Interview | Sylvia Tiryaki

JUDr. Sylvia Tiryaki, PhD. is a Slovak academic, analyst, and the co-founder of the Global Political Trends Center (GPoT Center). After gaining her master’s degree at Comenius University in Bratislava, Slovakia, she moved to Istanbul, Turkey, where she lectured for 15 years on international law and human rights. As deputy director of the GPoT Center, she focuses on issues including Cyprus, Turkish-Armenian relations, and EU-Turkey relations. 

She is also a teacher at Bratislava International School of Liberal Arts, covering international and civil law, peace resolutions and human rights. She was kind enough to sit with us and answer a few questions about the state of human rights in today’s world. 

You graduated from Comenius University with a master’s degree in law. You now teach at Istanbul Kültür University. Do you see any differences in terms of the way lecturing and studying are done in these two places?

n principle, not really, although, as a result of time and space factors, my experience with both institutions has naturally been somewhat different. While I was a recipient of lectures at Comenius University, I was creating them at Istanbul Kültür University (IKU). I started studying in the early 1990s what was, back then, Czechoslovak law; I started lecturing in the early 2000s when the world and the international rules began to be modified. IKU is a private university and younger than Comenius Bratislava in Bratislava, there are more international students studying in Istanbul, etc.

Yet the education I received at Comenius University has carried me through my entire professional career and I am proud to admit that I still keep some of my study notes and use them at times.

You are also concerned with the question of human rights. What is their role in today's world?

Human rights belong to everyone and no one should be forced to shy away from claiming them. Sure, not all human rights are unqualified, other human rights can be restricted under specific circumstances. Yet, states have both active obligations to protect the human rights of their citizens as well as a passive obligation not to interfere with them.

Given the fact that international human rights protection is a relatively young concept, we have gone a long way since the end of WWII, when the first international human rights treaties were successfully negotiated. In comparison to other historical eras, we are certainly enjoying greater recognition of human dignity [thanks to] protection by legal instruments. However, while we ought not to take for granted what humanity has achieved in this field up to now, there is still much to fight for. Moreover, it would be naïve to believe these achievements will remain unchallenged without further efforts to guard them.

Is there some difference between how you understand human rights as an academic and how they are understood by society?

I wouldn’t know that for sure. I prefer not to see human rights purely in an academic context. Human rights are called “human”: they belong to humans, which means to all of us. Taking them out of the context of human reality might be helpful in terms of cataloguing them – that is undoubtedly useful in terms of knowing what rights and freedoms a person is entitled to – but it also depersonalizes them, making them a distant, unreachable category.

In an ideal society, human rights awareness should be a part of societal education, accessible to everyone. Thus, in an ideal democratic society, there should be no difference between the understanding of an academic and that of the rest of society.

You are the deputy director of the Global Political Trends Center. Can you tell us more about it and its focus? 

The Global Political Trends Center (GPoT Center) is a university-affiliated think tank that I co-founded in late 2008 in Istanbul. It is a non-partisan and non-profit research institution focusing generally on Turkish foreign policy and the region, but it specializes particularly in conflict resolution, mediation and tracking diplomacy in, for instance, Cyprus, Armenia, Palestine, etc.

What is the current political trend in Europe? Where does it lead us and how can we escape it if it is negative?

Unfortunately, I can see populism trending all around. Going populist increasingly pays off, as it is incredibly versatile, and it is not bound to any political spectrum. It can be leftist, rightist, and even green. It is hard to credibly criticize it since populism is democratic. It might not be liberal, but it is a form of democracy. In fact, it is democracy on steroids.

Populist politicians address people’s fears and questions and give them answers. However, their political discourse develops around lies. Of course, this is not only a Europe-related phenomenon and it is certainly not new but now the lies take the form of active transgression. A populist politician’s message is that although everyone knows he lies, he/she couldn’t care less about that. Disregarding facts is usually used to make a strong point: that such a person stops at nothing to achieve his goal, suggesting that he/she would make a strong leader.

Given the fact that in the digital age it is difficult to differentiate between reality and image, this development is highly dangerous.

Our theme is ‘the world on fire’. What are the biggest issues the world has to deal with, according to you?

There are problems that are visible and obvious to everyone who wants to see them. These are large-scale conflicts, which are the source of terrible human suffering (Syria, Yemen, Libya, and others); terrorism (including cyber-terrorism); environmental destruction, climate change, health, water and food security; inequality, poverty and education; radicalism and religious extremism; the inability of the international community to keep up with non-proliferation and disarmament (of different sorts), just to name some.

However, there is also the issue of global ethics and deliberate relativization of the principles and norms of international law, including human rights. Sadly, it is no longer just the usual suspects, such as leaders of rogue states or dictators in the narrow sense, that do this.

How do you stay positive in this society of negative-thinking people and all this wrongdoing? 

The politics of fear is a very powerful tool. It can cloud one’s logic and push one into acceptance of any type of Hobbesian social contract. In times when we are constantly exposed to a vast amount of information, it is very easy to lose faith in goodness, purpose, and humanity – and become numb and manipulated.

It is said that there have been only a handful of really bad people in world history and that most of the evil things that have been possible were due to the numbness of the rest. Not being numb to the suffering of others is an active stance and approach – the opposite of passively waiting for things to get better one day.