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Friday, April 11, 2014

Human Rights in Istanbul: how does civil society in Turkey compare with The Netherlands?

Earlier this month, GHRD's Communications Intern, Jess Bailey, visited Istanbul to learn more about human rights and minority rights issues affecting Turkey. She attended this trip as part of Northwestern University’s student group ‘Northwestern Conference on Human Rights’.

Turkey: a transcontinental border country between exotic and chaotic confusion and a democratic and organised Europe.

Founded in 1923, Turkey was born out of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk’s idea of a secular nation, now ruled by the AKP for over 12 years, Turkey can be seen to be regressing from this .

Shortly before our arrival to Istanbul, Erdogan blocked twitter and whilst we were there also banned access to YouTube. During our trip we visited TOG - Community Volunteers Organisation and spoke with the founder, Ibrahim Betil, who earlier in the week quite eloquently tweeted ‘when the rules of nature and technology combine, no one can turn off the tweet of the birds’.

During the trip we also attended a day of lectures at Koc University to learn more about Turkish civil society, migration patterns and the human rights issues that affect the country. We specifically learnt about post-war emigration to Europe, the Kurdish Issue and the current Syrian crisis. We also spoke to students who participated in last year's protests.

We also visited ‘Helsinki Citizens Assembly’ where we learnt about Turkey's geographical limitation to the 1951 Geneva Convention, which means that Turkey only accepts asylum seekers from Europe and asylum seekers from other countries must apply via UNHCR and are then resettled elsewhere if successful. HCA also spoke to us about the free legal assistance they provide to failed asylum seekers who are stuck in limbo as well as the work they do with in regards to furthering the integration of the Kurdish community.

Additionally, we visited a newly established civil society organisation called Hamisch and learnt more about the Syrian conflict and their work which aims to connect Syrian intellectuals in exile. This provided an interesting contrast to our current knowledge obtained from western media about Syria which is mostly related to the refugee crisis and not other parts of Syrian culture.

Walking down the main street of Istanbul, Istiklal Cadessi, the street seems hauntingly different today as photos of last year’s protests remind passers-by of the Gezi Park protests and the struggles for freedom of speech and democracy.

LGBT protesters were highly visible during the Gezi Park protests which coincided with the 2013 Istanbul Gay Pride, making it the largest Gay Pride ever held in Turkey and Eastern Europe. LGBT issues were also pushed forward politically through the Gezi protests and although the government made attempts to cover-up all their artistic efforts, these stairs remain a symbol of the underground LGBT community. 

A year on,  small protests continue to erupt on a frequent basis as the city remains concerned with rights to freedom of expression, culture and access to the arts. This peaceful protest was concerned with the closure of art institutions was conducted peacefully using chants, music and dance.

Our visit coincided with local elections and the city’s infrastructure was a blank canvas for the masses of banners and posters. Several small rallys were also set up to disseminate party information and encourage people to vote. Many students from Koc University were flying back to their hometowns in order to participate in the voting process as this year, voting was assumed to be more important than ever.

It became more and more clear as the week continued that the Turkish state is putting a lot of money and attention into advancing the economy and this has often come at the expense of minority communities and civil society.

It also became clear that there are many differences between Turkish civil society and Dutch civil society. For example, Turkish civil society is less developed than Dutch civil society and receives much less governmental support and funding, yet there are a higher number of minority and human rights abuses in Turkey.

Reflecting upon my week of NGO visits, it has become clear that the main human rights issues in Turkey relate historically to minority rights abuses. However, what seems to be an important issue in the current climate is that human rights abuses in Turkey are no longer just associated with minorities as the main human rights abuse of the moment, the lack of freedom of expression, affects the entire population. Although this is negative for all 74 million inhabitants of Turkey, it can only be seen to worsen the situation for minorities.
Photo credits to Jess and other members of NUCHR.

Disclaimer: Blog posts do not necessarily reflect the views of Global Human Rights Defence.

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