Does a Turk have the right not to be born a soldier?


Saturday, August 4, 2007, Turkish Daily News

Orhan Kemal Cengiz

The military is one of the difficult subjects to discuss in Turkey. As soon as you get ready to criticize it, you hear angry voices telling you that the army should not be harmed! I have never been able to understand why people think criticism harms any institution! As for the military, it is always a subject of tension if you are not praising it and there is no doubt the military is the most glorified institution in Turkey. Unlike the criticism of any other institution, criticism of the military sometimes feels like breaching a kind of sacred rule. I believe this is one of the biggest shortcomings of Turkish democracy and the closer Turkey comes to Europe the more apparent this situation will be.

However, Turkey’s approach to military issues has been on the agenda of the Council of Europe for a different and interesting reason. The Committee of Ministers has been issuing warnings about a particular case concluded by the European Court of Human Rights in 2006, concerning Osman Murat Ülke, one of the first conscientious objectors in Turkey. Ülke first refused to go for military service in 1995; between then and 1999 he served nearly two years in military prisons for alienating the public from the institution of military service and willfully disobeying orders. In 1998 Ülke filed a complaint with the European Court of Human Rights, and the Court found Turkey guilty and created a new precedent for cases concerning conscientious objectors. I would like to quote from the Court’s ruling:

The numerous criminal prosecutions against the applicant, the cumulative effects of the criminal convictions which resulted from them and the constant alternation between prosecutions and terms of imprisonment, together with the possibility that he would be liable to prosecution for the rest of his life, had been disproportionate to the aim of ensuring that he did his military service. They were more calculated to repressing the applicant’s intellectual personality, inspiring in him feelings of fear, anguish and vulnerability capable of humiliating and debasing him and breaking his resistance and will. The clandestine life amounting almost to civil death which the applicant had been compelled to adopt was incompatible with the punishment regime of a democratic society. (Osman Murat Ülke v. Turkey, January 24, 2006, Application no. 39437/98)

The European Court found Turkish legal provisions and the way they were applied to be degrading which led to the finding of a violation of Article 3 of the European Convention on Human Rights. Turkey is a unique country, which presses charges against conscientious objectors until they give up their position. As long as they refuse to serve the military, their actions are treated as a string of separate crimes so that if they do not accept military service they may stay in prison forever. This is what the European Court found degrading, a term I find quite mild given the severity of the situation concerned. However, Turkey is coming to a crossroads regarding the conscientious objection issue. Either Turkey will change these legal provisions that cause a kind of civil death for people who declare conscientious objection to military service, or Turkey will face sanctions from the Council of Ministers whose duty is to supervise the compliance of the signatory parties with the judgments of the European Court of Human Rights. Turkey, even in the cases of Loizidou and Öcalan, has obeyed the judgments of the European Court of Human Rights, but when it comes to military issues, she unfortunately drags her feet, attempting not to comply with the verdict of the European Court.

This case has the potential to create intense tension between the Council of Europe and Turkey. It will be not easy to convince our soldiers that Turkey should also recognize this basic right.

However, as a member of the Council of Europe, Turkey has no choice but to obey the judgment of the European Court. I wish the Turkish authorities as a first and urgent step would convey this judgment to all prosecutors in Turkey and thus end the misery of the Osman Murat Ülke and others. Then they should enact necessary laws (as promised to the Council of Ministers) that will enable conscientious objectors to perform alternative services instead of mandatory military service. Then some Turks may have the right to not to be born a soldier, which I believe is one of the fundamental human rights for everyone!


How is the right to be a conscientious objector recognized at the international level?

The Council of Europe, the United Nations Commission on Human Rights and the European Parliament have stressed that the right to conscientious objection is a fundamental aspect of the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion as recognized in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the Convention for the Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms.