[Interview] Shelter City research fellow Ali Erdoğan: “European institutions can be very patriarchal”

Published 31 October 2022
By Bomi Seo

Visiting research fellow Ali Erdoğan focuses on human rights and same-sex marriages in EU law.

During a three-month stay in The Hague, visiting research fellow Ali Erdoğan focuses on human rights and same-sex marriages in EU law. “I would like to make some changes in this world with regard to LGBTIQ+ rights. And I believe that I can achieve this through international public law.” An interview.

Shelter City is a worldwide initiative that provides safe spaces to at-risk human rights defenders and supports them in reclaiming their civic space. Ali Erdoğan is a Shelter City visiting researcher at the Asser Institute, and a PhD candidate at Istanbul Kültür University. We asked Ali what he hopes to achieve during his three-month stay in The Hague.  

What is your main research focus during your visiting research fellowship at the Asser Institute?
“My main area of research is human rights. And the topic that I am currently working on is same-sex marriages in European human rights law. I have noticed that when it comes to the decisions by the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR) on same-sex marriages and other partnership types, the court always refers to Article 8 of the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR). This article says: ‘Everyone has the right to respect for his private and family life, his home and his correspondence.’
I am curious to find out why the Court uses Article 8 instead of Article 12, the article that covers the right to marry. Article 12 of the Convention literally says: ‘Men and women of marriageable age have the right to marry and to found a family, according to the national laws governing the exercise of this right’.

Major social changes
I believe that the law, as time passes, is not capable of sufficiently remaining up-to-date, so laws like the ECHR are still a bit stuck in the past. As the Convention was adopted in the 1950s, and the institution of marriage and other partnership types have undergone major social changes since then, I think we need to keep updating and upgrading articles to adapt the law to these new situations. Hence, I am currently checking all the judgements of the ECtHR, thirty-four relevant cases related to Article 12, to try and find the logic behind the Court’s reasoning.”

What is the importance of this topic?
“More than twenty years ago, same-sex marriage was legalised in the Netherlands. But there still is no consensus between the Council of Europe member states on this topic. It is up to each member state to decide whether it will recognise same-sex marriages or partnerships. Therefore, I am interested to find out what explains the difference between states like Georgia, Azerbaijan and Turkey – which do not recognise same-sex marriages - on the one hand, and member states like Malta and the Netherlands on the other hand.

Patriarchal and bureaucratic
Although many countries tend to consider the European ideology and culture as symbols of progressiveness, but I think this is not always the case. I see a gap between European idealism in theory and the reality. ECtHR, for instance, can still be very patriarchal, and I think that we as researchers can reveal this by looking into discriminatory cases. I am focusing on same-sex marriages and the ECtHR to prove that European ideology is not always progressive and to see if a more inclusive order can be established based on the concept of the right to relate under the Convention. As Turkey, my home country, is a party to the Convention, I chose to look into the ECtHR’s work on this topic. And considering the rise of right-wing homophobic ideology across Europe in recent elections, I feel the gravity of this situation and the importance of defending human rights. I am also planning to look into other regional and international human rights conventions, such as the American Convention on Human Rights (ACHR). The Inter-American Court of Human Rights, for instance, has ruled in 2018 that same-sex marriages should be recognised by the countries that have signed the ACHR.”

Why did you choose to study public law and what motivated you to focus your research on LGBTI+ rights?
"I have been working as a research assistant at the Faculty of Law of Istanbul Kültür University, and I have always been interested in human rights issues, so this led me to choose public law in general and legal theory in details for my Master’s degree.
I actually have two very different bachelor’s degrees: one in Electric and Electronical Engineering and one in Law. Going from engineering to law is something that hardly anybody can believe, - which I don’t get (laughs). But I do not mind being unique, and I have noticed that I can apply my analytical engineering research skills to legal theories as well.
Apart from this, I see problems in the way some states use laws to regulate our personal lives. Marriage, for instance, is a way to organise people’s lives and relationships. To me, it seems to be a regulatory tool of governments to control individuals, a tool that has been culturally perpetuated. For if you really think about it, we could ask ourselves: why would we need to prove our personal relationships to the state?

Violence and discrimination
Eventually I would like to make some changes in this world, especially with regards to LGBTIQ+ rights, and I believe I can achieve this through human rights. Although I personally identify myself as queer, I do not say this just to defend LGBTIQ+ individuals. As a lecturer in law, I also teach my students in Turkey that LGBTIQ+ individuals are part of society, but often face violence and discrimination. This 'witch' that we are facing off, should be something of the past, but it is still happening in modern society. During the Covid-19 pandemic, for instance, LGBTIQ+ communities across the globe were singled out, blamed, and stigmatised as ‘vectors of disease’. As we still have a long way to go on these human rights issues, I chose to study law. And as a researcher from Turkey, a rather conservative Islamic country, I appreciate the academic freedom to look into radical issues and political dilemmas related to LGBTIQ+ rights, also on a national level.”

What kind of societal and academic impact are you aiming to achieve with your work, especially in the field of queer (legal) theory?
“Legal theory is distinctive and clear about what legally constitutes our identity. But queer theory offers many different perspectives. Queer theory is a relatively new academic discipline albeit one with a background that dates back for years. It sheds light to other identities of individuals, such as race, language, age, and sexual orientation. As identities will keep changing as time passes - and as a result issues about identities will continuously keep emerging in the future - we need to be open-minded to understand them.
People often think that queer legal theory is only about LGBTIQ+ individuals, but it is actually the theory that defends equality of all kinds of beings, including ecological beings, environmental beings, and even artificial intelligence beings. I would like to positively impact other researchers by discussing how we can find solutions to ongoing legal problems using queer legal theory.”

What has been your proudest or most challenging moment as a researcher so far?
“Let's start with the challenges…. (smiles). I think that legal professionals who have majored in domestic law, like myself, face language issues, and difficulties with international legal issues. The law sometimes seems to stand still, or at least it does not change or improve as fast as sociological realities change. I believe that people working in global society on topics such as human rights law and legal theory have more opportunities in so many ways. Besides this, I have found academia to sometimes be quite conservative and challenging, in particular for people whose research topics are not mainstream, such as my own work on LGBTIQ+ rights and same-sex marriage. So, I think young professionals should step in to try and make the field more inclusive and create a freer academic atmosphere where they can challenge old ideas.

I am proud of the research that I am doing right now at the Asser Institute. Even a few years ago, I would have never dreamed of being able to conduct research in the Netherlands and at a research institution like the Asser Institute. Here, I can grow as a researcher and get in touch with other scholars to build a transdisciplinary network. Every day, I open new gates to the academic world, and I can focus on my research while having unlimited access to limited knowledge, knowledge that should be freely accessible to all.”

If you were to offer advice to young academics or legal scholars who wish to enter the field you are in now, what would it be?
“My first advice for young academics would be to remain critical of everything, even of themselves…The second advice, though, would be to also keep an open mind, so that you can innovate conservative knowledge and develop the thinking. For legal scholars in particular, I would advise them to immerse themselves in legal theory. For we cannot create change if we do not know where we come from. Constitutions have been written by human beings, which means that they can also be changed by us to create a better world. Hence: learn the theory and use this knowledge as a tool for a just cause, or in the fight for justice. Lastly, I think that we, as young academics, should also take good care of ourselves while working on research and studying. Do not forget to take some rest in order not to burn out. Remember that no one can replace you, or your work.”

About Ali Erdoğan
Ali Erdoğan is a Shelter City Fellow, based at the Asser Institute, and a PhD candidate and research assistant in the department of philosophy and sociology of law at Istanbul Kültür University. During his research stay at the Asser Institute, he will focus on the topics of same-sex marriage and human rights, and in particular on the question whether a more inclusive order can be established under the European Convention of Human Rights. Ali is part of the Asser research strand ‘In the public interest: accountability of the state and the prosecution of crimes’, which examines i) the accountability of states - individually and collectively (for instance at the level of the United Nations or the European Union) - in light of public interest standards in the context of counter-terrorism; and ii) the prosecution of individuals for international and transnational crimes in the public interest. Moreover, to ensure both the accountability of the state and the prosecution of individuals, this strand will also investigate iii) the role of journalists, the (new) media, human rights NGOs and academics in protecting and promoting public interest standards.

About the Shelter City Asser fellowship programme
Since 2017, the T.M.C. Asser Instituut annually welcomes a human rights defender within the framework of Shelter City, a project initiated by Justice & Peace Netherlands that provides temporary relocation and training to legal practitioners who fight against human rights violations in their home countries. In the context of the Visiting Research Fellowship Programme of the Asser Institute, Shelter City Fellows will carry out a research project in the fields of human rights, international law or European law during a research stay (three months). In addition to researching the situation in their home countries, human rights defenders are part of the Asser research community and contribute to the Institute’s research. During lectures, they will also share the conclusions of their research with a wider public.