On International Human Rights Day, global outlook on human rights is grim. Shrinking civic space and the erosion of fundamental rights and freedoms around the world have become a hallmark of 2019, just as they have been for the years previous. We are no way near the international wave of optimism that surrounded the world after the fall of the Berlin Wall. On the contrary, the rise of right-wing populist leaders openly scornful of or simply disinterested in human rights principles have affected the entire globe. “Refugee-phobia” has poisoned the debates on human rights and turned disrespect of human rights into the norm.

While the world is doing worse in human rights records in general, some countries are doing even worse than average.

Turkey’s declining record on human rights has become a matter of global debate and a source of criticism in recent years. How about Turkey’s public: what do they think? What are their attitudes towards human rights and principles? Amnesty International’s Turkey branch has just concluded a research project in partnership with the polling agency MetroPOLL on “Turkey’s Perceptions on Human Rights.” 

This research reveals some very interesting facts:

First, the public perception of human rights in Turkey is very clear: 76 percent of the public thinks that all people are born with inalienable, immutable human rights, regardless of their status. Only 16.9 percent think otherwise.  Likewise, 81 percent believe that human rights are universal. As far as principles are concerned, the support of Turkey’s public for human rights is evident. Around 84 percent affirm that “all human beings have equal rights regardless of their ethnicity, sexual orientation or religious stance.” Moreover, nationalist and/or conservative voting bases also hold similar views. In fact, while political and social polarization created a sharp division of opinion in almost every other case, this particular research and some others reach similar conclusions: when it comes to rights-based issues, the public in Turkey is united, and this agreement cuts across all party bases. While the youth is more emphatic on the issue of rights, there still is consensus generally that women’s rights, children’s rights and all human rights ought to be protected and prioritized.

“Philosophically,” Turkey’s public embraces human rights principles. What about the actual practice?

Especially in the last few years, although the right to freedom of assembly is protected by the constitution, public demonstrations have simply become impossible in Turkey as there is a heavy police intervention to disperse the crowds in almost all cases. Just as I was writing this article, General Secretary of the Platform to Stop Femicide (Kadın Cinayetlerini Durduracağız Platformu), Ayşen Ece Kavas, and several other women’s rights activists have been under custody for a day following a public demonstration condemning violence against women. The demonstration took place on December 8 in the Kadıköy district of Istanbul to stage the “Las Tesis” dance performance, a global wave of women’s activism that originated in Chile.   

When we turn to public opinion, there is overwhelming support for peaceful demonstrations and marches: 75.3 percent of the public think that people can hold peaceful public demonstrations and marches on any issue they are concerned with.

In case their rights are violated, the primary direction that the public in Turkey turns to is the security forces: around 38 percent of the public states that they would first turn to the police and other security forces in such cases. But at the same time, people are not willing to tolerate police violence. Around 76 percent of respondents affirm that “the police have no right to inflict violence on detained criminals.” Do note that question was posed specifically using the term “criminals” in order to aggravate the meaning — but still, support for human rights prevailed. In a similar vein, around 75 percent believe that the “police have no right to hit people.”

While Turkey’s public clearly stands by the protection of human rights, according to Amnesty’s report, they do not actively engage in any tangible act to actually support human rights organizations. They are neither willing to donate nor take part in advocacy campaigns. On the other hand, the report indicates that people in Turkey are not biased against human rights organizations: for example, they do not regard human rights activists as a “fifth column.” So, the lack of active participation in human rights activity seems to be simply because there is a physical gap between civil society and the people: human rights NGOs are not present in peoples’ lives.

My working hypothesis is that Turkey’s public psyche has become more sensitive towards human rights and people have internalized the importance of human rights because their own rights are increasingly under threat. Other field research I personally participated in shows that many people, including nationalist and conservative voter bases, either personally face or witness rights abuses. Hence, rights and freedoms are increasingly on peoples’ agendas.

The fact that the majority of the population is developing a very positive perception on human rights values may not translate into action today, but the politics of the next generation will be shaped by rights-oriented sensitivities. That’s what the grassroots will demand.