As a social justice activist from Turkey, I have carefully tried to avoid the international commentary surrounding Turkey’s referendum on Sunday 16th. Given our current reality, it is integral that I disengage myself from analyses that either waste my valuable time by stating the obvious, or curb my resilience through measured pessimism.
Regardless of such vigilant attempts, I could not miss most of it. It was heartbreaking to see the level of moral irresponsibility while commenting “internationally”. It was frustrating to observe how people, by virtue of holding a degree or a job, could declare a country “dead”, “over”, “finished” while knowing they will under no circumstances be affected by such rush analyses. This is why if you are not from Turkey, you should immediately stop declaring my country’s democracy dead. It is not your place to reach that conclusion. The fight is definitely not over.
In an attempt to provide useful counter-analyses, this blog post will try to guide the international community on the types of support they can strategically provide to Turkey’s opposition. As future of democracy in Turkey will have drastic results for the region, it is in all of our best interest to prioritise the country’s human rights performance at all costs.
For the purposes of this blog post Turkey’s opposition will be defined as such: activists, bloggers, members of organised civil society and wider social movements, academics and journalists.
So here we go:
1. Be deliberate and strategic about who you work with
Since the failed coup d’etat of 15th of July 2016, I have been invited to speak at several events either in formal multilateral venues such as the United Nations, or closed door high level briefings targeting policy makers and donors. All of these invitations requested me to speak about several dimensions of the human rights situation at home.
And that did not make sense at all.
While I proactively started rejecting most of these proposals, I also quickly realised how disingenuous such attempts were. My areas of expertise and activism are quite particular, thus it felt weird I was expected to comment on all things covered by the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Sadly I thought: It wasn’t my expertise most of these people were interested in, it was the fact that I exist in the body of an activist from Turkey.
Similar to what happened to activists in Egypt, Bahrain and Iran in the past decade we, activists from Turkey, were the “next in thing” in town. We were the trendy face of oppression.
This is why the international community needs to immediately get deliberate on who they are collaborating with on a multilateral level and why. Liaising with activists in a way where your only expectation is for them to badmouth their government, is not only short sighted but certainly not strategic. This approach also invites certain risks on the part of activists, because the government can quickly discredit their legitimacy if they don’t have history and expertise in particular issues.
2. Where risky for local activists act as a facilitator on a multilateral level
It is extremely risky for activists from Turkey to engage in formal advocacy or lobbying in places such as the United Nations (UN) Human Rights Council, Commission on the Status of Women or UN Treaty Bodies. If they do, they will be under direct surveillance without ifs or buts.
Therefore, intergovernmental and nongovernmental organizations, as well as donors should properly inform their partners on potential security implications of human rights advocacy under the international public eye. If activists choose to engage publicly and take the risk, than it is also the organiser’s responsibility to develop follow up strategies reacting to potential reprisal.
In cases where it is risky for activists to hold their government accountable through interventions, international organizations can act as a facilitator and present data and demands from grassroots activism if there is consent.There is nothing wrong with reading out loud a statement at a multilateral venue on behalf of an activist, if the content is reflective of the local data and demands.
3. Provide creative, continued and sustained funding to contribute to local infrastructure
For the last two decades, apart from limited, small scale funding by international donor organizations, the European Union accession funds have been the bloodline of opposition in Turkey. Although substantial in amounts, this created certain risks. Firstly, at the absence of continued EU funding opposition in Turkey is deprived from resources necessary to build its capacity and sustain their operations.
The second risk is even more dubious. The government of Turkey quickly reacted to the available EU funds through a mushrooming of GONGOs (government oriented non- governmental organizations) which were set up over -night to apply to the next available EU fund. This has not only polarised the overall operating environment for opposition in Turkey, but also meant that organizations were competing unevenly for scarce resources.
Donors need to develop targeted and strategic Turkey–specific funding programs, through vigorous consultations with the opposition in a way that responds to local needs. Such funding options should be long term, sustainable and creative in reaching out to new and unlikely audiences.
4. Invest in Digital Protection
In an environment where the government gets more aggressive and creative in its surveillance of opposition, activist spaces are in dire need of building a digital protection infrastructure. Many activists operate with either little or no awareness of secure communication, putting themselves and those they collaborate with under immense risk.
It is of utmost importance for organizations to provide digital protection resources available in Turkish and Kurdish, and invest more in organizing trainings, and even training of trainers. Digital protection awareness must be a strategic priority for all funding and outreach programmes, to streamline tactics and resources and make them available to grassroots activists.
5. Invest in Rest and Respite
Authoritarianism in Turkey did not happen over night and certainly did not come as a surprise on the 16th of April. As different fragments of Turkey’s opposition, we have demonstrated in depth work to document authoritarian tendencies, and advocate against restrictions. This is also why we are so extremely tired.
In order to ensure the sustainability of human rights advocacy, where the level of morale is currently at a deep low organizations should invest in large scale rest and respite programs for activists . Such programs should not only support activists who have credibility and legitimacy in the international arena, but also provide assistance to those who operate with little or no support at the grassroots level.
In Turkey, we are also now ever more disconnected due to waves of arbitrary arrests and systematic intimidation of activist communities. Our safe spaces and sense of community, a prerequisite for the sustainability of our movements and collective wellbeing, are attacked. Consequently, activist communities in Turkey should be engaged in rest and respite programs preferably in settings where they can establish and deepen networks and solidarity with other activists in the region.
6. Provide support to diaspora activism
Those of us who are not in jail or persecuted, mostly operate in the diaspora. I, for instance, operate outside Turkey as a self imposed measure to be able to continue my work. And I am not alone.
This is why multilateral venues such as the UN should reinforce the legitimacy of diaspora activism, while systematically investing in engagement. It is also timely for human rights organizations and donors to have separate chapters in their Turkey strategies, which outline clear criteria of engagement with diaspora activists trough sustained joined advocacy.
Still think the fight is over? I certainly do not.