Turkey is a Nato ally, a partner in the fight against the so-called Islamic State, a key player in helping to tackle the current migrant crisis, a guarantor power in Cyprus and a major trading partner. Our bilateral relationship with Turkey is vital, but we must have an honest and open debate about Turkey and reaffirm our strongest possible support for democracy, the rule of law and human rights.
On Sunday April 16, a national referendum will be held on a new draft constitution, the outcome of which could provide sweeping powers to the Turkish president.
On the night of July 15 2016, there were scenes of mass protest as Turkish people took to the streets in defiance of the coup attempt; parties from across the political spectrum united in opposition to the overthrow of the government. That night, more than 240 people, including 179 civilians, died resisting the failed coup. The Turkish people were rightly commended for their bravery and for the manner in which they stood in defence of their democracy. However, in the words of Human Rights Watch, the Turkish government’s response to the attempted coup has been “an affront” to the democracy that Turkey’s population took to the streets to defend, and the government “unleashed a purge that goes far beyond holding to account those involved in trying to overthrow it”.
Alongside declaring a state of emergency, which is still in place, Turkey suspended the European convention on human rights. However, article 15 of the convention, which allows for derogation from the convention in times of public emergency, does not give states the right to suspend their commitment to international human rights obligations. Freedom from Torture, the non-profit orgnisation dedicated to the treatment and rehabilitation of survivors of torture, makes the crucial point that article 15 does not allow for derogation from article 3, “Prohibition of torture”. That prohibition is absolute.
More than 40,000 people have been imprisoned since July, with reports emerging of the mistreatment and torture of those in detention, and more than 120,000 public sector workers – school teachers, academics, prosecutors, judges, civil servants and police – are reported to have been suspended or dismissed from their jobs. That is hardly a list of extremists that one should fear. Following that, is it not the case that many of the people who have been held in detention, persecuted or subject to repression are the very people who were the first to condemn the attempted military coup? The defenders of democracy are now being persecuted by the regime.
The arrest of 3,000 members of the judiciary in just a few days following the failed coup seemed a rather strange way to uphold the rule of law. The Committee to Protect Journalists tells us there has been a media crackdown in Turkey that is unprecedented since the committee began keeping a record, in 1991. It states Turkey jailed, “more journalists than any other country in 2016”, and closed “some 178 news outlets and publishing houses by decree in the space of five months, allowing only a handful to reopen”. The judiciary and a free press are being undermined. Both are requirements for any operating democracy.
Human rights have been drastically curtailed, particularly in minority Kurdish and Alevi areas. There has been a clampdown on the freedom of assembly, with military curfews imposed in Kurdish and Alevi neighbourhoods. Dozens of Kurdish and Alevi newspapers and news channels have been shut down. Reports have included accounts of co-ordinated lynching attempts in Alevi areas following the failed coup. Members from the community have expressed grave concerns that the ongoing state of emergency is being used as an opportunity to intimidate Kurds and Alevis in their towns, villages and homes. Civil society space has been shrunk, with non-governmental organisations such as the Rojava Association, a charitable organisation that has helped Turkish flood victims and women and refugees from Kobane in Syria, being forced to close.
Sadly, the slide to authoritarianism in Turkey is not a new development. Last summer’s failed coup attempt was not the starting point of this descent, but instead has served as a catalyst for anti-democratic trends that have been apparent under President Recep Tayyip Erdogan for some time. Almost three years ago, in the build-up to the country’s presidential elections, Erdogan spoke of creating a new Turkey founded upon a new constitution. He promised to strengthen democracy, resolve the Kurdish issue and work towards ensuring Turkey’s accession to the European Union. Since those pledges were made, two parliamentary elections have been held in a climate of fear.
The elections may have been free, but they were not fair, with attacks on the offices and supporters of the pro-Kurdish People’s Democratic Party, the HDP. President Erdogan has denounced the rulings of constitutional courts and threatened their future independence. More than 2,000 people have been killed since the breakdown of the Kurdish peace process in 2015. Although Kurdish militias and civilians have shown incredible bravery at the forefront of the conflict against Islamic State, there has been widespread alarm at the Turkish military’s attacks on Kurdish fighters during Operation Euphrates Shield in northern Syria, which has intensified the already dire humanitarian situation in the region.
Erdogan and his government are leaving little room for co-operation across the European Union. Kemal Kiliçdaroglu, the chair of Turkey’s main opposition Republican People’s Party, had hoped that an opportunity had been created to open a “new door of compromise” in Turkish politics, following the public’s united outcry against the coup attempt. The door has remained firmly shut.
Figen Yüksekdag, co-leader of the HDP, has said that any hope of creating a new, more united and tolerant Turkey will fail without the active participation of Kurds, Alevis and other minority groups. Even before the attempted coup took place, parliamentary immunity from prosecution was stripped from more than 130 pro-Kurdish and other opposition MPs in 2016, and senior representatives from the HDP and other Kurdish parties have been attacked and marginalised since last July. At the behest of President Erdogan, the HDP was excluded from taking part in Turkey’s supposed democracy rallies, following the failed coup.
Selahattin Demirtas and Figen Yüksekdag, the democratically elected HDP leaders, were arrested and detained last November on alleged terrorism charges and ties to the banned Kurdistan Workers’ Party, the PKK. The HDP has denied any links to the PKK. But late last month Demirtas was sentenced to five months’ imprisonment for, “insulting the Turkish nation, the state of the Turkish Republic and public organs and institutions”, and Yüksekdag has now been stripped of her status as an MP. The EU’s Turkey rapporteur, Kati Piri, called the indictment of the two leaders outrageous. The EU’s foreign affairs chief, Federica Magherini, has declared that parliamentary democracy in Turkey has been compromised as a result.
Erdogan’s promise in 2013 to create a new Turkey with a new constitution is not what many supporters of democracy and human rights in Turkey had in mind. The national referendum in April on the country’s new draft constitution has the potential to further undermine Turkey’s democratic character. The proposed constitution would turn Turkey from a parliamentary to a presidential republic, scrapping the office of prime minister and giving the president new powers to select the majority of senior judges, enact certain laws by diktat, and unilaterally declare a state of emergency or dismiss parliament. In a political system that has already had its checks and balances, such as a free press and an independent judiciary, seriously weakened, those powers would entrench authoritarianism in Turkey.
Turkey is at a crucial juncture. Given the close relationship between the UK and Turkey, we need to be open and honest about and, yes, critical of, the current situation there; but is that happening? The headlines from Prime Minister Theresa May’s recent visit to Ankara related to a £100 million fighter jet deal and the development of a “new and deeper trading relationship with Turkey”. Valuable as our trading relationship is, human rights issues should never play second fiddle to commercial diplomacy. The PM may have stated the importance of Turkey sustaining democracy “by maintaining the rule of law and upholding its international human rights obligations, as the government has undertaken to do”. However, the key question must be whether that undertaking is being fulfilled.
We must be prepared to support those progressive voices in Turkey that are calling for greater democracy, the advancement of human rights and the promotion of equality and social justice. It is incumbent on the UK Government to promote those values vigorously in our relationship with Turkey; because Turkey – and the Kurds and the Alevis – deserve better, and the UK Government must do better in supporting democracy, the rule of law and human rights in that country.
Joan Ryan is Labour MP for Enfield. This article is an edited extract from a Westminster Hall debate.