U.S. rights report highlights Turkey’s transnational repression

The U.S. State Department 2019 human rights report on Turkey released last week highlights significant rights abuses and said the Turkish government restricted fundamental freedoms and compromised the rule of law through broad anti-terror legislation.

“The State Department's report offers a comprehensive overview of Turkey's dire human rights situation, putting on clear display the Turkish government's complete disregard for the most basic rights and freedoms of its citizens,” Merve Tahiroğlu, the Turkey Program coordinator at the Project on Middle East Democracy, told Ahval.

The State Department’s “human rights reports are normally of high quality and very detailed, and this year is no exception,” said Nate Schenkkan, the director for special research at Freedom House. The department submits its human rights reports on 193 countries to Congress each year.

New this year to the reports is the category of “Politically Motivated Reprisals Against Individuals Located Outside the Country”. Schenkkan said the new category was a direct product of discussions prompted by the bipartisan Transnational Repression Accountability and Prevention (TRAP) Act introduced last September.

If passed, the bill would require the State Department to report specifically on the authoritarian abuse of Interpol red notices and diffusions to repress dissent abroad. These Interpol communications have legitimate crime fighting and counter terrorism purposes, but they are regularly misused by authoritarian governments.

The TRAP Act is stalled in Congress, set aside first during the impeachment saga and now due to the all-consuming coronavirus threat, so it is encouraging that the State Department has elected to initiate reporting on a broad set of transnational forms of repression.

“That State chose to do this before the bill is passed, and that they took a wider definition of transnational repression than what the bill requires, is an excellent step,” Schenkkan said. “This shows a real willingness at State to take transnational repression seriously.”

Transnational repression, including the harassment and illegal rendition of citizens living in exile by Turkish officials, is far from the only category of human rights abuse the State Department report details.

It describes “reports of arbitrary killings; suspicious deaths of persons in custody; forced disappearances; torture; arbitrary arrest and detention of tens of thousands of persons,” as well as the degradation of the rule of law and “severe restrictions on freedom of expression, the press, and the internet.” The state of emergency following the attempted coup in July 2016 enabled President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s government to enact the broad anti-terror legislation underpinning these abuses.

“The report shows that the Turkish government’s ending of the state of emergency in July 2018 did not remedy Turkey’s dismal human rights record,” said Aykan Erdemir, the director of the Turkey Program at the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies.

“The systematic nature of the human rights abuses and the culture of impunity for the perpetrators show that there is still a de facto state of emergency in Turkey, and constitutional and legal guarantees remain on paper,” he told Ahval.

In the section on transnational repression, the State Department report states that the Turkish government exerted bilateral pressure on Ukraine to secure the deportations of two Turkish citizens without due process. However, the report failed to mention similar cases perpetrated by Ankara in 2019 in Cambodia and Malaysia.

“The process of compiling these reports is not simple from the perspective of the State staffers who prepare them, and the primary responsibility rests in the embassy of the country concerned,” Schenkkan said, a task made harder by the fact that transnational repression inherently requires them to research incidents outside of the country where they are stationed.

He said he hoped that, “as the reporting process develops the country reports will become more comprehensive in these sections each year.”

Fitting within the larger strategy contained in the TRAP Act, and called for by activists working on transnational repression, State Department reports serve to help increase the awareness and understanding of transnational repression.

“They provide more visibility to the problem and a high-quality reference for advocates raising the issue with policymakers, whether in the U.S. or in international forums,” Schenkkan said.

The Erdoğan administration dismissed the State Department report on Turkey, calling it “politically motivated”.

“Erdoğan doesn’t seem concerned about the report since he counts on the U.S. administration to ignore his government’s problematic human rights record and doesn’t expect any pushback, including Global Magnitsky sanctions specifically designed to target serious human rights abuses,” Erdemir said.

“The Trump administration's unwillingness to speak up on these issues and factor them into its foreign policy has only compounded Turkey’s sense of impunity,” Tahiroğlu said. “This report needs an audience not only in Erdoğan’s palace, but also in the Trump White House.” 

Erdemir said that, “until Washington demonstrates its willingness to sanction Turkey’s top human rights violators, the Erdoğan government will continue to ignore the embarrassing exposés in the State Department report.”

Beyond the application of targeted sanctions and further improvement to reporting on human rights abuses, the United States can do more to counter Turkey’s human rights abuses by passing the TRAP Act to prevent the complicity of U.S. law enforcement entities in transnational repression.


© Ahval English

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