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Interview with Human Rights Defender Murat Çelikkan, Winner of the 2018 International Hrant Dink Award

20 September 2018

Human rights defender Murat Çelikkan was presented with the tenth International Hrant Dink Award on Saturday 15 September 2018 at an award ceremony held at the Istanbul Lufti Kirdar International Convention and Exhibition Centre.

The annual award is presented to individuals, organizations or groups that continue to work, despite great risk to themselves, for a free and just world and to end discrimination, racism and violence. Çelikkan, who was also named Civil Rights Defender of the Year in 2018, was presented with the award for his efforts to create peaceful, democratic and pluralistic solutions to ongoing human rights issues in Turkey. Çelikkan, co-director of the Truth Justice Memory Centre Istanbul, was sentenced to 18 months imprisonment in 2017. The charges against him related to his involvement in the ‘Editor-in-Chief on Watch’ campaign, launched in 2016 to protest a government crackdown on the pro-Kurdish daily newspaper Özgür Gündem. He was released on probation in October 2017.  In his acceptance speech, Çelikkan said, “it is the struggle for human rights that will light the torch of hope against hopelessness, not only in Turkey but in the entire world – there is a crack in everything, that is how the light gets in.

…it is the struggle for human rights that will light the torch of hope against hopelessness, not only in Turkey but in the entire world – there is a crack in everything, that is how the light gets in”- Murat Çelikkan

Interview with Murat Çelikkan

Jennifer Pampolina, NHC Communications Officer, sat down with Çelikkan to discuss his views on the relationship between human rights and security, the situation of minority groups, and the role of the OSCE in Turkey.  

As a prominent human rights defenders in Turkey, what do you think is the importance of human rights in relation to security policies? Do you think the defence of human rights contributes or detracts from the security of a country?

 The problem is that security policy is generally in contradiction with human rights. When we prioritize state security then individual rights are not prioritized; this has been the climate for human rights for the last decade or more.

I believe human rights defenders, when it comes to security, focus on human security, not the security of the state (state security). With human security what I try to emphasize is access to a minimum threshold of food, water, health care, shelter, education, and work thus all the basic human rights.

Policies of state security unfortunately create many human rights violations and dealing with these violations is a new agenda for human rights defenders all over the world. Unless we emphasize human security, we will not have the rule of human rights.

When state security policies dominate, supporting human rights is very important because, as we all know, it is states that violate individual rights. Security policies give the rights to the states, not the rights to the individuals, so this is a problem. If we do not prioritize human rights we can no longer talk about a democracy but a very secure authoritarian state.

Murat Çelikkan. Photo c/o Hafiza Merkezi.

Given your long-standing work on minority rights in Turkey, how do you assess their situation?

Well unfortunately, Turkey is not a party to the Convention for the Protection of National Minorities so what we officially regard as a minority is based on laws and treaties from ages ago and is limited to the Armenian, Greek, and Jewish minorities. However there are a lot more ethnic, religious and sexual minorities in Turkey. I think the accession period to the EU highlighted the situation of minorities, even naming the groups in Turkey, and now there are many specific rights based organisations working on minority rights. This is good progress.

On the other hand, the current ultra-nationalist and conservative environment in Turkey makes it very hard for any civil society group to work on rights nowadays, so I think they face the same problems that rights groups in general face nowadays. Their organisations are being physically attacked by both civilians and security forces. The attack on civil society with indictments, trials, economic regulations and control and condemnation by statespersons makes it hard for any independent civil society organization as well as minority organizations.

What developments have occurred relating to specific groups such as the Kurds or Armenians in Turkey?

Almost 15 years ago it was not accepted that there were Kurds living in Turkey. The Kurdish language was completely banned. Now we have a state channel that is in Kurdish, although it is very biased and one sided. Nonetheless, it is still in Kurdish so that is recognition and – in my view – progress. We have a party in parliament, against all odds, that represents Kurdish rights, although most of its MPs, and more than 100 elected mayors, are in prison. Now almost everyone in Turkey reluctantly accepts that there is a problem related to democracy and the rights of Kurds. Whether they name it a Kurdish problem or a Turkish problem, there is a problem. Hence, there is an acknowledgment, although approaches to the solution differ. But acknowledgment is the first step

When it comes to the Armenians, it is another basic issue rooted in the foundation of the Republic. It was forbidden by law to use the word Armenian Genocide. Not being able to talk about what happened to Armenians also strengthened discrimination against them.

Starting in 2011 on the 24th of April there is a commemoration for the victims of the genocide on Istanbul’s Taksim Square. Although demonstrations of any sort are now banned on Taksim Square and it is getting increasingly difficult to hold the commemoration, this has been a very positive development. While this cannot be seen as an official acknowledgment or apology, it did help to break the silence. We also have two newly elected Armenian MPs in parliament, which is also progress. I don’t mean to say that these things solve everything but you can say there is some progress. Still Armenians are being discriminated against because they are Armenians and that goes on too.

What role do you think the OSCE should play in Turkey?

Although some of the OSCE’s report are very important, the Organization unfortunately does not have a great impact on its participating States. It is not defined in the mandate of the OSCE to influence participating states, going back to democratic values. It is without much impact but I still consider it very important to have reports from international bodies about democracy and human rights. Because for example in the time period following the coups d’état, Turkish and Kurdish civil society did not have the freedom to speak out about human rights violations. Instead, there were international organisations, NGOs, and bodies like the European Commission pointing to human rights violations in Turkey. The reporting and documentation from these organisations can the basis for identifying where reform is needed. I still think the OSCE will have an impact in the long run, but I wish they had more influence to affect policy changes in participating states.