The UN Humanitarian Summit: A hope against hope

The UN Humanitarian Summit: A hope against hope

The first U.N.-sponsored World Humanitarian Summit is scheduled to take place on May 23-24 in Istanbul. An unfortunate mockery. Well-known human rights organizations like Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International, consistently campaigning against a deluge of injustices that definitively mark both current and future Turkish generations to come. The ruling Justice and Development Party’s (AKP) growing intolerance of opposition, state pressure and control over critical media, a judiciary independent only in name and an eroding rule of law have long been key issues campaigned against. More recently, following the AKP’s loss of its majority for the first time in parliamentary elections and the recurrence of violence between the Kurdistan Worker’s Party (PKK) and the Turkish Armed Forces, the excessive use of force by police against growing public unrest has become a central issue. It goes without saying that, for those who painstakingly follow the events in Turkey, this is just tip of the iceberg when it comes to human rights abuses.  

On top of all else, we are faced with one horrible child sex abuse scandal after another. Recently, Ensar Foundation took center stage in a scandal where one of the teachers working for the foundation was accused of raping tens of children and forcing them to watch animal pornography. The foundation, known for its close ties to the AKP, denounced responsibility for the actions of its employee and found jumping ship to be a priority in the name of protecting its image. Their main defense was that this was a “defamation campaign” while the Minister of Family and Social Sciences Sema Ramazanoğlu shamefully called the abuse scandal as a “one-time incident.”

While the grave details of the Ensar scandal continued to be revealed amid government opposition, news of children crying “save us” from inside a building in Kocaeli echoed fury on social media. According to witnesses, female children were locked inside and were unable to communicate with their families in this secret rehabilitation center for children who had faced sexual abuse. While the investigation was still ongoing, those who saw and reported the incident were taken into custody by the police later that day and were subjected to police violence. In Turkey, no good deed goes unpunished.

Unfortunately, no matter how many analyses are written, it’s common knowledge that human rights abuses have become a norm in Turkey and children are a big part of it. In terms of some comparative indicators, Turkey has one of the highest rates for child marriage in Europe with an estimated 14 percent of girls married before the age of 18. Children in the 6-17 age group work an average of 40 hours a week, sometimes with no pay at all. Child labor has doubled since last year, with Syrian refugee children forced to become breadwinners to have a chance of a better life in Turkey. The government is a silent witness to all these.

Moreover, OECD annual reports show that in Turkey, the reading skills and creative problem-solving skills of students lie substantially below the OECD and the overall life satisfaction of children in Turkey is the lowest among the member countries. Research suggests disadvantaged children are not supported by the education system and easily fall through the cracks. According to the latest statistics from the Ministry of Education, 194,000 girls are not enrolled in high school after completing 8th grade, thus losing the right to obtaining a diploma for primary education. Another 958,000 girls will continue their secondary education (years 5 to 8) from home via the newly introduced open high school system. 

It is truly heartbreaking that weeks before April 23, a day dedicated to children as a gift by Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, children in Turkey are still caught between corrupted politics and poor economic conditions. They are exploited, abused, and discriminated against. Half of them cannot go to school, many of them have to work at an early age while others become child brides. Against these odds, what the government has done so far has not only been to keep quiet, but to silence those who fight for the rights of children. It’s worth mentioning that the hearing for the Ensar case on April 20 will be closed to the public.

The Dalai Lama said, “The survival of humanity depends on educating the hearts of children.” Turkey - as any country would be- is doomed unless we are able to learn how to take care of our children and provide them with a safe and secure future. With such shameful statistics that show systemic social abuses and no meaningful effort for improvement, self-learning and self-healing seems like a distant goal. Under such conditions, Turkey hosting the World Humanitarian Summit seems like a terrible parody.

Berfu Kiziltan is visiting PhD researcher at the University of Oxford.