How to stop soldier suicides?
In the last couple of weeks, there has been increased reporting about suicides among soldiers and officers within the Turkish army.
The attention in the media was triggered by statistics released by Ayhan Sefer Üstün, the head of the parliamentary Human Rights Investigation Commission during a special commission meeting at the end of November. The numbers showed that over the last 10 years, 934 privates committed suicide. That means that since 2002 the number of soldiers who have taken their own life exceeds the number of those who were killed in combat, 818. The shocking fact is that, on average, over the last 10 years, every four days a soldier or officer committed suicide.

The Turkish Armed Forces (TSK) reacted quickly to the devastating figures, but the statement that was released can hardly be called a relief. After an internal investigation, the General Staff found out that in fact the number of suicides has dropped by 50 percent over the last 10 years. This can only lead to the alarming conclusion that before 2002, the numbers were even dramatically higher, and every second day a soldier took his own life. The General Staff claims the suicides are the result of family problems, personal relationships, drug addiction and financial difficulties in civilian life, rather than bad treatment in the army.

This explanation is strongly challenged by analysts like Tolga Islam, the head of the Rights of Conscripts Initiative, the group that started this whole debate by publishing a report in mid October called "Violations of the Rights of Conscripts in Turkey." In April 2011 the website www.askerhaklari.com was established as a civil initiative to provide support to victims of ill treatment and abuse during their military service and raise awareness and sensibility about the issue by making cases of ill treatment and abuse visible.

The report is based on the applications that askerhaklari.com has received between April 2011 and April 2012. The report classifies the alleged cases of ill treatment according to their types, location and dates. It shows that the most frequent types of ill treatment are insults and beatings and that most of the complaints come from Ankara and Cyprus. According to the report there is a clear link between ill treatment and abuse on the one hand and suicide and permanent psychiatric or physical damage on the other. The Rights of Conscripts Initiative therefore calls on the Turkish government to ensure effective and timely investigation of allegations of ill treatment during military service by civilian prosecutors, not military ones. The activists also demand that the ombudsman law be fully applicable to all activities of the armed forces.

Suicides and ill treatment during military service is not a typical Turkish problem. Last week, during a visit to Turkey, Bauke Snoep, former president of EUROMIL, the network of European organizations of military personnel, made it clear how often and intense the Council of Europe (CoE), of which Turkey is a founding member, has dealt with this issue in the past. One of the most important sets of recommendations was adopted by the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE) in 2006, and after four years of foot dragging, taken on board by the member states, including Turkey. They have committed themselves to put the suggestions into practice and to complete a questionnaire on the implementation of the very tough European advice and guidance on how to treat conscripts and professional soldiers in a proper and civilized manner.

According to Snoep, the demands from askerhaklari.com are fully in line with the guidelines of the CoE. The experienced activist for the rights of military personnel also advised the Turkish initiative to go beyond reporting and try to set up an association of ex-conscripts, strive for the appointment of independent counselors, seek contacts with politicians and associations of reserve officers and get in touch with EUROMIL which has easy access to the CoE institutions and could help push for an honest and timely completion of the aforementioned questionnaire by the Turkish government.

Let's hope the issue of ill treatment and abuse of conscripts is not one of the many media hypes in Turkey without any proper follow-up. As long as Turkey has an army based on conscription and has not moved to a professional army, every year hundreds of thousands of Turkish men will have to serve and be subjected to military rules and commands. Is it too much to ask in a country that aspires to be an advanced democracy that these Turkish citizens be treated in a dignified way that will prevent them from taking their own lives?

JOOST LAGENDIJK (Cihan/Today's Zaman) CİHAN
Last Modified: 2012-12-19 10:00:01
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