CONSCIENTIOUS OBJECTION IN TURKEY IN A NUTSHELL: HOW CAN A FOREIGNER HELP?
This is the brief and short summary of a series of talks delivered in Amsterdam in April 2007 by the authors. Due to the very nature of talks, not every details and the discussions can be included in this text. Therefore, this text should be considered a preliminary and (hopefully) motivating introduction to the issue. Several reasons can be given to account for the historical and cultural roots of antimilitarism in Turkey. However, we will not do that. We will simply focus on Turkish case, and provide some peculiar information for you to draw your own conclusions.
1. Legal Situation in Turkey
Turks are considered to have established the first organized army 2200 years ago. The linear army classifications according to the ranks are thought to be formed by Turks as well. The military tradition has continued till the modern state, in 1952 Turkey joined NATO and participated several NATO interventions in all over the world and sent troops to Korean War as well.
Army’s budget in 2006 was around $11 BILLION which is the %3 of GDP. However, Dutch army’s budget in 2006 was also around $11 BILLION which was %1.6 of GDP. Let us continue with numbers. British army’s budget in 2006 was also round $66 BILLION which was %2.2 of GDP. US army’s budget in 2006 was round $522 BILLION which was %3.7 of GDP. Israel army’s budget in 2006 was approximately $8.5 BILLION which was %9.4 of GDP. NATO spends around $850 BILLION whereas EU spends around $250 BILLION. The most interesting case is North Korea. In 2003, North Korea devoted %22.3 of the entire country’s budget to military spendings. Hence, the Top 20 of countries according to their military expenditure: USA, UK, France, Japan, China, Germany, Russia, Italy, Saudi Arabia, India, South Korea, Spain, Australia, Canada, Turkey, Netherlands, Brazil, Israel, Taiwan and Greece.
Turkish army is greater than those of France and Britain combined: 690.000 men under arms (of which 220.000 are professional (career) officers). Thus, Turkey has the second largest standing force in NATO, after USA, and 9th largest armed force in the world after China, US, India, North Korea, Pakistan and Iran.
1.2 Law and Constitution
Conscription exists for all male citizens between the age 20 - 41 unless they are not handicapped, mentally ill or lost a brother in a military combat. However, university students (till the age of 29), graduate students (till the age of 33 for masters, 37 for PhD) can postpone it. Cops are also exempted. Reservist duties apply up to age of 40. Conscription is 15 months for elementary or high school graduates, 12 months or 5 months for university graduates (12 month if they enlist as a reserve officer, or 5 months if they enlist as a private). Turkish citizens who have lived or worked abroad for at least 3 years, a basic military training of 3 weeks is offered instead of the full-term military service if they pay approximately 5.000 Euros. Also in times when the Army thinks that the military reserve exceeds the required amount, paid military service of 1 month basic training is established for local citizens. This is a very rare case and it was last exercised after the 1999 earthquake disaster in order to raise money to rebuild the towns after the earthquake.
Conscientious objection is not legally recognized. However, we have the freedom of conscience guaranteed by the constitution! BUT, in 1991, the Turkish Constitutional Court (current Turkish president A. N. Sezer was then a member of this high court) explicitly ruled that the constitution does not widen the freedom of conscience to include the right to conscientious objection. Army agreed actually. It said in a 1999 military brochure:
The Turkish government has disassociated itself from the United Nations Commission on Human Rights Resolution 1998/77, which affirms the right to conscientious objection to military service as a legitimate exercise of the freedom of thought, conscience and religion as laid down in Article 18 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and Article 19 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. The Turkish government does not recognize the right to conscientious objection to military service as stated in these two international instruments.
In our laws there are no provisions on exemption from military service for reasons of conscience. This is because of the pressing need for security, caused by the strategic geographic position of our country and the circumstances we find ourselves in. As long as the factors threatening the internal and external security of Turkey do not change, it is considered to be impossible to introduce the concept of "conscientious objection" into our legislation.
The Council of Europe and the United Nations have regularly called upon Turkey to legally recognize the right to conscientious objection. In March 2004, the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe stated that: "Despite Turkey's geostrategic position, the Assembly demands that Turkey recognizes the right to conscientious objection and introduce an alternative civilian service".
In another case, the European Court of Human Rights has recently admitted the case of Osman Murat Ülke, a CO who was sentenced to imprisonment in 1996. His complaint to the European Court is mainly based on the claim that his arrest and imprisonment for conscientious objection are a violation of Article 9 of the European Convention, which guarantees the right to freedom of thought and conscience. He made his complaint in 1997, which was finally admitted in 2004. The admission of the case means that the Court will judge if conscientious objection is part of the right to freedom of thought and conscience as mentioned in the Convention. Objectors are punished under Turkish military Penal Code for avoiding military service.
People who criticize army or military politics can be punished under Turkish Criminal Code for “alienating people from the armed force”. However, due to a recent adoptation to EU legislations, not many charges are taken based on this law.
1.3 Gays in the Army?
Gays have the “right” to be exempted from the military service as they are considered unfit for the army based on their “psychosexual disorder”. However, they have to prove and document it. The most general method of the documentation of being a gay is a picture with visible face in which the persons are engaged in a homosexual intercourse. The picture is kept in the person’s file with confidentiality. Hence the military hospital in Ankara is the biggest state owned gay porn archive in the world. But sometimes they are wrong. Once, a gay CO (M. Tarhan) was imprisoned and the army officers realized that he is gay and wanted to discharge him immediately in order to avoid a bigger political scandal. However, the military hospital did not agree that he is gay based on an anal physical examination.
It is not difficult to see the heterosexist and moreover sexist nature of the military system based on these simple examples.
1.4 Some Remarks
Turkish army is a peculiar example on its own in many aspects. It considers itself as the very first building block of the government, society, manhood etc. The army runs many financial cooperations. They get stronger and stronger after each economical crises in the country where many many business went bankrupt. The had a bank till recently. The army cooperations produce cars, tomato paste, construction materials and uncountable many more goods. Furthermore, the army is about to affiliate with a private university beside the military academy.
We underlined that the ary in Turkey reconstructs society from each single unit - in this case they are conscripted privates. In the first decades of the new republic, the army had the sole responsibility of educating the masses. This education ranged from teaching how to read and write to how to be a family man etc. Even the privates who had not had circumsized till their military service used to get circumsized in the army. The army also assisted the community to construct schools, community buildings etc. with its cheap - in fact, free - labor.
But, the world changed whereas the Turkish army resisted to change. For instance, European Comission and European Parliament recommended many times that Turkey should introduce alternative service option and right to conscientious objection. For obvios reasons, these remarks of European bodies are considered intervention to the domestic politics of Turkey by many political groups from central left to far right. Not only far right, but also liberal left groups have a strong respect for military and do not consider to introduce CO in near future. However, the international diplomatic pressure might change it. Nobody knows.
2. Conscientious Objection and Antimilitarist Movement in Turkey
For practical reasons, we will focus on conscientious objection movement as it represents an active and vital vein of the whole antimilitarist movement. Refusal of military service is common but hidden: draft evaders are believed to be 350.000 (%0.5 of the population) as no official figure was disclosed so far due to militarist reasons.
As we underlined earlier, no definite punishment or charges have been defined for objectors. Therefore, the army’s approach to the objectors vary considerably from case to case. Some times, long prison sentences, sometimes simple ignorance might take place.
For instance, the only religious based objector group in Turkey, the Jehova’s Witnesses do not get politicized and speak up although by definition they all refuse to bear arms and take the military oath and sing the national anthem. They are a very small minority, so it is understandable to some extend. However, it has been reported by some anonymous resources that Jehova’s Witnesses are employed in some unarmed duties within the armed forces.
2.1 The Briefest History of the Movement
Politic movement started in 1990 with a very small public attention.
- 1990: The first COs: Vedat Zencir & Tayfun Gönül
- 1992: İzmir War Resisters’ Assoc. was established
- 1993: International CO Meeting was held in Turkey
- 1993: A TV news reporter has been tried in a military court.
- 1994: A Kurdish MP proposed a bill about the right to CO
- 1996: Ülke was arrested (spent in total 700 days in prison)
- 2000: 3; 2001: 2; 2003: 8; 2004: many, ... COs
- 2001: First gay CO
- 2003: First active soldier CO
- 2004: First women COs
Let us consider 3 cases: Mehmet Bal, Mehmet Tarhan and Osman Murat Ülke.
Mehmet Bal declared his objection when he was an active private which made the whole case extremely difficult for him and the movement. He was arrested by the army and tortured and tried in a military court. He is not now in prison but his case is still in the court. Mehmet Tarhan is the first gay CO in Turkey. After some years of his declaration, he was arrested in İzmir. Imprisoned for 1 year and ill treated and then released. His case is still in court.
Osman Murat Ülke (Ossi) is the first public figure in CO movement. Imprisoned numerous times and spent 700 days in prison. Last year, European Court of Human Rights ruled that Turkish government has to pay 11000 Euro to Ülke. Recently (2 weeks ago), Ministers Comitee of European Union stated its concern about the arbitrary detention of Ossi and the lack of the legal regulations about conscientious objection.
What is common in all cases: Ill treatment, repeated sentence for disobeying orders and refusing to wear military uniforms and following orders. Sometimes brute torture.
Sometimes due to political pressure or just for mere judical reasons, imprisoned COs are released. But, this is not the end of the stoy for them. The charges are still pressed and many court cases are still on. Therefore, some of the COs are still tried in absentia. As they are considered draft evaders, any ID check can reveal this “offence”. The military service situation of each male is also kept in the national database. Hence, once a CO has been ID checked, he has to be arrested and transferred to his military barrack immediately. A prison sentence of 3-4 months can also be imposed, but not always.
This is called “Civil Death”. Either already imprisoned or not, every CO have this problem per se. At any time they can be arrested. They cannot engage in activities which requires ID check. They cannot have a passport, if they already have one, they cannot leave the country for any reason as the passport check at the border will immediately reveal that they are draft evaders.
So, not only legal but also social obstacles appear in front of each CO.
However, good things also happen. European Court of Human Rights ruled that Turkey has to pay 11.000 Euro to Ossi as he was arbitrarily detained. This was an important decision (although one of the judges in ECHR was from Turkey) and will be considered an example case for future court cases on this issues. On the other hand, in order to cover this legal case quickly, the Turkey paid the fine unexpectedly quickly and did not appeal for retrial or anything. This was strange, the government quit very easily. Conscientious objection is not a hot topic in Turkish (and Kurdish) society as a consistent media (auto)cencorship is exercised both by military and the press itself. Some moths ago, the biggest (liberal) newspaper of Turkey (Hürriyet) announced that it will only pay the %20 of the amends that its coloumnists are required to pay after a court case. The rest is supposed to be paid by the coloumnist herself. Therefore, the only open channel of communication is the alternative, mainly internet based, media organizations such as Indymedia or some other local Turkish web pages.
Many Turkish colomnist, authors and novelists and academicians are tried due to their antimilitarist remarks. Nobel Literature Prize 2006 Lautreatte Pamuk is a famous example.
Frankly speaking the CO movement was never a top active movement in Turkey. Numerous sociological and psychological reasons can be given. The movement was always small in number compared to the other political groups.
The CO movement, on the other hand, introduced many new concepts and methods to the political activism scene. Non-violence and direct action trainings were the first ones. Movement also raised feminism as a crucial aspect of antimilitarist critics. Then in early 2000s criticism of heterosexism was also incorporated in the CO movement by the gay antimilitarists.
The direct cooperation with anarchist groups (and later with GLBTT groups) was a primer support for the movement as many many anarchists and some gay liberation activists were also active in the CO movement.
As the movement was slow and small, the introduction of CO issue to the society can be considered a success in the first step.
We had an imprisoned CO (H. Savda) for some months. We cannot anticipate what future will bring about him. However, the political support is essential.
Write to him: 5. Kolordu Komutanlığı, Askeri Cezaevi, Çorlu / Tekirdağ, Turkey.
After the partial cease fire with Kurdish guerillas, the army decided to shorten the period of conscription. The reason was simply the abundancy of conscripts as Turkey has a very young population. Optimistic interpretations claim that the country will have professionalize the entire armed forces in order to make it more efficient and dynamic. Therefore, in some near future, there will be the possibility of the abolishing of conscription. However, there is no political sign about it and some people think that professional army is worse than conscription based army for antimilitarist goals.
3. What Can You Do? How Can You Help?
3.1 What Has Been Done by Internationals
“Human Rights Violations in Turkish Armed Forces” has been published in the Netherlands but banned in Turkey. It was a book compiled from the interviews held by soldiers. The actual statements of the soldiers and privates were considered a threat to the dignity of the armed forces.
Wide documentation has been done by some Dutch activists for WRI.
Many EP parliaments, ai, WRI protested the Turkish authorities for the imprisonment of COs.
Some European governmental bodies and some UN bodies urged Turkey to make the necessary legislation about conscientious objection with a civil service alternative.
German groups directly supported the movement in Turkey.
Turkish antimilitarist activists participated to some antimilitarist direct actions in Greece, Brussels (NATO HQ), Israel (Ministry of Defence) and elsewhere.
Many international meetings and gathering have been organized for CO issues with the active participation of international people.
3.2 What You Can Do?
We need your support. You can do many things:
- Write support letters to imprisoned COs.
- Support asylum seekers and protest (random) deportations.
- Protest against military spendings and arms trade.
- Write protest letters to Turkish authorities and embassies.
- Organize protests in front of Turkish embassies and address the issue.
- Inform your political and social groups about the issue and raise awareness.
- Raise solidarity with Turkey based antimilitarist and CO groups.
- Stay in touch and keep yourself updated
Every social movement has lots of obstacles. But if you aimed the demilitarization of the society in a developing country in near east, you the international support is an essential part of the whole struggle.