Ilhan Tanir
Dec 15 2017

U.S. Congress Turkey rights campaign gaining momentum

Members of the U.S. Congress have written three open letters urging action over what they said were human rights abuses in Turkey in recent months and urged U.S. President Donald Trump take action so as not to give the green light to more oppressive measures.

The letters come at a time of mounting tension between the United States and Turkey following Trump’s recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, a high-profile U.S. trial of a Turkish banker on charges of breaking sanctions on Iran, U.S. backing for Kurdish forces in Syria and Washington’s refusal to immediately extradite Turkish coup suspect Fethullah Gülen.

The most recent letter, dated Dec. 5 and posted on the Amnesty USA website on Dec. 13, attracted the signatures of 43 members of congress including both co-chairs of the Human Rights Commission. It pointed to the extended pre-trial detention of two senior Amnesty International workers in Turkey along with nine other rights activists, as well as the arrests of some 50,000 people pending trial on charges related to last failed military coup, blamed on followers of Gülen.

“If these prosecutions are allowed to move forward without a clear response from the United States government, a precedent will be set that will not only threaten the legitimate work of Amnesty International and other human rights organisations, but will also embolden authoritarian regimes around the world,” the letter, addressed to U.S. President Donald Trump, said.

“The Turkish government must understand that business as usual cannot continue under such conditions. The costs for human rights in Turkey – and for human rights around the world – will be immensely and unacceptably high.”

Blaise Misztal, the director of national security programme at the Bipartisan Policy Center, one of the leading think tanks in Washington, told Ahval there were two aspects to these congressional statements on human rights abuses in Turkey.

“First, there is a growing perception among U.S. officials of a building authoritarian wave that threatens the international order,” he said.

“But second, members of Congress feel free to be outspoken about foreign policy issues because they do not have to deal with the diplomatic fall out. Thus, there is real concern in Washington about the autocratic direction in which President (Recep Tayyip) Erdoğan is steering Turkey.”

The latest letter noted that the arrests of Amnesty Turkey Chair Taner Kılıç and Amnesty Turkey Director İdil Eser were the first time that the chair and director of a national branch of the organisation had been arrested in the history of the organisation.

“They were arrested for merely doing their work protecting the rights of others who are imprisoned and tortured,” it said.

“These arrests represent a dangerous escalation in the ongoing attacks on fundamental human rights and civil society in Turkey.”

Turkey has lost any sympathy and support it used to have in the U.S. Congress, said Soner Cağaptay, Turkish research programme director at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.

“Going forward, Ankara’s biggest critic in Washington is going to the members of the U.S. legislative. Compare this to a decade ago, when some of Erdoğan’s biggest cheerleaders were on the Hill, and the dramatic shift becomes even more visible, with repercussions for U.S.-Turkish ties,” Cağaptay told Ahval.

The letter follows one addressed to Trump on Oct. 24, signed by 14 senators including former presidential hopefuls John McCain and Bernie Sanders.

“Over the past several years, President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and his allies have corroded Turkey’s democracy by mounting an assault on the rule of law, using sweeping state of emergency authorities to stifle fundamental rights including free speech, undermining the independence of the judiciary, and quashing any expressions of opposition,” the letter said.

Another letter, sent to Erdoğan by the Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe, a U.S. government agency that promotes human rights, voiced similar concerns about the rule of law in Turkey.

“Last year, the Turkish people defeated a violent and illegal challenge to their democratic institutions,” said the letter, dated on Oct. 16.

“Today, the 15-month-old state of emergency poses a different threat to these same institutions, particularly the judiciary.”

“By facilitating sweeping purges with no evidentiary standards, the state of emergency has upended countless innocent lives and undercuts domestic and international confidence in Turkey’s rule of law,” it said.

Misztal said these letters expressed a genuine frustration but that the United States had too much invested in its relationship with Turkey to begin withdrawing from it.

Geopolitical and strategic issues, such as access to the Incirlik air base in southern Turkey, will continue to define U.S. policy toward Turkey, he said.

“This strange dynamic of ever louder criticism but continuing, if grudging, cooperation is likely to define relations between Ankara and Washington for the foreseeable future.”

Nate Schenkkan, a project director at Freedom House, told Ahval that Ankara should nonetheless take the letters seriously.

“It is clear that there is wide and deep frustration in Congress with Turkey’s persecution of civil society activists and more broadly with the crackdown itself,” he said.

“Ankara may consider these to be just words about human rights defenders, but congressional perceptions about Turkey will bleed over into other aspects of the U.S.–Turkey relationship, including those involving defence cooperation, NATO, and Russia.”

43 Congressmen join many other elected officials in voicing their opposition to Turkey's crackdown on journalists, civil society representatives, protesters and  rights defenders. U.S. Legislators have clearly demonstrated that they take these human rights violations seriously. It appears It is difficult to see how Turkey can refurbish its image in Congress and remain a U.S. partner unless it takes steps to free those unjustly detained.