Şeref Malkoç, Chief Public Ombudsman of Turkey
Ombudsmen do not have the power to stop war, but they can do a lot for women, children and prisoners
08.04.2024 21:43

Last week, the Chief Public Ombudsman of Turkey, Şeref Malkoç, paid a visit to Ukraine, which included Kyiv, Odesa and Lviv. He met with the Ukrainian Parliament Commissioner for Human Rights, Dmytro Lubinets, with relatives of Ukrainian prisoners held in Russia, and with Russian prisoners of war in the detention camp in Lviv.

In the near future, Mr. Malkoç intends to pay a visit to Russia to meet with Ukrainian prisoners and see the conditions of their detention. After both visits, the Turkish Ombudsman's office will prepare reports, including on the conditions of compliance with the Geneva Convention relative to the Treatment of Prisoners of War.

Şeref Malkoç calls the exchange and return of prisoners of war home one of his main tasks in his current activism and human rights work within the framework of the Russian-Ukrainian war.

The Chief Public Ombudsman of Turkey, Şeref Malkoç, spoke about his impressions and results of his visit to Ukraine, as well as the prospects for the return of Ukrainian prisoners home, in an interview with Ukrinform.


- Mr. Chief Ombudsman, you recently visited Ukraine. Please tell us more about your visit.

- The war has been going on for two years now, and the negative impact of the war is felt in all areas of Ukraine. Our visit took place at the invitation of the Ukrainian Parliament Commissioner for Human Rights, Dmytro Lubinets. First, we went to Odesa, where we visited the sites of destruction, places of worship and ports. From Odesa, we went to Kyiv, and three hours after we left, Odesa was again shelled by rockets.

In Kyiv, we had many meetings. We attended an iftar with Crimean Tatars. The President of Ukraine, Mr. Zelensky, also attended the Iftar. So we had the opportunity to meet and talk with him. We briefed him on the work of the Turkish Ombudsman, especially our activities regarding women, children and prisoners of war. And while we were in Kyiv, half an hour before the Iftar with Mr. Zelensky, Kyiv was again on air alert.

Later, we met with the families, wives and children of Ukrainian soldiers held by Russia. Representatives of about 800 families came from all over the country. We listened to their stories for almost two and a half hours. We also received their appeals, most of them in writing.

We also met with IDPs and internally displaced persons who had left the war zone and arrived in the capital. We joined their meeting with government agencies to resolve their issues. Then we visited a camp in Lviv where captured Russian soldiers are held and talked to them. In total, we had 4-5 events every day. It was a well-planned and very useful visit. We had the opportunity to see and observe what we had heard about from others and read in the press.

- Tell us about your impressions of what you saw in Ukraine...

- First of all, it is the destruction caused by the war, demoralization and economic difficulties caused by the military budget. Air defense systems outside Kyiv are not powerful enough to counter Russian missiles. Odesa, Kyiv, and other cities have been under constant rocket fire. It is very tiring. At any time of the day, an attack signal is given, and people go for cover. Even if it becomes a habit, it tires and exhausts people. There is also the risk that a rocket or shell fragment could fall somewhere at any moment, and there are also the economic difficulties caused by the war.

In addition, many Ukrainians have emigrated abroad, and many of them are educated and young people. What this means... Tens of thousands of educated and young people in Ukraine are going abroad, and the industry cannot meet their needs. Those who have moved from the occupied Luhansk, Donetsk and Crimea face housing, social and other problems. These are not easy tasks to accomplish. We, as ombudsmen, want this war to end as soon as possible with a just peace and for the occupied Ukrainian territories to be returned to Ukraine. Of course, we are a human rights institution, and our work is more humanitarian, meaning that we help women, children and prisoners as much as we can...

Before I went to Ukraine, I also had a conversation with the Russian Ombudsman, Ms. Tatyana Moskalkova. I told her about my trip to Ukraine. I told her that we were going to visit a prisoner of war camp. I asked her if there was anything we should ask there, what we should investigate or what we should pay attention to. Of course, after this visit, we will write a report outlining our observations. Perhaps we will prepare recommendations on what should be done. We intend to make a similar visit to Russia after talking to the Russian ombudsman, if it is possible and we have the necessary permits. We intend to meet with the families of Russian prisoners in Ukraine, to see Ukrainian prisoners in Russia, to listen to them, to investigate whether the treatment of prisoners complies with international law, and, most importantly, if our efforts result in the exchange of prisoners, it will bring great satisfaction. Then all our efforts will be worthwhile, worth the effort.


- You visited a Russian prisoner of war camp in the Lviv region. What did you see there?

- We saw people devastated by captivity. Some people have no arm, some have no leg, some have facial injuries, some have missing limbs. It is difficult for them to move. These are very painful things, this is the disaster that the war has brought... But one thing is to hear, another is to go and see. Some of the prisoners have been in captivity for a year. The sadness of war and the sadness of captivity affect almost every cell. So 20-year-old soldiers look 30 years old, 30-year-olds look 40, and everyone is waiting for the war to end and for them to return to their families as soon as possible through a prisoner exchange. We saw that even wearing prisoner's clothes in the camp is very difficult for a person.

- According to your observations, does Ukraine comply with international norms, in particular the Geneva Convention, regarding the detention of Russian prisoners of war?

- I won't get ahead of myself, we will mention this in the report. The camp we went to used to be an old Soviet-era prison. The conditions were much improved. We also met with the prisoners. We talked about their treatment, asked them whether they were being mistreated or not. We visited their canteens, saw their toilets and bathrooms, sleeping quarters. We observed how the prisoners spend their days. Let's wait for the report...

- When do you plan to make it public?

- As I have already mentioned, before we publish this report, we will have a conversation with the Russian Ombudsman Tatyana Moskalkova. If we have the opportunity, we plan to go to Russia and conduct similar research and then publish the report. But I will repeat once again that more important than the publication of the report, if we could contribute to it, at least in part, would be the exchange of prisoners. This would be our greatest achievement. We are trying to support and carry out such activities in relation to children and women as well.


- The released Ukrainian prisoners of war described the conditions of detention in Russian prisons. These conditions are far from the norms of international law. Russia violates the Geneva Convention, tortures prisoners, does not feed them properly, and exerts physical and psychological pressure on them. Does Turkey have a chance to influence this negative situation?

- Our President is in contact with both Mr. Zelensky and Mr. Putin. As a result of these contacts, the "grain corridor" was opened. Again, as a result of these contacts, the exchange of prisoners was achieved. And these contacts of our President continue. These issues were discussed during Mr. Zelensky's visit to Turkey two weeks ago. I believe that an important distance has been covered. This has not yet been publicly reflected, but we will see later. It was a fruitful conversation.

I am sure that it would be more appropriate for us to say something about the situation of Ukrainian prisoners in Russia only after we go and see it on the ground. I cannot verify or confirm what others have said. But I hope that Russia will give us this opportunity, and we will be able to do the same work in Russia as we did in Ukraine and find out whether the provisions of the Geneva Convention are being observed - from food to health care for prisoners, to their places of detention, to their daily routine... It would be more appropriate to say something after we have inspected and studied these prison camps.

- When do you plan to visit Russia?

- I will have a conversation with the Russian Ombudsman as soon as possible. If everything was hopeless, this conversation would not have taken place. You know that as the Turkish Ombudsman, I am in contact with both the Ukrainian and Russian Ombudsmen. We have had personal meetings. We have online meetings. And I have appropriate expectations after these meetings, in particular, to meet with both of our colleagues in Ankara or Istanbul, and to take action on this issue. This is not a complicated issue. Perhaps we as ombudsmen do not have the power to stop the war. That is the job of politicians. But as ombudsmen, I think we can do a lot for women, children and prisoners. On the one hand, we need to make diplomatic efforts, and on the other hand, we need to continue to maintain contacts of the ombudsman institution as a human rights institution. If you can free a person, reunite a child with his family or reunite a woman with her home, that is a great event in itself.


- You met with the leader of the Crimean Tatar people Mustafa Dzhemilev and a delegation from the Mejlis of the Crimean Tatar people during your visit to Ukraine. What issues were discussed at the meeting?

- Yes, it was a fruitful meeting. We met with Mr. Dzhemilev and the speaker of the Mejlis. The main issue for discussion was the liberation of Crimea from occupation. Turkey has stated on all international platforms that the occupation of Crimea is contrary to international law and that it strongly defends the territorial integrity of Ukraine. Just look, according to estimates, there are 3 to 5 million Crimean Tatars in Turkey, and some of their relatives are still in Crimea, and some in Ukraine. So the Ukrainian issue is already on Turkey's agenda. There are 3-5 million Ukrainians of Crimean origin in Turkey. So the issue of Crimean Tatars in Crimea is part of all our work.

First, Crimean Tatars have spoken out about unjust arrests and human rights violations in Crimea. Second, they spoke about actions against Ukrainians that violate international law. Third, they said that Russia has settled many people of Russian origin in Crimea. They spoke about human rights violations, the forced migration of Crimean Tatars from the peninsula, and the fact that Russia is implementing a plan to change the population balance in Crimea by resettling people from different Russian regions to the peninsula. We raised such issues, discussed what to do about it, and what support our human rights institution could provide. It was an extremely productive meeting.

- According to the latest data, the number of Ukrainian citizens held in Russian captivity in Crimea is at least 216. Of these, 134 are Crimean Tatars. What steps can Turkey take regarding the situation with these prisoners and their release?

- Of course, such work is possible and is being done. In particular, after his meeting with President Zelensky, our President also spoke on the phone with President Putin. In addition, our Foreign Minister Hakan Fidan and other Turkish officials are discussing these issues.

We have requests from both Ukraine and the Crimean Tatars. Of course, what can we do here as an ombudsman institution? But at least we send these requests that we receive to our colleague, the Russian ombudsman. We try to find a solution from here. If we find a solution here, we will be happy, but if we can't do it through the ombudsman, we will make efforts through other channels. Of course, we are doing this as a human rights institution. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs or other Turkish institutions also do this through diplomatic channels.

Let me once again express our desire to see a just and fair end to the Russian-Ukrainian war, the liberation of the occupied Ukrainian lands, including Crimea, and the territorial integrity of Ukraine in accordance with international law.


- In January 2023, the Ombudsmen of Ukraine and Russia met in Ankara. At that time, Russia seemed ready to release civilians, the chronically ill, the elderly... But this did not happen. Why?

- Yes, in January 2023, we held a meeting of the Ukrainian and Russian ombudsmen in Turkey to discuss these issues, identify the steps to be taken, and then the three ombudsmen went to our President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. At that time, he also called on Mr. Zelensky and Mr. Putin to open a "humanitarian corridor" similar to the "grain corridor." This was an extremely important event. But then the course of the war wasted these efforts. We made another attempt in September and achieved a very good result. But after the start of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the global agenda changed. Nevertheless, we continue these efforts with perseverance and patience. I believe that through patience and perseverance we will get positive results.

The less we talk and the more we do, the better. Talking is the easiest thing to do. I hope that we will have the opportunity to go to Russia, and we will discuss each of these issues there. If there is an exchange of prisoners, we will have a long conversation about it.

- Turkey was also ready to facilitate the return of children abducted by Russia. Is there any work in this direction?

- Work has begun on this request and an important point has been reached. Lists were received from both Ukraine and Russia. But the requirements, attitudes and practices of both countries are different. Despite this, significant progress has been made. We will assess the situation.

- The fourth point of President Zelensky's Peace Formula states that all prisoners and deportees should be released and all Ukrainian citizens should return home. Is Turkey ready to participate in the organization and implementation of such a process?

- Unlike before, now Mr. Zelensky and Mr. Putin are starting to talk separately about the conditions for peace. This is important, our President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has made a great contribution to this. Of course, Turkey is ready for this, preparing and taking steps. Ukraine has defined the conditions for peace. These are not problems that cannot be solved. And these are not issues that cannot be resolved. You can see for yourself that Ukraine and Russia are tired of the war. There is an embargo on Russia because of the war. Many goods cannot get to Russia, and Russia sells its oil and natural gas at 50% below the usual price or cannot receive money in dollars or euros from the countries to which it sells. This is a significant loss for Russia. The war is costing it dearly.

Similarly, Ukraine suffers losses every day. Both military and civilians die every day. These losses are irreversible. Millions of people have migrated. Their needs for housing, food, and other necessities must be met. Ukraine has lost production capacity because of the war. There are other problems as well.

As a human rights institution, we are trying to do our best, and during our meetings, President Zelensky also spoke about these issues. I hope that peace will be achieved as soon as possible, children, women and prisoners will be mutually returned, and Ukraine will ensure its territorial integrity.

Olha Budnyk, Ankara

Photo by the author

P.S. During the preparation of the interview for publication, a telephone conversation took place between Turkish Ombudsman Şeref Malkoç and Russian Ombudsman Tatyana Moskalkova. As Malkoc told TRT Haber TV channel after the conversation, a request was made to visit Russia and visit Ukrainian prisoners of war. Also, following the conversation, the Turkish Chief Ombudsman expressed hope for progress in promoting peace, the exchange of prisoners and family reunification.

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