Turkey: Human Rights and the Political Situation
I beg to move,
That this House has considered human rights and the political situation in Turkey.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Bone. I thank the Backbench Business Committee for making time for the debate, and I am grateful to the co-sponsors of the debate, my right hon. Friend the Member for Tottenham (Mr Lammy) and the hon. Members for Glasgow East (Natalie McGarry) and for Worthing West (Sir Peter Bottomley). I also appreciate the cross-party support for the debate, which demonstrates the deep level of interest and concern among parliamentarians regarding the current situation in Turkey. Could I just say, Mr Bone, that I believe there are a large number of people outside?
It seems that there are a lot of people outside the room who ought to be inside; I am sure that will be attended to swiftly. I had to battle my way through to get into the room.
For context, Tukey is a NATO ally, a partner in the fight against ISIL/Daesh, a key player in helping to tackle the current migrant crisis, a guarantor power in Cyprus and a major trading partner. The UK’s bilateral relationship with Turkey is vital, but as the former shadow Foreign Secretary, my right hon. Friend the Member for Leeds Central (Hilary Benn), said last year,
“the basis of any close relationship must be that the two parties can be honest with and, where necessary, critical of one another; indeed, this is in both countries’ national interest.”
This debate provides us all with the opportunity to have an honest and open debate about Turkey and to reaffirm our strongest possible support for democracy, the rule of law and human rights in Turkey.
It has now been more than four and a half years since Members have had a full debate in Parliament on issues relating to Turkey. So much has happened in the country during that period, particularly since the attempted military coup in July 2016. In just over five weeks’ time, on Sunday 16 April, a national referendum will be held on a new draft constitution, the outcome of which could provide sweeping powers to the Turkish President. This debate could not have come at a more opportune time.
I congratulate the right hon. Lady on securing such an important debate, which is of cross-party concern, not least within all-party parliamentary group for Alevis. Is not freedom of religion a fundamental human right in any free country seeking to be democratic? That should be a right in Turkey—not least for Alevis to believe, and to express that belief, in Alevism?
I could not agree more with the hon. Gentleman. I thank him for his support as the vice-chair of the all-party parliamentary group on Alevis, which I chair.
I am sure Members from all parts of the House will join me in condemning last summer’s attempted coup and in offering our condolences to the Turkish people following the series of deadly attacks in the country, which have killed more than 500 people in the past 18 months. There is no place for military intervention in politics, and we stand united with the Turkish people during this turbulent time. On the night of 15 July 2016, there were scenes of mass protest as people took to the streets in defiance of the coup attempt; parties from across the political spectrum united in opposition to the overthrow of the Government. That night, more than 240 people, including 179 civilians, died resisting the failed coup. The Turkish people were rightly commended for their bravery and for the manner in which they stood in defence of their democracy.
However, in the words of Human Rights Watch, the Turkish Government’s response to the attempted coup has been “an affront” to the democracy that Turkey’s population took to the streets to defend, and that the Government
“unleashed a purge that goes far beyond holding to account those involved in trying to overthrow it.”
Alongside declaring a state of emergency, which is still in place, Turkey suspended the European convention on human rights. However, article 15 of the convention, which allows for derogation from the convention in times of public emergency, does not give states the right to suspend their commitment to international human rights obligations. Freedom from Torture makes the crucial point that article 15 does not allow for derogation from article 3, “Prohibition of torture”. That that prohibition is absolute.
More than 40,000 people have been imprisoned since July, with reports emerging of the mistreatment and torture of those in detention, and more than 120,000 public sector workers—school teachers, academics, prosecutors, judges, civil servants and police—are reported to have been suspended or dismissed from their jobs. That is hardly a list of extremists that one should fear.
I congratulate my right hon. Friend and others on securing the debate. Is it possible that the speed of the authorities’ response to the coup indicates a premeditated plan to undertake such a purge? Does that not give rise to considerable concerns about the genuine attitudes and intentions of the current regime?
My right hon. Friend makes an important point. There are deep suspicions in the country that more was happening than has been admitted. If the coup was genuine, President Erdogan has certainly taken advantage of it in strengthening his authoritarian approach to managing the situation in Turkey.
Following that, is it not the case that many of the people who have been held in detention, persecuted or subject to repression are the very people who were the first to condemn the attempted military coup? The defenders of democracy are now being persecuted by the regime.
My hon. Friend makes a powerful point; indeed, it is the point I am emphasising. Those people came out on to the streets of Turkey to defend their democracy, but they are now having to defend their democracy from the people who they actually protected on that night.
My right hon. Friend is making an important speech on a vital issue for the people of Turkey and its neighbouring countries. Has she observed the way in which that repression also affects the media? We have heard that one journalist has been killed and 56 have been detained, and up to 118 media organisations have been closed down, which is an obvious infringement of freedom of speech.
Absolutely; my hon. Friend also makes a powerful point. It has been said that in 2016 more journalists were arrested in Turkey than in any other part of the world. I think we all know that a free press is fundamental to the operation of a democracy; I will come to that later.
As the Chair of the Select Committee on Foreign Affairs, the hon. Member for Reigate (Crispin Blunt), pointed out in July, the arrest of 3,000 members of the judiciary in just a few days following the failed coup seemed a rather strange way to uphold the rule of law, which speaks to the point made by my right hon. Friend the Member for Warley (Mr Spellar). The Committee to Protect Journalists tells us—I think my right hon. and hon. Friends have read my speech—there has been a media crackdown in Turkey that is unprecedented since the committee began keeping a record, in 1991. It states Turkey jailed,
“more journalists than any other country in 2016”,
“some 178 news outlets and publishing houses by decree in the space of five months, allowing only a handful to reopen.”
The judiciary and a free press are being undermined. Both are requirements for any operating democracy.
Human rights have been drastically curtailed, particularly in minority Kurdish and Alevi areas. There has been a clampdown on the freedom of assembly, with military curfews imposed in Kurdish and Alevi neighbourhoods. Dozens of Kurdish and Alevi newspapers and news channels have been shut down. I have been shocked by the information I have received from my Turkish, Kurdish and Alevi constituents regarding attacks on their family and friends in Turkey. Reports have included accounts of co-ordinated lynching attempts in Alevi areas following the failed coup. Members from the community have expressed grave concerns that the ongoing state of emergency is being used as an opportunity to intimidate Kurds and Alevis in their towns, villages and homes.
Civil society space has been shrunk, with non-governmental organisations such as the Rojava Association, a charitable organisation that has helped Turkish flood victims and women and refugees from Kobane in Syria, being forced to close. We can ill afford to see such organisations close down, given the circumstances.
Sadly, the slide to authoritarianism in Turkey is not a new development. Last summer’s failed coup attempt was not the starting point of this descent, but instead has served as a catalyst for anti-democratic trends that have been apparent under President Erdogan for some time. Almost three years ago, in the build-up to the country’s presidential elections, Mr Erdogan spoke of creating a new Turkey founded upon a new constitution. He promised to strengthen democracy, resolve the Kurdish issue and work towards ensuring Turkey’s accession to the European Union. Since those pledges were made, two parliamentary elections have been held in a climate of fear.
The elections may have been free, but they were not fair, with attacks on the offices and supporters of the pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party, the HDP. President Erdogan has denounced the rulings of constitutional courts and threatened their future independence. More than 2,000 people have been killed since the breakdown of the Kurdish peace process in 2015. Although Kurdish militias and civilians have shown incredible bravery at the forefront of the conflict against ISIL/Daesh, there has been widespread alarm at the Turkish military’s attacks on Kurdish fighters during Operation Euphrates Shield in northern Syria, which has intensified the already dire humanitarian situation in the region.
President Erdogan’s temporary suspension of provisions in the European convention on human rights and his support for the reintroduction of the death penalty indicate his unwillingness to engage meaningfully in accession talks with the European Union. If that is the case, it would be a tragedy for Turkey and for the EU. Both parties have much to gain by tackling together many of today’s most important international issues, from terrorism to migration and the pursuit of peace in Syria.
My right hon. Friend rightly identifies the very serious concerns about the repression taking place inside Turkey, and indeed the concerns about whether the regime saw the coup as a threat or an opportunity. Is it not also the case that in our own communities, those with Turkish citizenship from Alevi and Kurdish communities are finding that they are under attack and under surveillance from agents of the Turkish state? There is considerable concern about spying and people’s bank accounts being frozen, and about reports being sent back to Turkey and threats to people’s families. Is that not something that our Government should take very seriously? At the moment, they seem to be turning a blind eye to it.
Indeed. Like my right hon. Friend, I have had cases reported to me by constituents who feel they are being threatened and spied upon. Many constituents are fearful of going back to Turkey and are concerned about their relatives there. I agree that our Government should take the situation much more seriously.
President Erdogan and his Government are leaving little room for co-operation across the European Union. Kemal Kiliçdaroglu, the chair of Turkey’s main opposition Republican People's Party, had hoped that an opportunity had been created to open a “new door of compromise” in Turkish politics, following the public’s united outcry against the coup attempt. I am afraid the door has remained firmly shut.
Figen Yüksekdag, co-leader of the HDP, has said that any hope of creating a new, more united and tolerant Turkey will fail without the active participation of Kurds, Alevis and other minority groups. Even before the attempted coup took place, parliamentary immunity from prosecution was stripped from more than 130 pro-Kurdish and other opposition MPs in 2016, and senior representatives from the HDP and other Kurdish parties have been attacked and marginalised since last July. At the behest of President Erdogan, the HDP was excluded from taking part in Turkey’s supposed democracy rallies, following the failed coup.
Selahattin Demirtas and Figen Yüksekdag, the democratically elected HDP leaders, were arrested and detained last November on alleged terrorism charges and ties to the banned Kurdistan Workers’ Party, the PKK. The HDP has denied any links to the PKK. On Friday 6 January, Mr Demirtas said in his court testimony:
“I am not a manager, member, spokesperson, or a sympathiser of PKK; I'm the co-chair of HDP.”
But late last month Mr Demirtas was sentenced to five months’ imprisonment for,
“insulting the Turkish nation, the state of the Turkish Republic and public organs and institutions”,
and Ms Yüksekdag has now been stripped of her status as a Member of Parliament. The EU’s Turkey rapporteur, Kati Piri, called the indictment of the two leaders outrageous. The EU’s foreign affairs chief, Federica Mogherini, has declared that parliamentary democracy in Turkey has been compromised as a result. Aside from an EU joint statement at the end of last year expressing concerns about the judicial process in the case of Mr Demirtas and others, I note that UK Government Ministers have not set out in unambiguous terms their grave concerns about these matters, and I would be grateful for the Minister’s views when he responds.
President Erdogan’s promise in 2013 to create a new Turkey with a new constitution is not what many supporters of democracy and human rights in Turkey had in mind. The national referendum in April on the country’s new draft constitution has the potential to further undermine Turkey’s democratic character. The proposed constitution would turn Turkey from a parliamentary to a presidential republic, scrapping the office of Prime Minister and giving the President new powers to select the majority of senior judges, enact certain laws by diktat, and unilaterally declare a state of emergency or dismiss Parliament. In a political system that has already had its checks and balances, such as a free press and an independent judiciary, seriously weakened, those powers would entrench authoritarianism in Turkey.
In every meeting that I have attended in recent weeks with members of the Turkish, Kurdish and Alevi communities, not one person has said to me that they would vote yes in the referendum. They are deeply concerned at the prospect of the implementation of the new constitution. President Erdogan has accused them of “siding with the coup-plotters”. Such vilification of opposition voters is completely unacceptable. Free and fair elections and referendums are core components of any democracy, as is the protection of people’s fundamental human rights and freedoms.
Turkey is at a crucial juncture. Given the close relationship between the UK and Turkey, we need to be open and honest about and, yes, critical of, the current situation there; but is that happening? The headlines from the Prime Minister’s recent visit to Ankara related to a £100 million fighter jet deal and the development of a
“new and deeper trading relationship with Turkey.”
Valuable as our trading relationship is, human rights issues should never play second fiddle to commercial diplomacy. The Prime Minister may have stated the importance of Turkey sustaining democracy
“by maintaining the rule of law and upholding its international human rights obligations, as the government has undertaken to do”.
However, the key question must be whether that undertaking is being fulfilled. I should be very interested to hear from the Minister how the UK Government think Turkey is upholding its international human rights obligations and sustaining a genuine democracy.
The Prime Minister did make a reference to human rights, but she could not very well have said less. It was a passing reference with no emphasis, and the general impression was that, those few words having been said, the UK Government were willing to make the commercial deals in question with Turkey, and that human rights in Turkey are not really on the UK agenda.
I can do nothing but agree with my hon. Friend who has made an important and powerful point. I hope that the Minister will deal with it.
Turkey is a key member of the NATO alliance, and one of the core requirements of membership is to promote democratic values. How is it adhering to that? As a vital regional player, particularly in the humanitarian situation in Syria and the continuing negotiations in Cyprus, it has a responsibility to support peace, democracy and human rights. How are the UK Government using their influence to press Turkey to change course, strengthen democratic institutions and protect the rights of all its citizens? Human rights are universal and that includes the rights of Kurds, Alevis and other minority groups in Turkey. What steps are the UK Government prepared to take actively to monitor the treatment of Kurds, Alevis and other minority groups? What discussions is the Minister having with his Turkish and UN Human Rights Council counterparts to ensure that the Turkish Government, without delay, allows a visit by the UN special rapporteur on torture?
We must be prepared to support those progressive voices in Turkey that are calling for greater democracy, the advancement of human rights and the promotion of equality and social justice. It is incumbent on the UK Government to promote those values vigorously in our relationship with Turkey; because Turkey—and the Kurds and the Alevis—deserve better, and the UK Government must do better in supporting democracy, the rule of law and human rights in that country.
Order. It is not my intention to impose a time limit on speeches, but I think six right hon. and hon. Members want to speak from the Back Benches, and the winding-up speeches must begin just before 4 o’clock.
I thank all the people who have come here today to follow the debate closely, but I have one bit of housekeeping: we do not allow any photography.
I join the right hon. Member for Enfield North (Joan Ryan) in thanking you for chairing our proceedings, Mr Bone; I also congratulate her on initiating this important debate.
It is a given, I think, that Turkey is hugely important to us diplomatically and militarily as an important member of NATO, including as a listening post and airbase—particularly for the United States and Germany—and a place from which we can keep an eye on Syria and see what is going on there. Secondly, it is important to us as a country that has had to withstand huge numbers of refugees—I say “withstand”, which is to misuse the English language; it has taken in huge numbers of Syrian refugees and given them a haven. Some of those have moved through into the European Union; some of them have not. The fact that Turkey is a useful military ally and is to some extent a valuable trading and economic partner, and the fact that it has done good humanitarian work in looking after refugees does not, however, excuse its abusive behaviour towards its own citizens, its neglect of the rule of law and its wholesale abuse of human rights.
In 2015 I and two rather better lawyers, Lord Woolf, the former Lord Chief Justice, and Sir Jeffrey Jowell, who was at that stage the director of the Bingham Centre for the Rule of Law, and another member of my chambers, Sarah Palin, who is an expert in human rights law, were instructed by Turkish lawyers to write a report on abuses of human rights law and breaches of the rule of law in Turkey. I have registered that in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests. Our lay clients were an institute of Turkish journalists and a group related to or supportive of the Gülenist movement, although I never discovered whether they were actually part of it. The catalyst for their concern was the discovery in December 2013 of various telephone calls implicating the then Prime Minister, who is now the President, and a number of his cabinet Ministers and members of his family in wholesale corruption. As a consequence, the then Prime Minister and the party known as the AKP took it upon themselves to behave in a fairly repressive way in getting the police to investigate and arrest those thought to be antipathetic to their interests.
The number of those who were detained, arrested or moved—judges and police officers, for example, were moved from one part of Turkey to another, for the purpose of disruption—in 2014-15, ran into the hundreds, if not the thousands at that stage. The position got worse, of course: not only was there interference with Government officials who did not have the approval of the then Prime Minister and the Government party, the AKP; but the Government machine—it is difficult as far as I can see to draw a distinction between the Government machine and the political party, as they work in lockstep—started to interfere with the free media. It started to send in officials or police officers to take over newspapers, shut down television companies and generally interfere with rights of freedom of expression under the European convention. In any other democracy that would have led to riots on the street, I suspect. As it happened, it did not in Turkey—probably because huge numbers of the Turkish population, particularly in the eastern part of the country, have no access to the internet and no particular interest in some of the things that the professional classes, intellectuals and others in Ankara and Istanbul take an interest in.
We published our paper in the summer of 2015, and various western-based newspapers reported on it. It was alleged by the Turkish Government machine that those of us who had written the report as professional, dispassionate observers were Gülenists and part of the parallel state, whose job or intention it was to undermine the democratic Government of Turkey. That was not our intention, and certainly there is no evidence to suggest that the four of us, as English lawyers, had any interest in the matter at all as far as politics was concerned; we had every interest in the subject as far as the abuse of the rule of law and human rights were concerned.
Since the attempted coup, to which the right hon. Member for Enfield North referred, the situation in Turkey seems to have got worse. It was bad enough before, but it has got a lot worse. Tens of thousands—I think as many as 50,000—of officials, be they judges, police officers, members of the civil service or teachers, have been detained without trial. I have no knowledge of whether the attempted coup was “genuine” or a manufactured event. However, as someone has already pointed out, the President of Turkey has taken advantage in a wholly disproportionate way of the events of last summer.
We now face a position where the President wants to bring more power unto himself and is using the tactic of the referendum, which is coming up shortly, to achieve that purpose. Time does not allow me—nor would you, Mr Bone—to say all that I would like to say about the nature of that exercise or what is intended by it. However, it is fair to say that the President’s grasping of power in a personal way goes from the sublime to the ridiculous. It is sublime in the sense that all sorts of people have been arrested and detained without trial, and the prospect of the Turkish court system providing them with justice now that the President is influencing the appointment of judges strikes me as unlikely.
The European Court of Human Rights has already indicated—if it has not, the Council of Europe certainly has—that there is no rule of law in Turkey available to Turkish citizens and that emergency applications to the Court will be considered, even though technically domestic remedies have not been exhausted in the Turkish court system, because there is no Turkish court system that is recognisable as a system of law.
We now see the extraordinary conduct of the President in attacking Germany—one of the most civilised modern western democracies—for behaving like Nazi Germany. We are all used to hyperbole in political debate and to people in a hurry saying silly things, but for modern Germany, which is light-years away from the Germany of the 1930s, to be accused by this President of Turkey of behaving like Nazi Germany is beyond offensive. Indeed, the headline of yesterday’s editorial in The New York Times was “Mr. Erdogan’s Jaw-Dropping Hypocrisy”.
Journalists have been imprisoned and expelled from the country, and it seems the situation will not improve. I have seen Hansard reports from both this House and the other place in which Foreign Office Ministers say, “We constantly remind the Turkish Government or our counterparts of this, that and the other, and we are keeping the matter under review.” It is possible to exercise, as Mrs Merkel has done, proper diplomatic restraint without being guilty of pusillanimity. There is a proper distinction between pusillanimity and doing and saying very little apart from going through the form in order to preserve NATO and the help that Turkey is giving in relation to refugees, and to help the military position, as we want to keep an eye on Syria.
Let me finish by showing how ridiculous the situation currently is. It is ridiculous for an outside observer such as me, commenting in this way, but it is terrible for the innocent citizens of Turkey who may have different political or other views from the current Government and end up being imprisoned for it. As is clear now, Mr Erdogan wants to win his referendum, and no doubt he will. However, the situation has got to the ridiculous stage now where the Turkish news media have reported that the Government are worried enough about a victory for the no campaign that officials in Konya, a city in central Turkey, recently withdrew from circulation an anti-smoking pamphlet that contained the word “no”. A local Member of Parliament from Turkey’s governing party said the pamphlets had been recalled to avoid confusion, as reported by the Turkish newspaper Hürriyet Daily News. Mr Erdogan is further reported as saying to reporters that those who say no in the referendum will be siding with 15 July—the date of the attempted coup.
The situation in Turkey is very worrying, particularly for the people of Turkey. I hope the British Parliament will encourage the British Government to remember that there is a distinction between diplomatic restraint and pusillanimity.
Several hon. Members
Five more Back-Bench Members wish to speak. We only have 20 minutes. I call Jim Shannon, who I know will keep to the time limit.
I am more than happy to, Mr Bone. It is a pleasure to speak in this debate. I thank the right hon. Member for Enfield North (Joan Ryan) for presenting a very good case and giving Members the opportunity to participate.
I have families in my constituency who thankfully heeded Foreign Office advice and cancelled their holidays to Turkey; otherwise, they would have been in the middle of the coup attempt when it unfolded last year. The repercussions of the chaotic coup attempt and the actions that were then taken continue to this day. I am thankful to the Members who secured the debate for allowing us to highlight this issue and see if we can get some rights reinstated.
There remains a severe shutdown, including incarceration, on anyone deemed a threat to the President’s remaining in power. Indeed, many have referred to President Erdogan’s power grab, and it cannot be seen as anything else. Turkey is still under a state of emergency after various bombs at Istanbul airport, and the coup attempt has allowed the President to legally justify restricting human rights. The right hon. Member for Warley (Mr Spellar), who has just left the room, referred to the suspicion, which cannot be ignored, that some of the rebels who conspired in the coup were encouraged by the Turkish Government, who were the ultimate winners in what took place.
Some of the human rights under the international covenant on civil and political rights that I believe have been illegally restricted include freedom of expression; the right to peaceful assembly under article 21; the right to freedom of association with others under article 22; the right to liberty and security of person under article 9; freedom of movement under article 12; the right to equality before the court under article 14; and the right to protection of the law against arbitrary or unlawful interference with privacy under article 17. Those are clearly—I am sure the Minister is listening—infringements upon civil liberty and people’s chance to express themselves.
In addition, some churches in Turkey have been destroyed. Some Christians have been prevented from attending church, and their movements are monitored. The right hon. Member for Enfield North also referred to that. The restrictions are having an unfair impact on Christians and their right to practise their religion.
The 2016 EU enlargement report on Turkey summarised the general problems of Turkish civil society organisations. They included the closure of many non-governmental organisations after the failed 15 July coup attempt; the intimidation and detention of members of NGOs, particularly those active on human rights issues; the lack of an overall Government strategy for co-operation with civil society—there is almost a denial that there is a civil society; the fact that NGOs are rarely involved in law and policy-making processes; continuing restrictions on freedom of assembly; continuing restrictions on registration and procedures for the authorisation and functioning of associations; and the fact that current legislation, including taxation law, is not conducive to encouraging private donations to NGOs. Again, the Government seem to have closed every door possible in Turkey and infringed on the liberties of the people there.
Can the Minister confirm that when he has the opportunity to speak to the Turkish Government, he will convey to them all the comments that we are making as individuals in this Chamber? I know he will, but I ask him to do that with the passion and desire that we have shown. The reason I say that is that the right hon. Member for Enfield North tabled a written question on 7 November 2016 about the human rights situation in Turkey generally, and particularly in the predominantly Kurdish and Alevi areas of the country. On 17 November, the Minister for Europe and the Americas told her:
“We continue to encourage Turkey to work towards the full protection of fundamental rights, especially in the areas of minority rights, freedom of religion and freedom of expression.”
If the things that we are discussing have continued from last November until now, we need to know what steps will be taken to ensure that they are stopped.
As I mentioned in the debate in January, since the 15 July coup attempt the Government have postponed much-needed legal and institutional democratic reforms and taken actions that have a direct impact on people’s abilities to exercise effectively the freedoms of religion or belief, expression, association and assembly. Government measures, including state of emergency measures, have damaged Turkey’s human rights protection framework. Those measures include far-reaching changes to the justice system that started before the coup attempt, and increased religious-nationalist approaches to issues by the Government since.
I am coming to the end of my presentation, Mr Bone. Evidence of ill treatment in custody compiled by the Human Rights Foundation of Turkey among others indicates a serious need for independent monitoring of state institutions’ implementation of their human rights obligations. It is clear that they have blatantly disregarded them, and we need to make them start to understand what that means. The impact on the overall state of democracy of the swift removal of judges and other personnel in the state apparatus, along with the closure of universities, associations, television channels and newspapers under state of emergency decrees, has yet to become fully clear. The situation in Turkey is not allowing for freedom; indeed, it has impinged massively on the most basic human rights.
I urge the Foreign and Commonwealth Office and the Minister to do all that is in their power—that is clearly what hon. Members in the Chamber are saying—and apply as much pressure as possible to reinstate those rights and release the grip of emergency powers as we come up to almost a year since the coup attempt. I believe that we have some influence, and I hope that we will begin to exert it on behalf of not only Christians in Turkey but all people whose lives are still being impacted as a result of a coup attempt that they did not take part in, yet are paying the price for.
I offer my congratulations to the right hon. Member for Enfield North (Joan Ryan) and the co-sponsors of the debate. It is not only timeous but imperative. The relationship between the EU and Turkey is now fractious at best, given President Erdogan’s scorched-earth approach to democracy and human rights in Turkey as he pursues an executive presidency with all the fervour of a dictator, riding roughshod over democratic process and consigning Turkey’s reputation as a stable secular democracy to the annals of history, while using last summer’s coup attempt as a bloody blank cheque to suspend the rule of law and human rights.
At this point, I of course express my condolences and concern for the people in Turkey who lost their lives during the violence last summer and those who have suffered terrorist atrocities in the last few months and years. I add to that my condolences for the civilians in areas of the south-east of Turkey who lost their lives at the hands of the Turkish military, for whom no half-mast flags fly across the world, whose sufferings speak not their name.
At this point in history, as the UK prepares to leave the EU, our relationship with other nations will define the UK and who we really want to be on the world stage: insular and inward, internationalist and outward, or empire 2.0. The indications thus far send alarming signals. Immediately after announcing her intention to trigger article 50, the Prime Minister headed off to meet President Trump, immediately prior to meeting Turkish President Erdogan and signing a trade deal to supply military aircraft to Turkey with no human rights caveats, before finally inviting Benjamin Netanyahu to Downing Street—quite the triumvirate. Will concerns about demonstrable human rights abuses and the disregard for the rule of law be casualties of the UK’s desperate need to find trade allies post Brexit? I sincerely hope not, but I fear the indications are not good.
Human rights abuses in Turkey preceded the coup attempt of last summer, and while unequivocally condemning what happened, we cannot be blind to the fact that the orchestrations of what is happening now—the imprisonment of democratically elected politicians; the closing down of civil society space; the highest proportion of journalists jailed in the world; imprisonment without trial; military personnel, teachers, lecturers and judges sacked and silenced; and the mockery of fundamental freedoms of speech, expression, religion and language—all have their roots in President Erdogan’s transition from Prime Minister to autocrat.
It will be no surprise to many that I wish to concentrate the rest of my remarks on the Kurdish issue, as that is intrinsic to what is happening in Turkey as a whole. The policies that President Erdogan is now pursuing against political opponents and public leaders across Turkish society have been well trialled against the Kurds. Next month, Erdogan will hold a rigged referendum to enshrine in the law and constitution his position as executive President and bypass Turkey’s Parliament on many issues. I say “rigged” because political opponents such as democratically elected HDP MPs and the co-leaders and elected co-mayors of Kurdish areas and municipalities, such as Diyarbakir, Nusaybin and Sirnak, have been imprisoned and held without trial, with many allegations of torture having been made. The referendum’s no campaign proponents have been silenced, their premises attacked or closed down and adverts banned, and the media are wholly in the palm of Erdogan’s closed fist because of fear of imprisonment.
I will bring my remarks to a close, because there is very little time and I want to respect other speakers. The Kurds have a saying that the mountains are their only friends. I am here today to say that that is not true. There are politicians in this House and civil society organisations in the UK, such as Unite and the GMB, that stand in solidarity with the peoples of all of Turkey, but particularly those in Bakur.
I share the sentiments of the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon). I hope that the Minister will be more robust in answering some of our concerns than the Minister for Europe and the Americas was when he responded to the debate in January on the closing down of civil society space across the world.
Last time I was in Turkey, it was to try to get some HDP prisoners out of jail. A Member of the Swiss Parliament and I were asked to go there by the Inter-Parliamentary Union. I am a member of its human rights committee, and we deal with the human rights of parliamentarians. We went to Turkey to try to get the HDP members out of jail, but luckily, a few days before we got there, they had all been released. However, I believe that many of them are now in jail again.
Some years before that, when I was a Member of the European Parliament, some of my colleagues and I tried to get members of the Peace Association of Turkey—the equivalent of the CND in this country—out of jail. I went to Metris prison, where they were being tried at the time in very bad circumstances. Of course, that was under military dictatorship. Eventually most of them were released, but only after they had gone through a particularly difficult time. When Leyla Zana was imprisoned some years before, the Turkish authorities allowed me to spend some time with her in prison. I talked to her about why she was there and what stand she was making, and she is a very principled person.
There is now imprisonment of MPs in Turkey once again; it is believed that about 15 of them are in jail. The HDP—the People’s Democratic party—is a legitimate Turkish opposition party working for a pluralist Turkey. It advocates greater rights for Turkey’s ethnic minorities and increased autonomy for the majority Kurdish south-east of the country, but not an independent state. The two co-chairs have already been mentioned by my right hon. Friend the Member for Enfield North (Joan Ryan), and many other HDP lawmakers were detained in November. The co-chairs remain in prison on terrorism-related charges, and I understand that they face a total of 180 years in jail if found guilty on all charges.
I consider myself a friend of Turkey, but also a critic. Some of my good friends live in Turkey and I visit it fairly regularly, but four of my friends are now exiled in Wales. Two of them are actors, one is a designer and the other is a writer. They are all Turks, and very well-known Turks—one was the most important male actor in Turkey. The reason they are in exile is that Erdogan denounced them twice at a rally, pointed at the man in question and shouted, “He’s a traitor to Turkey. He should be killed.” That happened twice. In the Turkey of the moment, the best thing they could do was obviously to leave the country. They have had to leave their friends, relatives and careers and get out of the country because they are so afraid.
I know that my friends in Turkey—academics, journalists, writers—are also afraid, because they do not know who is going to be imprisoned and caught up next. They are in a dreadful situation. We have to keep highlighting that and, in particular, the attacks on the media. As my right hon. and hon. Friends have mentioned, so many journalists are in jail, and many of them have not been charged but are waiting for charges. Some 170 media organisations have been shut down since the coup. There have been physical attacks and threats against journalists, and Government pressure on the media to fire critical journalists and cancel their press accreditation. As has been said, the UN’s special rapporteur on the right to freedom of opinion and expression concluded after his visit in November:
“Across the board, the Government is imposing draconian measures that limit freedom of expression”.
As others have said, the rule of law is being seriously eroded. More than one fifth of Turkey’s judiciary has been removed, and the Government have consolidated their control over the courts. More than 100,000 civil servants, including teachers, judges and prosecutors, have been dismissed or detained without due process. Many detainees are placed in pre-trial detention despite a lack of evidence.
I look to the Minister and ask what the UK Government’s policy is on Turkey in light of the deteriorating situation and the fact that Erdogan is accumulating more and more power for himself. Are we simply going to turn a blind eye or, even worse, increase arms sales at a time when there is a real risk that those arms will ultimately be used by the Turkish Government against their own population? The international community, including the UK, who are true friends of Turkey, need to focus on helping to restart the peace process between the Turkish Government and the Kurds. The conflict between the two has plagued Turkey for years, and following the collapse of the peace talks in 2015 the situation in the south-east, which I have been to several times, has deteriorated significantly. It is time to try to bring this conflict to an end with a viable political solution. Addressing that problem could set Turkey down a different path—a path of security, prosperity and harmony so that Turkey, again, would be a beacon in the region and in the world.
The Turkish diaspora and the leaders in my community are very worried about their homeland, so today it is important that we send a message that while Turkey may be a friend, we are a critical friend. We must not let its position in NATO and its centrality to the refugee crisis and the fight against ISIS stop us making clear our concerns about what is happening in the country. I speak on behalf of my constituents—I have the largest Turkish speaking population in the country—and I apologise that I now have only two minutes to make a contribution in this debate. I will publish my speech afterwards on my website so that they will all see it.
Order. I want to let the House know that because I want to try to get everyone in and give them reasonable time, I am going to ask the Front-Bench speakers to restrict their speeches to eight minutes each to give the Back Benchers a bit more time.
I am grateful for that indication—I can return to my scripted speech, which is important.
The debate comes at an important time in Turkey’s history and our relationship with the country. It is a wonderful country. I have visited it on occasions—it is young, it is vibrant—and I participate in this debate very much as a friend. However, the state of emergency declared last summer has been used as a pretext for a comprehensive purge of judges, generals, civil servants, teachers, police officers, soldiers, lawyers and academics, as well as the detention of thousands of Turkish citizens opposed to the current President.
More than 100,000 people have been arrested, dismissed or suspended since last year’s failed coup, including 25,000 police officers and 3,000 judges. Some 140,000 citizens have had their passports revoked and 130,000 public sector workers are under investigation. Those figures are frankly staggering. The headquarters of an opposition party has been raided and the two joint leaders of the pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic party have been arrested and detained along with 11 of their party’s MPs. That must be of tremendous concern to this country. The World Justice Project’s rule of law index put Turkey 99th out of 113 countries, just behind Iran. Reporters Without Borders ranked Turkey 150th out of 180 countries in the press freedom index—177 media outlets have been shut down, almost 400 journalists are behind bars and 10,000 people working in the media have been purged.
This is now a democracy in name only. President Erdogan is seizing total control, reinforced by a classic dictator’s trope: a nationalist, populist narrative claiming that internal agitators are fifth columnists and a risk to national security. The planned constitutional changes that Turkey will vote on in the referendum next month represent the next step on a road that will in all likelihood lead to an authoritarian, dictatorial state. It is not a fair fight; one side is shouting while the other can barely utter even a muffled whisper. All outdoor gatherings in support of the no campaign have been banned. Campaigners have been arrested and branded as terrorists or fifth columnists.
What is at stake next month? We have the introduction of an executive presidency to replace the existing parliamentary system, the abolition of the office of Prime Minister and the erosion of the separation of powers, giving Erdogan huge, unconstrained powers to appoint Ministers, prepare the budget, choose senior judges and enact laws by decree. The writing is on the wall. This is an enabling referendum, of a kind we have not seen from an ally in the continent of Europe since the 1930s.
Most of all, the writing is on the wall for the Kurdish and Alevi minorities in Turkey. Throughout history they have been massacred, deported, tortured, arrested and discriminated against, with even the word “Kurd” and the Kurdish language banned. They have had their homes and livelihoods destroyed by Government forces. At least 18 villages are currently under siege with military curfews in place.
This is a serious debate that has been attended by 17 or 18 Members of Parliament. We can feel the Public Gallery. This issue is of tremendous concern to the world and this country, and I hope Britain will do the right thing and say the right thing in the coming days, weeks and months.
I will not repeat what has been said with clarity by colleagues from all parties. I first became aware of Turkey’s development when I was MP for Woolwich West, where St Agnes’s chapel is located. It was renamed the Gallipoli chapel by the Rev. Henry Hall, who had been chaplain to the 29th Division and who landed at Gallipoli in April 1915. He wanted a dedication, and his successors wanted to commemorate what happened at Gallipoli.
One thing that happened at Gallipoli was that the local commander, Atatürk, went on to become the well-known leader who dedicated Turkey to peace at home and peace in the region and internationally. It would be worthwhile for those interested in such things to watch the Guardian panel on 23 March, which will consider all the questions that I could list now but will not, as I want to give time to the Front-Bench speakers. For those who are free this evening, I suspect that there may be spare places at the British Institute at Ankara’s gathering at the British Academy, where a distinguished panel will also consider what can be done for stability nationally, regionally and internationally.
It is clear to those of us who have been involved in NATO and in issues in the middle east and wider middle east that Turkey has been carrying much of the burden of the instability around it. I pay tribute to Turkey for what it has done for refugees, and for its assistance, almost beyond cost, to those who find themselves within its borders. It is also worth recognising that when this House made the mistake, in my view, of not intervening early in Syria, we let down Turkey, which was prepared with others to take effective action that could have allowed Syria to find its own future, without the kind of regime that I hope will not emerge in Turkey now.
I will not go into what was behind the coup, as it is beyond my knowledge. If the strong man idea in politics—which we have seen, sadly, in Russia, and which we may or may not be seeing in the United States—is adopted by Turkey, the difficulty is how Turkey will get out of it again. It will take a long time before another Atatürk comes along who can create unity in a country that is an important part of Europe, an important part of Asia and an important part of the world.
The hon. Member for Worthing West (Sir Peter Bottomley) has just reminded us of the foundation of modern Turkey by Kemal Atatürk, who sought to create a secular republic. It is sad to see what is now happening in Turkey, which is drifting toward dictatorship.
In introducing the debate, the right hon. Member for Enfield North (Joan Ryan) rightly discussed the ties between this country and Turkey. Others have mentioned that Turkey has taken 3 million refugees from other parts of the middle east. She also made the very good point that the main thing to come out of the Prime Minister’s recent trip to Turkey was a fighter jet deal worth £100 million. The right hon. Member for Enfield North said that human rights issues should never play second fiddle to trade deals, and we wholeheartedly support that position. Human rights should always be up there when we discuss such deals.
In considering that, the Minister should perhaps reflect on what has happened with sales to Saudi Arabia, the position in Yemen and the reputational damage to this Government and this country caused by the failure to take strong early action on how those weapons were used. I think that that will haunt the Government for some time to come.
I appreciate the hon. Gentleman’s point, and I generally agree with all the comments in this debate, but I was in Diyarbakir. It is absolutely dreadful what has gone on there, but that was done by munitions and weapons previously held by the Turkish, and they are also procuring equipment now from Putin in Moscow. The situation is a bit more complex than blaming the UK Government for arms sales; the Turkish Government should be held to account for what they have done in Diyarbakir.
Nobody is arguing with that—the hon. Gentleman is perfectly right—but it is part of how we should approach human rights worldwide. We should not be part of supplying arms to regimes that may use them in such a way. It is about considering human rights under the regimes that we are dealing with.
The present situation in the country probably goes back well before the attempted coup in July, but the state of emergency imposed then and most recently renewed in January means that many of the normal functions of the constitution are suspended, resulting in derogations from the European convention on human rights. Since the coup, the Government have conducted a widespread campaign of media clampdowns, arrests and dismissals. More than 40,000 people have been imprisoned; more than 120,000 police, prosecutors, judges, civil servants and academics have been dismissed. It is an attack on civil society by a Government almost unprecedented in modern times, despite the fact that most in Turkey were probably opposed to the attempted military coup, as the right hon. Lady pointed out in her introduction to this debate.
Ten MPs from the pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic party, including its two co-leaders, were imprisoned after Parliament voted to remove legal immunity from dozens of MPs in May 2016. The Government accuse the party to having links to the Kurdistan Workers party or PKK, although that is strongly denied and there is no independent evidence. Indeed, the strong suspicion remains that it is being used as an excuse to dismantle domestic opposition to the present Government. Human Rights Watch says:
“Instead of building on the cross-party unity opposed to the coup to strengthen democracy, Turkey’s Government has opted for a ruthless crackdown on critics and opponents”.
In April, a plebiscite will be held to enhance significantly the powers of the President. The Government are conducting a vigorous propaganda campaign in its favour, while the current crackdown clearly impedes opponents’ ability to campaign against it. Despite that, before the Government banned opinion polls, they showed that 45% opposed the changes while 35% supported them, suggesting that even in these difficult times, the flame of democracy remains alive in the country, as is also shown by the reaction to the coup.
We unreservedly condemn attempts such as the failed coup to overthrow democracy, but equally, we condemn any response that does not respect human rights or the rule of law, and the current Government in Turkey have clearly used the coup to target their democratic opponents. In that respect, it is also imperative that we uphold and strengthen the European convention on human rights, yet I observe in passing that some of the things that this Government say about the European convention are not helpful in pushing it in other nations that are going much further than I hope our Government would ever dream of going.
We must lead by example and show unequivocally that we support the ECHR, and we must urge Turkey to do likewise and to approach the Kurdish issue—on which my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow East (Natalie McGarry) went into in greater detail in her fantastic speech—not with repression but by talking to those, such as the Peoples’ Democratic party, who seek a peaceful solution in Turkey: not independence, but home rule. It is a reasonable position, and one with which the Government should work, rather than continuing the oppression from which the Kurds in that region of Turkey have suffered for so long.
I congratulate my right hon. Friend the Member for Enfield North (Joan Ryan) on securing this debate, and all right hon. and hon. Members who have taken part on their contributions. It shows that we need a far longer debate on the Floor of the House about our relations with Turkey and the abuse of human rights in that country. I emphasise the Labour party’s historic and current commitment to upholding human rights and democracy throughout the world wherever they are abused and wherever freedom is attack. We are and always have been opposed to oppression and autocracy.
The shadow Foreign Secretary, my right hon. Friend the Member for Islington South and Finsbury (Emily Thornberry), said on 19 July, just following the coup:
“Turkey is of pivotal cultural, political and strategic importance to the world, straddling as it does the east-west divide with borders to eight countries. It is”,
as has been emphasised in this debate,
“a vital NATO ally and has important minorities, particularly Kurds and Armenians, as its citizens. Half a million people of Turkish or Kurdish descent live in the UK and they are desperately worried about their families. With 2 million British visitors a year, Turkey is greatly loved in this country, and the interests of our two countries cannot be separated.”—[Official Report, 19 July 2016; Vol. 613, c. 685.]
I hope you will allow me to make a couple of personal points, Mr Bone. My personal commitment to Turkey has always been very strong. I was chair of the all-party group for Turkey from 2010 to 2016; I organised our visits to Turkey and Turkish parliamentarians’ visits to London. I have a passion for the country and for its people, culture and cuisine. I have a personal reason for that: it was the Ottomans who in the 15th century allowed the Jews of southern Spain, my ancestors, to settle in parts of the Ottoman empire, including Salonika and Istanbul, where they thrived for 450 years until the Nazis destroyed that community. I believe that that makes me somewhat more Turkish than the Foreign Secretary.
Early this morning, I returned from a Front-Bench visit to Cyprus. This debate is not about Cyprus, but there is huge concern there about interference by the Turkish Government and about the interest of Mr Erdogan in stopping or at least slowing a settlement that is so near to being achieved after 43 years. That is a subject for a further debate, perhaps.
The contributions from so many right hon. and hon. Members this afternoon have emphasised that this country’s friendship with and closeness to Turkey are only being questioned by the coup and its aftermath.
My hon. Friend stresses the importance of the UK’s relations with Turkey. The Foreign Affairs Committee is carrying out an inquiry into that subject, and I was in Ankara with other Committee members in January. I hope that when we publish our report in a few weeks’ time, we will have the opportunity to debate it in Parliament properly and at length.
It was with the Foreign Affairs Committee that I first visited Turkey; I enjoyed being there and seeing my own inheritance from that country. I look forward to reading the Committee’s report, to the debate on it and to the contributions of many hon. Members to that debate.
The coup of July 2016 resulted in a state of emergency enacted by Parliament that was expected to be temporary, but as we know, it was extended in January 2017 and now appears to be indefinite. The state of emergency allows for rule by decree and the temporary suspension of many rights in Turkey. Authorities have used it to target suspected political rivals and reduce the space for civil society. As a consequence, as we have heard today, checks and balances and human rights have shrunk in Turkey as it has been pushed further away from a system in which the rule of law was guaranteed.
On 18 January, just before Donald Trump was installed as President of the United States, The Guardian wrote:
“Turkey’s regime is fast degenerating into outright dictatorship, emboldened by the imminent ascent of Donald Trump”.
The irony is that before President Erdogan and his party democratically won power, they themselves were victims of human rights abuses. Erdogan was imprisoned in 1999 for reciting a religious poem, and the fiercely secular constitution and the elite consistently attempted to undermine his mildly Islamist political forces in the country. I find that deeply ironic.
As hon. Members have emphasised, more than 40,000 people have been imprisoned and more than 120,000 public sector workers—police, prosecutors, judges, civil servants and academics—have been dismissed. Turkey temporarily derogated from many of the protections in the European convention on human rights and the international covenant on civil and political rights. As Hugh Williamson, Europe and Central Asia director at Human Rights Watch, said:
“Instead of building on the cross-party unity opposed to the coup to strengthen democracy, Turkey’s government has opted for a ruthless crackdown on critics and opponents”.
We have heard some excellent speeches this afternoon. It goes without saying that my right hon. Friend the Member for Enfield North, who moved the motion, said many important things, including that the UK Government must do better in supporting human rights; I will be interested to hear the Minister’s reply to that. My right hon. Friend the Member for Tottenham (Mr Lammy) made a powerful speech. I had not realised that his constituency has the largest number of Turkish speakers in the entire United Kingdom. He made the essential point that Turkey is now a democracy in name only. I hope that the Minister will pick up on some of the issues that my right hon. Friend raised.
My right hon. Friend the Member for Cynon Valley (Ann Clwyd), who has an impeccable record on human rights, raised the subject of arms sales. Will we increase our arms sales to Turkey? Labour Members hope not, but what are the Government doing to ensure that that does not happen? The hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon), as always, highlighted the persecution of Christians and other groups in countries where they are in a minority; we can always rely on him to emphasise that and to stand up for oppressed minorities. The hon. Member for Glasgow East (Natalie McGarry) said that the use of the coup as a “bloody blank cheque” to oppress opponents of the regime cannot possibly be acceptable.
I will conclude shortly, because I want to hear what the Minister has to say, as we all do. The constitutional referendum that will take place on 16 April is worrying. Many people in Cyprus talked about it when I was there this week; they are very concerned, because 100,000 people in Northern Cyprus will have a vote. The Turkish Deputy Prime Minister is currently in the north of Cyprus, canvassing support for the referendum. He is encouraging people to vote, because they believe that it is on a knife edge. The referendum is on changing the constitution to give President Erdogan huge new powers to remain as President until 2019—barring any future attempts to change the constitution to allow him to rule for any longer. That is something that Presidents in Bolivia and Burundi, for example, have attempted in the past. Is Turkey really on a par with those countries? I believe not; I believe that Turkey and the Turkish people certainly deserve better.
I will briefly mention the issue of asylum seekers. Four years ago, I went to Yayladagi, a refugee camp just on the tip of southern Hatay, almost butting into Syria, where the Turkish authorities were looking after hundreds of thousands of desperate refugees. We must take our hats off to Turkey for the work it has done for Syrian refugees, and we must give it more support, but what is currently happening makes that more difficult.
Will my hon. Friend give way?
Yes, if I have time.
My hon. Friend makes a very powerful point. I went to Harran camp—an exemplary camp run by the Turkish authorities, it has to be said. We should give credit where credit is due.
All my hon. Friend’s comments on Turkey’s internal problems and its undemocratic actions are very valid, but before he concludes, will he touch on the issues on Turkey’s border? There are 2,000 Turkish troops in Bashiqa who are almost getting into conflict with the popular mobilisation units—
Order. Interventions have to be short. I cannot give the shadow Minister a longer speech than the Minister, so I hope you will finish very, very shortly, Mr Jones.
Thank you, Mr Bone. I think I have made my point.
I apologise that I will not be able to take up that point, but perhaps we can come back to it when the Foreign Affairs Committee’s report comes out.
Let me briefly touch on women’s rights. President Erdogan has publicly stated that he does not believe in gender equality. He calls abortion “murder” and birth control “treason”. Yesterday was, of course, International Women’s Day. On lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender rights, we know that those who abuse, attack and even murder people who are self-declared members of the LGBT community are getting off very lightly under the judicial system.
Order. The hon. Gentleman must resume his seat. It is not possible for the shadow Minister to speak for longer than the Minister.
It is a pleasure to respond to this very important debate. I join the Opposition spokesman, the hon. Member for Leeds North East (Fabian Hamilton), in saying that it is a shame that we did not have longer. I hope that the powers that be will recognise that it is important that the matter is discussed.
I join others in congratulating the right hon. Members for Enfield North (Joan Ryan), and for Tottenham (Mr Lammy), my hon. Friend the Member for Worthing West (Sir Peter Bottomley) and the hon. Member for Glasgow East (Natalie McGarry) on their speeches. Hon. Members will have noticed that I am not my right hon. Friend the Minister for Europe and the Americas, who should be replying to this debate. He is travelling at the moment. I will do my best to respond to the big themes that have been raised today and I will ask him to write to individual Members with detailed responses to some of the questions that have been put. There simply is not time for me to go into too much detail now, due to the shortness of this debate.
As has been said, the UK has an important relationship with Turkey which stretches back over 400 years. As the Prime Minister said during her visit to Ankara in January, that relationship that has long been important, but it is arguably even more important now, given the challenges we face today. Turkey is a vital strategic partner. It stands on the crossroads between Europe and the middle east, and it is a NATO ally, as many hon. Members mentioned. It stands on the frontline of some of the most serious challenges that we face. Turkey is a Muslim-majority democracy with a dynamic economy, and it has an active and important diaspora in this country.
I will talk about some of the key aspects of our relationship, the first of which is security. Turkey plays a crucial role in the region. It is a key partner in Syria, where we are working together in the global coalition to fight Daesh and in support of a political solution to the conflict. However, we are also working together to tackle challenges in Iraq, Libya, Somalia, Afghanistan and the wider region, including in support of a Cyprus settlement, which has been mentioned. Our security co-operation with Turkey is essential to ensure the safety of British tourists in Turkey—about 1.7 million Britons travel there each year—and to help us to tackle threats here in the UK.
We should not forget the significant role that Turkey plays in the migration crisis. I pay tribute to the work that Turkey has done in hosting almost 3 million Syrian refugees. The generosity of the Turkish people has been extraordinary.
Will the Minister give way on that point?
I am afraid I will not give way, simply because of the time.
During her visit to Turkey, the Prime Minister agreed a new strategic security partnership, which will ensure that we can work together even more closely on counter-terrorism, serious and organised crime, and illegal migration. Also, there were discussions about human rights, the rule of law and democracy.
The second particularly important aspect of our relationship with Turkey is trade. Bilateral trade between our countries is currently worth £16 billion. We are looking to build rapidly on that, not least with the agreement between the Turkish aerospace industry and BAE Systems to collaborate on Turkey’s new fighter jet, the TFX. Our two countries have also established a trade working group to seek further ways of boosting bilateral trade.
Consequently, it was as a partner and an ally that the UK stood shoulder to shoulder with Turkey in July last year as it defended its democracy from an attempt to seize power by force. Turkey’s Parliament was attacked by the country’s own aircraft, civilians were crushed under tanks and 241 people were killed. We condemned the attempted coup unreservedly and continue to do so, and we have expressed our sympathies and condolences for the tragic loss of life. My right hon. Friend the Minister for Europe and the Americas travelled to Turkey shortly after the attempted coup, and expressed our solidarity with the Turkish people. The way that they rallied across the political spectrum to support the constitutional order was an impressive demonstration of the strength of Turkish democracy.
In light of the attempted coup, the Turkish Government have a right and a responsibility to act against the perpetrators and against those who have committed or who plan to commit terrorist acts. The UK Government have consistently stated that it is important that measures taken following the coup should be proportionate, justified and in line with Turkey’s democratic principles and international human rights obligations. Of course, we are aware that concerns have been raised, including by the Council of Europe, and we welcome Turkey’s recent steps to address those concerns by reducing the custody period and creating a mechanism for reviewing dismissals carried out under the state of emergency. We support the dialogue between Turkey and the Council of Europe on implementation of the emergency decrees following the coup and we urge them to continue dialogue on these issues.
In addition to concerns about Turkey’s response to the attempted coup, concerns have been expressed about its broader human rights record. In this area too, we regularly emphasise the need for Turkey to meet its international obligations. The Prime Minister referred to that directly in January, emphasising the importance of Turkey sustaining its democracy by maintaining the rule of law and upholding its international human rights obligations. We regularly highlight the role that freedom of expression and freedom of the media play in supporting democracy, and we urge the Turkish Government to ensure that the upcoming referendum on constitutional reform is free, fair and in line with international norms.
Internally, Turkey faces a grave terrorist challenge on its own soil from Daesh and al-Qaeda, as well as from the PKK and affiliated groups. In the last 18 months, nearly 1,500 Turkish civilians and security personnel have been killed through terrorism, and we offer our condolences for the many lives that have been lost. In the face of this threat, we stand by Turkey and support its legitimate right to defend itself, including from the PKK, whose attacks we condemn, as we condemn all terrorism. As in any conflict, civilian casualties should be avoided and human rights should be fully protected. In the course of the counter-terrorism effort, it is important that legal processes are undertaken fairly, transparently and with full respect for the law.
Turkey is and will remain an essential trade and foreign policy partner for the UK, including as a NATO ally. We are working with Turkey to manage cross-border challenges, including migration, terrorism, and serious and organised crime, and we are building on our already significant trading relationship, which will benefit both our economies. At the same time, we have to be clear and direct about the need for Turkey to uphold its international obligations, including on human rights, and we will continue to do this. We firmly believe that the rule of law and fundamental rights, including freedom of expression and the media, are vital for a healthy democracy. As Turkey continues to confront the extraordinary challenges posed by the current turmoil in the region, and to tackle multiple security threats at home, the UK will remain a partner and a friend.
Will the Minister give way?
I will not give way.
I call Joan Ryan to wind up, please.
I thank the Minister for his response to this debate, and I thank all Members who have taken part in it and supported it. I was very encouraged by the response of my hon. Friend the Member for Leeds North East (Fabian Hamilton) on the Labour Front Bench. However, although I have thanked the Minister for his time and contribution, it was a very disappointing contribution, and many people in the Turkish, Kurdish and Alevi communities here will also be disappointed. Indeed, the disappointment will be even more widespread, because people in this country are very committed on human rights.
We need to say and do so much more to be a critical friend of Turkey. I do not think we are being critical enough of what is happening in that country. Just as the Kurdish people in Turkey defended their democracy and President Erdogan, only to find him then turning on them, we may come to regret not taking a much stronger line on what is happening in Turkey and with Mr Erdogan. It is not for us to tell the Turkish people how to vote in their referendum, but if it were for us to do so, I would say, “Vote no. Don’t vote for this slide into authoritarianism, for this oppression, for these detentions, for these arrests, for this loss of human rights and for this complete ignoring of the parliamentary democracy in Turkey that is valued by Turkish people.”
I do not think we are a friend to Turkey if we do not speak up loudly now, while it matters. When we do finally speak up, it may well be far too late and we may well deeply regret the fact that we are not now taking the responsibility that we should be taking. Yes, Turkey is a NATO ally and, yes, that is very important, but it does not have to be a case of trade or human rights; there needs to be both.
I thank the right hon. Lady and all those who participated in this debate, particularly as there were so many people attending it.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered human rights and the political situation in Turkey.
[Mr Peter Bone in the Chair]