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International Experts Call for Action at the 4th Annual Freedom Convention Turkey Highlighting Human Rights Challenges and the Quest for Justice

The Freedom Convention Turkey, since 2020, has aimed to spotlight critical issues in Turkey, such as the collapse of the rule of law, the shift to authoritarianism, abuse of laws, restrictions on freedom of expression, and a widespread decline in human rights. In its 4th Annual edition this year, the convention focused on the democratic backslide and the crucial role of international entities in addressing ongoing human rights violations in Turkey.

On Human Rights Day, December 10th, Freedom Convention Turkey 2023, in partnership with World Affairs Council of Harrisburg,  conducted two panel sessions seeking to deepen understanding of Turkey’s multifaceted challenges. The panels presented strategies for effective engagement with the global human rights community to amplify the collective voice and advocate for those suppressed by the oppressive regime in Turkey.

The first panel, featuring International Relations Professor Baskin Oran, Journalist and World Affairs Council Harrisburg CEO Joyce Davis, Human Rights Lawyer Dr. Gunal Kursun, and Hafza Girdap, AST executive director and gender scholar at Stony Brook University shed light on critical issues garnering international attention. The collapse of the rule of law, with a focus on the diminishing independence of the judiciary, was discussed, scrutinizing how the foundations of justice and democracy in the country have been eroded. The abuse of anti-terror laws, criticized for their broad application, was examined for its impact on individual rights and freedoms.

The second panel underscored the pivotal role of international entities, particularly the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR), in addressing ongoing human rights violations. It explored the impact and potential of utilizing ECHR mechanisms, citing the recent Yalcinkaya ruling as a catalyst for meaningful change and protection against unjust treatment. The discussion also assessed the United Nations’ avenues to tackle human rights abuses, presenting strategies for effective engagement to amplify collective voices against oppressive regimes. The panel highlighted the influential collaboration among non-governmental organizations (NGOs) in amplifying the voices of the silenced in Turkey. It sought to create a network of support for human rights advocacy by exchanging best practices and experiences. The conversation extended to issues such as the mistreatment of prisoners, including torture and abductions.

The panelists, including Sinam Mohamad, Chief of Mission, US Mission of the Syrian Democratic Council; Andrea Barron, Advocacy and Outreach Program Manager at Torture Abolition and Survivors Support Coalition; Johan Heymans, Criminal Law and Human Rights Lawyer; Paridhi Singh, Legal Officer of Media Freedom at TrustLaw – Thomson Reuters Foundation, collectively called for urgent, coordinated international action to comprehensively address human rights violations. They emphasized considering the aggressive foreign policy of the Turkish government in this context.

KEY TAKEAWAYS

BASKIN ORAN:

“Oppositional groups of all sorts with no connections whatsoever to the coup, in particular leftists, Kemalists, and Kurds with no relationship to either fundamentalist Islam or the Gülen Community, were subjected to heavy repression. In the State of Emergency (OHAL), which was announced on July 2016, lifted on July 2018, and renewed seven times every three months until OHAL became a permanent state of affairs, people were arrested without even taking statements, and dismissed close to 130.000 people from their jobs, academics at the universities in particular.”

“Minorities also play into AKP’s aggressive foreign policy, which has expansionist ambitions.

Generally, the craft of imperialism, as perfected by the West, seeks four goals:

1) Gain international reputation.

2) Approval from domestic supporters.

3) Silence domestic opposition.

4) The pursuit of economic interests.”

“The AKP-MHP government drew significant backlash from the West and the Arab world for sending troops to Syria. In the middle of all this, it wants to convince its domestic supporters that Turkey has gained international reputation by saying, “Everyone envies us.” Ironically, it feeds the domestic opposition nationalism and achieves success. Opposition leader Kilicdaroglu said: “We believe in the legitimacy of Turkey’s struggle on Syrian territories to ensure its own security.”

JOYCE DAVIS:

“The media has to be a watchdog for the government. The role of the media is to protect the interests of the people. The self-censorship that happens when journalists are too afraid to do their jobs is a huge issue.”

“Turkey accounts for one fifth of all violations against female journalists around the world, Turkey ranks the worst for violence against women. That is a horrible reputation to have.”

“The new disinformation law is being used as another tool to silence journalists, particularly investigative journalists, such as those who are reporting on the government’s response after the earthquake. They were imprisoned for criticizing the government. In a government that you are not getting a free press, you cannot have anything close to democracy”

GUNAL KURSUN:

“There is a big stigmatization in Turkey right now. One aspect is social exclusion. Families disown their children for being labeled ‘terrorists.’ The second aspect is much more important. It is the problems of education, housing, health, and employment which are the four pillars necessary for a human being to continue their life. The ECHR defined this issue as ‘civilian death.’ This term was first used in the Buldu v. Turkey (2014) decision.”

“Looking at Turkey’s anti-terror laws, we see two things: the definition is too broad and it does not follow international standards. This law entered into power in 1991 and was amended 55 times, 25 of which happened between July 2016 and 2018 during the State of Emergency era. If you amend a law, it loses harmonization. But if you amend it 55 times, we cannot even speak of harmony.”

“No one will come to save us. We are the only people who can build our future. So we must stay strong, we must resist, and we must keep demanding human rights, our rights. Our generation may not see this come to fruition, but somebody will.”

HAFZA GIRDAP:

“Recent years have witnessed a surge in gender-based violence and discrimination, particularly affecting marginalized women. Kurdish women, women who are Gulen movement volunteers and refugee women often confront various forms of discrimination, including hate speech, harassment, and violence.”

“Kurdish women in Turkey encounter substantial challenges concerning their rights and freedoms. Despite active advocacy for increased rights and autonomy for the Kurdish population, they continue to face obstacles, including violence and discrimination. Similarly women volunteering within the Gulen movement have been dismissed their jobs, stigmatized as terrorists, detained arbitrarily even with babies and kids. Women from ethnic and religious minorities, as well as LGBTQ individuals, also contend with social, cultural, and economic marginalization and discrimination in Turkey, experiencing various forms of discrimination.”

JOHAN HEYMANS:

“Constant pressure must be applied to ensure a country goes back to the rule of law. It is not about swift, quick wins. Rule of law takes time to regain.”

“We filed a complaint on the basis of the Tribunal opinion in the ICC against the perpetrators of this crime to ensure that justice will come one day. Justice may take some time, but the impunity will come to a stop. The European Court made important statements in the Yalcinkaya case and it established that there is a systematic problem in Turkey.”

“The real work starts after the Yalcinkaya case. The next step is to make sure it is implemented, as we have seen in the past that Turkey is often noncompliant. It is important for people to now ask to reopen their cases so we get as much movement possible within the system, because a lot of Turkish judges are following these developments closely as they feel that they may be held accountable for the principles every law student is taught.”

SINAM MOHAMAD:

“In northeast Syria, the Turkish regime violates the spirit of the UN Declaration of Human Rights as well as international law.

Since the occupation which began in Afrin in 2018, Turkey’s crimes can be classified as under Articles 7 and 9 of the UNDHR. The Turkish military continues to kill people with drones, destroys the sources of life, besieges the Kurdish people, and subjects 300,000 in Afrin to forced displacement.”

“Turkey is either directly or indirectly supporting terrorism. The SDF liberated the area from ISIS, but ISIS sleeper cells, which do not act without the Turkish regime’s approval, continue to commit crimes against humanity and against women. Through its policies of decivilization and destruction in northeast Syria, Turkey is preventing efforts to establish international peace and security.”

PARIDHI SINGH:

“Democracy is about informed decision-making. When this checkpoint of democracy is attacked, there is a direct detriment to the quality of democracy, which has repercussions for individuals, corporations, civil society organizations, but most importantly for those on the frontlines.”

“There was a pattern of more inventive and innovative use of legal threats against journalists, as well as non-legal ways in which to target journalists such as through Pegasus Spyware.”

“Turkey’s social media laws make it really difficult to publish anything considered anti-state or anti-president. There are specific rules brought in to monitor this.”

ANDREA BARRON:

“Turkey ratified the Convention against Torture in 1988, and the Optional Protocol to the Convention in 2011. But ratifying these international treaties has clearly not made any difference in eliminating or even reducing the practice of torture. In fact, as we just heard, the European Commission said torture in Turkey has actually increased since the attempted coup in July 2016.”

“I want to share one of the stories from a June 2022 Advocates of Silenced Turkey report that I cannot forget. Mehmet Eren was a teacher persecuted because of links to the Gulen movement. In October 2016, he was detained for 9 days in a police station in Afyon, a city in western Turkey. Mehmet was electrocuted on his back, kidneys and genitals. He said that Teoman Yaman, a police officer, threatened to have him raped with a baton if he did not reveal names of people behind the coup. Mehmet, himself an observant Muslim, said the police tortured him like it was their “religious duty, just like ISIL does.” He was referring to the terrorist organization better known in the US as ISIS.”

“International lawyers can try to demonstrate how Turkey is violating its commitments under the Convention against Torture. But another strategy is for Turkish survivors in the US and Europe to share their experiences with policymakers. This is what the TASSC Advocacy Program has done for over 10 years – Mostly in private meetings with congressional aides on key Senate and House Committees and also with the Tom Lantos Human Rights Commission in the House.”

The panels of Freedom Convention Turkey 2023 are accessible through the following links:

Panel I: TURKEY IN CRISIS: DEMOCRATIC BACKSLIDE AND TRANSNATIONAL REPRESSION

Panel II: TURKEY’S INT’L LAW COMPLIANCE: SPOTLIGHT ON ECHR AND UN DEVELOPMENTS

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