Erdogan Wants to Mend Turkey's Ties With the West by Rebranding as a Human Rights Hero. It’s a Sick Joke

Erdogan’s 'Human Rights Action Plan' is part of his campaign to convince Biden and Europe that Turkey is a reliable strategic partner. It's a weak publicity stunt

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A woman holds a flag with an image of Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan during a local congress of the ruling AK Party in Istanbul, Turkey last month
A woman holds a flag with an image of Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan during a local congress of the ruling AK Party in Istanbul, Turkey last month.Credit: MURAD SEZER/ REUTERS
Simon A. Waldman
Simon A. Waldman

Turkey is looking to mend ties with the West. 

Last December, Turkey’s firebrand president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, declared that that it was time to "turn a new page" in relations with the U.S. and Europe. 

In January, Turkey renewed talks with Greece over maritime boundaries and sent away its seismic exploration vessel from disputed waters, and earlier this month President Erdogan told France’s President Emmanuel Macron that Turkey and France could fight terrorism together and seek peace and security in the region. 

Ankara is also hoping that it can come to some kind of working arrangement with the new U.S. administration of President Joe Biden. Reportedly, in return for a reversal of CAATSA sanctions which the U.S. imposed for Turkey’s purchase of Russian S400 missiles which risk the security of important data to non-NATO countries, Ankara is willing to not fully deploy the surface to air missiles batteries. 

However, even if Turkey were to cease hydrocarbon exploration in waters claimed by Greece and Cyprus, decommission its S400s, make compromises with Kurdish anti-ISIS fighters, stand down in Libya and stop using the millions of refugees it hosts as a weapon against Europe, Turkey still has its work cut out in convincing the West that after decades of intransigence, it can suddenly be considered a reliable strategic partner. 

Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan unveiling his Human Rights Action Plan in Ankara, Turkey this monthCredit: PRESIDENTIAL PRESS OFFICE/ REU

Turkey would also need to improve its human rights record and reverse its ailing democracy which is mentioned in nearly every European Council meeting and was highlighted last week in a letter by 170 U.S. lawmakers to President Biden who has yet to pick up the phone and call his Turkish counterpart. 

Values of democracy and human rights constitute a central pillar of Turkey’s institutional ties with the West. Take the case of NATO. The North Atlantic Treaty’s opening preamble, declares that members, "are determined to safeguard the freedom, common heritage and civilisation of their peoples, founded on the principles of democracy, individual liberty and the rule of law." 

Quite frankly, if NATO were re-established today, Turkey would not qualify for inclusion. 

Turkey was a founding member of the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development; however, if Ankara were to apply today, it wouldn’t get in. The OECD now calls for new members to be committed to "form a community of nations committed to the values of democracy based on the rule of law and human rights”.

Ditto, the Council of Europe which Turkey joined in 1950. The Council expressly "advocates freedom of expression and of the media, freedom of assembly, equality, and the protection of minorities."

As for joining the EU, Turkey’s accession talks remain frozen and the possibility for reopening them is not even remote. 

Earlier this month, President Erdogan announced a human rights action plan. Its aims include improving the country’s record of upholding fundamental freedoms, increasing democratic participation, ensuring equality before the law, guaranteeing freedom of expression and enhancing access to the country’s constitutional court. 

However, Turkey’s actions speak louder than such lofty plans. Just this year alone, it can be assumed at the same time as the government’s action plan was being drafted, fundamental freedoms in Turkey were and continue to be routinely violated making the action plan seem like little more than a publicity stunt. 

Turkish police detaining a woman at the demonstrations against President Ergodan's appointment of a loyalist as a university rector at Bogazici University Credit: Bulent Kilic/AFP

In January, Ankara handpicked the new rector of Bogazici University, one of the country’s oldest and most prestigious insitutes of higher education. The appointment was despite the university’s tradition of holding elections for the post, and despite evidence that the new rector had plagiarized significant chunks of his master’s thesis. Student protesters and sympathizers were subjected to assaults, tear gas, detentions and ill-treatment.

President Erdogan labelled the protesters "terrorists," and there were even reports of government snipers positioning themselves in nearby rooftops. 

In January, there were a series of attacks on journalists and politicians by gangs who claim to support the far-right Nationalist Movement Party (MHP), a coalition partner of the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP). Five journalists were attacked during the first 15 days of 2021 alone. Journalists continue to be detained and arrested, and Turkey was narrowly beaten by China for the inglorious title of being the world’s greatest imprisoner of journalists.

Supporters of imprisoned Selahattin Demirtas, Presidential candidate and leader of People's Democratic Party (HDP) hold masks as they march, during a rally in Ankara. June 19, 2018Credit: ADEM ALTAN/AFP

Last year, opposition leader Kemal Kilicdaroglu was the subject of safety concerns after a mob boss associated with the MHP openly threatened him, and democratically elected mayors associated with the Kurdish-oriented Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) were removed from office, charged with terrorist offenses, and replaced by government appointees. This year government ministers are openly talking about finding a way to close the party down entirely.

Members of the HDP such as Selahattin Demirtas remain in jail, despite European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) rulings that he be immediately released. Turkey continues to ignore the ECHR which, for example, called for the release of philanthropist Osman Kavala, who was arrested for the spurious allegation that he aided the 2016 coup attempt and had financed earlier anti-government protests. 

According to Human Rights Watch’s 2021 report, during the COVID-19 pandemic, Turkey enacted legislation which severely silenced dissent and opposition voices. This included laws that enabled the government to remove heads of NGOs if they are charged with terrorist offenses, which are loosely defined in Turkey. 

Action plan or not, Turkey’s democracy and human rights record is abysmal and make the possibility of a meaningful rapprochement with the West, quite frankly, impossible. Until this is rectified in deed and not just word, there is little hope for an improvement in Turkey’s relations with the West. 

Dr Simon A. Waldman is an associate fellow at the Henry Jackson Society and a visiting lecturer at King's College London. He is the co-author of "The New Turkey and Its Discontents" (Oxford University Press, 2017). Twitter: @simonwaldman1

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