Selmin Çalışkan, head of the German section of Amnesty International (photo: dpa/picture-alliance)
Interview with the New Secretary-General of AI Germany

''Some People Have a Blockade in their Heads''

Arms exports, support for foreign projects that do not meet human rights standards, too much red tape when it comes to Syrian refugees and police brutality in Munich: Selmin Çalışkan, the new Secretary-General of Amnesty International in Germany, is volleying some harsh criticism at the German federal government. An interview by Victoria Großmann and Oliver Das Gupta

Tell the truth, Ms Çalışkan, are you anxious about your new job as head of Amnesty International in Germany?

Selmin Çalışkan: I'm not anxious at all; I can't wait to get started! You can parachute me down anywhere – so far, I've always been able to accomplish something. It's wonderful to be able to roll up my sleeves with Amnesty.

Your predecessor, Monika Lüke, also threw herself into her tasks with élan – and failed.

Çalışkan: Sometime two sides fail to reach an agreement; that can happen anywhere. But that was the only case in Amnesty's 50-year history. With so many predecessors who held the post of Secretary-General for a long time, I feel completely reassured that all will go well.

One of your first projects is not aimed at repressive foreign regimes. Why does Germany need an "inspection agency for human rights"?

Çalışkan: To date Germany has supported projects without first checking whether they meet human rights standards. It would be better to review whether and to what extent these criteria are met before such projects are launched. The Ministry of Development is now planning to introduce this kind of "inspection agency for human rights".

A school for girls in Herat in Afghanistan (photo: DW)
Promoting fundamental change: Selmin Çalışkan is calling for greater gender parity in Germany's support for children's education projects in Afghanistan. She also sees a need for a greater focus on human rights training for police recruits and soldiers in that country


However, we also need one for the Ministries of Defence, Economics and the Interior. That being said, I saw in my previous work, for example in Afghanistan, what a hard time the various federal ministries have working together.

Can you give us an example of a project that ignores human rights criteria?

Çalışkan: It might for instance be the construction of a vocational school for boys only. In this case, something should at least be done simultaneously for girls' right to education. And then there's the training of police officers and soldiers in Afghanistan: more human rights education should be added to the curriculum. Otherwise, the newly trained recruits will not respect the rights of the civilian population even though it's their job to protect those rights. Another big issue that is related to all of this – one in which Amnesty is currently heavily engaged – is the arms trade.

The United Nations plans to convene in New York in March to discuss an international treaty for the control of the arms trade. What do you see as the role of the German government in the negotiations?

Çalışkan: The German government has played a positive role up to now. Above all, it is US President Barack Obama who has to make a move so that a binding treaty can finally be put in place that we can then invoke. Amnesty is sending 20 experts from all over the world to the talks in New York to advocate for rules that are as stringent as possible and to make sure loopholes are closed. But here in Germany too, we are pushing for arms exports to be subject to more stringent controls.

Decisions on the sale of German armaments abroad are made during closed sessions of the Federal Security Council, which consists of members of government.

Çalışkan: It simply cannot be that a small, secret club decides which country should get German tanks and firearms. But more control should also be wielded over the Economics Ministry, which often approves arms exports without even consulting the Federal Security Council. To do so, we need a legally binding human rights clause for arms exports. We will lobby members of the Bundestag to initiate such legislation. The members could be much more assertive in demanding information and monitoring rights.

Is the government trying to fob off parliament by providing too little information?

Çalışkan: Sometimes, yes. The parliament was, for example, informed too late and insufficiently about the extension of the mandates for Afghanistan. I consider that a scandal for our democracy. In the case of arms exports too, the government does not provide comprehensive and timely information.

Demonstration in Berlin against German arms exports to Saudi Arabia (photo: dapd)
"No tanks for Riyadh": Demonstration outside the Reichstag in Berlin against German weapons exports to Saudi Arabia. Selmin Çalışkan says that "the government does not provide comprehensive and timely information on arms exports"


This is a topic we will address more emphatically in the 2013 election year, along with the refugee policies. Using benchmarks, Amnesty will gauge the extent to which the policies of the various parties are compatible with human rights.

Where will you begin lobbying? With the Bundestag members, leading politicians or bureaucrats?

Çalışkan: We are talking to all of them. Often, the second-line contacts are more important for us. They are the ones who shape day-to-day operations. And that's where we need to put down stakes. But contacts with political leaders are also important. Some time ago, for example, we had a conversation with the German president.

A few days ago, Joachim Gauck became the first German president to attend a meeting of the UN Human Rights Council, where he gave a speech that highlighted the role of NGOs. Is the President an ally of yours?

Çalışkan: Because of his own history, Joachim Gauck is particularly sensitive to issues involving freedom and human rights. He has shown great commitment to these issues so far. Now the federal government has to do its part. After all, Germany once again has a seat on the Human Rights Council. So far it has reacted quite hesitantly when it comes to specific situations in certain countries, such as Sri Lanka. We will remind the Foreign Ministry that it is not enough to pass general resolutions if nothing is done to implement them. Gauck's engagement is an additional argument, which helps. It bolsters the work of the non-governmental organisations.

It is the strategy of Amnesty Germany to focus primarily on human rights abroad. Isn't it time to bend this rule?

Çalışkan: Amnesty owes it success partly to its ability to act as a mouthpiece for human rights activists in repressive states. Time and again, we have been able to effect the release of political prisoners because we can stand up for their rights from anywhere in the world. But we will also be taking action in Germany. Several years ago, Amnesty drew attention to excessive police violence in Germany and pushed for the requirement that each police officer's name should be clearly visible on his/her uniform.

There is indeed still much to be done, and not only because of the alleged incident of police brutality in Munich. Germany needs to finally set up independent investigative bodies for such cases. When the police force is responsible for investigating its own wrongdoings, the findings often come up short.

Amnesty has also been advising asylum-seekers in Germany for several years now, calling for asylum policies that emphasise the protection and the rights of refugees. But our main focus remains combating serious human rights violations around the world.

A savage civil war is raging in Syria as we speak; countless people are on the run. Are the federal government's humanitarian operations sufficient?

Çalışkan: Certainly not with regard to the refugees. Germany is not doing enough. And it would really be so easy to help many of those affected. Syrians who have family in Germany should be allowed to come here quickly and without a lot of red tape. The German government should act as quickly as possible. That would also be a sign of solidarity with the countries bordering Syria, who are dealing with some 900,000 Syrian refugees living at their borders and are the limit of their capacity to assimilate them.

The German government is providing financial aid to meet the needs of Syrian refugees in the region.

Çalışkan: And it should continue to do so. In addition, Syrians are almost always granted protection here when they apply for asylum. However, the majority of Syrian refugees were forced to flee via dangerous and sometimes illegal routes before they could finally apply for asylum in Germany.

The Zaatari Syrian refugee camp in Jordan (photo: AP)
The Syrian refugee drama knows no bounds: according to UN Secretary-General Ban Ki Moon, the number of refugees fleeing the civil war in Syria will soon reach one million. Human rights groups such as Amnesty International are demanding quick decisions by the EU member states on taking in refugees


Even refugees who want to stay with their Syrian relatives in Germany are not being granted visas. The regulatory hurdles for family reunification are simply too high. We therefore call for more generous entry policies for Syrian refugees who have family members in Germany. The government should pass a decision on this issue now and appeal to the EU to follow suit, rather than waiting for all the EU member states to make up their minds about taking in Syrian refugees.

You are the first Secretary-General of Amnesty in Germany from an immigrant background. Is Amnesty becoming more international because of you?

Çalışkan: Amnesty is already international. But I hope that I can help to drum up more support for Amnesty in Germany – especially from immigrant families.

Will you also take a stand on Turkey?

Çalışkan: Of course. If Turkish media approach me, I will denounce the human rights violations and abuses there. I will cite the detention of journalists as well as discrimination against ethnic minorities or the lack of religious freedom for Christians and Alevis.

Ms Çalışkan, you were already active on social issues as a young woman. What got you interested in politics at such an early age?

Çalışkan: My parents came to Germany in the early 1960s. They met with openness on the part of the people here, and had many contacts with German families. Then the climate changed in the late 1970s with the "recruitment ban" on guest workers. Every evening, our parents discussed whether they should accept the compensation money and return to Turkey. We children were constantly afraid that they might really do it, because I have always considered Germany home.

I grew up hearing the sentence: "Next year, we'll move to Turkey." It ultimately didn't happen, but this fear led me at the age of ten or eleven to try to come to terms with our situation, as well as with the role of girls and women in Turkish families. Soon thereafter, I started to become interested in the fate of German Jews.

As a girl with Turkish roots, how did you come upon that topic?

Çalışkan: At school. Teachers at my high school – the last remnants of the late 1960s generation – had a major influence on me. We read the book "Friedrich", the story of a German boy who is suddenly no longer allowed to use the public swimming pool – because he's Jewish. He is stunned, because one thing is clear to him: "We belong here!" I shared the same feeling of disbelief when I encountered rejection and hostility. That was the impetus for my political involvement.

What kind of discrimination were you exposed to?

Çalışkan: We often had to rent run-down apartments. My father was permanently out of work because, as a Turk, it was clear that the employment office would only offer him a job once all the Germans and EU citizens had turned it down. Ten years ago, I myself didn't get the apartment I wanted in Berlin; it was made to clear to me: "We don't rent to Turks." Some people simply have a blockade in their heads. No matter how "integrated" you are.

Interview conducted by Victoria Großmann and Oliver Das Gupta

Selmin Çalışkan was born in 1967 as the child of Turkish guest workers in the German town of Düren in the state of North Rhine-Westphalia. She began helping immigrants while still a schoolgirl and later initiated a regular cross-cultural girls' get-together in Bonn. Çalışkan worked for several years for the women's organisation Medica Mondiale and later spent time in Afghanistan working for the Deutsche Gesellschaft für Internationale Zusammenarbeit (GIZ). As of 1 March, the mother of an adult daughter officially takes up her post as Secretary-General of the German section of Amnesty International.

© Süddeutsche Zeitung 2013

Translated from the German by Jennifer Taylor

Editor: Aingeal Flanagan

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