The Effectiveness of Harnessing Human Rights: The Struggle over the Ilısu Dam in Turkey

Güneş Murat Tezcür, Rebecca Schiel and Bruce M. Wilson (2021)                                  Development and Change, Volume 52, Issue 6, p. 1343-1369

Under what conditions can a human rights-based approach be successfully utilized? This article argues that the efficacy of a human rights discourse is, in large part, determined by the nature of the arena in which rights are claimed. Utilizing process tracing, involving content analysis and in-depth interviews, the article examines the decades-long struggle to block the construction of a large dam in southeastern Turkey. The analysis focuses on the struggle’s three core dimensions: (a) international activism to influence foreign financial stakeholders; (b) domestic activism targeting the government; and (c) regional conflict over international water flows. Each of these dimensions is characterized by vastly different degrees of discursive rights consensus and leverage. In the international dimension, activists achieved both discursive consensus and leverage and were able to successfully thwart the Turkish government’s goal of building a major dam. However, this ultimately proved to be a pyrrhic victory when the Turkish government secured domestic financing for the project. The loss of leverage in the domestic arena rendered anti-dam activists’ rights discourse ineffectual. Finally, the lack of regional consensus on water sharing and Iraq’s lack of leverage enabled Turkey to complete the dam.

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This research was funded in part by a Norwegian Research Council grant, Elevating Water Rights to Human Rights. P.I. Bruce M. Wilson.

Photo by Daniel Gregoire on Unsplash.