It’s time for Europe to address Turkey’s dire human rights record

Ankara’s administration, a coalition of hard-core Islamists and relentless nationalists led by Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, is the elephant in the room whose presence is felt by EU members and some countries in the MENA region. Those countries, once encouraged by Turkey’s growing economy and democratisation prospects, are in shock and unsure of how to address Ankara’s bold violation of international norms.

Looking through the UN Human Rights Council Universal Periodic Review (UPR) of Turkey, I noticed that many countries had adopted low-key stances in their assessments and in their recommendations about Ankara’s policies. Countries that took a bolder line, such as those in North America or Western Europe, are merely shouting into an echo chamber.

Altogether, Turkey received 450 recommendations as part of the review, highlighting its dire human rights record.

The UPR review is a 5-year process in which a country’s human rights record and respect for rule of law are “X-rayed” and subjected to critiques that it is expected to respond to promptly.

In Turkey’s case, none of the expectations was met. When it was hit with a barrage of criticism in the United Nations’ grand hall in Geneva, the Turkish delegation responded with full defiance and arrogant hostility. It refused to acknowledge any concerns and reverted to its tired pretext of “fighting terrorism.”

The fact that Turkey tops the league of oppressive regimes, keeping more than 55,000 dissidents — which it labels “domestic enemies” — as political prisoners was not seriously discussed nor were the myriad other ways Turkey disregards the rule of law.

The fact that more than 130 journalists and many more intellectuals have been unjustly held in detention seemed not to worry the Turkish delegation, whose chairman, Deputy Foreign Minister Faruk Kaymakci, argued, in a nutshell, that such imprisonments were all about fighting terrorism. No one, especially journalists, he argued, are above the law.

Another issue not brought up in the UPR session but was addressed at side events in which I took part was Turkey’s widespread use of torture which, of course, it categorically denies. However, as documented by Sebnem Korur Fincanci, the president of the Human Rights Foundation in Turkey, torture is being systematically used throughout the country, often against Kurdish and alleged Gulenist prisoners.

Most of the bitter facts are on the record. As pointed out by the International Observatory of Human Rights, Turkey has not come close to upholding its UPR promises.

It stated: “In the period under review, the government has weaponised the legal system and terror legislation to restrict free expression. By means of freedom of expression and freedom of press Turkey now stands far below where it was back in 2010, when the first UPR cycle was compiled.”

I could not help but notice the sense of helplessness in diplomats and Western NGO representatives in my talks with them. Most did not hide the fact that all forms of “friendly ammunition” to persuade Ankara to return to respect for rule of law had nearly run out. Erdogan’s administration is increasingly defiant towards outside criticism as his regime grows into one of the most oppressive in the world.

The day after the UPR session, further confirmation of Turkey’s misconduct landed on their desks. The European Court of Human Rights (ECHR), in its annual activity report issued January 29, ranked Turkey first in terms of violations of freedom of expression in 2019.

Of the 68 judgments in which the court found violations of freedom of expression under Article 10 of the European Convention on Human Rights, 35 were filed by Turkish citizens.

The EHCR report reminded us that Turkey’s intolerance for dissent was becoming a chronic feature of the state: “The country single-handedly committed more violations regarding this issue than the rest of the member states combined throughout 1959-2019, committing 356 of the total 845 violations,” ECHR stated.

It added: “In 2019, the ECHR delivered 113 judgments on Turkey, finding at least one violation in 97 of these cases. During the period of 1959-2019, the court delivered 3,645 judgments for cases coming from Turkey, finding the country at fault in 3,225 of these cases.”

This harsh indictment, combined with Turkey’s expansionist ambitions and militarised foreign policy, shows a need to urgently revise the appeasement policies being pursued in the European Union’s top circles.

One thing is clear: Ostrich patterns from Turkey’s concerned allies, if continued, will not only create a monster but inflict deeper damage on large parts of Turkish society.

The opinions expressed in this column are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Ahval.