NGOs in Turkey

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Report written in 1999

In this study I shall concentrate on three national NGOs in Turkey. One is the Human Rights Association (HRA), founded in 1986, another one the Human Rights Foundation of Turkey (HRFT) which is an offspring of the HRA and was founded in 1990 and the third one is an organization called Mazlumder, its full name meaning the "association for human rights and solidarity with the oppressed people". Mazlumder was founded in January 1991.


There are a number of other initiatives such as the Helsinki Citizens’ Assembly or the Democracy Foundation, but they are small in numbers of members and less important for the general public as well as almost meaningless when it comes to a possible influence on armed opposition groups. Among the organizations that are termed "organizations of civil society" rather than the previously in Turkey preferred term of "democratic mass organizations" (that usually were nothing else but legal gatherings of sympathizers of illegal organizations) one can also find groups that only care for political prisoners of specific organizations or have restricted their work to certain areas (ecology etc.).

Trade unions and professional organizations such as the Medical Association or the Bar Association should also be mentioned, since they have also contributed to the discussion of human rights in Turkey. Lately even the association of industrialists (TÜSIAD) have joined the chorus and since their publication of a study on "Perspectives on democratization in Turkey" (prepared by the professor for constitutional law, Bülent Tanör) in early 1997 the human rights debate has reached a new dimension. Yet, this is almost completely restricted to academic work (similar to the many human rights centres at various universities in Turkey) and is certainly not likely to have any impact on the policy of violent activities of illegal organizations.

The Human Rights Association (HRA)

The foundation of the Human Rights Association (HRA, in Turkish "İnsan Hakları Derneği" and therefore also known as IHD) is closely linked to the military coup of 12 September 1980. Although the military directly only ruled until 1983, the political parties, allowed to run for election then, had been sanctioned by the generals and it was almost impossible to organize real opposition to the "12 September regime" (as it is called in Turkish) legally. Relatives of political prisoners, in particular the mothers and fathers, were one of the few dissident voices in the country. Together with lawyers (mostly in political trials) and a few other intellectuals (including journalists, writers, teachers etc.) the relatives of the prisoners decided to work in an organized manner on human rights. In July 1986 the Human Rights Association was founded by 98 individuals.

The decision went in favour for an association, not just run by a number of intellectuals, but based on broad membership and membership activities. Since the Law on Associations (revised by the junta of 1980) did not allow for political activities the statute had to be changed twice and only after 9 months the association was officially accepted with the new formulation in Article 2 of the statute stating that it is "the sole aim of the association to work on all kinds of human rights and basic freedoms". Besides the headquarters in Ankara the statute allows for branches to be set up in the provincial capitals. This has happened (so far) in 59 of the 80 provincial capitals in Turkey. However, one has to admit that not all of them are active. Some have been closed down by the authorities (in particular in the area under a state of emergency) and others only exist "on paper". The number of members has been put as high as 25,000, but looking at those, who would participate in activities and/or at least pay their membership fee, the figure should be corrected to less than 10,000.

As the HRA stated in its statute the work over the past 13 years has concentrated on a variety of issues, campaigning for a general amnesty, against the death penalty or even for the rights of pedestrians. The general focus of the work, however, has not changed much. The relatives of political prisoners are not any more the most important group in the HRA, not only because most political prisoners (of the early 1980s) were released in March 1991, but the situation in the prisons and the fate of political prisoners, frequently staging hunger-strikes for a variety of reasons, remains one of the most serious concerns of the HRA. Similarly, torture is another big issue and (groups of) victims often use the HRA offices as the floor for making their complaints public (the HRA branch in Istanbul has almost daily press conferences). From the start the HRA has been perceived as a "left-wing" organization. Not only the relatives of political prisoners are often seen as sharing the views of a specific organization, but also lawyers defending them and human rights activists that raise such problems are easily taken for sympathizers if not activists of such an organization. In addition, when the Human Rights Association was founded, most (illegal) organizations had not been able to reorganize legal "support" in form of associations or weekly or monthly publications. Thus, a number of organizations tried to use the HRA as a potential platform for their own concerns. Even today many members (including board members) are rather seen in public as representing the view of specific political movements. Even though the local boards (of the branches) differ a lot, usually many (board) members would better be known for their political activities before they joined the HRA. Similar observations can be made regarding the board of the headquarters in Ankara. Though the first president, Nevzat Helvacı and the current president of the HRA, Akın Birdal (at the beginning he was secretary general) cannot be seen as representatives of specific political groups, the same does not apply for all board members.

In particular the "Kurds", who for obvious reasons formed the most active branches in the Southeast of Turkey and are also well represented in other branches in South and Western Turkey, have usually played a decisive part in determining the members of the board. Again, it is no secret that many Kurdish activists sympathize with the armed struggle of the PKK, at least they would find it very difficult to openly criticize actions of it, like other (board) members of the HRA, would find it difficult to criticize actions of the political group they favour.

At the time of writing this study it is difficult to predict the fate of the HRA in the future. The President Akın Birdal, who still has not fully recovered from the attack in May 1998, has gone to prison in the beginning of June 1999. There are many more court cases against him and other officials of the HRA. During the 13 years of work more than 10 (leading) members fell victims to attacks by "unknown assailants". This and the public campaigning against the HRA have led many members to stay away. Without media coverage the HRA will find it very difficult to gain the same support that it still had two years ago. Yet, the organization is far from being terminated and though it may be difficult to replace Akin Birdal as president (which the HRA is obliged to do because of the verdict against him), there are a number of qualified activists who should be able to continue the work.

The Human Rights Foundation of Turkey (HRFT)

For a number of reasons, one of them being the fact that associations are not allowed to receive financial support from abroad, the HRA decided to develop a foundation. The Human Rights Foundation of Turkey (HRFT) was intended to be a professional organization with the major purpose to provide treatment for torture survivors. It took some time until the necessary $ 25.000 as basis for the work had been collected. In October 1989 the founding document was handed over to the Directorate for Foundations in Turkey, but it took more than a year until the HRFT was officially registered.

Again, the major objection was raised against the statute. It was argued that an institution in Turkey cannot provide treatment for torture victims, because "there is no torture in Turkey". Again, the solution was a reformulation of the aim: Article 2 of the statute in its final version reads: "The foundation carries out research and education in the areas described in international documents and national law and sets up, operates and lets medical institutions be operated."

As of May 1999 the HRFT has set up five centres for the rehabilitation of torture survivors (besides Ankara there are centres in Istanbul, Izmir, Adana and Diyarbakir). Usually the "patients" will apply to the centres, where professional staff sets up a program for rehabilitation that is carried out with the help of volunteers in hospitals or their own premises. So far, more than 3.000 torture survivors have benefited from the services by the HRFT.

As far as the other two intended elements of the work are concerned: not much has happened in the area of education in human rights, but the documentation centre (only in Ankara) has been active from the very beginning. Daily reports on human rights abuses based on own research and/or the daily newspapers in Turkey are sent out by s-mail, facsimile and e-mail to subscribers. Not many specific reports such as the report on teachers killed in the area under a state of emergency or details on deaths in custody have been published lately, because there is a great backlog in the annual reports (so far reports only for 1991-1996 have been issued).

The Association for Human Rights and Solidarity with the Oppressed, Mazlumder

The Association for Human Rights and Solidarity with the Oppressed (full title: "İnsan Hakları ve Mazlumlar İçin Dayanışma Derneği" and in short called Mazlumder or Mazlum Der) is the "youngest" among the all very young human rights organizations in Turkey. It was founded on 28 January 1991 by 54 people in Ankara. The headquarters, too, are in Ankara. Like the HRA the work of Mazlumder has no restriction as to what kind of abuses they deal with and its work does not only concentrate on Turkey (even though that is the major part). Like the HRA the work of Mazlumder is based on membership and the financial resources are mainly the membership fees. The association has 13 branches and counted 4.000 members in 1997.

The practical work was organized from the very beginning in 5 units (organization, education, media work, social connections and law). Six commissions were set up and there are committees working on specific issues.[1] The most important commission of Mazlumder seems to be the commission that is following the human rights abuses. There are various committees set up to work for this commission and the one to follow the abuses in the area under a state of emergency is called "Southeast Committee" and only in brackets (the committee to observe abuses in connection with the Kurdish question). It is this commission that is responsible for the monthly reports on abuses in and outside Turkey.[2]

Despite the very similar (theoretical and practical) approach on human rights, the HRA and Mazlumder only lately moved closer together. For a long time and even today Mazlumder was perceived in public as the association of the Muslims, or rather the Islamic (or even fundamentalist) human rights association. This attribute is vigorously objected to by Mazlumder itself. The association does not see itself as working only for the rights of a specific group of people or specific kind of abuses. Still, problems arising from the wearing of headscarves by women in public positions or measures against officers in the army with alleged ties to religious sects find a platform usually at Mazlumder in the first place.

In general one could say that the "clients" of both organizations are different. Yet, there are enough subjects for both organizations in common (such as the situation in prison, freedom of expression etc.[3]). The war in South-eastern Turkey also concerns both organizations alike and, as a matter of fact, was the first instance, when a joined action was carried out (soldiers captured by the PKK were taken back to Turkey).

Mazlumder has also become a target for repression. Yet, it is more difficult to accuse Mazlumder of close ties to the PKK, but Mazlumder might face also the accusation that they are representing the second "big threat" (as the armed forces call it) in the country, the "reaction" (backward-minded fundamentalists). Still, there have also been trials against Mazlumder on allegation of "disseminating separatist propaganda" and in January 1999 the branch in Urfa (Kurdish area) and in June the branch in Malatya were closed down on governor's order.


  1. The HRA, too, has set up commissions on specific issues, but does not follow a strict model. While almost any branch of the HRA will have a commission working on prison conditions, only very few have a commission to work on minority rights for instance.
  2. The HQ of the HRA and some branches are also issuing monthly reports on human rights abuses, but mainly in Turkey alone.
  3. While the former major of Istanbul and member of the pro-Islamic Virtue Party, Recep Tayyıp Erdoğan went to prison because of a poem he cited during one of his speeches, the President of the HRA, Akın Birdal, was imprisoned on 3 June 1999 for a speech he held on International Peace Day. Both persons have been sentenced under the same provision, namely Article 312 of the Turkish Penal Code, although one of them is representing the political “right“, while the other one is representing the political “left“.