Defending Human Rights
During the Pandemic and the State of Emergency Conditions
9 December 2020
2020 marks the 72nd anniversary of the adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR). We are committed to protect our rights in a global crisis that has political, social, economic and ethical dimensions brought about by the COVID-19 pandemic that has taken the world by the storm. We keep on defending peace, justice, equality, liberty, and human dignity and the fight for democracy because the only way out of this global crisis that indeed is a threat to the very existence of humanity is to defend these values.
The drafting of the UDHR commenced on 29 April 1946 with the establishment of the Commission on Human Rights within the United Nations. The UDHR, with a preamble and 30 articles, was drafted by the commission, and adopted and proclaimed by the UN General Assembly assembled in Paris on 10 December 1948. The UDHR went into effect in Turkey after having been published in the Official Gazette of 27 May 1949. The UDHR has been translated into more than 500 languages. It also remains the most translated human rights document in the world. The formal inception of Human Rights Day dates back to 4 December 1950, after the General Assembly passed resolution 423 (V) inviting all States and interested organizations to adopt 10 December of each year as Human Rights Day.
The UN was founded with a goal to establish an international system based on ideals of peace, human rights and democracy in order not to ever go through the massive human destruction created by World War II. We, unfortunately, lag far behind in reaching these ideals. Such an international system based on the rights and freedoms enshrined in the UDHR has yet to be established. The UN, in contradiction to its very grounds for existence, cannot be effective enough in preventing and putting an end to wars and civil wars that account for the major causes of rights violations, in intervening into refugee crises, in protecting natural and cultural heritage worldwide, in fighting poverty and injustice, and in eliminating all kinds of discrimination particularly against women. Herein the military and economic partnerships set up by powerful countries have become setbacks against individuals’ exercise of rights and freedoms. Specifically, the fact that the states have gradually been leaving their pledges for democracy and rule of law behind has led to the emaciation of human rights both as a reference system and a control mechanism. The pandemic in 2020 has laid bare all the weaknesses and ineffectiveness of the international system while it, at the same time, has shown the path towards which this alarming course of events may evolve.
In spite of all these setbacks peoples all over the world have been raising their voices demanding freedom, justice, equality and human rights. The response of the states and governments to these demands has been the systematization and generalization of all kinds of violence and imposing them as the sole truth of life on societies. Promoting and protecting human rights along with revitalizing their founding role in the face of this massive crisis that the world has been going through are our primary duties.
This state of crisis that has further been aggravated by the pandemic is faced in Turkey with all its might and intensity. The country has been governed by a state of emergency (SoE) regime directly since 2016 and indirectly since 19 July 2018 by this very same regime claimed to have been lifted but rendered permanent and ordinary through the introduction of numerous legal amendments. This state of affairs/process has led to the abandonment of the principle of constitutionalism, which limited the power of the government, thus, resulting in the dominance of arbitrariness and uncertainty over the public space by making both law and institutions “apparatuses” of the oppressive regime. The power to create uncertainty, to which the political power specifically resorts as a method of governance, has provided it to translate the conditions of the pandemic to an opportunity. It has further centralized its power by associating the extraordinary nature of the pandemic with the SoE to exacerbate its repression and control over the society. The political power, handling its response to the pandemic as a security problem rather than an act of prevention and protection, opted for undermining human rights first -as it has always done under such conditions. The outcome of such conduct is the systematic violation of all fundamental rights and freedoms, prominently the right of access to information, right to life, right of access to healthcare, right to work, freedom of expression, freedoms of assembly and association.
Policies of the political power that render all the issues of the country ranging from the economy to public health as security problems, that polarize the society, that are predicated upon violence both at home and abroad, and that make conflict and war the only methods -particularly for the resolution of the Kurdish issue along with international problems- constitute the major causes of the violations of the right to life in 2020. Nevertheless, violations of the right to life are not merely limited to violations committed by the state’s security forces. They also cover violations committed as products of structural violence and/or by third parties that arise through the failure of the state to undertake its responsibility to “prevent and protect.”
We would particularly like to pay tribute to healthcare workers who have put extraordinary efforts to control the pandemic and to protect public health since the very beginning and who have lost their lives due to the want of necessary measures. Healthcare workers’ demand from the authorities to recognize COVID-19 as work accident and occupational disease should be fulfilled without delay.
Torture has remained the most dominant human rights problem in 2020 in Turkey as well in spite of the fact that it is a crime against humanity and is absolutely prohibited by the Constitution and universal law, which Turkey is a part of. Acts of torture at official custodial centers and extra-custodial places, in the streets, in prisons and almost everywhere, along with the “extreme and disproportionate interference” of the law enforcement amounting to the level of “torture” in assemblies and demonstrations have come to bear a novel dimension and intensity. One can assert that the whole country has virtually become a space of torture today as a result of the political power’s mode of government based on repression and control.
It is also quite alarming that enforced disappearance/abduction, which accounts for one of the most disgraceful human rights violations in recent history and qualifies as a crime against humanity, has also been witnessed in 2020 and the number of such cases has gone up again since 2016 when the state of emergency was declared. Thus, the Council of Europe’s Committee of Ministers delivered a new resolution to keep Turkey under enhanced supervision about enforced disappearance cases within the framework of Batı and Others group application.
Prisons, which are an unmediated sign of a state’s respect for human rights, have become extremely overcrowded today as a result of the political power’s abuse of law as an instrument of repression and intimidation in Turkey. Prisons are places where gross and serious violations are committed ranging from the right to life to torture, to right of access to healthcare. Prisons top the list of riskiest places with regards to the COVID-19 pandemic. Prisoners’ rights, which had already been restricted, have further been restricted on the grounds of the pandemic and the authorities have been attempting to create a new “normal.” Despite warnings and calls by international human rights authorities referring to universal standards and norms; only journalists, academics, human rights defenders, lawyers, elected politicians along with those who expressed their critical or dissident views, who have been incarcerated without sufficient legal grounds, and particularly elderly and critically sick prisoners who are especially vulnerable to COVID-19 were denied eligibility for the latest amendment introduced to Law No. 7242 on the Enforcement of Sentences and Security Measures as the authorities justified such exclusion on the grounds of the Anti-Terror Code (ATC). When one takes into account the devastating toll that the pandemic has taken, new regulations should immediately be introduced in line with the warnings and calls by the above-mentioned authorities to prevent further losses and rights violations.
The political power’s restrictions on freedom of expression and opinion, specifically its pressure and control over the press that has alarmingly increased with the declaration of the SoE, have held out in 2020 as well. Although the exercise of freedom of expression in Turkey has been problematic regarding almost all forms of expression including political, artistic, commercial, academic, religious and moral ones, restrictions and violations have primarily targeted political criticism. Authorities have been trying to suppress all kinds of criticism or demands for checks and balances about the activities of the political power while investigations and lawsuits are initiated into them. Especially in 2020, investigations and lawsuits have been brought against numerous individuals and organizations that found the measures taken within the scope of the country’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic as meager and insufficient, thought that the publicized information on the number of cases and mortality rates were inaccurate, thus, demanding more information and transparency, and were critical of and objected to the handling of the process.
2020 has been a year during which restrictions on and violations of freedom of assembly have been the rule, while the enjoyment of freedoms has been the exception just like the previous year. In 2020 individuals and groups from almost all social segments, notably political party members, workers, villagers, students, lawyers, women, LGBTIQ+ and human rights defenders, have not been able to exercise their right to peaceful assembly and protest due to bans imposed by civilian authorities and/or actual interventions by the law enforcement. The fact that the consecutive bans on protests and events imposed by the governor’s office in Van amounted to 1,274 days (4 years) or the cruel and infamous violence by the law enforcement against HDP members, heads of bar associations, women and mine workers constitute the concrete instances of such violations.
Citizens in Turkey cannot enjoy their freedom of association either because they are not allowed to act collectively and express their ideas while they cannot get involved in the civic and public space in an organized manner to shape their collective futures. Numerous members and executives of human rights organizations, associations, foundations, labor and professional organizations, and political parties have been arrested, detained, and attempts at repressing them through lawsuits, i.e. through judicial harassment, have also been in play in 2020. Co-mayors, local municipal council members have been removed from office and replaced by state appointed trustees. Members of the parliament have been detained following the lifting of their parliamentary immunity. Offices of political parties and civil society organizations have been attacked.
The Kurdish issue remains one of the most fundamental challenges before Turkey’s democratization. The armed conflict that broke out again immediately after the general elections of 7 June 2015 is still going on not only due to the fact that the government primarily failed to take sincere and coherent steps for the peaceful and democratic resolution of the Kurdish issue, but also with the impact of developments in the Middle East and is bringing about gross human rights violations, notably violations of the right to life.
We, as human rights defenders, have always argued for the democratic and peaceful resolution of the Kurdish issue. We are persistent in our belief. We, therefore, want the conflict to end right now. Following the establishment of a non-conflict environment, this state of non-conflict should be strengthened and monitored as well as genuine and effective programs should be developed by all parties in order to establish social peace. Within this context, the status of elected Kurdish politicians as political hostages in the person of Selahattin Demirtaş should be put to an end, political prisoners’ immediate release should be provided, and isolation on İmralı Prison should be ended in order for a new peace process to commence.
There has unfortunately been no setback and no development that could be considered positive in gender-based violence against women in 2020. Yet, the political power has targeted the İstanbul Convention, which sets forth the basic standards for the prevention of and combatting gender-based and domestic violence against women along with states’ responsibilities to this end, on the grounds that the convention “disrupted the Turkish family structure,” “provided legal grounds for homosexuality,” etc. Further, the conditions brought about by the COVID-19 pandemic that left numerous individuals unemployed or enclosed at home have brought along much more severe conditions for women. Lockdowns in almost all countries around the world led to an escalation in sexual, economic and physical violence against women. Observation reports published in Turkey also point to a similar state of affairs for women. All these reveal once again how vital is the İstanbul Convention for women.
Asylum-seekers/refugees/immigrants that have now become a part, a primary component of the society in Turkey are still being intensively subjected to all kinds of discrimination and abuse, hate speech and economic exploitation. Asylum-seekers and refugees, who have been subjected to racist hate crimes and violence by the law enforcement and civilians, lost their lives. Human traffickers, too, have led them to death. Asylum-seekers and refugees faced the physical, psychological, social and economic impacts of the pandemic in the most severe manner while becoming lives ignored and even sacrificed by our society.
Turkey is going through one of its most devastating economic crises in the last four decades. Poverty, precarity and non-organization created by debt-based neoliberal economic policies that have been implemented for years have become deeper and continuous through the state of emergency practices. Such state of affairs has become even more alarming with the COVID-19 pandemic. Today there are millions of people in the country who have to work under the pandemic conditions in order to both biologically survive and to maintain their social lives. The rights violations that these persons -who do not have the chance to stay at home but have to work under inadequate measures taken at building sites, factories, markets and the like- vary greatly. Occupational murders top the list of these violations. The rate of workers who have lost their lives due to COVID-19, in spite of all the challenges before collecting data, is substantial among the total number of occupational murders. Unemployment and poverty affect women, children and refugees the most.
The statements of the political power about human rights and reforming the judiciary should not be regarded as a promise that can be materialized under such circumstances. If the authorities opt for a real reform, it is an obligation that a novel democratic constitution based on the principle of separation of powers should be drafted and a genuine conflict resolution process that will provide for facing the past should be initiated. Any proposal without these steps can be nothing but mere window dressing in response to international demands.
Lastly, İHD and HRFT, whose raison d’être is to create a country and a world where there are no more human rights violations and where justice, peace and democracy prevail, are 34 and 30 years old respectively. We, as sister organizations, will keep on documenting and reporting human rights violations to make them visible, therefore, preventing them; continue fighting against impunity and promoting respect for human rights.
Human Rights Association
Human Rights Foundation of Turkey
Appendix: An Overview of Human Rights in 2020
Please click for the full report in English: js20201210_İHD-HRFT_Human Rights Day 2020_