Turkey: New energy in the struggle for conscientious objection

Following the judgment of the European Court of Human Rights in the case of Bayatyan v. Armenia in July 2011, and even more so the judgment in the case of Erçep v. Turkey from November 2011, some human rights and conscientious objection activists in Turkey pushed again for the recognition of the right to conscientious objection. A meeting was organised in Istanbul on 24 and 25 February 2012, to discuss and co-ordinate Turkish and international efforts for the right to conscientious objection in Turkey, and against the criminalisation of support for conscientious objectors and antimilitarists through the infamous article 318 Turkish Penal Code ("alienating the people from the military").

During the meeting, the relevance of the latest series of judgment of the European Court of Human Rights was discussed (see article below on the judgments), and while they were considered as highly relevant, the Turkish lawyers and activists present stressed that Turkish courts usually do not consider European Court judgments or international human rights law in their own judgments - their sentencing is based on Turkish law. Consequently, only a change of law can have a real impact on the situation of conscientious objectors in Turkey.

Constitutional changes?

Following its victory in the parliamentary elections in June 2011, the ruling Justice and Development Party (AK Party) of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan set up an all-party "Constitutional Reconciliation Commission" to draft a new constitution for Turkey, to replace the constitution written by the military after the 1980 coup d'etat, which has been amended many times since. The Commission is headed by Parliament Speaker Cemil Çiçek, who many consider a defender of the status quo.

According to a report in Today's Zaman from November 2011, the Commission set up three delegations to collect views from "outside parliament", one of which is responsible for contacts with civil society organisations. According to the report, the deadline for "collecting, sorting and reviewing suggestions was scheduled for the end of next April" 2012, but Parliament Speaker Cemil Çiçek urged any contributors to send in their suggestions by 31 December 2011.
Several human rights organisations did submit proposals including a constitutional recognition of the right to conscientious objection. However, it is doubtful that these suggestions will be taken up by the Constitutional Reconciliation Commission.

Draft conscientious objection law

The Peace and Democracy Party (BDP) has submitted a draft law to recognise the right to conscientious objection to the Turkish parliament, and this draft is now in the parliamentary process, presently at the committee stage. Following the Bayatyan judgment of the European Court of Human Rights, there were also discussions with the Republican People’s Party (CHP) to draft a law on conscientious objection. However, due to internal disagreements, a draft was never produced.

With an absolute majority of the AK Party in parliament, progress is unlikely without a change in attitude within the AK Party itself.

The CO movement and the war in Kurdistan

During the meeting the diversity of the Turkish CO movement became clear. There are conscientious objectors for a variety of reasons, ranging from Jehovah's Witnesses (who cannot be considered part of the movement) to pacifist antimilitarist conscientious objectors, objectors for Islamic reasons (refusal to serve in a Laicist army), and Kurdish conscientious objectors, refusing to fight in the Turkish army and to take part in the oppression of Kurdish people.

In December 2009, the CO Platform for Peace was formed, mostly to work on the war in Kurdistan. Activists from the platform highlighted the daily grave human rights violation in Kurdistan, such as the mass imprisonment of minors together with adult prisoners following arrest at demonstrations. There are reports of widespread abuse of these imprisoned minors by other prisoners, ranging from beatings to sexual assault and rape. There are also reports of mass graves of PKK prisoners from the 1990s, such as a recently discovered mass grave near Mardin Dargeçit, where the remains of allegedly released prisoners have been found. The Human Rights Foundation of Turkey demanded the opening of 253 more mass graves, but there are serious concerns about the way the authorities open these mass graves. Another major concern are the "suspicious deaths (suicides)" of Kurdish conscripts, as there are serious doubts that these are really suicides, but rather that many of these conscripts were in fact killed by fellow Turkish soldiers.

During the meeting, it was discussed that the Turkish CO movement needs to have a clear position on the war in Kurdistan.

Press conference

Istanbul press conference, 27 February 2012Istanbul press conference, 27 February 2012On Monday, 27 February, a press conference took place to report on the main results of the meeting. During the press conference, the Turkish conscientious objectors and antimilitarists stressed "once again stress that the right to conscientious objection has to be a part of the new constitution and a law to implement it has to be adopted immediately."

On the war in Kurdistan, they stated: "For many years now Turkey suffers from a war related to the Kurdish question which has led to the death of more than 40 thousand people and many human rights violations as political killings, missing persons and torture. The only way out of this war is a democratic and peaceful solution to the Kurdish question. We see militarism as the main obstacle for a free and peaceful coexistence and call everybody to resist against it."

The statement ended with the call on the Turkish authorities to release Halil Savda, and to repeal article 318 Turkish Penal Code.

After supporting statement by Amnesty International, War Resisters' International, and Connection e.V., a member of the CO Platform for Peace highlighted the issue of imprisoned minors and mass graves in Kurdistan. The press conference ended with the reading of the conscientious objection declaration of journalist Ismail Yıldız, who was arrested on 20 December 2011 as part of a government crack-down on the Kurdish Community Union (KCK). He had planned to declare his conscientious objection before his arrest, but was arrested before he had done so. He is presently still in pre-trial detention.

Sources: European Court of Human Rights: Press release: Chamber judgment Erçep v. Turkey, 22 November 2011, European Court of Human Rights: AFFAIRE ERÇEP c. TURQUIE, chamber judgement (French), 22 November 2011, Today's Zaman: Çiçek announces constitutional commission’s 15-point roadmap, 3 November 2011; Bianet.org: Alleged Sexual Abuse of Children in Pozantı Prison, 27 February 2012; Bianet.org: Allegedly 'Released' People Found in Mass Grave, 24 February 2012; Press statement of Turkish conscientious objectors and antimilitarists, 27 February 2012