I beg to move,
That this House has considered early elections, human rights and the political situation in Turkey.
I am pleased to have secured this debate, and I thank the hon. Members for Strangford (Jim Shannon) and for Edinburgh East (Tommy Sheppard) for accompanying me to the Backbench Business Committee to make our request.
This is an important opportunity for the House to show our strongest possible support for democracy, human rights and the rule of law in Turkey. Turkey is a key NATO ally, one of our strategic partners in the fight against Daesh and a major trading partner of the UK. In short, our bilateral relationship is vital.
As the representative of vibrant Turkish, Kurdish and Alevi communities in the London Borough of Enfield, I have been contacted by many residents about the current situation in Turkey. They are deeply worried for the safety of their family and friends.
It has been six years since we last had a general debate in this Chamber on issues relating to Turkey. This debate could not have come at a more urgent time. In 17 days, on 24 June, Turkish citizens will head to the polls to vote in presidential and parliamentary elections, more than a year earlier than scheduled. There are major concerns that the elections will be neither free nor fair. The elections will happen under the state of emergency that has been in place since the attempted coup in July 2016. Under these conditions, the freedoms of expression, assembly and association have been severely curtailed, creating a clear and present danger that democracy is being undermined in Turkey.
This debate is a crucial opportunity to raise these concerns and to call on the UK Government to ensure that Turkey upholds its international human rights obligations.
I congratulate the right hon. Lady on securing this timely debate.
I sit on the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe, and I will be going on an observer mission to scrutinise the elections in Turkey, which I agree need to be free, fair, transparent and in line with international standards so that people in Turkey can have confidence in the results.
What should the people going to observe the elections in Turkey particularly look out for? What has the right hon. Lady heard about in advance that may make the elections not free or fair?
A key point is where polling stations are located. There is evidence that polling stations are being moved from areas of towns and from villages that clearly have a population that will not be voting AK party to areas where there is a larger number of AK party supporters, which I consider to be voter suppression.
We could compare that with what happens in this country, because many people in London and other areas are able to vote in these elections. The polling station for London, for instance, is in Kensington, but a very large majority of the Turkish population are in north London and it is extremely difficult for elderly people and people with children to get across London. The community has had to make buses available, but the location of the polling station hugely reduces the turnout when people actually want to vote. That is one point of which we should be very careful. Of course, intimidation is also a serious issue in some areas of Turkey. I am glad the right hon. Lady will be an election monitor, and I have much confidence in her ability.
This debate is a crucial opportunity to raise our concerns and to call on the UK Government to ask Turkey to uphold its obligations. In pursuit of greater economic co-operation, our Government cannot turn a blind eye to the rapidly deteriorating political and human rights situation. Trade between the UK and Turkey is worth more than £15 billion, but our partnership with Turkey must be honest and critical. We must hold President Erdoğan to account and ensure that he adheres to international human rights law.
The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights has said that Turkey’s state of emergency and restrictions on fundamental freedoms do not in any way
“provide for the safe and free environment essential for the holding of a referendum or any other election.”
How did we get to this position? Why did President Erdoğan call these early elections? He is widely expected to win the elections, which follow the highly contentious 2017 Turkish constitutional referendum. The Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe, which monitored that referendum, found that it
“took place on an unlevel playing field”
“fundamental freedoms essential to a genuinely democratic process were curtailed.”
President Erdoğan labelled some of those who opposed the constitutional changes “terrorist sympathisers”, and in numerous cases the OSCE found that the no supporters faced bans on their campaign activities, and police interventions and violence at their events. That is further behaviour that the right hon. Lady, and Dame, no less, could look out for when she is an election monitor.
The constitutional changes backed by President Erdoğan’s AK party were approved by just 51% of the vote, despite all the pressure that was applied. Such opposition to these changes shows that many Turkish citizens are increasingly worried by what they see as his growing authoritarianism. It shows how divided Turkey is over the direction its Government are taking. These constitutional changes will transform Turkey’s parliamentary system of government into a presidential one, with vast executive powers. The elected President will become Head of State, Head of Government, head of the ruling power and head of the army, and the office of Prime Minister will cease to exist. After the elections on 24 June, the President will be able to call a state of emergency without the approval of the Cabinet, to issue decrees that bypass Parliament and to appoint more judges than ever before. Although the new constitution limits a President to two terms in office, it is possible for a President to seek a third term in certain circumstances. That means President Erdoğan could remain in office until 2029. The Centre for American Progress has said:
“When the president’s party holds a parliamentary majority, checks on presidential power would be virtually nonexistent.”
These sweeping powers have serious implications for the independence of the judiciary and the rule of law, and they raise questions about whether the Turkish Government will sustain a genuine democracy. This is a worrying preview of the sort of harassment and intimidation we can expect in the weeks before and after elections on 24 June.
The right hon. Lady is making an excellent speech. It would be bad enough if these developments were happening in an ideological vacuum. but they are not. Does she agree that this is not just a power grab on the Putin model in Russia but a power grab that is allied to the dismantling of Turkey’s former reputation as the model state where there could be a Muslim society where religion was kept separate from politics? All that, too, is being put into reverse.
I agree with the right hon. Gentleman on that. The struggle since the first world war has been to move Turkey to a secular democracy. It is not very long ago, some 10 or 15 years, that we were all excited about the developments in Turkey and about it becoming a European Union accession country. It is sad to see where Turkey is today, but more than that the situation is very threatening, not just for its own population but much more widely—to Europe, to the UK and across the middle east.
Turkey’s state of emergency was extended for the seventh time on 18 April, despite warnings from the European Parliament in February that
“the state of emergency is currently being used to silence dissent and goes far beyond any legitimate measures to combat threats to national security”.
When the attempted coup took place in July 2016, Turkish citizens from across the political spectrum took to the streets to defend their democracy. It is a supposedly temporary state of emergency. President Erdoğan said:
“This measure is in no way against democracy, the law and freedoms”.
“On the contrary it aims to protect and strengthen them.”
At the same time, he also suspended the European convention on human rights, in line with article 15 of the convention, which allows for derogation from the convention in times of public emergency. However, that does not give states the right to suspend their commitment to international human rights obligations.
I am certainly not surprised to hear that. I expect the situation to get worse because, as we know, the suspension of the commitment to the international human rights obligation does not ever permit the use of torture, yet that is precisely what has happened. In the words of Human Rights Watch, President Erdoğan
“unleashed a purge that goes far beyond holding to account those involved in trying to overthrow”
the Turkish Government. The UN special rapporteur on torture found that
“torture was widespread following the failed coup”.
Non-governmental organisations reported that there 263 incidents of torture in detention in south-east Turkey in the first quarter of 2017 alone. The level of complaints and representations being made is therefore no surprise.
Thousands of Turkish citizens, particularly members of the Kurdish and Alevi communities, have been arrested and persecuted by the very Government they sought to protect. In March 2018, the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights found that nearly 160,000 people had been arrested during the state of emergency. Civil servants, police officers, teachers, academics, and members of the military and judiciary have been detained or dismissed from their jobs, often without reason. The speed of the arrests was so alarming that in 2016 the EU Commissioner for Enlargement and European Neighbourhood Policy, Johannes Hahn, stated:
“It looks at least as if something has been prepared”,
in reference to lists of arrests being prepared before the attempted coup even took place.
On the first anniversary of the attempted coup, President Erdoğan announced that he would approve “without hesitation” the death penalty if the Turkish Parliament voted to restore it. If that happened, we would have no choice but to draw a line in the sand, and such authoritarianism would in effect end Turkey’s bid to join the EU. What a backward step that would be.
I thank the right hon. Lady for that contribution. It is at least reassuring that there will be some reaction to these measures, but we need from our own Front Benchers a reaction that is a little stronger than anything we have seen so far, because it has been very disappointing.
Throughout Turkish society, freedom of speech and expression has come under sustained attack. Amnesty International reports that more than 1,300 NGOs—including groups that assist displaced children and that support survivors of sexual assault—have been shut down for unspecified links to terrorist organisations. The United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights has said that the Turkish Government’s emergency powers are being used to
“stifle any form of criticism or dissent vis-à-vis the Government.”
According to the Committee to Protect Journalists, Turkey is now the biggest jailer of journalists in the world, and more than 300 journalists have been arrested since the attempted coup. The Council of Europe’s Venice Commission has described the closure of more than 180 media outlets as the “mass liquidation” of television and radio stations, newspapers and publishers. In the words of Reporters Without Borders, the stark truth about the current situation is that President Erdoğan
“now has complete control of the media in the run-up to general elections in 2019. Amid an unprecedented crackdown on civil society and the political opposition, only a handful of low-circulation newspapers still offer an alternative to the government’s propaganda.”
It is a stranglehold.
The crackdown on the media has taken place alongside a severe crackdown on Opposition parties. In December 2017, all 60 Members from the main Opposition party, the Republican People’s Party—the CHP—were put under investigation for
“defaming and insulting the presidential post, the Turkish nation, state and its institutions”.
Both CHP leaders—Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu and CHP presidential candidate Muharrem İnce—have issued statements to say that they believe that their phones have been illegally wiretapped by Erdoğan’s supporters.
As of 13 June, at least 136 officials from the pro-Kurdish People’s Democratic party—the HDP—had been detained and 14 arrested. HDP leader Selahattin Demirtaş, who is running for President, has been imprisoned since November 2016. The HDP has also reported, as I have said, that polling stations are being moved from villages where the party has strong support to neighbouring villages where the AK party has strong support.
This crackdown has affected all areas of civil society, but the Kurdish and Alevi communities in particular have suffered targeted and sustained harassment. They are deeply worried that their communities may be intimidated during and after the election period. In my capacity as chair of the all-party group for Alevis, I have received numerous reports that Kurdish and Alevi neighbourhoods have been harassed by the Turkish Government and supporters of President Erdoğan’s AK party. That intensified following Turkey’s assault on the predominantly Kurdish region of Afrin in Syria earlier this year, when hundreds of people were detained for voicing criticism of the military operation on social media. Such flagrant restrictions on freedom of expression served only to weaken Turkish democracy and civil society. There can be no justification for the oppression of communities on the basis of their religious or cultural identity. The Kurdish and Alevi communities that have made the UK their home are looking to us as Members of Parliament to speak out against these abuses.
I was extremely disappointed to see the Prime Minister welcome President Erdoğan to the UK with open arms just three weeks ago. Aside from Bosnia, we are the only European country to have hosted President Erdoğan during the election period. Germany, the Netherlands and Austria all banned him from holding political rallies in their territories. I have no doubt that President Erdoğan’s photographs with the Prime Minister and with Her Majesty the Queen will be used for his own election propaganda. My constituents, many of whom make up the 80% of British Turks who voted against last year’s constitutional referendum, expected the Prime Minister robustly to address Turkey’s growing authoritarianism in her joint press conference with the President. Instead, concerns about human rights and the political situation were alluded to only at the very end of the statement, after details of the UK and Turkey’s growing trade relationship had been announced at some great length.
The Kurdish constituents to whom I have spoken were also deeply shocked and insulted to read that the only reference the Prime Minister made to the Kurdish people was in relation to the “extraordinary pressures” Turkey was facing from Kurdish terrorism. That is an inflammatory remark and it could be interpreted that the Prime Minister views all Kurds as terrorists.
In fairness to Turkey, it must be said that, in years gone by, there were huge numbers of civilian casualties caused by some Kurdish terrorist movements, but our Government have chosen to support Kurdish fighters against ISIL-Daesh and we are entitled to expect some consistency. If Kurdish fighters are to be supported against the terrorists of ISIL-Daesh, surely Kurdish civilians should be supported against political oppression as well.
I absolutely agree with the right hon. Gentleman, and he pre-empts a few comments that I am going on to make.
There is a vital distinction to be made between the actions of proscribed organisations and the peaceful law-abiding Kurdish community. To add further insult to injury, the Prime Minister, in her press conference, also failed to mention the crucial role that the Kurdish people should play in securing the political settlement in Syria—an issue of utmost importance to Turkey, the UK, Europe and the middle east—yet in a letter to me in 2016, the previous Prime Minister acknowledged the “great courage and skill” shown by the Kurds and the extraordinary sacrifices they made on the frontline in the fight against Daesh. He also recognised that the Kurds will play a critical role in any political settlement in Syria. Today, I call on the Government to reaffirm their support for the Kurdish people and to recognise their fundamental rights and freedoms.
The Prime Minister said in her statement with President Erdoğan on 15 May that, in the defence of democracy, Turkey must
“not lose sight of the values it is seeking to defend.”
I believe that the Government and the Prime Minister are, in fact, paying lip service to these values. It is clear that the UK is putting trade before human rights, which flies in the face of the values that we should be seeking to promote and defend. We cannot turn a blind eye to President Erdoğan’s growing authoritarianism and his crackdown on fundamental human rights. By failing to hold him to account, the situation in Turkey is being allowed to get worse.
As the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights has said, there is a
“constantly deteriorating human rights situation, exacerbated by the erosion of the rule of law.”
I urge the Government to hold President Erdoğan to account by calling for him to implement the key recommendations of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, including to
“end the state of emergency and restore the normal functioning of institutions and the rule of law… revise and repeal all legislation that is not compliant with Turkey’s international human rights obligations, including the emergency decrees”,
and to enforce a zero-tolerance policy on the use of torture.
I look forward to the Minister’s response and his assurances that this Government are committed to supporting democracy, human rights and the rule of law in Turkey.
I congratulate right hon. Member for Enfield North (Joan Ryan) on securing this debate. I had not realised that it was quite so long since this place had had such a debate on Turkey. Considering what has been happening in the country over the past five or 10 years, that is somewhat remarkable. Today provides a long overdue opportunity for us to air some of the issues Turkey is facing, particularly given the upcoming early elections.
Like many, I have watched with disappointment as President Erdoğan’s Turkey has in recent years slipped towards illiberalism, hard-line nationalism and authoritarianism. I am disappointed not just for Turkey, but for the wider region and for global stability. Turkey is such a key country in terms of its placement. As neighbour to the Balkans, the Caucasus and the middle east, Turkey is a deeply important and influential country. Issues that arise in Turkey can frequently overspill into its neighbours. There is no question that an open, stable and democratic Turkey, with a strong and mature civil society, has the potential to be not only a strong ally, but a beacon of liberal democracy to its many neighbours.
Unfortunately, the trend towards illiberalism has accelerated since the failed coup attempt in 2016, which has been used by the Erdoğan Government as an opportunity to consolidate power and silence critics. Entire newspapers have been hijacked and eventually shut down altogether by the Government. Journalists continue to be arrested and jailed at a rate not seen anywhere else in the world. Over 1,000 companies have had their assets seized, and thousands of judges, teachers and other officials have been fired or detained. Even Wikipedia has been blocked.
Following this, Erdoğan has pushed through constitutional changes granting himself sweeping powers as President, with the changes approved in a referendum that has been blasted by the Council of Europe, the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe and the opposition. This summer’s snap elections—should President Erdoğan win—will be the final piece in the puzzle entrenching him in power beyond the Turkish Republic’s centenary in 2023. It is important to remember the symbolism of 2023, not just because of the centenary celebrations, but because it would mark 20 years since Erdoğan took office and the conclusion of his flagship 2023 vision—a set of economic and political goals for Turkey to have achieved by that year.
Worryingly, Erdoğan’s response to the economic crisis that has completely derailed any progress towards meeting those 2023 vision goals has been to spread conspiracy theories and anti-Semitic rhetoric. Erdoğan is no stranger to anti-Semitic conspiracy theories. He has blamed Israel for the overthrow of President Morsi in Egypt, called a protestor “spawn of Israel” and complained that the Turks are
“accused of being Jews, Armenians, or Greeks”.
More recently, Erdoğan has sought to blame virtually all setbacks or criticisms on what he calls the “mastermind”—those who are apparently behind the 2016 coup, the Gülen movement, ISIS, the PKK and Turkey’s ongoing financial crisis, all as part of an attempt to overthrow him and destroy Turkey. While he is generally vague about who the mastermind is, or are, there are clearly strong anti-Semitic currents running through this ultra-nationalist conspiracy theory. For example, during the election campaign, Erdoğan has blamed the devaluation of the lira on “some Jewish families”.
This is a deeply regrettable turn of events in what had been, in the past, one of the most open and tolerant countries in the region. The undoing of this work in recent years has been tragic and cannot bode well for the future of Turkey or its neighbours. As the right hon. Lady suggests, this poses a threat. Erdoğan has allied with an ultra-nationalist party to force through his constitutional reforms and now these snap elections, arrested most of the leaders of the main pro-Kurdish party and overseen the collapse of the solution process with the PKK.
In 2013, it emerged that Erdoğan’s Government were secretly coding people of Greek, Armenian, and Jewish ancestry in population registers. Just months ago, Erdoğan fuelled nationalist paranoia even further by making this genealogy database publicly available, which, perhaps unsurprisingly, has led to some quite violent attacks online, in the media and on people in the street. The service allows Turks to find out whether their ancestors were, for example, Greeks or Armenians who had passed themselves off as Muslim Turks 100 years ago to save their lives and homes.
Nationalism is resurgent; conspiracy theories are widespread; and the Government are fuelling anti-Semitic tropes. I hope, but do not expect, that despite the pattern of recent years, Turkey can change course once again. I hope, but do not expect—despite the best efforts of my right hon. Friend the Member for Chesham and Amersham (Dame Cheryl Gillan)—that the elections will be free and fair. However, I suspect that if anyone can manage that, she probably can. I certainly would not want to mess with her.
Given its location, a strong, liberal and democratic Turkey could be a great force for good in the world, standing for stability and human rights and against terrorism in all its forms. I therefore hope and expect that the Government will maintain their commitment to strong relations with Turkey—an absolutely key NATO ally and trading partner—while not being afraid to make criticisms where they are merited. The right hon. Member for Enfield North has a point in saying that the Government’s response to some of the things that have been going on has not been strong enough. I do think that slightly stronger language would have been possible and merited, because our commitment to promoting human rights and liberal democracy worldwide has to be absolute—not just in Turkey, but right around the world.
Thank you very much for calling me, Madam Deputy Speaker. I was half asleep, but not because I disagreed with anything I have heard so far. It has been very nice to be in the Chamber and agree with Members on the Government Benches on this issue.
I am a very old friend of Turkey. I first went there when I was a Member of the European Parliament in 1983-84. I went to Istanbul on behalf of Amnesty International to monitor the trials of members of the Turkish Peace Association—the Turkish equivalent of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament. Anybody who was involved in it was put on trial and put in jail. One of my colleagues’ nephews lived in London and I was persuaded to go there for the trials. Then, of course, there was a military dictatorship in charge. It was not a very pleasant experience monitoring the trials, but eventually all the people were freed, and I was pleased about that.
On another occasion I went to Turkey to see someone in jail—a young woman who had been jailed for a very long time, again under the military dictatorship. I was allowed to go to the prison. I spent about two hours talking to her there. Then the governor of the prison told me that she should not have been there in the first place. Of course, that did not stop her serving quite a long term in jail.
My next involvement with Turkey was as a member of the Inter-Parliamentary Union; I chaired its human rights committee, which met in Geneva. We were dealing with the human rights of parliamentarians. One of the countries that was in trouble for killing, disappearing or keeping in jail its Members of Parliament was Turkey. Members of Parliament from Turkey appeared before our committee, and we had robust discussions with them on the subject. Luckily, all those people were eventually freed from jail.
Over the years, I have had quite an interesting association with the country. I have many friends there, and I go there occasionally on holiday. As a friend of the country, it pains me to make these criticisms today, but as a true friend, I have to make them in any case. I would like to thank my right hon. Friend the Member for Enfield North (Joan Ryan) for securing this important debate. We do not have enough opportunities to discuss the situation in Turkey, and we should be able to do so.
The situation in Turkey is quite tragic. I implore the Turkish Government to change tack before it is too late and things deteriorate further, to the detriment of all Turks, the region, the UK and the wider international community. I also implore the UK Government to do more to challenge—both behind the scenes, as I am sure they do, and in public—what is happening there. We must have more critical and robust engagement with the Turkish Government about the very real deterioration in the political and human rights situation in the country, as my right hon. Friend and the hon. Member for East Renfrewshire (Paul Masterton) said.
While Turkey was once a beacon of democracy and progress in the region, it can only now be a cause for considerable concern for us all. The same leader and political party who were working on substantive reform to move towards EU accession and had begun peace talks with the Kurds—former PM and current President Erdoğan, and the Justice and Development party—are now systematically undermining the rule of law, undermining democratic governance and persecuting Kurds not only within Turkey’s borders but in Syria. That is despite, as we all acknowledge, Kurdish forces in Syria having been one of the west’s most flexible, reliable and effective partners in its fight against Daesh.
It is in no way an exaggeration to say that people’s lives, livelihoods and dignity are being taken from them as a result of the actions of the present Turkish Government. To hold a general election during a state of emergency is most regrettable, but on top of that, a number of Members of Parliament have been detained and prosecuted, including Selahattin Demirtaş, the leader of the opposition Peoples’ Democratic party—the HDP—who is running for the presidency from his prison cell. At the present count, about 10 MPs have already been sentenced, including a number of HDP Members of Parliament. I understand that they have received sentences ranging from two years to 10 years. Enis Berberoğlu of the Republican People’s party—the CHP—has been jailed for almost six years, reduced on appeal from 25 years, for disclosing Government secrets after he gave an opposition newspaper a video purporting to show Turkey’s intelligence agency trucking weapons into Syria.
In addition, according to the Turkish Journalists’ Association, there are at the moment—it varies from week to week—about 160 journalists in jail, which is more than in any other country in the world, and prosecutions are taking place. Independent organisations have been shut down, according to Human Rights Watch. Hundreds of media outlets, associations, foundations, private hospitals and educational establishments that the Government have shut down by decree remained closed in 2017, having had their assets confiscated without compensation.
The right hon. Lady is painting a worrying picture of detentions. I recall that in the aftermath of the coup, and for a considerable time afterwards, we constantly heard reports of tens of thousands of people being arrested. We know that huge numbers of people were arrested en bloc, but can she share any information with the House about whether a significant proportion of those have been released?
That was to be my very next line. Tens of thousands of people are under arrest, and some 150,000 people were sacked or suspended from their jobs in the aftermath of the failed coup. Police, military personnel, teachers, academics, judges, lawyers and other public servants have been among those caught up in the crackdown, and they include friends of mine. Some of those academics, for example, have no idea why they have been arrested. Fortunately, some have been released, but tens of thousands of people are still in jail and not quite sure what they are doing there at all.
The chair of Amnesty International in Turkey, Taner Kılıç, remains in prison a year after being arrested and charged with membership of the Fethullah Gülen terrorist organisation. His arrest was based on the false allegation that he downloaded ByLock, a messaging app that the authorities say was used by the followers of Gülen, which the Turkish Government hold responsible for the July 2016 coup attempt. No credible evidence has been presented to substantiate that claim. Mr Kılıç’s next hearing is set for 21 June, and if found guilty he could face up to 15 years in jail.
Those who have criticised the Government, whether in connection with Turkish military operations in Afrin in Syria, the activities of Turkish security forces in the south-east of the country, actions taken in response to the attempted coup, or alleged corrupt practices, are labelled and pursued as terrorists, traitors or subversives. We should be in no doubt that political opposition in Turkey has now been criminalised, and we must therefore question whether free and fair elections can be held under such circumstances. We must also question the direction of travel of the current President and his party, and we must be in no doubt that the actions undertaken by the Turkish Government cannot be viewed as a legitimate and proportionate response to the attempted coup in July 2016.
Let me remind the House of the findings of the Foreign Affairs Committee, on which I sit. In its March 2017 report on the UK’s relations with Turkey it stated that:
“we disagree with the FCO’s implication that the severity of the measures undertaken by the Turkish government after the coup attempt is justified by the scale of the threat…Despite the severity of the threat posed to Turkey by terrorism and the coup attempt, the scale of the current purges—”
we did use that word—
“means that we cannot consider them to be a necessary and proportionate response. The number of people who have been punished is extraordinary, and their means of redress are inadequate.”
We should be in no doubt that a country with such serious, systematic and flagrant abuses of human rights is unlikely to prosper in the long term. I say that having followed the political trajectories of many countries across the world, and having seen that appalling human rights violations almost always result ultimately in instability, growing conflict and financial turmoil, as well as in the relevant leader’s downfall and that of those around him.
I would also like to quote, as my right hon. Friend the Member for Enfield North did, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein, who said about the Turkish elections:
“It is difficult to imagine how credible elections can be held in an environment where dissenting views and challenges to the ruling party are penalised so severely.”
He went on to say:
“Elections held in an environment where democratic freedoms and the rule of law are compromised would raise questions about their legitimacy”.
In addition, it has been highlighted that in the run-up to the elections, Opposition candidates are likely to find it difficult, as my right hon. Friend said, to find media outlets willing or brave enough to publish or broadcast their speeches, in contrast to President Erdoğan’s complete hold over the airwaves which allows his and AKP’s message to dominate.
If there is an Erdoğan-AKP win, I fear we are likely to see a further clampdown through the use of enhanced presidential powers granted via the adoption, narrowly and controversially last year, of constitutional amendments by referendum. International observers said the whole process was deeply flawed, with Opposition voices muzzled and rules changed at the last minute. The changes adopted would, among other things, restart the clock on President Erdoğan’s term limit, meaning he could lead the country well into the next decade.
More generally, according to Human Rights Watch cases of torture and ill-treatment in police custody were widely reported throughout 2017, especially by individuals detained under the anti-terror law, marking a reverse in long-standing progress despite the Turkish Government’s stated zero tolerance for torture policy. There were widespread reports of the police beating detainees, subjecting them to prolonged stress positions, threats of rape, threats to lawyers and interference with medical examinations. There is also an entrenched cultural impunity for abuses committed by the security forces. According to Amnesty International, in the face of extreme political pressure, prosecutors and judges were even less inclined than in previous years to investigate alleged human rights violations by law enforcement officers or to bring them to justice. Intimidation of lawyers, including detentions and the bringing of criminal cases against them, further deterred lawyers from bringing criminal complaints. Amnesty International has concluded that it seems likely that human rights violations will continue as long as the state of emergency continues.
Given the actions of the Turkish Government inside and outside the country, I ask the UK Government to review as a matter of urgency their approach to Turkey, including their continuing arms sales to that country. With Turkey a priority market for British weapons, UK weapons sales since the attempted coup include a $667 million deal for military electronic data, armoured vehicles, small arms, ammunition, missiles, drones, aircraft and helicopters. They also include a $135 million deal for BAE Systems to fulfil Erdoğan’s plan to build a Turkish-made fighter jet.
Ideally, Turkey would continue to be a close UK ally, as we could—indeed, we really need to—work together on so many matters of mutual interest. I do not deny that there are matters on which the UK will need to continue to liaise closely with Turkey, in particular in connection with the refugee crisis. Turkey, to its credit, has taken in millions of refugees, most of them from war-ravaged Syria, and provides many refugee children with an education. However, the UK Government have to ensure that they do not become complicit or are wilfully blind in their dealings with that country. Given the lack of shared values at the moment, if the situation in Turkey deteriorates even further, there will be unfortunate consequences that will have a negative impact on us all. I am very glad that the right hon. Member for Chesham and Amersham (Dame Cheryl Gillan) will be an election observer. That is very important. I hope that she is joined by other colleagues from this Parliament, because it is important that our presence is seen there, along with the OSCE monitoring mission.
I also note that the Foreign Affairs Committee recommended that the FCO designates Turkey as a human rights priority country in its next annual human rights and democracy report. I hope that we will see that when the FCO launches the next report shortly.
I conclude with one of the Foreign Affairs Committee report’s most pertinent recommendations:
“When defending human rights, the UK must be both seen and heard. Discretion is sometimes necessary for impact, and private behind-the-scenes meetings will also play an important role in the UK’s influence on human rights in Turkey, but the FCO must be prepared to raise its concerns about Turkey with the Turks publicly. Currently, by giving human rights insufficient prominence in its dialogue with Turkey, the UK risks being perceived as de-prioritising its human rights values. If that impression is sustained, then it would damage the UK’s international reputation and not serve the protection of human rights in Turkey”,
or the population of that country.
It is a great pleasure to follow the right hon. Member for Cynon Valley (Ann Clwyd). I congratulate the right hon. Member for Enfield North (Joan Ryan) on securing the debate. She and I often follow each other around this place and outside it trying to make sure that Israel gets a fair view. It is an extreme pleasure for me to be able to say that our co-operation in that area also extends to Turkey, although I wish to park the Israel allegations that have been made for a moment.
It is very difficult to have a debate on Turkey that does not mention the Council of Europe, which was set up to look after democracy, the rule of law and human rights. It is the pre-eminent body in Europe for dealing with human rights, yet not once has its role been mentioned in all this. There are two reasons why we should stress the role of the Council of Europe. The first is that pre-eminence, to which Turkey has already signed up. It may have suspended the European convention, but it ratified that as long ago as 1954. It showed a willingness to participate in it up until the last few years, when it has engineered a dispute with the Council of Europe over funding. It has refused to be what is termed a “grand payeur” of the Council, really to stop its role being criticised and its human rights record being attacked.
As for the second reason, I know that the Council of Europe is often criticised for being just a talking shop, but boy do we need a talking shop where we can talk to MPs from other countries as much as we do now, and the body provides that for us. It is worth pointing out that all our political groups in the Council of Europe have Turkish members. It is incredibly useful to be able to sit down with them and talk off the record about the situation in Turkey so that we can get a good view of that.
I put on record the esteem in which my hon. Friend is held in the Council of Europe by many of our colleagues in the 47 member countries as a result of his numerous and valuable contributions to our debates during the plenary sessions. Does he agree that one of the Council’s most important missions has been to bring about the abolition of the death penalty, which was mentioned by the right hon. Member for Enfield North (Joan Ryan)? Its success is shown by the fact that there have been no executions in those 47 member states for the past 10 years, and for that record to be broken by a member state, as Turkey is, would be beyond contemplation.
I completely agree with my right hon. Friend. The issue of the death penalty is key to retaining membership of the Council of Europe. We are engaged in a debate with Belarus, because the existence of the death penalty there prevents it from becoming a member of the Council. If Turkey were to adopt the death penalty again, it would automatically cease to be a member.
It is important that we maintain relationships with Turkey through our political groups at the Council of Europe. That is one of the most useful facilities that the Council provides.
We have already heard that my right hon. Friend will be going to Turkey as an election monitor, and such monitoring is a crucial role provided by the Council. It will not be the representatives of just one political party who will be going, but representatives across the political parties. I know that the right hon. Member for Enfield North has given my right hon. Friend some pointers about what to look out for, but I wish her luck. I wish all that it is possible to wish that she will be able to gain a fair view that the elections are in the spirit of democracy, the rule of law and human rights.
In an intervention, I mentioned appeals to the European Court of Human Rights, which is an essential component of the Council of Europe. In fact we elect its judges, and, incidentally, we have a phenomenal record of success. It must be recognised, however, that appeals to the Court have gone through the roof because individuals are taking their cases there. Some 160,000 people have already been arrested and 152,000 civil servants have been dismissed, as well as teachers, judges and lawyers. Those are the people who are taking their cases to the Court.
I have a great deal of sympathy for Turkey’s role in helping us in the fight against terrorism, and I do not think we should ignore the enormous consequences of terrorism for the territorial area that it represents. However, if we are to support Turkey in that regard, it will be crucial that it shows it can fulfil its human rights obligations. The legal measures that need to be undertaken during the state of emergency must be proportionate and justified. They must be in line with the principles of democracy that Turkey has established for itself, and they must also be in line with its promise to the Council of Europe that it will fulfil the obligations of a member country.
I finish by pointing out that something close to 2,000 organisations have already been permanently closed by the Turkish Government. They include human rights organisations, lawyers associations, foundations and other NGOs. More than 100,000 websites have reportedly been blocked in Turkey, including many pro-Kurdish websites, as well as satellite television stations. This does not speak well of Turkey’s attitude to fulfilling its Council of Europe obligations, or those that it has made to us as a NATO partner and ally. I urge the Government to put pressure on Turkey to fulfil those obligations.
I would just like to add one thing to the hon. Gentleman’s important contribution. He will be aware that the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights has, in the key findings of his report, identified the use of torture and ill treatment in custody, including severe beatings, threats of sexual assault, actual sexual assault, electric shocks and waterboarding by police, gendarmerie, military police and security forces. That is a very long way from recognising and adhering to human rights.
I agree with what the right hon. Lady says about the UN’s assessment. When Turkish citizens have brought cases to the European Court of Human Rights, it has invariably found against the Turkish Government. If I had the papers on me, I would be able to provide quotes from its judgments that align with her comments.
In conclusion, I urge the Government to take a strong line in making sure that Turkey fulfils its obligations to the Council of Europe and its promises to us as well.
Thank you, Madam Deputy Speaker. I am used to being the last to be called, so I am pleased to have the opportunity to speak at this stage of the debate.
I thank the right hon. Member for Enfield North (Joan Ryan) for asking me to join the deputation to the Backbench Business Committee that applied for the debate—I was very pleased to do so. I congratulate right hon. and hon. Members on their magnificent contributions on a subject in which I take a great interest.
This is a timely debate, given Turkey’s forthcoming parliamentary and presidential elections. As the right hon. Lady and others have rightly said, they are taking place when a state of special control is in place across the nation. As chair of the all-party group for international freedom of religion or belief—FORB, as it is better known—I am deeply worried about developments in Turkey in respect of freedom of religion and belief, as well as the associated freedoms of expression, association and peaceful assembly.
I am pleased to see the shadow Minister and Minister in the Chamber because both of them are well versed in this matter. I hope that both their contributions will effectively bring together all our points of view. I want to discuss some of the vital issues of concern, particularly the crackdown on human rights and civil society in Turkey that followed the 2016 coup attempt. I shall then move on to the specific restrictions on the right to FORB.
I was trying to think of an analogy that might sum up Turkey. As a country sports enthusiast, I came up with this: it runs with the hare and hunts with the hounds. Turkey fraternises with the USA and NATO, and also Russia and Syria, and it seems to play one off against the other. The situation worries me greatly. We have a nation that seems to be finding its own way and is perhaps becoming a big player—if it has its own way—but we must remember that it has been an ally in the past and is an ally within NATO as well.
The Turkish Government’s response to the 2016 coup attempt significantly damaged Turkey’s human rights protection framework and tightened that Government’s control over all aspects of Turkish society, as the right hon. Member for Enfield North and others mentioned. In the aftermath of the coup, the Turkish Government dismissed some 150,000 public servants from their jobs—their only crime was that they had a different opinion from that of President Erdoğan. Disgracefully, more than 1,200 schools were also shut down in a blatant, concerted attack on education and opportunity for children young and old. Some 15 universities and 185 media outlets were also shut down, and 73 journalists were arrested, with a further 250 Turkish journalists having to flee the country for fear of arrest and persecution. According to the Committee to Protect Journalists, Turkey arrested the highest number of journalists of any country in 2017. There has been a significant clampdown on media expression. When authorities control the media in the way that Turkey’s do, they control what happens and what people hear across the entire country. The independence of academics in Turkey has also been curtailed greatly after the attempted coup; over 6,500 academics lost their positions and hundreds of them were imprisoned.
Those people would all have expressed concern about Turkey’s human rights abuses. If this debate were happening in Turkey, each one of us in this Chamber would have been arrested and put in jail—we would not be able to express ourselves as we have done. We are taking the opportunity in this House, in the seat of democracy, to express ourselves on behalf of those in Turkey who do not have that right—politicians and those involved in political parties who are sitting in prison and do not have the right to express themselves. They cannot conduct election campaigns, knock on doors or speak to people.
As well as these other groups, many human rights defenders have been arrested and charged with membership of terrorist organisations, including the head of Amnesty International in Turkey. This has had a chilling effect on human rights and religious freedom advocates working in the country. According to the US Commission on International Religious Freedom, in this environment, many religious minority groups have maintained a low profile and have largely ceased pursuing their previous long-standing demands for fear of being arrested or put in prison, so they cannot even express themselves in the way they have before because they are restricted.
Of course, the Turkish Government justify their crackdown on human rights and the unjust jailing of thousands of public officials, academics, journalists, politicians and human rights defenders by saying that is necessary to fight terrorism. I agree that they have been on our side in fighting terrorism, but they cannot use the same rules to clamp down on their own citizens and to restrict the rights and freedoms they had beforehand. Unfortunately, such disregard for a country’s own citizens is often counterproductive. As we have heard, history shows that those countries that do such a thing will feel the wrath of the people at some point, and I think Turkey’s day is coming—it will not just be turkeys for Christmas; it will be Turkey’s day for other reasons. That is because the public’s willingness to co-operate with authorities to combat terrorism can be lost if their human rights are violated by those same authorities. Moreover, human rights violations can create the grievances that drive people to take up arms against the state, so Turkey needs to be very careful about what it is doing internally.
The second issue I would like to discuss is the FORB situation in Turkey specifically. There is simply not enough time to go through all the freedom of belief issues in Turkey that cause me and the all-party group significant concern. Funding for non-Muslim houses of worship remains very limited in comparison with funding for Sunni mosques. Anti-Semitism continues to be a problem for Turkey’s Jewish community, and there are significant reports of Protestant churches being vandalised and pastors being targeted with hate speech via text message, Facebook and email. We have brought those issues to the House in the past.
The European Court of Human Rights has made many judgments on these and other long-standing issues, which have not been addressed by the Turkish Government. Those issues include the right to conscientious objection to military service—meaning that those who do not want to serve would have the opportunity to say no—and the right to raise one’s children in line with one’s religious or philosophical views. Is that wrong? It seems to be in Turkey. They also include the right to establish places of worship—when people want to establish or build a church, whether a house church or a physical church, they are denied that right—and the right not to disclose one’s religious beliefs. In the all-party parliamentary group for international freedom of religion or belief, which I chair, we speak up for those with Christian beliefs, with other beliefs and with no beliefs. In other words, we speak for all those people in Turkey whose freedoms are being denied.
Other fundamental issues include the difficulty that religious communities face in providing formal religious education and training for their clergy and followers, and the impossibility of their obtaining independent legal status. Independent legal status for churches and their related educational institutions is totally restricted in Turkey. Even the Sunni Muslim community is not allowed to be independent from the state. It is controlled by the Diyanet, which is part of the Prime Minister’s office. This is another example of an autocrat taking control over everything that happens in Turkey, and it is something about which I and other Members here have spoken out strongly. These issues have been extensively documented by human rights organisations such as the Norwegian Helsinki Committee, the Freedom of Belief Initiative and Forum 18. The United Nations is also concerned about them, but we do not see anything happening. We just see an autocratic leader in President Erdoğan pursuing a singular and blinkered policy to deny people their rights.
Another critical freedom of religion or belief—FORB—issue I would like to discuss is education in Turkey. Primary and secondary school students in Turkey are required to complete the religious culture and moral knowledge course, which is rooted in Islamic principles and which Turkish officials claim is necessary to raise law-abiding and moral Turkish citizens. They deny all the other religions their rights, but they are happy to impose a course that tries to nurture, focus and singularly point towards what they want. In 2014, the European Court of Human Rights held that the course should not be compulsory, as the classes
“do not respect parents’, guardians’, and pupils’ freedom of religion or belief.”
The Government have yet to comply fully with that ruling. Is it not time that they did so? It is it not time that Turkey listened to the United Nations? Is it not time for it to start giving freedoms and rights to its people, just as other countries across the world do?
The situation regarding FORB and education in Turkey is likely to worsen in the coming years, as the curriculum in Turkey’s public schools is set to change in 2018. This will mark another critical and singular change. According to numerous human rights reports, the education ministry has revised more than 170 curriculum topics in an effort to raise what President Erdoğan has called a “pious generation” of Turks—a generation of people who will know nothing other than what the President tells them. What a society that would be if everyone thought the same things, dressed the same way and ate the same things. Imagine how it would be if everyone wore the same uniforms and did the same jobs. What a terrible place that would be.
The ministry will remove evolutionary concepts such as natural selection, and critics claim that lessons on human rights, gender equality and openness towards various lifestyles will also be altered. North Korea will pale into insignificance if President Erdoğan has his way. This is a concerning development for all of us who believe that education should be used not to foster divisiveness but rather to open minds and broaden horizons, to teach respect and love for one another, and to inspire genuine curiosity and the search for truth. That is what education is about. It is about acquiring a vast amount of knowledge in order to advance ourselves and create opportunities.
I am also immensely concerned about how the Turkish Government have treated the Kurds. Their situation is totally unacceptable, and I hope that the United Nations will—[Interruption.] Okay, Madam Deputy Speaker, I am coming to the end of my speech. I shall sum up.
Since the 2016 coup attempt, the Turkish Government have been systematically attacking civil society and trying to replace it. They have created a new media, a new deep state, a new code of conduct based on nepotism and a system that revolves around one man, in which the violation of Turkey’s international human rights obligations is worryingly commonplace, unquestionable and unjustifiably arbitrary. Thousands of Turkish citizens have been imprisoned, including many who have stood up for the rights of their countrymen and women.
FORB in Turkey has also been on a downward trajectory. The proposed changes in the educational curriculum and the failure to implement many of the judgments of the European Court of Human Rights ensure that Turkish religious or belief groups will continue to have their article 18 right to FORB denied. I call on the British Government to publicly and privately urge the Turkish Government to implement their binding international human rights obligations. If those obligations are met, Turkish people will be free to make their own choices about their own society, in regard not only to elections but to the exercise of their rights to the freedoms of religion and belief, expression, association and peaceful assembly. If that happens, Turkey can be part of a vision for the world; if it does not, it will be going backwards, and we have to make sure that it cannot do that.
It is always a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon). I bow to his great skill; he gets more words into a minute than any other human being I have ever met. The speed with which he speaks is quite enviable.
Before the Front-Benchers start to speak, it might be useful if I touch on what is happening with the Council of Europe election observer mission, because it has been mentioned so many times. The pre-electoral delegation, a precursor to the mission, has already taken place and a report is available. It was led by Olena Sotnyk, a prominent Ukrainian Member of Parliament, and included our own Lord Blencathra. I thought it may give some colleagues some comfort that we are approaching this matter with an open mind, but we are not unaware of some of the issues that have quite rightly been raised in today’s contributions.
The mission will be made up of 33 members and will observe the parliamentary and presidential elections, both of which are unusually being held at the same time under a state of emergency. The pre-election delegation met several organisations and interlocutors, including the head of the OSCE election observation mission, members of the diplomatic corps, representatives of different political parties, journalists and media representatives, NGOs, the chairman of the Supreme Electoral Council of Turkey, the vice-president, members of the Radio and Television Supreme Council, and the Speaker of the Grand National Assembly. They went through what is going to happen on 24 June, which is the first time that the two elections have been held together.
The delegation first noted that the six candidates running in the presidential election would in fact offer a genuine and pluralist choice to the electors, which is important. However, it is no doubt of interest to the right hon. Member for Enfield North (Joan Ryan) and me that an insufficient number of women have been included in the electoral lists for the parliamentary contest, which we will all regret.
There are high stakes in these elections, and it is important, as all have said, to ensure that they are free and fair and that international standards are adopted. However, we have had to note that substantial amendments to electoral law were adopted just one month before the announcement of the elections, and the so-called harmonisation laws were adopted even later. The short time between the introduction of changes to electoral legislation and the holding of elections is really not in line with the Venice Commission, which I am working with as a Council of Europe rapporteur on referendum rules at the moment, and is contrary to the usual notice that has been given in previous elections in Turkey. The Opposition parties have pointed out that the process that led to the introduction of the amendments was not inclusive and that they could not adequately prepare in such a short period of time. The observer mission has already taken that on board.
Various other matters were raised, including concerns about the substance of the electoral registration that weakens the safeguards in security and transparency and about the risk of Executive interference in the administration of the elections. The provisions appear to be particularly problematic when it comes to recognising the validity of unstamped ballots, allowing the transfer or merging of ballot boxes for security reasons at the initiative of governors, restricting the notion of the ballot area and increasing the chance of police being present at polling stations. However, the observer mission thought it positive that mobile ballot boxes had been introduced, which could have a positive impact, particularly on the political participation of people with disabilities. However, the proviso is that there are suitable safeguards in place to prevent abuse. An Opposition party has challenged some provisions in electoral law before the Turkish constitutional court, which is important to note.
Most people to whom the delegation spoke in preparing its pre-observation report underlined the state of emergency and the limitations on freedom of expression and assembly that have been introduced under its aegis, together with the ongoing security operations in the south-east and, as has been noted, the large number of politicians and journalists who have been arrested, which will no doubt have a negative impact on the elections. Of course, it is of great concern that we hear that violent incidents have already taken place during the election campaign.
Some Opposition parties brought up the interference in their ability to campaign freely, and the HDP informed the delegation that its presidential candidate, who we now know is in pre-trial detention, cannot campaign. That has already been noted and taken on board by the observer mission.
The Parliamentary Assembly has regretted that the previous recommendations relating to the funding of election campaigns and political parties in Turkey have remained unaddressed, and we will continue to pursue that. The Parliamentary Assembly has also noted that the legal frameworks in those areas require further development in Turkey, and the delegation will be encouraged to look at that. The great fear is that state resources may be used by the ruling party in the context of the campaign, which would produce an inequitable situation.
There are concerns about the impartiality of the ballot box committees in adequately managing the election. Indeed, the pre-election report has not pulled its punches in any way, so the observer mission is going in to examine what happens on election day with a very clear view of the backdrop against which these elections are taking place.
The chairman of the Supreme Electoral Council has said that all national and international observers will be allowed to observe all steps of the electoral process, including the counting of the vote and the tabulation of the results, as well as a newly introduced procedure to publish on the Supreme Electoral Council’s website the minutes of each ballot box as they are received.
Provided parliamentary business allows me to join my colleagues from this House and the other place, and of course the international members of the Council of Europe observer mission, I hope we will be able to produce a good report on what we observe that puts these elections clearly in context.
It is sweet that my hon. Friend the Member for East Renfrewshire (Paul Masterton) says I am not someone to be messed with, but he probably misunderstands the nature of an election observer mission to another country. I assure him that the international cross-section of politicians chosen to go on this mission, provided parliamentary business allows us to attend, will try to produce a report that is as honest and as objective as possible in order to put these very important elections in context.
Turkey is our friend. We are a friend to Turkey, and Turkey is our ally, but a friend must not be afraid to be a critical friend. We all need to improve, but we all need to improve together.
I, too, wish to praise the right hon. Member for Enfield North (Joan Ryan) for bringing this important debate to the Floor of the House. The power of her speech was such that the Minister will want to take heed of all the major points she managed to squeeze into it. Many of the other speakers who followed made equally powerful and compelling points, and I hope that, given the agreement across the Chamber on some of them, he will want to address as many of them as possible in his summing up.
I welcome the opportunity to speak in this timely debate, especially ahead of the upcoming presidential and parliamentary elections in Turkey later this month. There is mounting evidence to suggest that Turkey’s record on human rights since the attempted military coup in 2016 has been somewhat questionable. It is therefore important that the UK Government, in pursuit of closer relations with Turkey and in line with their plan to have a global Britain vision, put pressure on the Turkish authorities to ensure these elections are conducted freely and fairly. The Foreign Secretary must also urge President Erdoğan to reverse his decision to derogate from the European convention on human rights as soon as possible.
The report from the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights paints a less than rosy picture of the human rights situation in Turkey; since a state of emergency was declared in July 2016, the Government have conducted a widespread campaign of media clampdowns, arrests and dismissals. That has included the arrest of 300 journalists on the grounds that their publications contained “apologist sentiments regarding terrorism” or other “verbal act offences”, or for “membership” of terrorist organisations. Nearly 160,000 people have been arrested and 152,000 civil servants have been dismissed. That and the other findings of the UN report amount to an attack on civil society by a Government almost unprecedented in modern times. Although I and my Scottish National party colleagues unreservedly condemn attempts to overthrow democracy, such as the failed coup, we equally condemn any response that does not respect human rights or the rule of law. The Turkish Government have clearly used the coup to target their democratic opponents.
Let us not forget the Turkish Government’s treatment of the people of Afrin, in northern Syria, where their unprovoked, aggressive airstrikes have killed and injured hundreds of innocent civilians. Military action of this nature, in a place which has hosted more than 200,000 internally displaced people fleeing war-torn parts of Syria, should be strongly condemned across the international community.
Turkey’s derogation from the European convention on human rights is highly regrettable, and I urge the Turkish Government to reverse this decision immediately. Equally regrettable is the fact that the UK Government have also chosen to derogate from certain articles of the ECHR, and indeed have threatened to withdraw altogether. The UK, of all states, should lead by example, so I urge the Government to reverse their decision to derogate from articles 2 and 5 of the convention. They will then be in a position to call on President Erdoğan to do the same without reeking of hypocrisy.
For Turkey to move forward on to a solid democratic footing, it is vital that the upcoming elections are free and fair. As I said, the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights has expressed concern over the legitimacy of the elections should the state of emergency remain. Allegations of unfair media coverage by opposition candidates have led to questions over the integrity of the Turkish state body RTÜK. Yet more concerning is the $6 billion incentives package recently announced by the AK party Government, including cash payments to pensioners, which some local commentators have understandably denounced as “election bribery”. In this context, it is difficult to foresee how credible the elections will be and how the results can be accepted, and what an illegitimate result will mean for Turkey’s future.
Despite Turkey’s questionable human rights record of late, the Prime Minister rolled out the red carpet for President Erdoğan during his visit to Downing Street last month. The UK Government appear to have abandoned democratic values and human rights in their pursuit of Brexit by wooing world leaders known for oppression of their own peoples. Moreover, it has been reported that Britain has sold more than $1 billion of weapons to Ankara since the failed coup, yet the UK Government have admitted that they cannot categorically state that UK weapons have not been used by Turkish troops in the area of Afrin.
I am not in any way disregarding the importance of the UK’s relationship with Turkey. Like many other Members who have spoken, I have friends in Turkey— I work with Turkish representatives at the NATO Parliamentary Assembly—and I am keen to see the strengthening of our trade, security and defence links with this geopolitically strategically-sited country. We have much to gain from improving our co-operation on things such as information sharing and on tackling cross-border crimes such as money laundering and people and arms trafficking—not to mention the mutual benefits of the British-Turkish collaboration on the Turkish TFX fighter jet.
However, those shared interests must not be prioritised over the human rights of the Turkish people or, indeed, the securing of democracy itself. The UK Government cannot turn a blind eye to the human rights abuses in Turkey because of purely national interests. A global Britain has the moral authority and a moral responsibility to demand adherence to democratic values from its international partners. I therefore urge the Secretary of State to heed the words of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights and call on the Turkish Government to restore the country’s constitutional order and ensure that human rights and fundamental freedoms are respected as quickly and as fully as possible.
I congratulate my right hon. Friend the Member for Enfield North (Joan Ryan) on securing this debate, together with her co-sponsors. As she said, it has been six years since we debated Turkey in the Chamber, although it is only 15 months since the Westminster Hall debate, in which I was also privileged to speak. I recall my right hon. Friend saying in that debate that it was time that we had a debate in the Chamber; here we are, 15 months later, and sadly things in Turkey have got considerably worse.
My right hon. Friend said in her opening speech that she has serious concerns that the state of emergency will prevent the elections in Turkey on 24 June from being free and fair, and that theme was echoed by many other right hon. and hon. Members who contributed to the debate. She said that this debate was the opportunity for the British Government to ensure that Turkey keeps to its international human rights obligations and that our Government cannot turn a blind eye to human rights violations, in spite of the fact that Turkey is such a valuable trade partner.
My right hon. Friend quoted the OSCE saying that the constitutional referendum in April 2017
“took place on an unlevel playing field”.
Many of us similarly felt that it was not a fair referendum, yet still the changes only just squeezed through with 51% of the vote—even tighter than our own Brexit referendum. She asked whether the Turkish Government will sustain a genuine democracy, and that has been the theme this afternoon. Of course, she also condemned the use of torture since the July 2016 coup attempt, as we all do.
My right hon. Friend said something else: she asked for a stronger reaction from her own Front Benchers, so let me take this opportunity to assure her and the House that the Opposition condemn utterly the human rights violations, the use of torture, the rolling back of human rights, the arrest of journalists, the increasingly authoritarian regime of the Turkish Government and President Erdoğan’s AK party, and, of course, the horrific violence and military action in Afrin, allegedly against Turkish PKK brigades and militia, who have now joined the YPG in Syria. The action in Afrin was not only a gross violation of the lives of those Kurds who had sought refuge in Syria but the violation of another state’s territory. We utterly and wholeheartedly condemn that, and have done since the Turkish army took that action.
We also heard a very good speech from the hon. Member for East Renfrewshire (Paul Masterton) who talked about the authoritarian crackdown by President Erdoğan and the AK party. He said that the AK party and President Erdoğan were determined to remain in office under the new constitution past that centenary that he mentioned of the modern Turkish republic being established in 1923, and, from the evidence that we have seen, there is no doubt that that is exactly what President Erdoğan wishes to do.
The hon. Gentleman mentioned something else that is very important and close to my heart and the hearts of all Members present in the Chamber today: the increasingly anti-Semitic rhetoric that we hear from President Erdoğan and his Government. It is all the more tragic given the sanctuary that Turkey and the Ottoman empire offered to the Jews escaping persecution in other parts of Europe, down the centuries, including to my own ancestors who left Spain in 1492. That old trope of blaming Jews worldwide for the devaluation of the lira, for currency fluctuations and for financial issues is something of which we have heard far too much. It is a tragedy that that country that we have come to admire over the years is going down that path.
We then heard an amazing, knowledgeable, experienced and excellent contribution from my right hon. Friend the Member for Cynon Valley (Ann Clwyd)—my colleague and friend—who talked about the treatment of Turkish MPs who had been jailed. Over the years, she has been associated with many friends and activists in Turkey. Importantly, something she said was echoed by many Members this afternoon, which is that, as a true friend of Turkey—I believe that we are all true friends of Turkey in this Chamber this afternoon and that our country is a true friend of Turkey—we have to hope that the criticisms that we make are heard in good faith, because we want Turkey to be back on the path of democracy and the liberal values that we so treasure in this country. Many Members said that the UK Government should challenge Turkey in public, and I look forward to hearing what the Minister has to say on that. They said that Turkey, once a beacon of democracy and freedom, is now a great cause for concern.
My right hon. Friend also said that we should now cease arms sales to Turkey until the authoritarian regime returns to some kind of democratic values. I am talking about those who have been arrested and imprisoned for simply speaking their mind, not for plotting to overthrow the Government of Turkey, and about the widespread use of torture and the arrest of journalists. Turkey now arrests and imprisons more journalists than anywhere else in the world per head of the population, including countries such as China and other authoritarian regimes. That is a disgrace. We want to see that practice reversed.
The hon. Member for Henley (John Howell) said that it was difficult to have a debate on Turkey without mentioning the Council of Europe. He talked about the important role played by the Council of Europe. He said that 2,000 organisations and NGOs have been permanently closed by the Government since the coup attempt.
We then heard from my friend—I hope he does not mind me calling him that—the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon), who was one of the backers of the motion. He said that it was a timely debate given the elections on 24 June. He is well known as the chair of the all-party group for international freedom of religion or belief. He talked about the crackdown on freedom of speech and human rights since the coup, expressing his concerns that our counterparts in the Grand National Assembly of Turkey can no longer express their views freely as we can in this House. Had we been Turkish, we could well have been arrested for expressing our views today.
Following the coup attempt of July 2016, my right hon. Friend the Member for Islington South and Finsbury (Emily Thornberry), the shadow Foreign Secretary said:
“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 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. 686.]
Things have got considerably worse in a country with which we have a very close friendship and in which we have very good alliances.
The coup of 2016 resulted in a state of emergency enacted by the Parliament that was expected only to be temporary, yet it has been extended almost indefinitely. It allows, as we know, for rule by decree and the temporary suspension of so many rights in Turkey. The authorities have used it to target suspected political rivals and to reduce the space for civil society. As a consequence—we have heard about this today—checks and balances on human rights have shrunk, and Turkey is pushed further away from a system in which the rule of law is guaranteed. On 18 January 2017, just as Donald Trump was taking office in the United States, The Guardian said that Turkey was
“fast degenerating into outright dictatorship, emboldened by the imminent ascent of Donald Trump”—
a rise that has of course now happened.
Turkey under President Erdoğan is part of a new generation of authoritarian populists who seek to overturn the concept of human rights protections. The irony is that before President Erdoğan and his party democratically won power, they were themselves victims of human rights abuses under the old regime before 2002. In fact, Erdoğan was imprisoned in 1999 for reciting a religious poem. The fiercely secular constitution and the then elite consistently attempted to undermine even mildly Islamist political forces in the country.
The UK Government consistently state that they work closely with Turkey—as I hope they do—and underline the importance of the rule of law and the protection of freedom of expression. It is a statement that the Government make frequently when confronted with the issue of human rights and the current political situation in Turkey, but this seems to be having no effect. I urge the Minister to do more, speak louder, and I hope upon hope that the Turkish Government will listen.
The Turkish Government blamed the coup on followers of the exiled Turkish Islamic cleric Fethullah Gülen and imposed the state of emergency, which suspends many of the normal functions of the constitution and derogates many provisions of the European convention on human rights. Since the coup, nearly 160,000 people have been arrested and 152,000 civil servants dismissed—many, as we have heard, totally arbitrarily.
Let me conclude with a few words about the situation for women in Turkey. There is no doubt that Turkish journalists are being arrested and held in prison in a way that we have never seen before, but the situation for women’s rights is also going into reverse. Erdoğan has publicly stated that he does not believe in gender equality. He calls abortion murder and birth control treason. The AKP has been accused by critics of seeking to erode the country’s secular principles to limit the civil liberties of women. In 2013, the World Economic Forum ranked Turkey 120 out of 136 nations for gender gaps in education, politics, health and economics.
This has been a timely debate. I hope that, as a close friend of Turkey, we will emphasise how important Turkey is to the rest of Europe, the region and the world and that we can see a reversal of this appalling slide into authoritarianism.
I congratulate my old sparring partner, the right hon. Member for Enfield North (Joan Ryan), on securing this debate. I also commend her for all of her sterling work as chair of the all-party parliamentary group for Alevis. The Minister for Europe and the Americas is currently travelling abroad on ministerial duties, and sends his apologies that he is unable to respond to this debate. It is my pleasure—in the broadest sense of the word, I hasten to add—to take his place and respond on behalf of the Government.
I am grateful for the heartfelt contributions from a number of hon. Members, including that of my hon. Friend the Member for East Renfrewshire (Paul Masterton) and the right hon. Member for Cynon Valley (Ann Clwyd), who gave a heartfelt commentary. She is right to conclude that this trajectory is not one that inspires confidence for the credibility of the Turkish elections on 24 June. My hon. Friend the Member for Henley (John Howell) rightly talked about the Council of Europe, and said that Turkey needs to do more to fulfil its obligations. The hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) and my right hon. Friend the Member for Chesham and Amersham (Dame Cheryl Gillan) also spoke. I will try to touch on all those points.
The right hon. Member for Enfield North rightly pointed out in her opening comments that a long-standing relationship underpins the UK’s alliance with Turkey. Over the decades we have enjoyed many shared interests, including the strongest of people-to-people connections, trade, security, migration and of course the fellow membership of NATO. We rely on the Turkish state for the protection of millions of British tourists who enjoy Turkey’s historical sites, and sunshine, each and every year. Turkey deserves the gratitude of the international community for hosting over 3.5 million Syrian refugees on its soil, at considerable cost and potential danger. We should also recognise that Turkey has stood on the frontline in the battle against Daesh. We commend its continuing efforts to deter foreign terrorist fighters from engaging in the conflict in Syria and returning to wreak havoc in Europe.
Turkey is also, as has been pointed out, an important trading partner. We expect that relationship to continue once we leave the European Union. I want to touch on the issue of arms sales, which was brought up by a number of Opposition Members. UK arms exports are subject to export controls. Each and every decision to approve licences on exports is considered a on case-by-case basis against consolidated EU and national arms exporting licensing criteria. This approach is, I assure Members, under continual review and based on the best information available at the time. I hope that when we look at the review, full account will be taken of each of the contributions made in this debate.
President Erdoğan’s visit last month underlined the closeness of the UK-Turkey relationship and gave us the opportunity, as a candid friend of Turkey, to have some constructive discussions on the widest range of issues. The Prime Minister and President Erdoğan specifically referred to Turkey’s forthcoming parliamentary and presidential elections and the importance of observing international human rights obligations.
Let me touch on the issue of human rights priority country designation, which was also raised by a number of Members. We do not currently judge that Turkey meets the criterion to be designated as an HRPC. Notwithstanding that, the UK will be active and vocal in trying to promote a restoration of human rights within Turkey through all diplomatic channels, including at the very highest levels and through the support of civil society. We will keep this decision under close review.
A number of hon. Members in all parts of the House have raised great concerns that the elections in Turkey are taking place in an increasingly restrictive environment, against the backdrop of a continuing state of emergency. I share that concern. It is by no means an ideal time to have an election when there is an ongoing state of emergency. As has rightly been pointed out, it is now almost two years since the attempted coup, and we all understood that the state of emergency, understandable as it was at the time, was a temporary rather than a semi-permanent measure. The Foreign and Commonwealth Office shares these concerns. We have urged, and shall continue to urge, that the state of emergency is lifted in order to restore normality. We will also make the case to counterparts in Turkey and to its London-based diplomats that it should ensure that the elections later this month are held in a manner that is as transparent, democratic, fair and orderly as possible.
We have noted the very great concerns expressed by the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe about the conduct of the 2017 referendum in Turkey. We have encouraged the Turkish Government to ensure that those concerns are addressed in the conduct of upcoming elections. We welcome the fact that electoral observer missions from the OSCE and the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe will be monitoring the elections in Istanbul, Ankara and beyond. The UK is providing practical support to that observer mission. I am delighted that my right hon. Friend the Member for Chesham and Amersham is going to be involved in that—pending, of course, the voting arrangements. I very much hope that we will not have anything that is too pressing, although there may be something pressing at some point slightly nearer to 24 June. I hope that she will be able to play a robust role in this. We shall continue to monitor developments with interest as activity gets under way. I agree that it is important that all—I repeat, all—political parties within Turkey have the same opportunity to engage in a fully participatory and fair election campaign.
As I observed earlier, as a candid friend of the state of Turkey—I think we are all candid friends and want to see Turkey succeed for the future—we can and we do regularly raise sensitive subjects such as human rights with Turkish Ministers. In addition to my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister’s discussions with President Erdoğan last month, she and the Foreign Secretary raised specific human rights issues at the highest level when they visited Turkey last year. The Minister for Europe, who has visited Turkey no fewer than six times since the coup in June 2016, has consistently raised the need to uphold human rights and democracy, particularly in the aftermath of that failed coup and in response to the ongoing terrorist threat. That work will, I can assure the House, continue.
We have long encouraged Turkey to work towards the full protection of fundamental rights, particularly in the area of freedom of expression. Turkey’s new constitution, very narrowly passed in a referendum last year, comes into force immediately after the forthcoming elections. I accept that, regrettably, it concentrates Executive power into the hands of a single President, abolishes the office of Prime Minister and reduces parliamentary oversight. The Foreign and Commonwealth Office will continue to call for Turkey to enact those constitutional changes in a way that sustains democracy, respects the rule of law and protects fundamental freedoms in line with its international commitments, which many Members have referred to, including my hon. Friend the Member for Henley.
We also urge respect for freedom of the media, which is essential to the long-term health of Turkish democracy. I share the deep reservations expressed by Members today about the high number of journalists and social media users currently in detention. The FCO will strongly support protection of the rights of minority groups in Turkey, including Kurdish and Alevi communities, among others. I call today on the Turkish authorities to safeguard their welfare and respect their human rights.
I think we all accept that PKK terrorism presents a severe challenge to Turkey and its allies in the region. The PKK is a proscribed terrorist group in the EU and the US, and we stand shoulder to shoulder with Turkey in condemning that group’s ongoing campaign of violence, which has led to thousands of deaths since the 1980s. While firmly condemning PKK violence, we continue to call for a return to a peace process. The UK Government have supported and will continue to support a number of organisations seeking to build active dialogue between different actors on the Kurdish issue and address related human rights issues. We also maintain keen links with all parties represented in the Turkish Parliament, including the largely Kurdish HDP and a wide variety of civil society organisations. As a consequence, we regard the reports of pre-trial detention of opposition politicians as unacceptable.
We welcome the early steps that Turkey has taken to address some of the human rights concerns internationally by reducing the custody period and creating a commission to review dismissals carried out under the state of emergency, but those are very small steps, and much more needs to be done. I know that I speak for all Members who have contributed to the debate in urging the Turkish Government to empower the commission further to deal effectively with the high volume of cases it faces.
In conclusion, I sympathise with the misgivings expressed by Members, not least the right hon. Member for Enfield North, about the situation in Turkey in the lead-up to the elections. I want to reassure the House that the UK, along with international partners, will be examining and reporting on the conduct of the forthcoming elections very closely indeed.
I thank all Members who have taken part in today’s debate. We heard no dissent on either side of the House from the deep concern about what is happening in Turkey—its slide into authoritarianism and the serious doubt that we can see free and fair elections there. I am pleased that the right hon. Member for Chesham and Amersham (Dame Cheryl Gillan) will be going there as an election monitor, and I look forward to hearing an account of that.
I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Leeds North East (Fabian Hamilton) for his very clear statement about the view of those on the Labour Front Bench. We heard a stronger statement today from those on the Government Benches than we have heard previously. It is striking that all the contributions were somewhat at odds with the Prime Minister’s press statement with President Erdoğan at the end of his visit. I suggest that she thinks again about what she said.
We are true friends to Turkey, but to the Turkish, Kurdish and Alevi communities and all individuals who are being persecuted and oppressed and whose human rights are just being swept aside. We need to do and say more and be stronger about it. I am surprised that the Minister for Europe and the Americas has been to Turkey six times and made the points he has made; clearly he has not been listened to. He dismissed my request that he ask the Turkish embassy to make a polling station—maybe a mobile one, as we have heard about—available in north London for the Turkish-speaking community to vote. Will the Minister present make those representations for us? I thank him for his response today.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered early elections, human rights and the political situation in Turkey.