Previous PageTable Of ContentsNext Page

Recent Reports 
 Support HRW 
About HRW
Site Map
Human Rights Watch - Home Page


Article 18 of the U.N. Declaration on Human Rights Defenders45 states: "Individuals, groups, institutions and non-governmental organizations have an important role to play and a responsibility in safeguarding democracy, promoting human rights and fundamental freedoms and contributing to the promotion and advancement of democratic societies, institutions and processes. Individuals, groups, institutions and non-governmental organizations also have an important role and a responsibility in contributing, as appropriate, to the promotion of the right of everyone to a social and international order in which the rights and freedoms set forth in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and other human rights instruments can be fully realized."

The alternative voice raised by civil society is not yet fully accepted as legitimate in Turkey. Criticizing the authorities or questioning the state's monolithic view of society is often viewed as a form of disloyalty bordering on treason. Organizations viewed as troublesome can expect to be harassed, raided or closed down, and their members risk prosecution or worse.46 Members of the Turkish Human Rights Association's (HRA) fifty-nine branches have been detained, tortured, imprisoned and subjected to death threats and eleven Association officials have been murdered by unknown assailants, in some cases in circumstances that suggest security force involvement.

Politicians and other public figures have frequently cast groundless aspersions on human rights organizations. Particularly in the tense years of confrontation with armed organizations such as the PKK (Workers' Party of Kurdistan), such statements were irresponsible and dangerous. In May 1998, following the leak of uncorroborated and false allegations by the prosecution service, Akin Birdal, then President of the Turkish Human Rights Association, was shot six times in the chest, shoulder, and legs at the HRA headquarters. Bleeding profusely, he had lost almost all his blood by the time he reached the hospital; it is said that only the immediate attention of a doctor on the HRA staff saved his life.

Immediately after the shooting the Prime Minister of the day Mesut Yilmaz reportedly claimed that the attack was "an internal settling of accounts, like a misunderstanding between those in the same camp . . . . It is clear they [the HRA] were connected to the PKK."47 The allegation was unfounded. In fact, shortly afterward, inquiries led police to the ultranationalist Turkish Revenge Brigade. Sixteen alleged members or supporters of this group, including a retired army major, a serving gendarmerie officer, and the two men thought to have carried out the shooting, are currently on trial, accused of "attempted murder" and of "forming an armed gang to commit crime for social and political objectives."

Accession Partnership Recommendation:

* The Turkish government should make a public statement affirming the role of civil society in general, and the valuable contribution of human rights organizations. The government should make clear that although the criticisms made by such organizations may be uncomfortable for those in authority, such organizations are a legitimate and necessary component of an effective system for protection of the rights and welfare of the Turkish people. The Report and the Calendar contain the welcome recommendation that "the constructive function of non-governmental organizations in raising human rights awareness should be encouraged and there should be closer cooperation and communication with them," but these documents make no explicit provisions for public government acknowledgement of the positive role of human rights organizations.

The Diyarbakir and Van branches of the HRA and the Malatya branch of the Association of Human Rights and Solidarity for Oppressed Peoples (Mazlum-Der) are currently closed. The Diyarbakir branch of the HRA was originally closed by the local governor using powers under the Law on Associations, as is still the case with Mazlum-Der's Malatya branch. Diyarbakir HRA challenged the closure in the courts and won. On April 19, 2000 the court overturned the closure order, and after some delay the branch was permitted to reopen. Their first activity was to be a signature campaign against the new generation of F-type prisons (see above).The local governor refused permission for publications and meetings associated with the campaign and, in response, the branch issued a critical press statement. The branch was then closed for three months on the orders of the Emergency Region Governor, whose administrative acts cannot be challenged in the courts. Thirty minutes after the branch re-opened on August 12, 2000, the Emergency Region Governor closed it once again. The recently opened Van branch of the HRA was also closed by the Emergency Region Governor, because they too were planning a campaign relating to the F-type prisons.

Accession Partnership Recommendation:

* The Turkish government should reopen the Van and Diyarbakir branches of the Human Rights Association and the Malatya branch of Mazlum-Der. This measure is not specified by the Report or the Calendar, but both contain the following-not altogether reassuring-statement: "Measures should be adopted to prevent the exercise of pressure on managers and members of non-governmental organizations concerned with human rights; the security of the headquarters and branch offices of these organizations should be ensured, the legal actions for closure should be consistent and measures should be taken for compliance with court judgments concerning such actions."

Non-governmental organizations must negotiate a formidable succession of legal obstacles to their activities. Although civil society has bloomed in Turkey during the 1990s, any organization that incurs official displeasure may be subjected to a storm of litigation.

Revision or abolition of the Law on Associations, with its cumbersome and restrictive rules for non-governmental organizations, is vital to the establishment of freedom of association. Human Rights Watch recognizes that this law was drawn up with the recent memory of abuse of the right of association by armed groups in the 1970s and that provisions relating, for example, to the storage of firearms on association premises are fully justified. However, heavy restrictions on membership and requirements to submit all publications and public meetings for approval by the local governor make the Law on Associations an alarmingly repressive piece of legislation. Further, associations are required to pay the fees and travelling expenses for an indefinite number of government agents to attend their meetings and record proceedings on paper, audiotape or video. Local governors frequently exercise their considerable discretion to halt meetings, suppress publications and posters, and close down associations.

If the government is truly determined to improve its human rights performance, it must remove the restrictions from those independent human rights organizations that are best placed to document progress. Government officials must also speak up publicly to challenge the campaign of misinformation about such organizations that has been waged for so long by the military, the media, and others.

Accession Partnership Recommendation:

* The Law on Associations should be thoroughly overhauled so that it forms a basis for the healthy development of civil society rather than an obstacle. In revising this law, careful attention should be givento the standards developed in the jurisprudence of the European Court of Human Rights on those articles of the European Convention on Human Rights that deal with freedom of thought, expression, assembly and association. The Report and the Calendar do not contain this specific recommendation, but both provide for constitutional recognition of the role of non-governmental organizations and state that "In line with the requirements of democratic society, the necessary amendments should be made in the framework of collective freedoms, especially the legislation concerning freedom of association, freedoms of assembly and demonstration and trade union freedoms." The Calendar schedules the preparation of draft laws on such topics by the end of 2002.

45 Declaration on the Right and Responsibility of Individuals, Groups and Organs of Society to Promote and Protect Universally Recognized Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms, A/RES/53/144, (adopted by the General Assembly, March 8, 1999). 46 There have been recent heartening signs of improvement in this area. In September 1999, Mehmet Ali Irtemcelik, then state minister responsible for human rights, made a public statement that seemed to promise a change of approach, when he expressed a wish to "strike a sound and honest communication" with nongovernmental organizations dealing with human rights. He subsequently organized a meeting to obtain the views of a range of such groups. 47 Milliyet newspaper, 14 May 1998.

Previous PageTable Of ContentsNext Page