A September meeting of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe is being held up by Turkey, which wants to be able to stop specific civil society groups from participating in the annual event.
Each September, civil society organizations from OSCE member states meet with government representatives for Europe’s largest human rights conference, the Human Dimension Implementation Meeting. For many civil society organizations, the event is the lone opportunity they have to address government representatives.
But if Turkey gets its way, those civil society organizations won’t include groups affiliated with Fethullah Gulen, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s onetime ally and current foe. Erdogan blames Gulen for the 2016 failed coup attempt and claims that groups affiliated with his movement are part of terrorist organizations.
The Turkish government’s demand for a veto over civil society organizations’ participation has some worried that Ankara will weaken a critical event in the human rights community — and set an example for other countries in the process.
Last September, the Turkish delegation stormed out after an opening speech to oppose participation of the Gulen-affiliated Journalists and Writers Foundation. “This entity is so closely linked to the Fethullahist Terror Organization,” said Rauf Engin Soysal, the Turkish ambassador to the OSCE.
Earlier that year, Turkey managed to rid the group of its consultative status at the U.N. Economic and Social Council over a technicality. Though the group lost its consultative status at the U.N., it still came to September’s OSCE meeting.
A representative for the Journalists and Writers Foundation says the organization was not given a chance to reply to claims it is a terrorist organization. “Of course because this is an allegation without any proof and a groundless claim,” the representative says.
In the fall of 2017, Turkey, which can block the dates and agenda of the Human Dimension Meeting, attempted to establish a veto over which civil society organizations could join the event.
A working group that was set up last fall to deal with the issue is expected to meet Friday.
In January, U.S. Sens. Roger Wicker and Ben Cardin wrote to Assistant Secretary of State Wess Mitchell expressing concerns about countries calling for a “vetting” mechanism for civil society organizations, specifically citing Turkey.
“Turkey’s attempt to limit civil society participation at the OSCE rejects its commitment to promote freedom as a NATO ally. The State Department is right to join the Commission in opposition to these actions,” Wicker wrote in a comment to Foreign Policy.
There may not be an easy solution, however. “Everything is based on consensus decisions made by the participating states,” a spokesperson for the OSCE’s Office of Democratic Institutions and Human Rights says.
And Turkey appears to be standing firm in its position. Turkey recognizes the importance of the OSCE’s work and is not opposed to groups that are critical, Behic Hatipoglu, a counselor for the Turkish Foreign Ministry, wrote in response to questions. “However, participation of terror affiliated organizations to the OSCE activities is another issue and we believe that OSCE platforms should not be abused by terrorist or terrorist affiliated organizations,” he wrote.
Beyond the September meeting, some NGOs and government officials alike are concerned that Turkey might inspire other countries — Kyrgyzstan or Azerbaijan, for example — to take similar measures to keep civil society organizations away from the table.
But there are also concerns that this is part of a larger pattern of Turkish behavior on the international stage. Erdogan recently called for snap elections, which will take place under the state of emergency, and civil society groups have been a frequent government target.
“They aren’t worried about attracting negative attention. If anything, they like it. It shows they’re proactive,” says David Phillips, the director of the program on peace-building and rights at Columbia University’s Institute for the Study of Human Rights. “This is all part of an effort by Erdogan to show voters he’s not allowing foreigners to interfere in Turkey’s domestic affairs.”
And though the current Turkish initiative is focused on Gulen-affiliated groups, Phillips believes it’s part of a broader effort, at home and abroad, to go after civil society. “I would suspect that their efforts are not restricted only to Gulen-related groups. Once you start restricting civil liberties, why stop with the Gulen groups?”