The United States State Department released a report on April 20 detailing significant human rights abuses in Turkey, including the torture of detainees, forced disappearances, arbitrary arrests, and the detention of “tens of thousands” of individuals, including members of parliament as well as US consular staff in Turkey. The report marks a turning point in US-Turkish relations since it is the most critical one issued since the 1990s.
The Turkish Foreign Ministry slammed the US report, calling it “full of false portrayals, unacceptable accusations and allegations,” but reports of violations from human rights organizations are all too common. The surge in abuses are a direct result of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s increasing authoritarianism and turn to brutish methods in the aftermath of a failed coup attempt in July 2016.
For almost two years, Erdogan has kept in place a state of emergency enabling him to rule by decree and trample on civil rights. To crush opposition, he has carried out a massive purge resulting in the dismissal of more than 100,000 civil servants and the arrest of over 50,000 individuals. As the State Department observes, Ankara fosters impunity by failing to investigate, prosecute, and punish the perpetrators of human rights abuses.
Erdogan’s government frames this campaign as part of an effort to clamp down on terrorism. Ankara also accuses many of its targets of having ties to US-based Turkish cleric Fethullah Gulen, whom the government believes was behind the coup, or the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), a US-designated insurgent group that has been engaged in a bloody conflict with Ankara for over three decades.
The State Department’s report said prosecutors are using blanket accusations of terrorism, incitement, or insulting the president to silence a broad range of critical voices including activists, journalists, academics, and politicians, mainly from the pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP). These cases are often based on spotty evidence and feature an absence of due process, including attorney-client privilege. Notable arrests include the co-leaders of the HDP, Amnesty International’s Turkey director, civil society leader Osman Kavala, and journalists of the country’s leading opposition daily, Cumhuriyet.
The Turkish crackdown has not spared foreign nationals from politically-motivated arrests, spurred on by increasing chauvinism and anti-Western sentiment. Authorities detained American pastor Andrew Brunson in October 2016 on implausible charges of terrorism based on statements from secret witnesses. Two Turkish nationals employed by the US Mission to Turkey are also in Turkish custody based on unsubstantiated charges of espionage and terrorism, while another one is under house arrest.
The government has also moved aggressively to prevent public displays of opposition. To that end, the state of emergency gives governors enhanced powers to ban demonstrations, routinely used to deny opposition parties permission to hold rallies. Throughout the year, peaceful demonstrations have faced violent police responses. Police targeted activists for campaigning against the constitutional changes supported by the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) in a referendum last April.
An Amnesty International report released on April 26 echoed the State Department’s concerns, calling the impact of the state of emergency on civil society “immense” and “deliberate.” It pointed to the smear campaigns against civil society actors in pro-government media and said these are “often a precursor for arrest or prosecution.” The report said the crackdown on civil society denies at-risk groups in Turkey, such as survivors of gender-based violence, refugees, and migrants “crucial support and solidarity as they struggle to defend their rights.”
Although Turkish human rights abuses may seem like a secondary concern for the US in light of Turkish threats against US partners in Syria and Turkey’s deepening relationship with Russia and Iran, these issues cannot be separated. The Turkish government’s disdain for human rights must be seen in the context of declining liberal democratic values in the country, influencing its foreign relations as well as domestic policies. Furthermore, the arrest of Western nationals and US Mission staff is part of a dangerous strategy of taking foreigners as hostages to be exchanged for concessions from Washington, Berlin, Paris, and others.
The new report from the State Department indicates an alarming erosion of fundamental rights and freedoms in Turkey, which have entailed a drift away not only from transatlantic values, but also from the transatlantic alliance. Rather than relying on bilateral diplomacy to resolve their particular concerns, the members of NATO should respond with concerted pressure that makes clear to Erdogan that they will hold him accountable.
Aykan Erdemir is a former member of the Turkish parliament and a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, where Deniz Yuksel is an intern.
Photo Credit: President Trump and President Erdoğan give a joint statement in the Roosevelt Room at the White House on Tuesday, May 16, 2017. Official White House Photo by Shealah Craighead.
For more about Turkey’s alliance with NATO, Joseph Loconte previously wrote on this topic in “Turkey’s Democratic Debt to NATO.” For more on how the Christian belief that God made humans in his image (imago Dei) affects how Christians should think of human rights, be sure to read Emilie Kao’s “Conviction in Crisis: The Image of God and Christian Global Responsibility” from Providence’s Fall 2017 issue of the print edition. Also, be sure to read Daniel Strand’s different interpretation in “The Distorted Image.”