Turkey slams U.S. human rights report – but can’t refute the claims

The 2019 country report on human rights practices in Turkey the United States Department of State released on Wednesday outlines violations that appeared in earlier reports on the country including forced disappearances, a systematic weakening of judicial independence, and restraints on civil society including the detention of hundreds of journalists.

Many of these allegations are a consequence of anti-terrorism laws passed after the July 2016 failed coup attempt against Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan.

“Since the 2016 coup attempt, authorities have dismissed or suspended more than 45,000 police and military personnel and more than 130,000 civil servants, dismissed one-third of the judiciary, arrested or imprisoned more than 80,000 citizens, and closed more than 1,500 nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) on terrorism-related grounds,” read the executive summary of the report, which is submitted annually to Congress for 193 countries around the world. 

On March 13, the Turkish Foreign Ministry denounced the State Department report as “far from being objective, is politically motivated and contains unfounded accusations based on ambiguous sources.” 

In previous years, Turkey’s foreign ministry rejected these reports in identical language, particularly on the topic of the exiled Turkish cleric Fethullah Gülen, whose followers Ankara accuses of being part of a terrorist organisation responsible for the failed coup. 

“By referring as the ‘Gülen movement’ to Fetullahist Terrorist Organization (FETÖ), which is the perpetrator of the 15 July coup attempt and an existential threat to our country, the report tries to portray FETÖ as an innocent civilian organization,” said the foreign ministry statement, accusing the State Department’s refusal to label FETÖ a terrorist group the result of allegations “of certain hostile circles against Turkey.” 

The report also scrutinised the campaign against the Syrian Kurdish YPG, who Ankara also views as a terrorist threat. Turkey’s launch of Operation Peace Spring in October 2019 was criticised for attacks that resulted in the death of civilians and the destruction of civil infrastructure by Turkish forces or their Syrian proxies. Included among other instances of abuse in the report was the murder of Syrian Kurdish politician Hevrin Khalaf by a Turkish proxy, Ahrar al-Sharqiya. 

Turkey rejected this claim in the same language it used in dismissing U.S. critiques that came with Operation Olive Branch in 2018. That offensive seized control of Syria’s Afrin province from Syrian Kurdish militants, prompting thousands to flee as Turkish proxies began pillaging the territory.

Calling the allegations of civilian harm “far from reality,” the Turkish foreign ministry slammed the report as hypocritical by pointing out the civilian deaths that were the result of airstrikes in Iraq and Syria by the U.S.-led international coalition against the Islamic State (ISIS). The ministry said Turkey could “draw no lessons” from the U.S. based on this charge. 

The coalition estimates that its operations killed 1,347 civilians in over 30,000 airstrikes in their campaign against ISIS. 

Aykan Erdemir, Senior Director at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies (FDD), says that Erdoğan’s government repeatedly disregards human rights reports about Turkey released by Western countries as biased, but does little to refute the claims they make. 

“What Ankara has failed to do so far is to prove that the alleged human rights abuses didn’t take place or the victims do not exist,” said Erdemir. “Furthermore, Turkish courts cannot offer any concrete examples of timely and effective legal remedy for the victims, and hence cannot challenge the report’s findings about Turkey’s culture of impunity.”

Nicholas Danforth, an expert on Turkey at the Bipartisan Policy Center, agrees that Turkey’s rejection of outside criticism of its human rights records relies on painting itself as a victim to bias directed against it. 

“Accusations of hypocrisy and political bias have become Turkey's default rhetorical response to all human rights criticism, although undoubtedly many in Ankara really do believe that's what's driving it,” said Danforth. 

“Unfortunately, Washington's long standing willingness to go easy on American allies with poor human rights records has helped give credence to this kind of thinking.”

This accusation was reflected in U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s press conference that accompanied the release of the department’s annual human rights reports. In the address, Pompeo was more keen to openly call out the administration’s stated foes, such as Iran and China, on rights abuses.

The New York Times noted that critics of the administration labelled this posture as politicised because of the extra emphasis placed on rights abuses in some countries more than others. The reason the Times cites for this difference is that countries with egregious rights records that go unmentioned are ignored because of U.S. President Donald Trump’s personal reluctance to criticise their leaders. 

Erdoğan has proven adept at wooing the U.S. president and extracting concessions from him, such as Trump’s green-lighting of the launch of Operation Peace Spring last year. Trump refers to Erdoğan as a friend and that affection appears to be shared by the Turkish leader, who counts his U.S. counterpart as among the world leaders he respects most. 

The State Department’s reports may not spur any change in the Turkish government’s rights abuses, but that does not mean the accusations lack merit. FDD’s Erdemir said that some of these same accusations listed in the U.S. report have been cited by domestic rivals of Erdoğan. 

“The Erdoğan government’s refutation [of Western human rights reports] doesn’t hold any weight domestically, especially now that two of his closest colleagues who have recently left the AKP to set up their respective splinter parties also accuse him of the very same human rights violations documented in the State Department report,” said Erdemir.   

Ali Babacan, a former deputy prime minister under Erdoğan, called out the abuse of rights in Turkey as “creating suffering” for the Turkish people in a speech to supporters at the launch of his new DEVA Party on March 11, while Ahmet Davutoğlu, another one-time Erdoğan ally, has accused the current government of nepotism and smothering the rights of its citizens.