06/01/2021 | Writer: Sibel Yükler

In the series of “Rights”, which we initiated by saying that “Now, it is high time”, our second guest is Öztürk Türkdoğan, Co-Chair of the Human Rights Association (IHD). We discussed the brief history of the relation between human rights struggle and LGBT rights in Turkey with Türkdoğan today.

“We shall defend the rights of LGBTI persons without any exception” Kaos GL - News Portal for LGBTI+

Unlike the discrimination and segregations in advocacy in the past, Türkdoğan states that they have an uncompromising understanding of advocacy today and emphasizes that human rights and rights and freedoms cannot be negotiated any time, in hierarchical order and states that, “We could not tolerate those who do not defend the LGBTI rights”.

A few weeks after we made an interview with Türkdoğan, we faced a process that was initiated by the hate sermon of Religious Affair Authority: Diyanet. IHD Ankara Branch also filed a criminal complaint against Diyanet; IHD Headquarters published a public statement.

In this interview, we provide you with an inside about the history of human rights movement until the sermon of Diyanet...

As the Human Rights Association, you have been fighting for human rights for more than 30 years. Have LGBTI+ people been involved in your administrative process during this period, if not, what was the reason? Are you planning any future studies in that regard?

The Human Rights Association was founded in 1986. It is still Turkey’s oldest and most widespread human rights organization. In general, it adresses human rights and freedoms, conducts its studies mainly through commissions and continues its work on the basis of the applications made. There are a number of studies we have conducted to eliminate the violation of rights we heard by the applications made by people claiming that their rights were violated. These are mostly the studies for providing remedy about the violations, about seeking justice, hence about the process of seeking remedies with the survivor, about raising awareness in protecting the rights of the survivor, and of course about documenting and reporting the violations.

During the period I was in, no LGBTI individual, whom we know, was included in our board. But there are LGBTI persons in our branches. This issue was actually “unknown” issue in the early years of IHD. Nobody was saying openly that they are LGBTI persons. Maybe there are still those who conceal their identity, we do not know. Because the discrimination phenomenon in Turkey is very sharp, marginalization and exclusion processes are very solid, harsh. Both the practices stemming from the state and the structure of the society, conservatism in society or conservatism on the left wing have created serious problem areas. I can understand that. But during the period I was in IHD, no open LGBTI persons did not take place in on our board, but there are LGBTI persons I know in our branches.

We have come to the point where we are struggling for the rights together with LGBTI persons at IHD, this is a gratifying situation. Now the exclusion, non-acceptance, and rejections have disappeared completely. In our original bylaws, the prohibition of discrimination on account of sexual orientation and sexual identity were not covered. When I was there, we fixed this by amending our bylaws.

IHD has now included these statements as one of the prohibited grounds of discrimination within the principles it defends in its bylaws, and a person saying that “I am a member of the Human Rights Association”, cannot discriminate any LGBTI person. On the contrary, the members have to defend the rights of LGBTI persons. Therefore, with our bylaws, we eliminated the problem.

Was this bylaw debate, the request for the amendment of it initiated by the IHD’s board? Or was there any criticism raised against IHD at this point?

In the beginning, of course, there were both external criticism and internal criticism raised within the IHD. We are constantly telling outside that the state should include SOGI while enumerating the prohibited grounds of discrimination; the state should consider LGBTI individuals, by mentioning gender identity and sexual orientation explicitly. We then set out all of these discussions together in our own bylaws, nobody opposed it, we concluded it, because, the articles of the IHD’s bylaws become principles after long discussion processes and internalization processes. We currently have 15 principles. It was originally 10 principles. It was later brought to this point and now this problem has also been completely eliminated. We have now overcome some discussions in terms of IHD.

You are briefly saying,”Nobody who will work at IHD or who takes part in it shall be discriminated on account of their sexual orientation or gender identity.”

Absolutely. They cannot be discriminated; everyone has to defend the rights about gender identity and sexual orientation. It has now become a bylaw principle for us. We really got over that. I would like to share my observations in that regard with you. In the past, many people from different leftist fractions were advocating human rights under the IHD. But over time they realized that there was a conflict with their own political views in the positions that they should defend and take a stance. Those who experienced this conflict naturally left the Human Rights Association, we also went through a disintegration process, and this was the first time we faced with this. Understanding of civil society in Turkey has developed, and after that people who want to work in a more relaxed atmosphere came together and established their own NGOs.

There are NGOs in Turkey founded by LGBT individuals. IHD has never stopped working with such organizations since those organizations were founded. There are various studies and the platforms we take part in. Ever since it was founded in 2006, I am the spokesperson of the International Criminal Court Turkey Coalition. There were some debates even there. We refused these. LGBTI organizations are in that coalition. We never tolerated any organizations, which do not want to come because there are LGBTI organizations.

Was this one of the debates you mentioned? Were there some people who stand against LGBTI rights advocacy or organizational solidarity and joint studies?

Of course there were. If any NGO tells Human Rights Association that “You are on this platform with LGBTI organizations, so we cannot come there, lets find another option”; we cannot accept this. Our principle is that you will come to the platform, you will participate, we defend LGBT rights, you will not oppose it, and you will not hinder us. We experienced this in the case of Mazlum-Der.

Can you talk a little bit about what had happened?

Mazlum-Der’s board, chaired by Ömer Faruk Gergerlioğlu, was also included in the International Criminal Court Coalition; we did not have any problems. We had a rule that you do not have to defend, but do not try to hinder us. But later their board changed. Therefore, there were various debates. Like the fact that former Mazlum-Der left Human Rights Joint Platform (IHOP). I think this was one of the reasons, because at IHOP, our stance about the rights of LGBTI individuals is very clear.

Yes, there are no non-governmental organizations established by LGBTI individuals within the Human Rights Joint Platform, because they are working on a specific field, but in the discussions, debates and meetings we conducted with particular public administrations as a part of Human Rights Joint Platform, we have always clearly stated that sexual orientation and gender identity should be covered as the prohibited grounds for discrimination and the discrimination against LGBT persons in Turkey should be ended, we defend this. We constantly monitor this, this is one of the reasons we faced various different opinions on this issue. This is how Mazlum-Der left the Human Rights Joint Platform before becoming the current Mazlum-Der. Later, they already divided in themselves, and especially our friends who wanted to work together with the Human Rights Association established an association called Hak Inisiyatifi (Rights Initiative Association), they are members of the Human Rights Joint Platform. They are absolutely not opposed to the principles we advocate. At least they know that Human Rights Joint Platform composed of Human Rights Association, Amnesty International Turkey Branch, Citizens Association formerly known as Helsinki Citizen Assembly, Association of the Monitoring Equal Rights, Human Rights Agenda Association and they defend gender identity and sexual orientation rights and the rights of LGBT persons. Therefore, since they do not oppose our principles, they take place in our platform; it means that we have overcome a problem. But how did we overcome it?

If you look at the disintegration processes, those who disagree completely on this issue have already continued in a completely different way, but those who want to work on the basis of human rights and human rights principles got separated from them and established their own associations. We are now working together. On the one hand, while overcoming this problem within ourselves, those who did not approve our principles left us, we could not tolerate those who did not, otherwise this would not be the Human Rights Association. This is a natural process, you will either defend the principles written in the bylaws, or you will leave if you do not approve. We have experienced those natural processes both within ourselves and with the organizations we want to cooperate with.

At that point where we defend the rights of LGBTI persons without any exception with a sharp approach with no ifs and buts was an important achievement in terms of the human rights movement. We have reached such a stage, this is a precious point, and it will never be reversed. That is really important. We are in our 34th year, these discussions have been made a lot in the first 10 and 15 years, but we have almost overcome them in the last 15 years.

There has also been a process of disintegration between IHD and LGBTI persons in the past. In 1995, the Gay and Lesbian Rights Commission, which also includes Ankara Kaos GL activists, was established in the Ankara Branch of the Human Rights Association. During this period, a magazine in two issues was published. However, when the board changed after a while, the commission was not approved and the activists there left IHD. Was this situation also a part of the process you mentioned?

I was not there in 1995 and before, I became a member of the association in 1996. Therefore, I do not know the processes before that. As far as I know from Hüsnü Öndül, Yusuf Alataş and Akın Birdal, I am talking about those former years. In 1995, the IHD’s bylaws did not include gender identity and sexual orientation among the prohibited grounds of discrimination. Those discussions have come to an end, and as a result, we have completed all these processes with an amendment in the bylaws, we made a progress. But I find it important that these discussions are held within the IHD, because advocacy is a bit like this. You learn some things on the road in countries like Turkey, you learn by experience. It is not enough to defend some things by words, you have to put these into practice and take a stance. Therefore, advocacy is not done with the attitudes to be taken according to the change in the board; maybe this is the primary lesson we need to learn. When we come to the 2000s, I can easily say that these discussions were over. Because the people who were in that opposition were standing at another point ideologically and politically already left us. Currently, there are no groups that take such negative attitudes within the Human Rights Association. One day, on the day of the Armenian Genocide commemoration, there were those who protested the IHD while holding a denouncement event on Sakarya Street on April 24. They were all those people who were in IHD before; naturally they do not accept LGBTI individuals either. Our perspective on human rights also needs to be consistent and unified. Perhaps this was instrumental for LGBTI persons to establish their own organizations and implement specific studies. But the deficiency was later overcome in terms of increasing cooperation, taking part in platforms and taking a common attitude.

Do you have LGBTI commissions in your branch offices?

Our commissions work as commissions against racism and discrimination. Work is being carried out within this commission in terms of defending the rights of LGBTI people. We do not have a central LGBTI commission, but in Adana, for example, LGBTI persons come to our branch and hold meetings. Our commission is carrying out its activities as a commission against racism and discrimination. Because the Human Rights Association addresses this under the title of anti-discrimination, as it conducts general human rights studies. In Turkey, many of the practices LGBT persons exposed to are always about discrimination and hate, they are exposed to a large number of violations with the motive of hate. We also have a general field of study. There is a general human rights struggle we have against the government to consider sexual orientation and gender identity discrimination among the prohibited grounds. For example, in the discussions of the Human Rights and Equality Institution Draft Law, we brought this up on the agenda very clearly in the parliamentary sessions. In the discussions on the Law on Foreigners and International Protection, we brought this up very clearly and the regulations on discrimination were included. We express these attitudes very clearly in the debates on proposals and drafts to which we are invited. These are very important attitudes, there are organizations formed by LGBTI persons, but they do not invite them, however the problem will be solved if they do. Since they do not work with LGBTI organizations, a few NGOs remain, such as IHD, Amnesty International, and THIV, which work in the field of human rights generally. Therefore, it is up to us to defend these and demand this from the public, the government and politicians. We are performing our duty. This situation may not be discussed in public, but it is an important point. In discussions made with the international delegation where the government, political parties and civil society come together and in the meetings between Turkey and the European Union and the Council of Europe, we are defending the rights about sexual orientation and gender identity, these should be recognized as the prohibited grounds for discrimination, there should be the regulation on hate crimes in Turkey somehow. It is an important activity and a duty for us. We are trying to implement our principles in the bylaws in this way.

Which violations have been mentioned in the applications made by LGBTI persons to IHD so far?

We receive applications from LGBTI persons in the prisons, and there are applications made to both our branch offices and the headquarters. There are applications regarding physical violence, unfortunately some cases result in death. However, there are applications regarding physical injuries and hate attacks, we mainly address those through our commission in Istanbul. There are still deficiencies in the applications made by LGBTI persons; the most important reason for this is that LGBTI persons feel comfortable only if there are LGBTI persons. When applying us, they are questioning us. Secondly, please accept it as self-criticism: there are many serious human rights issues in Turkey, if you expand your capacity at this point; you can receive so many applications if you can promote your studies well. When we work on general human rights under the title of serious violations against right to life, torture and ill treatment, freedom of expression, perhaps we receive fewer applications because of this, because there are LGBTI organizations as well.

Is there a possibility that LGBTI persons think that you will not be interested in their applications because you are working in the field of general human rights? For example, do they hesitate about applying you about hate crimes besides the severe human rights violations you mentioned? If so, how can this be overcome?

Yes, it is possible. What can be done to overcome this? That is to say, it means that we could not have reinforced the idea that “We will address all kinds of applications that come to us, as long as you apply us”. For example, LGBTI persons in prisons can apply to us and CISST, so it means that we were able to reach them they know us adequately. But in case of judicial prisoners we do not have enough information that they know IHD as addressing prisoners’ rights, we must promote ourselves sufficiently for them.

In Turkey currently, we live on a permanent state of emergency, there is a strong democracy and human rights issues. In such an environment, LGBTI persons perhaps consider contacting us when they feel or think the worst violations they face, but there is such a perception in general. It is our duty to break this in Turkey. I think we all have a duty to combat violations and fight together. Regarding LGBTI persons, on the one hand, IHD addresses general human rights violations; on the other hand, there are LGBTI organizations. Maybe thanks to this interview made by you, we will be able to be heard more by LGBTI persons and receive more applications.

Under which titles the rights violations faced by LGBTI persons are addressed?

We talk about LGBTI persons who lost their lives as a result of the attacks they were subjected to in violation of the right to life, in the section on hate murders. There are sections about torture and ill treatment in prisons, various practices that LGBTI persons are exposed to reach the level of torture and ill treatment, we put this under the relevant title. Again, in the related titles, in the right to protest and freedom of expression, the prohibitions and lawsuits filed in that regard are addressed. But we can actually do something like this. After this interview with you, we can provide a subtitle as “Violations against LGBTI persons” so that the subtitles of the main titles of the reports can be more visible. Everything except that subtitle is already written, but maybe a separate subtitle may be needed, so that it will attract more attention. Because, unfortunately, nobody read long reports, there is such a problem in Turkey.

So what kind of procedure do you follow in the applications?

First of all, if the applicant wants the application to be kept confidential, it will be strictly confidential. Except for the competent authorities to be applied only to provide remedy about the violation. Even in this case, if it is requested to be anonymous in applying to them, that rule is also obeyed. The applicants can write down their names as they wish in the application forms, which are also available on the internet. They make their application by mentioning the alleged violation they been subjected to and their request about the remedy. Then, we evaluate what we can do. First of all, 99 percent of violations are caused by the state. If it originates from the state and state institutions, we first operate the complaint procedure, we request the relevant institution to remedy the violation, at the same time, we invite organizations that have been in the public sector to take action on this issue, but we are directly contacting with the ones who are the main responsible persons. For example, if it is an application originating from the Ministry of Interior, we directly ask the MoI to provide a remedy, and we also inform other organizations that we make such applications and that we will follow this issue.

Even if there are practices that cannot be compensated by mere application since these are more serious crime, we file a criminal complaint in order for ensuring an effective investigation against the perpetrators. While all these are happening, we inform the applicant, but we also provide support in the legal process in terms of filing a lawsuit, sometimes voluntarily, and sometimes with the legal units of our center and branches. Sometimes it is very important to refer a complaint to the relevant public institution and to clearly demand a remedy, sometimes it does not fulfill it officially but it does not commit the same violation again. Law Enforcement Monitoring Commission started its activities since October last year. We started to make complaints to the Law Enforcement Monitoring Commission under the Ministry of Interior.

IHD may not be the first association that comes to mind for LGBTI persons. Do you contact LGBTI associations about the remedies or about what methods can be used about the applications made to you? Do you provide solidarity in that regard?

This may be our deficiency. Perhaps it is necessary to talk about what we can do with LGBTI organizations in order to provide remedies. We are acting on the point of solving the violation on our own, so acting together can speed up the work. Maybe there may be ways and methods that we do not know or think of, we need to bring this up on our agenda.

You mentioned law enforcement monitoring. What kind of differences do you see in the applications made to the IHD in terms of rights violations against LGBTI persons committed by public officials? For example, do transgender face more violations by public officials or by other civil individuals?

Some of the physical attacks in the applications made to us are sometimes caused by the police and sometimes by civilians. We see more torture and ill treatment in terms of public officials. This is also the case about not performing the duty, not protecting the LGBTI individual and hate speech. Some applications originate from practices ranging from hate speech and racism against citizens. When it comes to civilians, we invite the relevant prosecutor and police to do their job in the context of hate crime. When there is a public official, we can get results easier, but when it comes to civilians, we have difficulty in mobilizing public opinion. LGBTI individuals need actual protection.

Pride Marches were banned before and after the state of emergency. During the state of emergency, the Ankara Governorate banned all LGBTI activities in the city in an unprecedented manner. Have you ever conducted any study about this ban?

This situation is definitely included in our reports, and it is definitely mentioned in our annual report, in the statements we made on the occasion of Human Rights Day and in the relevant section about the right to protest in the report. We have regular dialogues, correspondences with various mechanisms. When we do this correspondence, when we write in the reports, we definitely talk about these. At that time, we provided joint statements with Kaos GL.

Society is very polarized in Turkey. The official Turkist and Islamist ideology is applied fully. Even human rights are not included in this ideology. In such a country, which has a political power that implements such an ideology, LGBTI persons are subjected to multiple violations. They mount arguments in their own way, saying “We cannot explain this to grassroot”. What do you mean by your grassroot? Human rights cannot be negotiated; rights and freedoms cannot be negotiated or discussed. But there is no such holistic understanding of human rights and freedoms. They have embraced completely a security perspective, and these bans are maintained in that regard completely. These are arbitrary and unlawful practices, even illegal in my opinion, because if you look at the current law, there is nothing that would require them to apply this ban.

With the state of emergency, unlawful practices have become the official procedures.

They made the state of emergency permanent with Law No. 7145. With Article 11 of Law no. 5442 on Provincial Administration, they have incredibly increased the authorities of the governor. I do not exaggerate; the authority of Ankara Governor is almost the same as that of Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. Because the governor has the authority to declare a curfew, whereas the President’s declaration of a state of emergency depends on certain procedures. The governor has the authority to ban anything with the reason of “public security”. However, the authoritarian regime is no longer valid. Governors are also arbitrarily exercising this power, and judicial bodies that will supervise it are still under suspicion. It is very difficult to advocate for rights in such a country. Police officers also come and intervene in any kind of demonstrations on the basis of the Governor’s ban. I am afraid that this will be the case until the government changes.

Were there any rights violations against LGBTI persons during the curfews in Kurdish cities during the state of emergency? There were torture and ill treatment against women by law enforcement officials. This was the sexist version of militarism turned against the women; during this period there were many torture, ill-treatment and hate crimes committed against LGBTI persons. Was there anyone who notified you any violations in that regard?

We witnessed the curfew process afar, from here, then when the bans were lifted, we went there as IHD, THIV and many NGOs to monitor the situation and to report what had happened. Notifications in that regard may have been made to the Diyarbakır Branch in particular; I do not remember any direct application to our Headquarters. At that time, applications were made via the phone. The headlines of violations in all our interviews were very different, I have not spoken with any LGBTI person, but there were probably applications made to our other branches.

For example, IHD recently conducted a reporting study on children under curfew. Did IHD ask a specific question regarding LGBTI persons not only in terms of recording the application but also when reporting violations of the rights? Have IHD ever thought that there were rights violations LGBTI persons subjected to during the curfews? Have IHD ever contacted with LGBTI organizations in that regard?

This is a deficiency of us. Because we always think of the two direct violations; violation of the right to life and torture and ill-treatment. When these two violations come to mind first, we actually did not go to the field with organizations formed by LGBTI persons. That is obvious. We took Gündem Çocuk with us, we took the health organizations. However, it is not our priority to see whether LGBTI persons are subjected to violations under such severe conditions, this is our deficiency. It means that the associations formed by LGBTI persons did not request from us to work together on this issue, if so we would not refuse them, we would have worked together. We had crowded delegations, maybe some of our friends may have asked that questions, but frankly, I did not come across this issue when I read the reports. This may be an example of a future study. Some violations are ongoing; a second round of reporting study is necessary. I will take note about this subject. Law enforcement officials had a special treatment against women and children. There have been hate speech and racist discourses, I am sure there have been huge violations of rights, maybe they could not communicate their problems because they could not reveal their identity.

How do you evaluate rights based organizations and human rights advocacy after the state of emergency? Advocacy has been curtailed in many areas, faced numerous oppressions and violations, their work has been halted or disrupted. What were the difficulties of continuing to advocate for rights in such a period?

As a whole, we lost power in this period, we lost human power. Numerous activists went to Europe, left Turkey. Since our field of work was narrowed down, I believe in such a time it is important that the NGOs working on general human rights and NGOs working in specific areas, should come together more often, they should merge their powers to act together. We live in such a period where so many associations were closed down, put under pressure, and tried to be intimidated by investigations and lawsuits. The government cannot touch LGBTI organizations because it has a limit. With what they will accuse LGBTI organizations, right? Otherwise they would have directly committed a hate crime. Our studies were narrowed down, it is not easy, but there is a lot of effort. During this period, we worked with Kaos GL, it cannot be believed how we got through this process without any incident, but we got through, this is the product of a great struggle.

Translation: Özge Gökpınar

Tags: human rights