Government shelves reform of policy on conscientious objectors
Delays in resolving the issue of conscientious objectors has left Turkey in violation of its European Court of Human Rights commitments.
By Menekse Tokyay for SES Türkiye in Istanbul -- 30/11/11
After weeks of anticipation that the government would announce a new policy for conscientious objectors, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan announced at the AK Party parliamentary group meeting on November 22nd that the issue has been shelved from the government's agenda.
The news was a disappointment to supporters of conscientious objection, at a time when military service reform has been at the top of the government's agenda. According to analysts, reservations by the General Staff swayed the government against bringing Turkey's policy in line with European standards.
Under current law, civilian conscientious objectors are subject to the military criminal code for disobeying orders and "turning the people against serving in the military".
Turkey and Azerbaijan are the only two signatories of the European Convention on Human Rights that have not decriminalised conscientious objection from military service.
Other signatories' legislation allows conscientious objectors to perform alternative civilian services.
More than 130 conscientious objectors have openly declared their position, and thousands of men illegally shirk their military service obligation.
The frequent imprisonment of conscientious objectors has resulted in Turkey being in violation of rulings by the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR).
Last week, the ECHR ruled against Turkey in the case of Yunus Erçep, a Jehovah's Witness, who objected to military service due to his religion.
The Council of Europe, the UN Commission on Human Rights and the European Parliament have consistently warned Turkey that conscientious objection is a fundamental right.
"The Committee of Ministers of the Council of Europe has been discussing the state-of-play in Turkey every three months since 2006, when the case of conscientious objector Osman Murat Ulke was decided," Hulya Ucpinar, a lawyer who has advocated for the rights of many conscientious objectors, told SES Turkiye.
Ucpinar says Turkey has received numerous warnings but the government only tries to buy time using "various methods".
According to Serkan Koybasi, a constitutional law expert at Bahcesehir University, the government lacks a freedom-oriented approach and only aims to prevent being judged and fined by the ECHR.
However, more than the government, analysts say the military has opposed conscientious objection.
"The Turkish military strongly identifies itself with the nation and state," explains assistant professor Zeki Sarigil of Bilkent University. "Former Chief of General Staff Ilker Başbug once declared that the fundamental source of power for a military is the gun. For the Turkish military, however, [Basbug said] it is the nation's trust and love for the military."
"Conscientious objection is also incompatible with the discourse of the 'military nation' in Turkey, which is believed to be strong in Turkish context," he told SES Turkiye.
Analysts say the military would disapprove of making social service an option to military conscription. "One of the reasons is the concern that the armed forces would not be able to draw enough conscripts, especially at a time when the war against PKK terrorism is still going on," explained assistant professor Yaprak Gursoy of Bilgi University.
"In a recent survey we conducted with Bilkent University, we have found that most respondents have not heard about conscientious objection [close to 79%], but after we explained what it meant most of them said that they were against it [close to 82%]," Gursoy said.
According to Gursoy, the Turkish army would not have a problem finding conscripts, even if military service is reformed to allow for conscientious objection or alternative social service.
One major concern is that many citizens of Kurdish origin may not want to join the army. The November 22nd submission of a draft law in parliament to decriminalise conscientious objection by the Peace and Democracy Party (BDP) only added to these concerns.
"One of the major findings of our recent survey is related to the Kurds. The Kurds do not really trust the military. They are more critical of military interventions and military regimes," Sarigil said.
"These findings suggest that compared to the Turks, anti-military sentiment is relatively stronger among Kurds, which might be a concern for the military," he added.
Gursoy agreed. "The conscientious objection movement in Turkey has a strong Kurdish arm. The differences of opinion among ethnically different groups on military service might lead to positive attitudes towards conscription among some circles since the military has been seen traditionally as a hearth where loyalty to the state and national unity is taught."