With a long history of coup d’etat and military rule civil society in Turkey exists under intense pressure from a state that views any independent organisations as a threat.

The free civil society which has managed to develop, such as trade unions, has been subject to a huge assault from the government since the collapse of the peace process in 2015.

This new wave of repression intensified massively following the failed coup d’etat in August 2016. Hundreds of thousands of people have been dismissed from their jobs or imprisoned without any due process on the basis of flimsy evidence and with no free or fair trial.

Independent media has ceased to exist. Free newspapers and television stations were suppressed following the failed coup d’etat, leaving all major media outlets in the hands of the government.

Criminalising trade unions

Real independent trade unions, such as the DISK and KESK confederations, have found it extremely difficult to function and organise. Pro-government organisations, which collaborate with employers to undermine free collective bargaining such as HAK-IS and parts of TURK-IS, have been supported in their attempts to replace real trade unions.

DISK and KESK have displayed huge bravery by continuing to defend workers’ rights campaign for peace. This has included strikes and peace marches, such as the strike of construction workers at Istanbul airport.

These unions combine action in defence of their members with a demand for a return to the peace process. Tragically more than 100 union members were killed when a peace demonstration was bombed in 2015.

In November 2018, 26 workers and union officials from the union Birlesik Metal-Is were handed suspended prison sentences for trade union activity at the Renault car plant in Bursa. Their ‘crime’ was to demonstrate for the right to organise and for the reinstatement of sacked trade unionists.

The assassination of Abdullah Karacan

Violence against trade unionists escalated to a new level in November 2018 with the murder of Abdullah Karacan, the leader of the chemical and rubber section of the DISK federation.

Karacan was shot dead when visiting workers at a Goodyear tyre factory in the city of Adapazari. A committed internationalist, Karacan had previously come to the UK to support Unite workers fighting to defend their workplace in Birmingham from closure.

Following the failed 2016 coup, the government imposed a state of emergency allowing rule by decree. Turkish authorities dismissed over 150,000 public officials due to alleged coup links, with courts jailing over 64,000 more on terrorism charges. (Source: Human Rights Watch)

A referendum in April 2017 handed more powers to the President, weakening judicial and parliamentary checks. Over 150 journalists and media workers, as well as 9 parliamentarians of the pro-Kurdish opposition party the HDP, are now behind bars. Judicial decisions are often politicised.

Other organisations that have been shut down or severely repressed include women’s organisations, LGBT groups, religious minorities, and others who campaign for press and journalistic freedoms.

Civil society in Kurdish Iraq and Iran

In both Iran and Iraq the Kurdish populations face huge difficulties to develop a real functioning civil society. In Iran, there are no independent trade unions and NGOs promoting women’s and minority rights are viciously repressed.

The Kurds in Iraq have more autonomy than in Turkey or Iran, but civil society is very weak and underdeveloped due to the still semi-feudal nature of the society as a whole. Real independent trade unions barely exist, while groups campaigning for women’s and LGBT rights are forced underground.

Most NGOs that do exist are aligned with and controlled by, the main political parties.