Vicdani Ret Derneği, the Turkish CO Association, held an international symposium on conscientious objection (CO), on 5-6 September in Istanbul. The meetings were packed, and at the end of the symposium, over 20 COs went to Galatasaray Square and publicly declared their conscientious objection.
Merve Arkun, co-chair of the association, began the meeting by saying that in a period of war, conscientious objection becomes even more meaningful. The symposium was held at a particularly crucial time with increased violence of the Turkish state military against the Kurdish community in Turkey.
We remembered two COs, Polen Ünlü and Alper Sapan, who were killed in July in a massacre in Suruç, whilst on their way to Kobanê in the Kurdish Rojava region, on the Turkish-Syrian border, a city until recently beseiged by ISIL.
COs called upon the participants to resist: "Dry out the resources of war, so the bodies of children escaping from war will not be washed up on the shores".
With this background, the packed symposium demonstrated a growing interest in conscientious objection as a tool for resistance against militarism and violence. We were also reminded that CO is seen as such a threat and taboo to many, including the press. The day before the symposium a right-wing newspaper carried a story about the meeting (including mentioning the time and location of the meeting), especially condemning the international interference of an international meeting on this topic.
Sessions included 'The "most" compulsory way of militarism: The past and present of military service', 'Compulsory military service: compulsory manhood', 'Compulsory military service, War in Different Geographies' and 'Resistance, self-defence and Conscientious Obejction in War Geographies'. Hannah from WRI gave a talk on war profiteering, which you can find here.
A panel of six COs of various ages and motivations demonstrated the diversity of motivation and experience within the movement - and was also a telling remind of the restrictions and pubishments that COs face. Davut Erkan, a lawyer who has represented many COs, explained the concept of 'civil death' which COs (or what the military would term draft evaders and deserters) in Turkey endure. This include repreated imprisonment, restricted freedom to travel, being prevented from applying to many jobs, not being able to register a child, not being eligible for election to public office, and many other political, social and economic implications. But many COs are challenging for the right to reject military service, and currently there are four cases awaiting assesment by the Constitutional Court.
The session on masculinity and militarism explored the links between these two powerful forces. It asked the question 'Who does militarism exclude?', demonstrating the direct connection between the 'ideal' of the Turkish man who has done military service, and many other groups who have not. Women, people with disabilities, gay men, those who reject military service - all are denied social and civil benefits because they did not "serve". For those who do, the barracks are seen as the last 'school', the place where your education and understanding of social life is cemented. Social hierarchies are learnt and maintained - and they stick, far beyond leaving the military.
As an international symposium, other CO and refuser movements spoke and were represented. These included Urfod, (a Druze refuser group in Israel), and Maikel Nabil Sanad joined us on Skype, from the Egyptian No to Compulsory Military Service group. Urfod was founded only last year, but already they have counselled over 60 Druze refusers - out of only 900 Druze men who are annualy drafted into the Israeli army. For the Druze in Israel, it is clear that rejection of military service is not only a stand against war and occupation, it is also a signifier of their identity as Palestinians.
At the end of the symposium, over 20 COs went to Galatasaray Square and publicly declared their conscientious objection.
Find more photos here.