Turkey: “Civil Society as driving force for Transition”

Speech by Selmin Çalıskan, Secretary General of the German Section of Amnesty International, at the “Turkey Europe Future Forum” in Istanbul on 31st May 2015

It is my pleasure to be here with all of you tonight. As Secretary General of Amnesty’s German Section and therefore as part of a global human rights movement, supported by 7 million people worldwide, I am, of course, a strong believer in the power of civil society as driving force of transition and the protection of human rights.

I am thrilled to be here and to pick up on this important issue, and to discuss chances and challenges people face, when they walk down the difficult road to claim their rights. Before I start, I would like to take this chance to thank the Mercator Foundation for organizing and hosting this great event series. Thank you for having me.

It is always great for me to be back in Turkey even more so, as this time, I got the chance to spend some time with my daughter here. During the last two days we walked and looked around Istanbul, experiencing the beautiful sides of this wonderful metropolis and its vibrant, diverse and inspiring atmosphere.

Yet, walking around Istanbul is also a constant reminder to what civil society action can lead to. Looking back almost exactly two years, it was in this city, where the sparks of civil society action lead thousands of people to the streets, claiming their rights during the Gezi-Park-Protests.

These events of summer 2013 remain fresh in Turkey’s collective memory, for their supporters and opponents alike. The small protest against the destruction of the park as part of a development project in May 2013 had mushroomed by early June into the biggest anti-government protest movement seen in a generation in Turkey, with protests taking place across 79 of Turkey’s 81 provinces. The police estimate that 3.5 million people took part. Unfortunately, as we all know, these protests were followed by brutal crack-downs, arbitrary arrests and thousands of people injured and on top being charged and persecuted, while perpetrators of police violence mostly walk free.

I always believed in the power of civil society as driving force for change – even long before Amnesty. And the events here in Turkey show one thing very clearly: So does the Turkish government. Why else, would a state fight back peaceful protest in such a brutal way, if the people in power wouldn’t know about, feel and fear exactly this kind of power.

Civil society groups play an essential part in the promotion of human rights. They fill the gaps where the states fail to adequately protect human rights, draw attention to human rights violations by the authorities and raise awareness among the general public for people’s rights and support them in claiming these rights. And they facilitate change as a driving force.

Human Rights Organisations in Turkey

There is a broad spectrum of civil society organizations which fight for human rights in Turkey: It ranges from large human rights organizations covering a wide range of topics such as the Human Rights Association IHD or the Human Rights Foundation of Turkey (TiHV) which documents human rights violations and established centers for torture victims, over relief organizations for refugees (e.g. the Association for Solidarity with Refugees “Mülteci-Der” in Izmir), women’s rights organizations (Mor Çatý and the KAMER foundation), LGBTI NGOs (Lambda Istanbul), and Islamic human rights organizations (e.g. MAZLUMDER) to cultural organizations such as the Balkan Culture and Art Foundation which supports disadvantaged and refugee children in discovering and developing their talents. Situation of civil Society and Human rights defenders

Yet, my experiences with amnesty, but also my experiences as an activist, a social worker and during my time working in areas of conflict, taught me, that success of civil society action is dependent on whether or not it is even possible at all for people to organize among themselves, articulate their claims and to mobilize others. The scope of civil society actors’ room for manoeuvre and the extent of their influence depends above all on the authorities’ and general public’s openness for their demands. And their personal security situation if they expose themselves to the Public sphere and often to dangerous opponents within state institutions, parlament and security forces and militant armed groups. They are seen and they are heard – that means that they take personal and professional risks for themselves but also for their friends and families.

Some great examples in Turkey

For example, women’s rights organizations have recorded some important political and societal successes even though a lot still needs to be achieved. Women’s rights organizations do not only provide specific assistance but it is thanks to them that for example the issue of violence against women reached public consciousness and that some laws contrary to women’s rights were prevented. At the beginning of the Justice and Development Party’s (AKP) period of government, some parliamentarians wanted to return to criminalizing adultery. A few years back, parliamentarians of the AKP proposed to prohibit legal abortions. Women’s rights organizations fought fiercely and successfully against these efforts.

They achieved the establishment of women’s shelters. In June 2013, there were 120 state-run women’s shelters in Turkey. This number is still too low but slowly increasing.

One example for such an organization doing great work is the KAMER foundation. It was founded in 1997 and has since then established women’s shelters in 23 provinces in Eastern and Southeastern Anatolia. Its goal is “to identify local practices of a sexist system which harm women and children, to develop alternatives to these practices and to promote their implementation.” KAMER provides concrete assistance to women in distress. Moreover, the women’s shelters offer advice and childcare, provide assistance for the job search and via exchange with men and whole families try to strengthen acceptance for female employment. In its work, KAMER always follows official procedures and cooperates with the Turkish authorities, including the police.

Trends to restrict Space for Civil Society

But let me stress the other side of civil society activism as well: The challenges civil society faces, especially when fighting for human rights. When civil society activists denounce human rights violations by the authorities and call for an end of these violations their job becomes increasingly dangerous. Oftentimes it leads to situations in which human rights defenders themselves become threatened by prosecution on the part of the state. Not least since the protests in Gezi Park, the Turkish government takes ever more repressive action against its critics, using increasingly authoritarian methods.

To note just a few of these methods:

• The right to freedom of expression is massively impaired through restrictive laws, especially through anti-terrorism laws which serve as pretext for criminal prosecution of members of the opposition, activists or journalists. Also, accusations of defamation of the president (§ 299 of the penal code) or the Turkish nation (§ 301 of the penal code) remain popular – these are the means to charge and thereby silence critics of the government. One example: In December 2014, human rights defender Eren Keskin was sentenced on the basis of notorious § 301 of the Turkish penal code. In 2005, she had declared the Turkish state responsible for the death of 12 years old Ugur Kaymaz in the city of Mardin in the Southeast of the country. The boy and his father were shot dead by the police in 2004. According to the police, the two were members of the PKK. If the sentence against Eren Keskin is confirmed in the last appeal instance, she faces up to 10 months imprisonment and after that possibly an occupational ban for her work as a lawyer.

• Demonstrations, such as the traditional May-Demonstrations on the Taksim square are being prohibited or, as in the case with the Gezi Park protests are brutally dispersed. Participants and organizers of demonstrations continue to be accused on the basis of arbitrary and fabricated charges. According to the Human Rights Foundation, more than 5,500 people were prosecuted because of their participation in the Gezi Park protests. As the courts in most cases did not see any basis for a conviction, fortunately, most proceedings resulted in acquittals.

• The police uses extreme brutality against protesters. Instead of independently investigating the numerous cases of excessive use of force by police officers and holding accountable those responsible, the government expanded police competences with a new “domestic security package” which was adopted by the parliament in March 2015. For example, the new bill considerably expands police powers regarding the use of lethal firearms – contrary to international legal standards which say that the use of lethal force is only lawful if absolutely unavoidable for the protection of human lives. Furthermore, protestors can be arrested by the police for up to 48 hours without court order.

• In the past years, authorities also increasingly try to prevent critique in the Internet. For example, in the lead-up to the presidential elections in 2014, authorities blocked access to Twitter and Facebook and maintained the blocking in spite of a court order to lift them. The harsh laws criminalizing defamation of the president or the Turkish nation also apply to statements made on the Internet: In July 2014, three social media users were convicted of defaming the prime minister on Twitter during the Gezi Park protests in summer 2013 and sentenced to a fine suspended for five years. In a similar case, in September 2014, a 28-years-old was sentenced to pay a fine of 8100 Turkish Lira for having insulted then Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan on Twitter. Many more social media users, including minors, have been interrogated or accused due to statements made on the Internet but fortunately, in most cases the charges have been dropped. Trend as well in others countries of the World

And this is a trend we see not only in Turkey. Many peaceful demonstrations are being brutally cracked down on. Many human rights activists, human rights defenders and civil society groups around the world are being targeted, harassed and threatened, once they organize, voice dissent, “like” the wrong picture on facebook or tweet the wrong tweet. This in itself is nothing new. It has always been dangerous to be right, if it is your government that is wrong.

But what we documented in the last years is what we call the proliferation of systematic approaches to silence critical civil society organizations. It’s a trend where countries are advising other countries on how to successfully silence critics. We see repressive NGO-Laws multiplying in many parts of the world for example in Ethiopia, Egypt or Russia. NGOs closed their doors in Russia and try to do their work from outside Russia. We see the tendency to criminalize international funding of human rights organizations. We also document systematic approaches to shrink the space of civil society – within countries, but also on international stages: Even the UN-human rights council in Geneva is currently fighting back initiatives to shrink the space of civil society and it struggles with initiatives to change the procedures in ways that would make it much harder for NGOs and human rights defenders to voice their concerns within the council.

We also see that human rights defenders are being charged with bogus charges or simply being criminalized. We document human rights defenders, members of the opposition, journalists, activists, bloggers, even doctors and nurses, who helped injured activists, being labeled as terrorists and charged under anti-terror laws, which makes it possible for state agents to hold them without charge, without access to lawyers, without access to medical treatment, incommunicado for many days, weeks and in some cases, indefinitely.

I mention these challenges because it seems to be a reemerging trend in politics to weigh human rights against so called “hard power” political interests such as national security, development, growth or stability.

Growth and security versus human rights

Some people even argue, that silencing critics doesn’t matter, if it helps growth and development: They point to some of the fastest growing countries with the most rapidly growing economies and living standards, such as China, arguing that it is an authoritarian regime with little independent civil society, yet a lot of positive transition.

But let’s take a closer look. While growth in the last decade has been pretty spectacular in many parts of the world, this growth has frequently been shared very unevenly, with inequality generally growing. Access to public goods, such as education or health care, is often a privilege for a few. As a matter of fact: oftentimes human rights violations happen directly in the name of growth and transition. For example thousands of people are at risk of being forcibly evicted from their homes and farms to make way for the Letpadaung copper mine in central Myanmar right now. Or look to Qatar, where migrant workers are exposed to abuse, have their rights denied by their employers and lack adequate safety measures, while building the infrastructure in the country and while building stadium after stadium in Doha for us to enjoy the Football championship in 2022.

I am convinced that the denial of human rights in the name of growth or development is very harmful and counterproductive. It is very shortsighted and dangerous. It goes against the principles of indivisibility and universality of human rights, it fosters inequality, it fosters instability and it fosters conflict. And once again, it is the civil society who picks up the pieces: They are social workers, activists and volunteers, who fill the gaps when the states are failing to protect the rights of all and instead promote the privileges of a few. They are journalist, artists, bloggers and active citizens, sometimes just small activists who uncover human rights violations by state agents or abuses by companies, or at community and family level. They are all playing an important part in promoting human rights.

Naturally, Amnesty recognizes the right of every country to protect the national security: But criminalizing human rights activists and social society members in the name of security is not in the interest of national security. It can’t be. Simply because, these activists have never been a threat to national security in the first place. When it comes to stability one has to look closely and wonder what exactly is being protected. Is it the stability of a political regime? Maybe an elite? Or is it really the stability within the country?

I wanted to stress these negative tendencies because we all need to be alerted. We need active citizenship to counter these trends. Maybe we not only need active citizenship on a national level – I believe we might need it transnationally. We need to expose these trends and mechanisms and we need to watch over our own governments, so they do not become complicit in human rights violations in the name of development, security or the fight against terrorism. We should ask from our governments and businesses that human rights as such become a field of national interest. Instead of treating it any longer as a soft topic within foreign policies, security policies and the economic policies. Human Rights violations are the hardest topic in the world. And if we cannot achieve good human rights standards for critical mass of human beings it will lead to more conflict and people becoming refugees.

If we all stay alerted and help expose these mechanisms, I am sure that one of my favorite quotes by one of the most prominent anthropologists of all time, Margaret Mead, will stay true for a long time to come. As she said: “Never believe that a few caring people can’t change the world. For, indeed, that’s all who ever have.”

Thank You!