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Turkey: Ongoing Crackdown Poses Existential Threat to Independent Civil Society

(Ankara, Brussels, Paris) 6 May 2021 – In the second of two reports on the crackdown against human rights defenders, civil society actors, and independent voices in Turkey, the Observatory for the Protection of Human Rights Defenders (FIDH-OMCT) and one of FIDH’s member organisations in Turkey, the Human Rights Association (IHD), condemn repressive measures that inhibit freedom of association and create an increasingly narrow space for civil society in the country.

The report’s release  coincides with the second hearing in the infamous Özgür Gündem case re-trial, in which three prominent journalists and human rights defenders – including Şebnem Korur Fincancı, former chair of the Human Rights Foundation of Turkey (TIHV), a member organisation of FIDH – face terrorism-related charges punishable by up to 14 years in prison. This case epitomises the serious existential challenges undermining civil society in Turkey. Our organisations urge the government of Turkey to halt the crackdown on independent civil society and respect its fundamental role in a democratic society. They call on the international community to step up efforts to support civil society and human rights defenders in Turkey, both politically and financially.

Arbitrary state of emergency measures in place between 2016 and 2018 aggravated the climate of fear and oppression and continue to take a heavy toll on civil society, including through relentless judicial harassment against human rights defenders (HRDs) and other civil society actors. The report, “Turkey’s Civil Society on the Line: A Shrinking Space for Freedom of Association,” provides an overview of the legal and practical challenges they face at various levels. It reveals not only the state’s failure to ensure an enabling environment for civil society in Turkey, but also its intensified attempts to actively undermine its activities. This includes a hostile and stigmatising narrative portraying civil society organisations and HRDs as foreign agents representing a threat to national security and promoting the objectives of terrorist organisations. This hateful narrative extends to members of the LGBTI+ community, who have been targeted through state-led smear campaigns. The same narrative is also behind Turkey’s recent withdrawal from the Istanbul Convention, a Council of Europe treaty seeking to protect women from gender-based violence, on account of the supposed risk of “harming traditional family values” and “supporting LGBTI+ ideology.”

This stigmatising narrative seeks to legitimise the abuse of the criminal justice system to crack down on allegedly “criminal” individuals and organisations. Indeed, HRDs and other civil society actors often face baseless and bogus criminal investigations and prosecutions for their legitimate activities in defence of human rights, as well as arbitrary detention and bans on travel and holding public office. Most recently, the stigmatisation of IHD by the Minister of Interior, and subsequent judicial harassment and criminalisation of Eren Keskin and Öztürk Türkdoğan, IHD Co-Chairs, raise serious concerns about the authorities’ deliberate, politically motivated targeting of civil society actors and HRDs. The recent court decision convicting Ms Keskin for membership in an illegal organisation – echoing those narratives by mentioning “the need for more domestic and national human rights” – raises further concerns, notably regarding the politicisation of the judiciary.

Excessively burdensome administrative and fiscal requirements comprise another barrier inhibiting the work of civil society actors. The report documents how complex bureaucratic requirements are strictly applied by the authorities and are reportedly used as a pretext to crack down on civil society actors, especially by means of frequent and intense politically-motivated audits. Furthermore, recent legislative amendments, including Law no. 7262, heighten governmental oversight on civil society through increased audits and other measures, enabling authorities to suspend staff members and executives of civil society organisations who are being prosecuted on certain charges and even to suspend the activities of the organisation.

In this worrying context, international support and solidarity remain crucial to enable them to survive and thrive

Lack of diversified funding opportunities, due to a restrictive legal framework and a hostile narrative against organisations receiving foreign funding creates additional challenges for independent civil society actors in carrying out their activities and ensuring their organisations’ survival. Furthermore, public resources are increasingly channelled to newly emerged pro-government NGOs. Indeed, independent civil society is increasingly supplanted by pro-government actors in the policy space; the latter are promoted as an alternative civil society that endorses the government’s actions. Deprived of any meaningful opportunity to engage in dialogue with the authorities, today many civil society actors and HRDs believe that their core mission is fundamentally compromised. This and the fact that civil society organisations struggle to survive as their space progressively shrinks, contribute to HRDs’ increasing physical and mental exhaustion, with the consequent repercussions on their ability to carry out their work.

“In spite of the resilience and courage shown by civil society actors and HRDs in Turkey, the enormous challenges described in this report are extremely burdensome and, in some cases, threaten the very existence of human rights groups and others,” declared Reyhan Yalçındağ, FIDH Vice President and IHD representative.