a State party, during a state of emergency, … may introduce adjustments to the practical functioning of its procedures governing judicial or other remedies, the State party must comply with the fundamental obligation … to provide a remedy that is effective”.

Lucy Claridge, Director of Strategic Litigation at Amnesty International, stated “The right to an effective remedy is one of the basic rule of law guarantees that cannot be dispensed with even in an emergency. Our intervention urges the ECtHR to confirm that this right remains fully applicable at all times.”


Turkey Litigation Support Project

Amnesty International


PEN International

Read our submission to the European Court of Human Rights.