Pillaging heritage sites in Turkey

The first bill Parliament enacted soon after returning from its summer recess was an amendment to Conservation of Cultural and Natural Property Law No. 2863, which was necessitated after the Constitutional Court struck down a few changes in the last revision to the law endorsed by the government and pushed through Parliament last year. Citing general rules in the law for “predictability,” “proportionality of the punishment” and “unambiguity,” the top court ruled on April 2012 against administrative decisions in declaring properties and zones as cultural heritage sites or natural preservation zones without due notification to property owners in the affected areas. Since the court removed the revisions to Law No. 2863 and deferred the application for a year after the publication of the ruling in the Official Gazette in October 2012, the government rushed the revised bill through Parliament after the recess to smooth out the differences with the court in order to avoid a possible legal vacuum with the lapsing of the law.

Unfortunately this is merely the last of many examples on how the sloppy lawmaking process in Parliament was effectively rendered as merely a government agency by the ruling Justice and Development Party (AK Party) government, which controls the majority in the legislative branch. The lack of thorough analysis, the absence of impact-study reviews on proposed bills and dysfunctional committee screenings, compounded by profit-seeking and special interest groups lobbying the government to expand mega development projects, have all resulted in aggressive rezoning and the lifting of restrictions on real estate properties in Turkey. The only checks and balances that remain before the government’s ambitious plans to turn some of the historically and culturally protected sites into development projects are mounted by the relatively independent judiciary in Turkey. That is why the Constitutional Court stepped in to prevent the government from going overboard on this path of encroaching on heritage sites.

The heritage law was adopted in 1983 and was amended twice until the AK Party came into power in the fall of 2002. Since then, it was amended 12 times by the current government. Yassıada, a small island in the Sea of Marmara where the government recently announced plans to permit construction projects, symbolizes that battle to protect the soul of cultural and historic sites in Turkey. The government purported the idea of building a “democracy museum” on the island, where democratically elected politicians had been imprisoned and executed after the country’s first military coup in 1960, to stand as a lesson to future generations.

The public does not seem to buy into the government’s lofty argument, especially after what happened in Taksim Square after the Gezi Park controversy. There are enough hair-raising indications to suspect that the government is up to no good on development projects on the small island. Although Yassıada was declared a protected natural and historic site in 1976, a government-supported bill in April 2013 allowed for a rezoning of the island to permit the construction of culture and tourism development projects.

In an unusually fast-tracked process, an İstanbul regional commission on heritage conservation decided to open Yassıada to what it called “sustainable preservation and controlled usage” in October 2012. In other words, construction companies were allowed to develop properties on the island. The Ministry of Environment and Urban Planning immediately approved the ruling a month later. In November 2012, the commission also revoked the island’s status as an archaeological site. Moreover, the government introduced rules making exceptions for development plans on Yassıada from restrictions imposed by Coastal Law No. 3621, which severely limits construction projects on coast lines to preserve the environment.

Opposition lawmakers claimed that the Ministry of Environment and Urban Planning had already drawn up construction plans for 65 percent of Yassıada. Although the ministry denied plans to construct hotels, restaurants or conference and convention centers on the island, the public’s skepticism of the government’s real intentions still lingers. Similar plans for the other islands in the Sea of Marmara have also fuelled uneasiness among local residents. Engineers from the government’s monstrous housing agency, the Housing Development Administration of Turkey (TOKİ), have reportedly visited some islands to develop construction plans, while the Privatization Authority (ÖİB) is making preparations to sell some state properties on the islands. Some suspect the government is tailoring the sell-off to private developers who are politically aligned with the government.

As if relaxing the rules on domestic conservations legislation were not enough, the government is also consistently avoiding entering into international obligations on heritage preservation. For example, the government has been shying away from signing the 2005-dated Council of Europe Framework Convention on the Value of Cultural Heritage for Society. The agreement entered into force in 2011, yet Turkey has not even declared its intention to accede to the convention. If the government signs and ratifies the agreement, it will bind itself to further enforceable rights that are equivalent to constitutional rights and privileges in Turkey.

The convention recognizes that “rights relating to cultural heritage are inherent in the right to participate in cultural life” and emphasizes that the “conservation of cultural heritage and its sustainable use have human development and quality of life as their goal.” It also strongly notes that “exercise of the right to cultural heritage may be subject only to those restrictions which are necessary in a democratic society for the protection of the public interest and the rights and freedoms of others.”

I suppose Turkey’s jewel, İstanbul, is the biggest victim of this ill-advised and profit-seeking policy at the expense of protecting Turkey’s precious and rich heritage. İstanbul’s silhouette and historic peninsula have already been damaged by high-rise buildings and skyscrapers as a result of an unplanned construction boom in Turkey’s largest city. Last year tall buildings in the city’s Zeytinburnu district, adjacent to the historic peninsula, marred the skyline of old İstanbul, notably blocking the view of the Hagia Sophia, Topkapı Palace and the Sultanahmet Mosque. Currently, a new bridge under construction over the Golden Horn, a mosque on Çamlıca Hill and a building project in Taksim Square are also being described as dealing a blow to the historic conservation of İstanbul.

Should we be surprised to learn under these conditions that the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) World Heritage Committee has repeatedly warned Turkey to address İstanbul’s deficiencies in terms of world cultural heritage standards since 2005? The committee allowed Turkey more time to make good on its promises to better protect İstanbul’s heritage. But İstanbul is dangerously skating close to being relegated to the UNESCO List of World Heritage in Danger.

I’m not disheartened at all by this bleak picture because Turkish society is transforming rapidly, with keen awareness on environmental issues being on the rise. As the Gezi Park protests taught us an important lesson in rejecting a top-down style of governance for participatory democracy wherein all the stakeholders come together to reach a compromise on any given project, Turkey can sustain its functioning democracy only with an inclusive approach rather than a rejectionist and “going solo” style of governance. We will eventually strike a new balance in running the country without losing our cultural, historic and archeological sites. I believe Turkish citizens have learned how to claim their rights while recognizing their responsibilities to future generations. Project Turkey is still on despite derailment efforts by some in the public and private sectors.

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