North Africa, West Asia

UNESCO’s normative failure: the case of Gülmen and Özakça

In the face of institutional failure in defending democracy and basic rights, civil society action is the last line of defence.

Mehmet Ugur
24 July 2017

Academic Nuriye Gulmen (L) and primary school teacher Semih Ozakca (R), who were sacked by a decree-law during the state of emergency, are pictured on the 74th day of their hunger strike on May 21, 2017 in Ankara, Turkey. Nuriye and Semih were arrested by a court decision on the 76th day of their hunger strike on May 23. Picture by Altan Gocher/Zuma Press/PA Images. All rights reserved. I have been struggling with myself as to whether I should write this note. I have come to the conclusion that I should, given the risk that two education professionals on hunger strike for 138 days in Turkey may die any minute. My decision has also been influenced by the fact that the international organisation that I expect to defend academic freedom and the teaching staff – the UNESCO – has failed to do anything in their support. Even if the UNESCO had intervened with the Turkish government behind closed doors, this information was not made available to me when I asked UNESCO as to whether they have taken any action.

Education professionals Nuriye Gülmen and Semih Özakça were dismissed from their jobs by state of emergency decrees in Turkey. They went on a hunger strike 138 days ago (as of 24 July 2017) with a simple demand: “I want my job back”. The Turkish police has attacked the hunger strikers and their supporters almost on a daily basis with teargas and truncheons. As the hunger strikers persisted despite police brutality, on 23 May 2017, Turkish courts have detained Gülmen and Özakça on terrorism charges!

A group of concerned academics in the UK has initiated a petition calling on UNESCO to intervene with the Turkish government. We asked UNESCO to ‘mobilize all other UN agencies and all UNESCO partners’ and call on the Turkish government to reinstate dismissed academics and teachers not involved directly in the botched coup. The petition has been signed by 8,760 signatories.

UNESCO’s Chief of Section for Higher Education has been kept informed and updated about the petition and the life-threatening conditions of the hunger strikers. Nevertheless, UNESCO has remained silent and failed to respond to several email communications on the matter. This is in stark contrast with the UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention and the Council of Europe, both of which have called for the release of the hunger strikers.

UNESCO’s declared purpose is to ‘increase universal respect for justice, the rule of law, and human rights’ and foster and maintain intellectual solidarity. Its failure to act against the unlawful dismissal and detention of Nuriye Gülmen and Semih Özakça will be remembered as shirking of its responsibilities and a betrayal of the principles and norms that the organisation is supposed to uphold and foster in the general and higher education fields. This is particularly concerning in the age of creeping authoritarianism and wide-spread attacks on human rights.

Since the failed coup attempt in July 2016, the Turkish government has purged more than 150,000 public-sector employees, including over 5,000 academics. Of those purged, more than 90,000 have been arrested and over 45,000 have been detained. The unprecedented purge targeted a wide spectrum of political dissent, including academics and teachers critical of the authoritarian regime. Those dismissed are excluded from the labour market by blacklisting their national insurance numbers, their passports are revoked, and so far have had no recourse to domestic legal remedies. The appeal commission established recently (almost one year after the coup) is not expected either to cope or to act independently.

One academic who signed the Academics for Peace declaration, Mehmet Fatih Traş, has committed suicide after his contract at the university was terminated, and his job applications to several universities were turned down on the grounds that he is a security risk. Another academic, Mustafa Sadık Akdağ, also committed suicide leaving a note indicating that he could no longer bear the burden of being accused of terrorism.

In the face of institutional failure in defending democracy and basic rights, civil society action is the last line of defence. I plea with academic and non-academic readers of Open Democracy to let Gülmen and Özakça know that they are not alone; and to express their dismay with UNESCO’s stance by writing to the Chief of Section for Higher Education.

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