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Turkey: Human Rights

Volume 569: debated on Wednesday 14 February 1996

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5.34 p.m.

rose to call attention to the question of human rights in Turkey; and to move for Papers.

The noble Lord said: My Lords, Turkey is important to us because it is a nation of over 60 million inhabitants, with a partially democratic system of government, facing Europe on one side and the unpredictable states of Iran, Iraq and Syria on the other. Turkey's armed forces number half a million men, a valuable element on the side of the West during the cold war, and now seen as a force for stability in the region. A member of NATO, the OSCE and the Council of Europe, Turkey has aspired under all recent governments to membership of European institutions and Europe has supported this policy.

The Government believe that we should take the opportunities provided by Turkey's membership of such bodies to encourage and support reform. They acknowledge some progress towards remedying the imperfections of Turkey's human rights record, and they believe that a co-operative rather than a confrontational approach is the best way of achieving further advances. The continuation of Turkey's favourable attitude towards Europe, including the assistance Ankara has given the allies in countering Iraqi aggression, are considered to be priority objectives, and we would not press too hard on human rights if by doing so it would endanger the friendly relations that exist between Turkey and Europe. As a corollary of that principle, we would avoid doing anything that might benefit the Islamists in Turkey, whose agenda includes the realignment of their country towards trade and political links with other Islamic states and the detachment of their country from its European orientation.

When the Turkish Prime Minister, Mrs. Tansu Ciller, visited Britain in December, she emphasised the need for a favourable decision by the European Parliament on Turkey's accession to the European customs union if the Islamist Refah Party were to be stopped from winning the general election. She also explained, I understand, that in making some minor amendments to the anti-terror law, which had been the main legal weapon against opponents of the state, and particularly against Kurdish activists, the government had gone as far as they could in the direction of freedom of expression. I believe that the noble Baroness, Lady Cox, will be discussing this matter in greater detail and I only want to say at this stage that approving the customs union did nothing to prevent Refah's success, as I predicted in correspondence with Ministers, and the changes in the anti-terror law have been much less significant than our Government perceived them to be.

With regard to the elections themselves, it was very surprising that no official observers attended from the European Union, the Council of Europe or the OSCE. We devote resources to elections in places such as Palestine and now in Sierra Leone, both of them no doubt very important but hardly comparable in scale with Turkey. The noble Lord, Lord Hylton, did attend the parliamentary elections on behalf of the Parliamentary Human Rights Group and has made some useful observations on the process which I understand that he will be discussing later on. I would just like to ask the Minister in general what principles govern the decisions to observe elections. Our embassy did not visit the Kurdish region between early November and polling day on December 24th, so it has to depend entirely on other people's evidence for its assessment of the result. The two researchers on Turkey at Amnesty International are banned from entering the country, as also am I, and foreign journalists are reluctant to venture into what they see as a danger zone. We had to rely on the Turkish media, which generally takes a pro-government line and ignores most evidence of human rights violations, including violence and intimidation against candidates and voters.

If Turkey wants to convince the international community that she is serious about rectifying human rights abuses, the first essential must be greater transparency. The UN Rapporteurs on Torture and on Extrajudicial Executions and the Working Groups on Disappearances and on Arbitrary Detentions should be invited to visit Turkey; NGOs should be allowed unrestricted access to the country.

The second imperative is for a peace process to be initiated to bring an end to the 11-year conflict in the south east and to use the opportunity presented by the ceasefire called by the PKK to look for political and non-violent solutions to the problems which gave rise in the first instance to the armed struggle, as the European Parliament has suggested. The OSCE mechanisms for conflict resolution, which have been activated in 12 other troublespots throughout Europe, should be applied to this conflict as well.

In the US Congress, Representatives Christopher Smith and Steny Hoyer have asked the OSCE to send a mission to Turkey with a view to establishing a long-term presence in the south east. They are calling for a total ceasefire, the repeal of the state of emergency, the abolition of the paramilitary village guard system and the extension to the Kurdish people of the sociocultural rights they are supposed to enjoy already under the OSCE's Copenhagen Declaration. Those were points which were conceded by Mrs. Ciller in her first speech after she took office but which have not yet been delivered.

In Germany, a call to initiate a peace dialogue has been initiated by thousands of distinguished writers, scholars, trade unionists and politicians. In Britain, too, a call for peace has been launched, with the support of a broad cross-section of people. In Turkey itself, several peace initiatives have been launched, including "Coming Together for Peace" and "Against the Criminalisation of Thought", which concentrates on the way the conflict has been kept going by silencing those who use the pen rather than the gun.

Since the Budapest Declaration of December 1994, the OSCE is supposed to have become responsive to the reasonable demands of peoples, as expressed through the Office of Democratic Institutions and Human Rights. Here is a case where a strong demand is being articulated from many countries at the same time, yet nothing seems to happen. The processes are activated only when the demand comes from states and they are inert when governments have their own reasons for turning a blind eye to a conflict.

The reaction of the establishment in Turkey is exemplified by the broadcast of President Suleyman Demirel on 20th January. Discussing what he described as "the struggle against separatist terror", in which he said that 21,680 people had been killed, the President reiterated:

"Turkey is a unitary state. There is a single state, country, nation, flag and language. This unitary principle cannot be relinquished".

He then went on to reject the attempts which are being made to get started with political rather than military solutions to the Kurdish question. He said:

"There is talk of a political solution both inside and outside the country. We are aware that those who mention such a solution are making certain vague and nebulous claims. They have not yet been able to express their views clearly. They should do so. Any initiative aimed at dividing Turkey will be stifled at birth by the steel will of the Turkish people. The only thing Turkey can do is eradicate this network of murder".

The problem is that so far it has been impossible to articulate a political solution without running foul of the anti-terror law, and other articles of the criminal code which not only criminalise pure separatism but any other constitutional changes which might threaten the indivisible integrity of the Turkish state, republic and people, to quote Article 125 of the criminal code under which people can be sentenced to death. Thus it is a criminal offence to speak about federalism, devolution or local autonomy. When Professor Dogu Ergil of Ankara University published a survey of opinion among 1,200 Kurds showing that 13 per cent. only wanted an independent state but 89 per cent. supported a federal system of government, the state security court launched an investigation to see whether the authors of the report should be prosecuted under the notorious Article 8 of the anti-terror law. Thus even the least confrontational and most academic discussion of reform risks serious penalties, and if the discussion is more politicised, then a jail sentence is likely, as several Kurdish MPs have discovered.

The case of the MPs has attracted a great deal of comment from human rights NGOs and the IPU. Those MPs were in some cases found guilty of membership of an armed organisation and sentenced to 15 years' imprisonment. One other was found guilty of supporting an armed organisation. He was sentenced to seven-and-a-half years in prison. Two other MPs were found guilty of making "separatist propaganda" under Article 8, for which they were sentenced to a mere three-and-a-half years in prison and a fine of 70 million Turkish pounds.

Those sentences had to be confirmed by the high court, and in three cases retrials started last week. Meanwhile, yet another former MP, Abdulmelik Firat, the 63 year-old grandson of the famous Sheikh Said who led the rebellion of 1925, has been arrested on charges of harbouring members of the PKK and is detained in Bayrampasa Prison in Istanbul. Three other former MPs are being threatened now with prosecution.

Those judicial actions against MPs must be seen in the context of widespread acts of violence against anybody who asks for the Kurdish people to be given the rights set out in the OSCE's Copenhagen Declaration. One MP, Mehmet Sincar, was assassinated in Batman on September 4 1993, together with the chairman of the local executive of the Democracy Party. After a very large number of those extrajudicial executions, together with disappearances and hundreds of arrests and torture of party members, the Democracy Party was finally closed down altogether by the Government, thus making it infinitely more difficult to solve the Kurdish problem by means of peaceful dialogue.

In the general election of December 1995, the new pro-Kurdish party (HADEP), in spite of tremendous intimidation and obstruction, polled ahead of others in many parts of Kurdistan. But it has no seats in the new parliament because it did not reach the national threshold of 10 per cent.—a barrier designed specifically to exclude them. The government have succeeded in extinguishing the parliamentary representation of what might be called loosely the home rule movement, leaving the people a choice between assimilation on the one hand and armed opposition on the other. If it had been true, as Mr. Demirel claimed, that the Democracy Party was the parliamentary arm of the "terrorists", its voting strength was a striking testimony to the PKK's support among the people as a whole. In fact, the links were simply inferred because the armed and constitutional movements have the same policy objectives. The PKK and the DEP were both seeking control of their own affairs by the Kurdish people but without going as far as an independent Kurdish state.

Ankara tries to convince the outside world that what it is dealing with in the Kurdish region is a handful of terrorists, unsupported by the general population. That is manifestly false, and the scale of the armed struggle, the votes cast for Kurdish parties and the extent of human rights violations all demonstrate the reality. Representative Christopher Smith repeated widely accepted figures when he said in his motion before Congress that 3 million civilians have been displaced from their homes and 2,650 villages destroyed.

Many of the atrocities against civilians are reported by the Turkish authorities to be the work of the PKK. As a recent example, on 16th January the Turkish embassy sent out a press release saying that the PKK had stopped a minibus on the way to Güçlükonak in the province of Sirnak the previous day and had murdered all 11 passengers. The official version was questioned in the Turkish Daily News of 20th January, which said that six of the victims had been in custody and that eyewitnesses in another van had seen the passengers blindfolded and accompanied by security forces. That is one of a great many cases where the truth may never be fully uncovered, but one can say that in a heavily militarised area like Sirnak it would be impossible for the PKK to attack a bus in broad daylight and then disappear without trace. No motive for the alleged PKK attack has been suggested, nor has any explanation been given as to how it would have known the bus was going to be on that stretch of road at that particular time.

The findings of the UN human rights experts, which will be discussed by the noble Lord, Lord Rea, are abundantly confirmed by the work of many NGOs. Amnesty International has highlighted the growth of disappearances, extrajudicial killings (in which they see "the fingerprint of the state") and torture and has documented literally hundreds of individual cases. It has also drawn attention to the Government's systematic attempts to conceal the scale of human rights violations. That has taken the form of prosecuting human rights defenders, closing down branches of the Turkish Human Rights Association and severely limiting access to the emergency region by foreign human rights investigators.

The scale of those violations, the extent of the human suffering and material damage in the region and the flagrant disregard by Turkey of her obligations under the Copenhagen Declaration and other OSCE instruments make it difficult to understand why the international community has not formally noticed those phenomena and taken steps to address the underlying causes. Of course one is aware of Ankara's sensitivity, but that cannot be used as an excuse for doing nothing at all or for confining ourselves to polite and discreet remonstrations. If Turkey wants to belong to regional organisations, she must conform to the standards agreed by the states concerned and allow the mechanisms of those international organisations to be activated when manifestly there have serious breaches of the standards. I hope that Europe will decide that when a new government come into office in Ankara we will look for co-operation from that end, as well as offering it from here, and, in particular, that there will be a new drive to bring about a permanent ceasefire and constructive negotiations on the Kurdish agenda. I beg to move.

5.50 p.m.

My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Avebury, is to be congratulated on having introduced a debate on this most important topic. He is foremost among Members of your Lordships' House in having put forward ideas on human rights. Anything that he says on the sensitive subject of Turkey is very much to be taken into account.

I agree with his suggestion that Turkey has one of the worst human rights records in the world. That is a deeply tragic fact, bearing in mind the close links that we in Britain have with Turkey through the NATO alliance; through the struggle against Soviet imperialism when Turkey was a stalwart and noble ally; through growing links with the European Union, in particular the recent accession of Turkey to the common customs union; and within the Council of Europe to which we both belong.

I believe that we all admire Turkey for having since the 1920s built up the gentle and forgiving side of the Islamic faith. We contrast Turkey's approach to Islam with the extremism that is so often to be detected in countries such as Iran, the Sudan and even in Pakistan. Many thousands of British people visit Turkey each year and they speak of the warmth of the Turkish welcome that they receive.

The Turkish-speaking region stretches across central Asia. As regards its future, I hope that as a first step countries such as Uzbekistan, Kirghizia and Azerbaijan will look to Turkey as an area to emulate as they begin to build their fledgling democracies in the post-Soviet era. I hope that anything we can do to strengthen respect for human rights and parliamentary democracy in Turkey will be moved eastwards and northwards; that is, north of the Caspian Sea and of Afghanistan in areas where Turkish and similar languages are spoken.

The noble Lord referred to the tremendous support that we received from Turkey during the Gulf War. That support continues in "Operation Provide Comfort", which helps to provide relief for the pressure of Kurdish movements into other countries from Northern Iraq. I do not like to suggest what we would do without the presence in Turkey and the activity that we have in Turkish support in Northern Iraq.

I slightly differ from the noble Lord in his approach to the PKK. I believe that it is a mistake to offer any kind of comfort to the PKK. I believe that there is PKK activity in this country. I believe that there is too much PKK activity in this country and that it should be suppressed where possible. Like the IRA, it is an armed terrorist organisation with many brutal crimes to its credit. The noble Lord mentioned a crime which may have been a travesty of justice and of which the organisation may not have been guilty. Perhaps I may draw his attention to the most recent document on Turkey which was issued in September 1995. It states:

"During 1995 more civilians and prisoners have been brutally killed by armed opposition groups including the PKK".

Another report indicates that since the beginning of 1993 there have been 400 killings of prisoners and civilians by the PKK, and a substantial litany of other crimes have been committed by that ruthless organisation. I hope that your Lordships will not be so shocked by the Turkish record on human rights that they will feel sympathetic towards the PKK because I suggest that it is not the kind of organisation which should receive any support from Members of your Lordships' House.

The Turkish progress towards democracy is partial, as the noble Lord pointed out. We have seen the Turkish Parliament grow during the past 75 years. We see a vigorous press in that country, a substantial economy and even the appointment of a Minister for Human Rights. That is no sham. The Minister for human rights in 1995, Mr. Azimet Koyluoglu has looked forward to the idea of a golden age for human rights in Turkey. I believe that he hopes for that most profoundly. Of course, he has not received it but it is his aspiration and he is a member of the Turkish Government.

It is sad that so many Turkish Ministers, who so genuinely espouse the cause of human rights and want to see progress made, are unable to get their views turned from hope into fact because of the schizophrenic nature of authority in that country. I feel sure that Mrs. Ciller, were she here, would share many of the views put forward by the noble Lord, Lord Avebury. However, for all her hopes and beliefs in strict adherence to human rights, she has been unable during her premiership to translate hope into deed. We have seen Turkey operating outside its own law regarding human rights, just as it has operated outside international law as regards its continuing occupation of Cyprus.

Sadly, we must conclude that Turkey is a country in which the use of torture in police stations and prisons is extensive and extremely prevalent. We must accept that political killings by members of the Turkish security forces are frequent, as are disappearances of political prisoners no doubt for political reasons. We must accept that there is frequent imprisonment of non-violent dissenters. The noble Lord rightly drew attention to Article 8 of the criminal code which makes it clear that the mere putting forward of separatist ideas should be a criminal offence punished by a heavy term of imprisonment. If that were applied by the British in Northern Ireland, one would have many tens of thousands of people subject to arrest and imprisonment. The mere support without action of a cause is a criminal offence in Turkey. Even the equivalent—and I am sure that there are many—of Mr. John Hume in Turkey would be committing a criminal offence since Mr. Hume believes in achieving a certain result without the use of violence.

It is not easy to have total confidence in our Turkish ally, in our Turkish partner, so long as those abuses continue and so long as that schizophrenic attitude to cruelty and abuse of the law is allowed to continue, perhaps not by the Turkish Government, many of whose members wish to see it stamped out, but by other organs of the Turkish state.

In that context, I should mention the pivotal role that could be played by President Demirel in that matter. I have yet to see President Demirel take action over the many accusations that have been levelled against the Turkish police and military. He seems to concentrate more firmly on the achievements and aspirations of the Turkish army rather than on the accusations levelled against it.

That is depressing because the Turkish police and the security police are out of control and when prisoners—not only political prisoners but ordinary criminals—are obliged to spend nearly a month in prison or in a police station being softened up before they are brought before a judge, it is no wonder that the allegation is made—and I believe established—that torture is widespread and institutionalised within the Turkish system. Attempts to redress those outrages carried out by various political victims of torture have been made with great bravery and often with the support of members of parliament and the press. It has been established beyond reasonable doubt that tortures have been taking place, only for the matter to be carefully shelved before any result could be achieved or the prosecution of any police officer could be put into effect.

The army and the air force of Turkey have been totally ruthless in their bombing of Kurdish villages and I should not like to think how many Kurds have died in the recent winter as a result of the dehousing that has been inflicted upon them. We have very little control over that and there is little monitoring. A recent spokesman representative of Amnesty International was arrested in Turkey and deported. I very much hope that when the Minister replies, she will give us some idea of what can be done to encourage the Turkish Government to accept co-operation with Amnesty International and also to accept a special rapporteur from the United Nations Commission on Human Rights.

The Government have a position in the UN Commission on Human Rights and a representative in Geneva. I hope that it will be possible for us to see the appointment of a special rapporteur to cover those very serious allegations. Monitoring violations is a step towards eradicating them.

Another suggestion that I make is for a human rights officer to be appointed to our embassy in Ankara; and that it should be well-known that there is a member of that embassy with the special task of monitoring human rights in Turkey and with the duty of reporting to the Government and the Foreign and Commonwealth Office about such violations.

I suggest that it would be no bad thing if such a human rights officer at our embassy in Ankara were to be a British army or service officer because links between the armed services on human rights issues are particularly important as regards Turkey. Very often, contacts between our Foreign Office and the Turkish Foreign Office are not good enough simply because the Turkish Foreign Office will very often agree with our criticisms but they are unable to put that criticism to any political or practical use.

If we can achieve some steps with our allies—in particular, with our American allies—I believe that we should be able to establish a more sensible, viable and decent relationship with Turkey that is appropriate to the close links that we have with Turkey through our alliances and through our European links.

6.5 p.m.

My Lords, I am very pleased that the noble Lord, Lord Avebury, has won the ballot for this debate. As the noble Baroness knows, I am concerned with human rights issues in any country where human rights are being abused. As a member of the parliamentary human rights committee chaired so energetically and ably by the noble Lord, Lord Avebury, I have now visited three countries in or on the borders of Europe where serious human rights abuses are taking place—Kosovo, Chechnya and Turkey, the subject of this evening's debate.

I visited Diyarbakir last April and my main remit was to look at the effect of the emergency situation in south-east Turkey on the health of the population and its health services. I saw and heard in and around Diyarbakir, with the aid of an interpreter of course, enough to convince me that the civil war situation is having a very serious impact on public health. Of course, I was concerned also about individual cases of human rights abuses when they came my way.

The effect of the emergency situation on public health can be seen to be largely due to the destruction and total or partial evacuation of, it is thought, 1,800 villages in south-east Turkey which has resulted in a huge increase in the flow of rural people to the cities, both in the west of Turkey and to Diyarbakir and other large centres in south-east Turkey. It is estimated that 2 million people have lost their homes. Dispossessed people from the villages are largely dependent on their relatives for food and shelter since employment opportunities are few.

As well as their poor homes, an inadequate water supply and terrible sanitation in the shanty towns around the larger towns and the city of Diyarbakir, the poverty of these new immigrants is resulting in an increase in malnutrition, which is especially affecting young children. That has led to an increase in the infant and child mortality rate as common childhood diseases are much more serious in malnourished children.

Statistics in relation to the infant mortality rate are 55 for Turkey as a whole but 87 for the Diyarbakir region. For comparison purposes, I should say that the rate in the UK is six. Doctors of the Turkish Medical Association to whom I spoke said that the actual rate was more likely to be 120 or so. That is a figure more typical of poor countries in Africa or Asia.

Of course, I am aware that the economic development of south-east Turkey has always lagged behind that of the West, but it seems clear that instead of catching up, as it was doing before the emergency, it is now slipping back.

I visited two small health clinics in the shanty town areas outside Diyarbakir. Government doctors there could only guess at the mortality rate in their districts as many births and deaths were not registered and the size of the population which they served was not known with any accuracy because of the rapid immigration. The immunisation rate of children against common infectious diseases was well below the 90 per cent. rate which had been achieved before the emergency. It is probably less than 50 per cent., and in rural areas it maybe completely non-existent. Diseases which had become uncommon are now reappearing; for example, diphtheria, polio, TB, salmonella and so on.

My impressions were confirmed by the doctors of the local Turkish Medical Association as well as by a full report published by the Turkish Medical Association after I left. A doctor, quoted in that report, said that statistics in the region are not reliable any more. In some of the cities there are more than two or three times the number of people than the believed capacity of the city. People are living on top of each other. If five brothers were living together, this number has now risen to 15. People are living in places without any sewerage services and without water. There is a serious typhoid fever outbreak where the health centre is centred.

Apart from the effect on public health, the health services themselves were badly affected by the conflict. Doctors and other health workers said that the security forces interfered with their treatment of patients, sometimes delaying or preventing patients from being seen. At least three surgeons, who had carried out routine operations for conditions such as piles or gallstones on patients who were later suspected of PKK sympathies, had been detained as much as six months after the operation and were then put in prison for up to 45 months.

As a doctor, I was particularly interested in the possible involvement of doctors in torture or other human rights abuses. It was difficult on a flying visit to obtain details of the possible involvement of doctors, but the secretary of the local Turkish Medical Association said that the names of four government doctors in the prison service who had assisted prison officers by monitoring torture were known to them. Of course I am concerned about the continued practice of torture, not only in Turkey but also anywhere in the world. As the noble Baroness will know, the British Medical Association has been at the forefront of moves to expose and end the practice internationally. It has produced two reports on torture, particularly highlighting and condemning the participation of medical and other health professionals.

In 1975 there was a powerful declaration—known as the Declaration of Tokyo—which stated categorically that the doctor,
"should not countenance, condone or participate in torture or other forms of cruel or inhuman or degrading procedures".
The British Medical Association gives strong support to national medical associations in their resistance to such involvement. The Turkish Medical Association is one of those with which it is in communication.

As the noble Lord, Lord Bethell, pointed out, the Turkish Government connive in what is probably the most persistent and ingrained use of torture today, with the possible exception of China, now that most Latin American countries have adopted multi-party electoral systems. Certainly more tortured people from Turkey come to the Medical Foundation for the Care of Victims of Torture in London than from any other country. So far, despite the statements of Mrs. Ciller that human rights are improving, there seems to be no diminution in their number.

It may be said, perhaps, that in a civil conflict with an armed opposition such as the PKK (which itself has carried out acts of violence) the rules may be waived and that international conventions entered into by states should he temporarily put aside. However, the convention against torture and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment affirms in Article 2, paragraph 2 that,
"No exceptional circumstances whatsoever, whether a state of war or a threat of war, internal political instability, or any other public emergency, may be invoked as a justification of torture".
Turkey signed that convention in August 1988.

Ostensibly, countries sign international conventions and agreements in order to demonstrate their belief in the principles concerned. It is quite likely that, in many cases, the actual statesmen who sign the documents really do believe in them. But signatories also gain economic, cultural and sometimes military recognition arid advantages by so doing. However, if their security services persistently break the rules of a convention, surely governments should prosecute the personnel concerned through their systems of justice. If such prosecutions were followed up thoroughly, that would end or at least greatly reduce the practice until it dies out.

In November 1993, the report of the UN Committee against Torture on Turkey considered that,
"the information received …was credible … and contained well-founded indications that torture was practised systematically in Turkey".
The report of the special rapporteur on torture in January 1995 contained 80 paragraphs on torture in Turkey, which is far more than any other country in the world. If it is of any interest to your Lordships, the runners-up in the report were Egypt with 56, Serbia (mainly in Kosovo) with 46 and China with 39.

Many of the victims of torture in Turkey are Kurdish or Kurdish sympathisers detained in connection with that government's attempt to achieve a military solution of the Kurdish problem. But many are not involved in the conflict. Indeed, some are trade unionists or demonstrators protesting about a variety of perceived injustices. Some are journalists, politicians or academics putting forward views which are at variance with the military group which is the real ruler of Turkey, sheltering behind the elected government. This is the kind of schizophrenic situation to which the noble Lord, Lord Bethell, referred.

As both previous speakers said—and especially the noble Lord, Lord Avebury—there is an increasing movement within Turkey at present which wants to seek a peaceful solution to the Kurdish problem. It is surely our role in this country, and that of our European partners, to encourage that strand of opinion within Turkey. I suggest that that will not be achieved by supplying Turkey with weapons on easy terms or welcoming Turkey, as we have done, into the European Customs Union.

If nations fail to honour conventions which they have signed, some kind of sanction should be imposed if only to exclude them from international bodies which welcome them as equals. Sadly, as in the case of Indonesia and China, flagrant violations of human rights conventions and agreements have been ignored, while we have pressed ahead with trade, aid and military agreements because it keeps our order books full and the profits flowing.

Turkey was admitted into NATO during the Cold War to buttress the southern flank against the USSR. Human rights abuses—and the invasion of Cyprus—were largely glossed over because of the need to keep on good terms with Turkey. I suggest that the situation has now changed. While I do not like the regime of Boris Yeltsin in Russia at all, it is very unlikely indeed to threaten us militarily. For one thing, Russia today seems to be extraordinarily incompetent militarily, as shown by its inability to win the war in Chechnya.

The economic development of Turkey now is seriously held back by the expense of the conflict in the south-east. A peaceful solution is possible; that would be short of granting outright independence for the Kurdish people, especially now that Abdullah Oçalan (who is the leader of the PKK) has offered a ceasefire and talks with a completely open agenda. But, even without that, western Europe could do more to promote human rights in Turkey along the lines suggested by the noble Lord, Lord Bethell—indeed, I was most interested in the noble Lord's remarks—but also by withholding military assistance and by a much more critical diplomatic stance.

6.20 p.m.

My Lords, those of us who love Turkey and the Turkish people, as I do, find it distressing to have to call attention to the question of human rights there. However, I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Avebury, for the opportunity to have this debate.

I wish to speak on this matter from a particular angle which is indicative of the wider problems of human rights in Turkey. Other noble Lords have spoken eloquently of the wider problem. My concern is for one particular community—the Syrian Orthodox of the Tur Abdin area of south east Turkey. These people represent the last vestiges of Syriac speaking Christians living in what was once the heartland of the Syriac world. Once Antioch was one of the great cities of the world; the place where the followers of Jesus were first called Christians. For many centuries it was the hub of an important Syrian Christian culture. Now it is simply a village in Turkey. However, the Syriani, as they are called, still live in that area. Barely 25 years ago the Syrian Christians there formed a community of many thousands, but now they are simply "people in between" caught between the Turkish Army on the one hand and the Kurdish PKK on the other. They have dwindled to barely a few hundred families. This is a community which needs protection. Well informed observers who have visited them have voiced doubts as to whether this ancient community will survive long into the new millennium, if at all.

One of the reports which has reached the Church of England documents the burning by the Turkish Army of the village of Hassana, the burning of vegetation and crops on surrounding hillsides and the intimidation of the Syrian Orthodox community in mid-1994. We have heard of a priest who has been arrested and badly beaten up and of other difficulties this community has to experience day-by-day. At Lambeth Palace, translated from the Aramaic, there is an account by a student from that community entitled A Story of the Grief of the Tur'Abdin. He describes the military presence in the region and the overall visual impression in the following words:
"As we passed the towns and villages there was an empty silence—where are the people?—Some had been killed, some had run away and emigrated, and some had had homes destroyed; those who remained were hiding away".
He wrote of the situation in one town, Midyat,
"Around noon, I reach Midyat and the bright sunlight warms one's spirit. Yet, wherever you look, there are folk with guns. The town seems filled with soldiers, police, special teams and village guards. Tanks, armoured cars, and military vehicles fill the streets; the faces of the people are filled with pain and hopelessness, their hearts broken; I realise that peace and happiness for the people of the Tur'abdin has gone".
That is an eloquent testimony to a community which has suffered much. I cannot say what the situation in this town is at the present time, but the strong overall impression is of a beleaguered community. Many of the people have fled to Lebanon and Syria and those who remain face great difficulty and danger. We must not forget the sufferings and fears of this tiny, minority community whose experience is indicative of what is happening to so many other people in Turkey. This innocent community is caught between the Turkish Army on the one hand and the Kurdish PKK on the other. It is important that this small, ancient community should be remembered and its right to exist preserved. I very much hope that the Minister in her representations to the Turkish Government will be able to draw their attention to this suffering of an ancient and innocent people.

6.23 p.m.

My Lords, I, too, congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Avebury, upon initiating this debate and for his characteristically comprehensive introduction. We owe him a debt of gratitude for bringing before your Lordships' House a subject which raises so many important issues of principle and of policy.

Turkey's record in the field of violations of human rights is abysmal. Yet, despite this, many Western countries, including Britain, seem to be turning a blind eye to the suffering it is inflicting on many of its own people and on those of other nations such as Armenians and Greeks. Instead, we seem to be favouring Turkey with magnanimous concessions. Of course I am aware of the importance of strategic and commercial interests but I do not believe it is in the long-term interests of any country to allow these to obliterate its concern for human rights.

I am also aware of the argument that encouraging regimes which manifestly violate the basic canons of human rights to promote economic liberalisation may in turn promote political liberalisation. This argument is premised on the theory that market economies generate democracy. But this theory does not always work in practice. It may have done so in Chile but it has yet to prove itself in China and is certainly failing badly in Burma. This is because there are many other factors at work in the development of a democracy, including a nation's political culture. Turkey does not score high on this measure with regard to its respect for human rights as a fundamental foundation of a democratic society. Moreover, there is a real danger that, while the Turkish Government continue to violate human rights, economic and political support from the international community may encourage them to continue to perpetrate atrocities in the knowledge that they can do so with impunity.

I must preface my catalogue of anxieties by expressing a caveat. Some years ago I had the great privilege of visiting Turkey with the British Council to help to develop healthcare and nursing research. I made many personal friends and I know that there are many kind, generous, hospitable Turkish people. However, it is the government and their record on human rights which concerns us this evening. I shall limit myself to mentioning three areas of concern: the repression of freedom of expression; the misuse of weapons by Turkish authorities, both against its own people and in warfare outside Turkey; and the continuing blockade of Armenia.

First, I shall mention violations of the principle of freedom of expression. The accumulated evidence of disappearances, arrests, torture and murder of politicians and journalists is spine-chilling. I shall give only a few recent examples. Inevitably most cases are related to the problem of Turkey's relationships with its Kurdish population. However, that problem is no justification for the systematic and brutal violations of human rights which have characterised Turkey's policies with regard to freedom of expression. For example, the International Human Rights Law Group sent a delegation to Turkey to investigate the detention of parliamentarians and the proceedings to ban the Democracy Party (the DEP). Its investigations focused on the stripping of immunity from, and arrest of, six duly elected Kurdish deputies and one Islamic deputy; and the impending prosecution of the six Kurds on charges carrying the death penalty, and the Islamic deputy on charges of "insult to Ataturk". Its report, published in May 1994, found that the charges against the DEP deputies, upon which they were stripped of immunity, involved no more than the exercise of freedom of expression. The legal conclusions found,

"clear violations of obligations binding on Turkey in both conventional and customary law. The events present serious questions with regard to the degree to which the application of the Constitution and laws of Turkey conform with internationally recognised standards".

Since that report was published, two of the DEP parliamentarians have been released as part of Turkey's efforts to enhance its image in order to obtain customs concessions from the European Union. However, although the European Parliament had demanded the release of all six parliamentarians, four are still in detention with serious prison sentences. The Democracy Party remains banned. One of the most significant issues in this area concerns Article 8 of the anti-terrorism law, to which reference has already been made. This relates to disseminating separatist propaganda. This, however, has been interpreted as a catch-all phrase covering anything relating to the PKK, and has been used to justify the arrest of many people, including writers, journalists, publishers and politicians.

In its additional efforts to gain credibility with the European Union, the Turkish Government have promised to amend Article 8, and did so last December. Those amendments resulted in some reduction of penalties—for example, reducing the length of prison sentences and replacing some custodial sentences with fines. However, even if that infamous Article 8 were to be struck out of the penal code altogether, there are still many—some say almost 400—other articles in the penal code which could have a similar inhibiting effect on freedom of expression in Turkey. Although some people who had been charged under the previous Article 8 have now been freed, it is feared that a number of them are liable to retrial.

Particularly disturbing is the death of a journalist in January this year, so soon after Turkey's success in gaining customs concessions from the European Union. When he was arrested, Metin Goktpe was reporting on the deaths of three prisoners who had died in an Istanbul prison. He was detained overnight in a sports centre. He was allegedly badly beaten, and on release the following morning he staggered to a tea garden, where he died. Autopsy showed death by head injuries inflicted by blunt instruments. The then Prime Minister ordered an inquiry, and it is reported that 45 police officers will stand trial. The event itself is obviously cause for deep concern. The outcome of the official investigations will be a litmus test of Turkey's sincerity of purpose with regard to freedom of expression now that it has achieved one of its major aspirations with regard to beneficial relationships with the European Union.

I now turn to the allegations of the misuse by Turkey of weapons from OSCE states. The evidence available strongly supports the contention that, in continuing to supply lethal weaponry to the Turkish armed forces, OSCE states are violating the principles governing conventional arms transfers agreed by participating states in November 1993. The Human Rights Watch Arms Project report on Weapons Transfers and Violations of the Laws of War in Turkey, published last November, documents the Turkish security forces' violations of the laws of war and of human rights and their reliance on US and NATO-supplied weapons in doing so. It concludes that such weapons are regularly used by Turkey to commit severe human rights abuses and violations of the law in the south east. The document states:
"The most egregious examples of Turkey's reliance on US weaponry in committing abuses are its use of US-supplied fighter bombers to attack civilian villages and its use of US-supplied helicopters in support of a wide range of abusive practices, including the punitive destruction of villages, extrajudicial executions, torture and indiscriminate fire…US and NATO-supplied small arms, tanks, armoured personnel carriers and artillery are also used in the abuses".
The report also expresses grave dissatisfaction with the United States Government's response to those allegations. It states:
"The US government's professed inability to seriously evaluate the actions of a major NATO ally does not appear credible, given the immense investigative powers at its disposal".
By contrast, the report gives examples of the critical responses of some other NATO nations and notes that, because of its abuse of weapons, at least five nations have at some point suspended military sales to Turkey.

Here I must raise a related concern, based on my own experience, corroborated by two American Congressmen. In the besieged enclave of Nagorno-Karabakh, where Armenians who have inhabited that land for centuries have been defending their right to continue to live there against Azerbaijan's former explicit policy of attempted ethnic cleansing, I and my colleagues have repeatedly seen Turkish and NATO weapons used by Azerbaijan against civilians—weapons which were presumably supplied by Turkey. The evidence has been checked by ex-British Army personnel and raises clear questions of end-user accountability for military weapons which Turkey should be required to answer. I ask my noble friend, what is the British response to those serious allegations of misuse of US and NATO weapons by Turkey?

Finally, mention of Armenians brings me to the continuing violation of human rights by Turkey in maintaining its blockade of Armenia. Western governments have turned a blind eye to a policy which has caused untold suffering to the Armenian people. The combined blockade by Turkey and Azerbaijan has meant that the Armenians have been almost cut off from the rest of the world and have had to suffer not only restrictions of essential goods but also severe shortages of electricity. In the literally darkest hours of the winters of 1992 to 1994, the capital of Armenia, Yerevan, was often without power for nearly 24 hours each day, in temperatures of -10 degrees to -20 degrees. Schools, universities and factories had to close. Hospitals were barely able to function, and the suffering of the people had to be experienced to be understood. Now conditions are somewhat better, thanks to the reopening of a nuclear power plant, a reopening undertaken with some reluctance by many Armenians, but as a necessity for survival, given the Turkish blockade. I ask my noble friend whether Britain is taking any steps to prevail upon Turkey to stop that totally unjustifiable blockade, which is a violation of human rights and causing so much suffering to the Armenian people

In conclusion, I return to where I began by expressing my grave reservations over the argument that Turkey should receive economic and political support as a means of encouraging political liberalisation and progress towards democracy. The evidence suggests that that is a doubtful correlation. Before any more concessions are made or support given, may we be assured that Turkey has given substantial evidence of good faith in improving its policies with regard to human rights in ways which go beyond the cosmetic adjustments we have seen so far and which are not immediately reversible?

Unless stringent conditions are applied and evidence is obtained that Turkey is accepting its obligations with regard to respecting international conventions on human rights, there is a real danger that it will see economic and political support as a tacit condoning of its brutal policies and that countless people will continue to suffer, including those Turkish citizens who have the courage to speak and write the truth, the Kurdish and Christian minorities within Turkey, and even those beyond the borders of Turkey, including Armenians in their own country and in Nagorno-Karabakh.

The catalogue of human suffering inflicted by the Turkish Government on innocent people must continue to be a cause for deep concern. In this century alone, it ranges from the genocide of 1.5 million Armenians in 1915 (which is still not acknowledged by Turkey) to the current cruelties documented in this debate.

I hope very much that my noble friend will assure your Lordships' House, and through this House the wider international community, that Britain will not be counted as a nation which allows national interests to hold sway to the extent of appearing to condone violations of human rights, and thereby directly or indirectly to encourage Turkey to continue to perpetrate the kinds of atrocities which have been recounted here tonight.

6.37 p.m.

My Lords, I join in this timely debate as one who observed both the Turkish municipal elections of 1994 and the general election held on 24th December 1995. Neither election could, I regret, be described as totally free and fair. In 1994 foreign observers were denied access to nearly all villages in the Lake Van region and elsewhere in the south east, where martial law applies. Six weeks before polling day the Democratic Labour Party was forced to withdraw from the election following the murder of one parliamentary deputy, the bombing of its headquarters in Ankara and assaults and threats against its candidates, officials and supporters. The result was that a strong protest vote went to Refah, the Islamic party. This gained for that party the posts of mayor in Ankara, Istanbul and other cities.

The 1995 general election was called at very short notice. There had been no national census since the previous general election. That meant that the 100 extra parliamentary seats were allocated in a somewhat arbitrary way. Only 9 days were allowed for registering new young voters and voters displaced from their homes by the armed conflict in south-east Turkey. The result was that only a low proportion of such voters were recorded on the register. Out of 29 million votes cast nearly 1 million were spoiled or invalid. A 10 per cent. national threshold was applied, as has already been mentioned, so that seven parties failed to elect any deputies, despite receiving over 4 million votes between them. The best thing that can be said about the election is that it probably reflected fairly accurately the balance of opinion between the three largest parties, with Refah receiving 21 per cent. and the two main centre-right parties 19 per cent. each.

HADEP, the People's Democratic Party, is the left-wing successor to HEP and DEP, both of which had previously been accused of separatism and dissolved by state action. HADEP complained that four deputies, previously elected, were still in prison for political offences while others were in exile. It told me that it had been very seriously affected by registration problems, that it suffered media discrimination as well as intimidation and obstruction by the security forces in the south east, not to speak of physical attacks by right-wing extremists in western Turkey. The deputy general secretary of the party told me, and I quote his exact words:
"I have forgotten how many times I have personally suffered torture. Since I started working for this party and its predecessors, 105 of my friends have been killed".
The party's complaints made to me personally occupy three typed pages of A4 in my report. Detailed information received since polling day, including the experiences of German observers, confirms massive electoral irregularities including assaults and torture throughout the south-east provinces. This filled another four pages of A4.

The view of the Human Rights Association of Turkey, which is shared by many others, is that the constitutional changes made last year by Turkey in order to satisfy the European Union and its Parliament, are purely cosmetic. For example, the amendment to Article 8 of the Anti-Terror Law does not assert freedom of expression. In fact it widened the scope of the law by including new forms of media. Thirteen laws apparently also remain in force banning the use of the Kurdish language in education and publications. That is why the television programmes of MED-TV, broadcast in the Kurdish language from London via a French satellite, are of such vital importance. I therefore urge Her Majesty's Government to continue to resist attempts by Turkey or any other party to stop, censor or jam such broadcasts.

Questions have to be asked. Why does Turkey have such a horrifying human rights record? Why is it still occupying Northern Cyprus after 21 years? Why is it blockading Armenia, as the noble Baroness, Lady Cox, mentioned?

I suggest that answers to such queries are to be found in the predominant influence of the armed forces. Turkey has over half a million men under arms without counting 70,000 gendarmes and 60,000 armed village guards. It has a longer conscription period and a far larger army than either France or Germany. The military consume a huge share of the national budget.

The result of that continued overspending in a post-cold war setting has been inflation, currency depreciation, sky high interest rates, budget deficits and large foreign debts. Since 1993 inflation has never been less than 50 per cent. per year. In 1994 it rose to 125 per cent. and is still forecast at 50 per cent. or more for the current year. Since last March, the lira (the Turkish currency) fell from 42,000 to 98,000 to the pound.

Turkey is indeed the sick man of NATO. The sooner its allies and Customs Union partners wake up to this serious and potentially destabilising situation, the better. One can only hope that a government will emerge either from the recent general election or a new one capable of asserting full civilian control over the military establishment. Sooner or later, a major reduction in military budgets will become necessary. That will make it possible to deal constructively with Turkey's finances, to improve human rights and to embark on political solutions to the 11 year-old Kurdish insurgency.

These three matters are intimately linked and a heavy dead weight of military tradition will need to be overcome. Already, however, it is quite clear that the deployment of a quarter of a million armed men in the south-east will not root out the PKK guerillas, despite the wholesale clearance of thousands of villages and hamlets. In Kurdistan virtually every clan and extended family has a member who was or is involved in the FKK. Torture, imprisonment and death are not going to break the connections. Shifting the population will only shift the problems and the conflict.

Some future Turkish government, supported by Turkish business interests, will have to accept the PKK ceasefire offers, of which the most recent was made on 15th December last. A future government will have to open dialogue with the Kurdish Parliament in exile. It will have to negotiate freedom of cultural and political expression for the Kurds and all other minorities. Adequate regional autonomy within the existing frontiers of Turkey will also be necessary. The straitjacket of a unitary centralised state in the Atatürk mould will have to go. Only by such means can I foresee substantial improvements in Turkey's abysmal record of human rights.

In the interim, I can only suggest such palliatives as access for the International Committee of the Red Crescent to all prisons and police stations, and the sending of an observer mission by the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe to the present martial law area. I very much welcome the suggestions by the noble Lord, Lord Bethell, about other ways of improving human rights. I urge the Government most strongly to accept them and put them into practice.

6.47 p.m.

My Lords, I, too, thank the noble Lord, Lord Avebury, for introducing this debate. I should also like to say how much we on these Benches admire him for his selfless pursuit of the cause of human rights both in this House and elsewhere.

This is not the first time that we have debated human rights in Turkey recently. We did so, I think, in 1994. I only wish that it were not necessary to return to the subject. Regrettably, it is necessary, as other speakers have clearly demonstrated.

The agreement to allow Turkey into a customs union with the European Union just before Christmas of last year makes it all the more apposite to consider the situation again today. The latest report from Amnesty International on Turkey—it was produced in December—certainly gives us no grounds whatsoever for complacency. Indeed, it paints a pretty depressing picture of continuing violations there. The report states:
"1995 was expected to be the year of change for human rights in Turkey, but as the end of the year approaches, torture, disappearances and extrajudicial executions continue to claim dozens of victims".
The report continued:
"Laws which provide for prosecution and imprisonment of Turkish citizens for expressing their non-violent opinions remain in force almost completely unchanged".
The one hopeful sign on the horizon recorded by Amnesty is that during last year there was some reduction in the number of "disappearances" and deaths in custody after the very large number of cases in 1994. Another good sign was the release from prison of more than 100 political prisoners in November as a result of changes in the anti-terrorist law.

However, as many noble Lords have said, regrettably nothing has been done to protect the Turkish people against yet more of them vanishing unaccountably. It is vital that proper legislative safeguards are provided against detention by the state, in which people are held incommunicado. It is equally important to provide a legal framework that outlaws torture and prevents disappearances.

During last year, Amnesty International repeatedly called for three obviously needed reforms: first, a proper reform of Article 8 of the anti-terrorist law rather than just tinkering with it, as happened last year; secondly, a reduction in the maximum terms of police detention; and thirdly, access to legal counsel for all detainees. Until that kind of protection is in place, anyone criticising the authorities in Turkey is vulnerable to unlawful detention, and prison sentences will continue to be handed out to those who testify against the government on human rights matters, as in the recent case of Mehdi Zana. His four-year sentence for speaking out to the European Parliament has been reduced to two years. But, surely, two years in prison for revealing human rights abuses to the European Parliament is completely unacceptable. Editors and journalists who publish articles advocating separatism are particular targets and receive prison sentences for doing so.

The noble Baroness, Lady Cox, mentioned the Turkish Foundation for Human Rights, which reported that the year before last over 100 writers and publishers were arrested for their reports on the war which presumably displeased the government and that dozens of newspapers were closed or fined so heavily that they could not continue publication. Others, as the right reverend Prelate described, have suffered serious religious persecution. That, too, will continue. But worst of all, people will go on being tortured by the Turkish security services. Will the Minister tell the House what steps the Government have taken since the beginning of this year to put pressure on Turkey with respect to each of the three reforms to which I referred earlier?

The European Parliament approved the customs union with Turkey only after a great deal of heart-searching and on the strict understanding that clear conditions on human rights would be set with Turkey before the customs union agreement was signed. Both the Socialists and the centre-Right Christian Democrats—the two largest groups in the European Parliament—insisted on those strings being attached. Some distinguished Members of the European Parliament still felt unable to support the customs union. For example, Jack Lang, a former French Minister, is reported to have said, "My conscience would not allow me to support an economic accord with a regime of regression and repression". The leader of the Socialist Group, Pauline Green, took what might be described as a more pragmatic position in supporting Turkey's participation in the customs union, though doing so without enthusiasm—I believe she used the expression, "with a heavy heart"—but in the hope that it would help those in Turkey who are fighting for democracy.

Surely we owe it to those parliamentarians in Strasbourg who swallowed their scruples and approved the customs union to insist that pressure is kept up to make sure that minority rights are respected and that a standard of human rights consistent with membership of European Union institutions is adhered to. It is therefore extremely disquieting to learn that the provisions on human rights and democracy in Turkey which formed an intrinsic part of the £300 million aid package for Turkey have been watered down by member states in Brussels. Can the Minister enlighten the House on why the Council of Ministers in Brussels took that action? Why has the language been changed? Is it the case that retaliatory measures against Turkey, if it fails to fulfil the conditions, will now be subject to a unanimous vote in the Council rather than a qualified majority vote? Can she also say anything about the timescale over which any retaliatory measures would operate? Is she satisfied that the timescale is adequate in terms of having sufficient force? As the noble Baroness, Lady Cox, said, surely this is a case where the most stringent conditions need to be applied.

Before the Turkish elections a good deal was made of the need to support the government of Mrs. Ciller against the threat of fundamentalism. Of course we understand the argument that it may sometimes be better to provide lifelines for governments, even if they have serious flaws, because the alternative may be so much worse. But it is a slippery slope, and great care must be taken to ensure that we do not fall into the trap of supporting, or even propping up, regimes that do not merit this kind of support.

The Islamic fundamentalists remain a powerful force in Turkey. They received around one-fifth of the popular vote in the election, and 29 per cent. of the seats. However, they are far outnumbered by the two pro-Western conservative parties, which almost have an overall majority and, in coalition with the secular Left-wing parties, will certainly have an overall majority. There is now no excuse for not taking a tough line with the new Turkish Government in insisting that they put their house in order with respect to human rights.

The position of the Kurds remains dire, as a number of speakers indicated. My noble friend Lord Rea and the noble Baroness, Lady Cox, gave an account of their appalling living conditions, the lack of public health facilities and the lack of basic energy in Turkish Kurdistan. The noble Lord, Lord Hylton, also mentioned their oppression with respect to fundamental rights such as the use of their own language. The noble Lord, Lord Avebury, mentioned the fact that because of the elimination of parties obtaining less than 10 per cent. of the vote, HADEP, which won the largest proportion of votes in the four south-east provinces on a platform of a peaceful solution to the Kurdish national uprising, gets no seats in the Turkish parliament. That surely plays into the hands of those who advocate armed struggle and encourages the terrorists in the PKK. I very much agree with the noble Lord, Lord Bethel], in regard to the PKK. I will not repeat his remarks.

The disgraceful line taken by some members of the government parties—they have said they will be bound neither by any EU resolutions on human rights nor by the International Court of Justice—also plays straight into the hands of the PKK. If basic rights to free speech and the right to political campaigning in pursuit of justice for minority groups are frequently and flagrantly disregarded, again terrorism will be a direct consequence. I simply cannot understand why the Turkish authorities fail to realise that.

Turkey's membership of NATO is important to the West. I do not want to dispute that. However, its importance may be a little less great than it was before 1989, as my noble friend Lord Rea suggested. Nevertheless, its membership of NATO and the access to sophisticated arms of all kinds that that membership entails, to which the noble Baroness, Lady Cox, referred, does not give it carte blanche to use those very arms to raze Turkish villages to the ground and, as a result, to displace many thousands of innocent civilian victims.

If we are to argue that it is better to keep regimes with a repressive record towards minorities inside the Western camp, since to do so is to have a greater chance of influencing them and of securing a better deal for all their citizens, then we had better start seriously exerting some influence in Turkey.

I hope that when the Minister replies she will be able to set out a convincing programme of action to get the Turkish Government to deliver on their side of the deal that was agreed on the customs union. If what the noble Lord, Lord Bethel], said about the Turkish Prime Minister's own views and those of many members of her government is true, we might offer advice and help on how to clean up the Turkish police and security services and how to train them properly.

If the Turkish Government genuinely accept our criticisms, perhaps they would welcome some advice and help along those lines. Clearly, as the noble Lord, Lord Hylton, said, they must also reduce military spending and the size of their army. Since, apparently, there is also a growing body of opinion in Turkey that wants a fair and peaceful solution to the Kurdish problem, perhaps the Minister could say whether any offers have been made by the European Union to help mediate to achieve that.

Without a programme of action to deal with the violations about which we have heard this evening, we and our partners in the European Union will look much diminished in moral terms and give the impression of weakness. Indeed, we shall look like a push-over to all those other countries which are queuing up for the benefits that the European Union can offer and whose record on democracy and human rights is also dubious.

7.1 p.m.

The Minister of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office
(Baroness Chalker of Wallasey)

My Lords, I too am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Avebury, for tabling this debate. It is a crucially important issue and a very sad one. I am very grateful to all noble Lords who have taken part in the debate.

Human rights in Turkey is an issue on which no true friend of Turkey can remain indifferent. We know that Turkey overall is a country seeking to grow and change. But Turkey cannot achieve that growth successfully and will not be accepted as a member of European bodies unless it pays attention to its human rights and to the rule of law, which should be one not of persecution but, as the noble Baroness, Lady Blackstone, said, one which upholds the need for proper investigation. Where people are accused, they should have a defence. There is absolutely no question of that.

There have been a number of specific issues raised. But above all, we see your Lordships' House united tonight in its revulsion towards torture and abuse of human rights, whoever carries out those abuses. I may say that my noble friend Lord Bethell was absolutely right to point out that human rights-type abuses are carried out by other than government forces. That also has to be tackled. I shall try to address as many of the points that I can. But I should like to start first with the wider perspective.

Turkey is a country of great importance to Britain. Among many other things, Turkey is a country with a long-standing European history. The other reason why Turkey is so important to Britain is that it lies in a region of volatility and tension. As my noble friend Lord Bethel] noted, its links with the Middle East, the Islamic world, and in Central Asia are very firm indeed. It exercises moderation on many Islamic questions. It is a secular democracy with an overwhelmingly Moslem population, which is all too rare.

The noble Baroness, Lady Blackstone, spoke of Turkey's membership of the North Atlantic Alliance. That is still very important to us. That importance has not diminished because of the collapse of the Soviet Union. Month by month we see that Turkey has aspirations to participate increasingly fully in European counsels and in the European Union itself. Those are very welcome aspirations. But we also know that those opportunities will be extended only if Turkey pays attention to all that has been said in this debate, and many others, about its current approach to human rights and, indeed, to dealing with the very serious terrorist threat in the south east. I shall return to that issue in a moment.

The comments in this debate are all the more important because Turkey wishes to have a close relationship with other countries in Europe to which it feels close. Therefore, we must find a productive approach to deal with the human rights problems in Turkey. I do not for one moment pretend to have all the answers to that very complicated situation. But it is one to which the European Union and other bodies with a concern for Turkey and the Turkish people must turn their minds more actively than they have done in the past.

We need to work for co-operation and not confrontation. We have to be constructive. In that way we shall bring Britain's influence to bear most effectively on the human rights situation, which is not tolerable.

I know that there are some critics—not perhaps in this House—of Turkey's human rights record. They paint a co-operative approach as an emollient or appeasing one and one which will not bring results. I do not believe that to be so. I am a long-standing critic of Turkey's human rights record. I have no brief to defend human rights abuses. I have no interest in excusing or ignoring the torture, the disappearances, the arbitrary killings and arrests, and the harassment of journalists, defence lawyers and relatives of people in detention which come to our notice far too often. Our interest in Britain and in the Government is the same as that of the noble Baroness opposite. It lies in taking advantage of the openings to make more progress on the objective that we all share: to eliminate the abuses of which we have heard tonight and the many others that were not detailed in the debate.

Let me make two points in that regard. First, our objective of eliminating human rights abuses will not be achieved purely through threats. Our approach has to go beyond protestation and condemnation. It is all too easy to protest and condemn. But we do need—the noble Baroness, Lady Blackstone, is right in this matter—a programme of effective action which can help Turkey turn the page and put this period of human rights abuses behind it. We can have no illusion though, that improving human rights can ever be achieved through international intervention or enforcement. It has to be done by encouragement. That is why I believe that we can encourage positive change through greater contact. I shall come to that matter and the customs union in more detail shortly. I believe that the closer the contact between Turkey and the members of the European Union, the more likely we are to succeed fast in stopping the human rights abuses.

We have to look beyond the symptoms of the awful situation. Tonight, many noble Lords referred to the conflict in south-east Turkey. I assure my noble friend Lord Bethell, that we shall, and already do, act firmly and decisively against the activities of any terrorist organisation—that includes the PKK—whether they be activists or sympathisers in Britain. If they carry out illegal or criminal acts, we shall act firmly and decisively against them.

That is one of the problems that Turkey has at home in the south east: how it deals with the terrorism that is undoubtedly there. I know that for Turkey one crucial issue raised by the conflict is that of territorial integrity. We have no intention of questioning Turkey's territorial integrity. No one should be in any doubt about that. But I should also make equally clear our concern to see Turkey taking the proper action which goes to the heart of the needs of the region. A purely military response, which is what we have been seeing, can never do that.

I was much moved by what the noble Lord, Lord Rea, said in respect of the health and the opportunities for people who have been displaced from their homes. They are very limited indeed. That is another matter which it may be possible to address in the kind of measures at which the noble Baroness, Lady Blackstone, was hinting.

To put it in a few words, our advice to Turkey is given as a friend and an ally. We know only too well the difficulties Turkey has in tackling a terrorist threat. But to tackle a terrorist threat and extend the action way beyond the terrorist activity will never resolve the problem in south-east Turkey. One of the things the Turkish Government must do is involve the people in south-east Turkey in education, in health care, in development and in the growth of small industries—some of the things we have regularly done in other parts of the world.

How do we tackle this very difficult problem? A number of suggestions have been made in the debate. My noble friend Lord Bethell asked whether we should have a human rights officer in the British Embassy. A large part of the time of one of our officials in Ankara is taken up in looking at what is happening, drawing our concern about human rights to the attention of the Turkish authorities and raising specific cases. Our embassy officials regularly attend court hearings and in so doing ensure that our concern on human rights is not only demonstrated but is publicly visible. It is quite clear that the British Embassy in Ankara is doing more than many other European posts in this respect. We should co-operate with other missions—as my honourable friend in another place David Davis replied to the noble Lord, Lord Avebury, in his letter of 9th January in response to four of the noble Lord's letters on this issue—and we are looking for ways in which we can get more activity from our partners in the European Union.

The noble Lord, Lord Avebury, hinted—I am not sure that he meant to say this—that we do not visit south-east Turkey very often. I can assure him that, while it is not possible to be everywhere all the time, our visits to south-east Turkey are regular and frequent. We had representatives in a number of towns in south-east Turkey in November and in Adana in mid-December. They have been attending political rallies. They have had contact with HADEP, Refah, CHP and MHP. There have been more contacts than would be publicly known. I accept that we cannot know everything that is going on but I can assure your Lordships that my postbag, and that of others, is very full of information not only from the noble Lord, Lord Avebury, who writes prolifically, but from many other noble Lords, including the noble Lord, Lord Hylton, who has given us some valuable advice and information as a result of his visits.

The whole question of elections in Turkey is very vexed indeed. I was extremely grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Hylton, for sharing with me his observations of the scene in the run-up to the elections held on 24th December. We are all aware that those elections were prepared in some haste, to the extent that Turkey's independent High Election Council was asked to judge whether the preparations were sufficient to allow an effective election to proceed. The council concluded that it was satisfied, but there was a short preparation and registration time. Of that there is no doubt.

There were also reports, all too plausible, that supporters of the HADEP party in the south east were subject to harassment, a matter mentioned by the noble Baroness, Lady Blackstone. But it should be observed that the party performed strongly where it was expected to. As we know, in the event, the HADEP party fell well short of the 10 per cent. national hurdle. A percentage hurdle is not unusual in electoral systems in various countries but I well understand the sentiment, which has come to us in a number of letters and in a number of comments—indeed in this debate too—that the hurdle in the Turkish elections was high and may have prevented a party which clearly has strong support in the south-east region of Turkey from being represented in the national parliament.

I cannot conclude other than that the results of the Turkish elections were, on the basis that those elections could be carried out, a fair reflection of voters' preferences, but it is quite clear that the hurdle was a very difficult matter for the HADEP party particularly. Although it represents quite a large number of the Kurds in the south east, Kurds in other parts of Turkey vote otherwise. So there is representation of Kurdish views, but perhaps not so much as your Lordships would like.

In the debate today we have heard a number of comments about the problems of displaced persons. They were particularly affected by the short registration time. In the main I hope that the whole problem of displaced people can be tackled in the way I mentioned a little while ago. They need education and help too. It is not just those who are still in their villages. It is also those who are displaced.

The noble Lord, Lord Avebury, asked me about election observers. To have successful election observation it is necessary that the government of the country holding the election should invite such participation. As the noble Lord knows, observers were not invited by the Turkish Government. We hope that at all future Turkish elections observers will be invited. We hope that they will move towards a situation where there is no reason why those observers should not be present. That is what we have to aim for.

In a very moving speech, my noble friend Lady Cox particularly drew attention to Turkish links with Armenia. This is an urgent matter because there is certainly room for more and faster progress in developing a more open relationship between Turkey and Armenia. I should be pleased to look at any suggestions that my noble friend has towards that end. It is a matter on which we may be able to exert some real influence.

My noble friend also asked about weaponry. While I do not want to get into a long debate on this issue, perhaps I may assure her and your Lordships that we shall not and do not approve the export of defence equipment to Turkey if we consider there is a likelihood that it could be used for internal repression. The proposals to export defence equipment to Turkey are always given very careful examination both here in London and in our embassy in Ankara. I can assure your Lordships that, in any case of doubt, the answer is no. I cannot speak for all other nations. I hope that they would take exactly the same attitude. But the way in which we are seeking to go about this, with a NATO partner on whose navy NATO depends, is the practical way to proceed in this matter.

My Lords, before the noble Baroness leaves the question of arms, would she care to comment on the proposed supply of long-range guided bombs by the United States to Turkey?

My Lords, I know nothing of the United States proposals and therefore cannot comment upon them. However, I shall find out the answer to the noble Lord's question.

Perhaps I may turn to the comments of the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Oxford in relation to the Suriyani community, which were so apposite. We share his concerns about the fate of that community in Turkey. Theirs is one of the most tragic stories of the region. Our Ambassador and members of his staff in Ankara have drawn that concern to the attention of the Turkish Government and will continue to do so. They also visit the area where the Suriyani live and there will be another such visit early next month.

Earlier I mentioned the PKK and I must say one thing about the ceasefire. I have some sympathy with the extreme scepticism with which the Turkish Government view the PKK ceasefire. Their doubts about the credibility and genuineness of that ceasefire are based on bitter experience. But, as I said earlier, it is not simply the PKK against whom the Turkish Government act. The difficulty is how to help them contain the terrorist activity of the PKK and yet not penalise innocent citizens who live in the area. That is something to which more attention must be paid.

Anxiety was expressed in this House, in the press and in letters, about the killing of 11 people in a bus in Shirnak. There was much speculation on who was responsible for that act. It appeared at first that the PKK claimed responsibility and now that organisation seems to deny it. All such incidents underline the need for openness and transparency in establishing where the true responsibility lies. Turkey owes it to its friends and critics, and above all to itself, not to let doubts persist and to resolve the matter openly and fairly.

The noble Baroness, Lady Blackstone, asked me about our work in making representations to the Turkish authorities in regard to individual cases, including that of Mehde Zana. The Government make continual representations, and I shall be seeing our Ambassador from Ankara in a few days' time. I shall not only give him a copy of the Hansard containing your Lordships' debate but shall also brief him on the other information we have. Those exchanges are valuable in our efforts to try to help the Turkish Government come to terms with a problem it cannot ignore.

Let me come back to the customs union, which cropped up on a number of occasions this evening. I understand why a number of noble Lords have been anxious about the growing contact between Turkey and the European Union and now the customs union, which came into force at the beginning of this year. Britain welcomed that development. We believe that Turkey's relationship with the rest of Europe can best be improved by that closer contact. Members of the European Parliament who voted for it last December made a wise decision. Some, I know, voted in favour but with little enthusiasm, and others voted against.

I know the strength and sincerity of the reservations about that step; but I want to respond to those who say that it was a wrong step. A rebuff on the customs union would have been a dismal message to send to those in Turkey who are working hard to promote change. Far from stimulating greater efforts to reform, it would have stopped those efforts in their tracks. I well understand those who seem to argue that the price of the customs union was sold too cheaply; that somehow a greater price in terms of legal and human rights reform should have been extracted. But that argument distorts the relationship between the customs union and a changing Turkey. The customs union is not just some "giveaway".

I make one further point in that context. Last year, when the customs union came into fruition, saw real progress in some reforms, as the noble Baroness, Lady Blackstone, said; not enough, but some real progress. I share the view that those reforms must go much further than they did. But amendments to the Turkish constitution and changes in the anti-terrorism law resulted in the release of a good many people from prison and the prospect set out in the five-year plan adopted by the Turkish Parliament in July of greater decision-making power devolved to local government. Those changes are a platform of substance on which to make more progress on reform. We look to the next Turkish Government, whatever its composition, to sustain that progress.

On Article 8, let me say to the noble Baroness that there is need for more change. The changes were more than cosmetic. Many people would not have been released had there not been a substantial change. But we are pressing for more action to enable full freedom of expression to be upheld. That is a view which we shall continue to make clear to the Turkish Government and shall continue to pursue actively.

Other questions were raised in the debate, particularly in relation to what more we can do. One suggestion is that the International Committee of the Red Cross might operate in the region. While that is a matter for the Turkish authorities, we are fully prepared to discuss that possibility with the ICRC. We believe that it has a unique role to play and fully support its activities as the guardian of international humanitarian law. That would be an apt move forward.

I was asked one or two specific questions to which I shall reply in writing. In closing, let me say this. We cannot force the involvement of any group, such as Amnesty, however good it is, or UN rapporteurs, down Turkish throats. But we welcome and encourage Turkish co-operation with any organisation which will help to improve human rights. We must see action and there is no question in the case of Turkey that there is a great deal more to be done to bring its performance on human rights into line with the commitment that it has already given. We have a basis for promoting progress and improvement—not through isolation; not through shouting; but working with them to bring about that improvement—and that is exactly what we intend to see done.

My Lords, before the noble Baroness sits down, perhaps I may take her back to a point on which she touched. I refer to the possibility of tentatively opening up a dialogue between the PKK and the Turkish Government. Surely every long-standing civil conflict over the past 50 years has eventually been ended by talks with the leader of the armed opposition, even though he was reviled as the devil incarnate while the actual conflict was going on. Is there any way that the noble Baroness feels Her Majesty's Government could encourage talks about talks taking place? That is surely the way to an eventual political solution.

My Lords, it is easy to say that one should encourage the government of another country to find a way to talk to those who fundamentally disagree with it and are prepared to use arms against it. I do not believe, unless there is a ceasefire which actually works, and is seen to work over a period of time, that those talks would have any validity. Therefore, whatever we in the British Government may think, the ceasefire must be real and continuing before the talks can have any chance of success.

7.30 p.m.

My Lords, perhaps I may pick up where the noble Baroness left off. There is a ceasefire operating at the moment whether or not the incident near Sirnak was the responsibility of the PKK or of the state. An official ceasefire has been called by the PKK and that continues. This is perhaps a unique opportunity for entering into the kind of negotiations which the noble Lord, Lord Rea, has outlined. If the negotiations are not to be with the PKK, then who else is there on the horizon? As we have heard, the conventional opposition in Parliament has been wiped off the map, first by the destruction of the DEM; and, secondly, by the 10 per cent. threshold that prevented HADEP from gaining any representation in the new Parliament.

If, as the noble Baroness said, a purely military response can never solve the problem, the Turkish authorities must either negotiate with the PKK or identify some other body representative of Kurdish opinion with whom the negotiations can start. That does not have to wait for a total ceasefire any more than it did in El Salvador, for example, where, as the noble Baroness will remember, accords were reached while the armed conflict with the FMLN was still in progress.

I say in conclusion how very grateful I am to all noble Lords who have taken part and particularly for the many constructive suggestions that they made. I thought the suggestions of the noble Lord, Lord Bethell, were particularly useful. Even if we cannot have a human rights officer in the British Embassy in Ankara, we can pursue the idea which the noble Baroness mentioned and which we have been discussing in correspondence; namely, that the European Union as a whole might find some way of sharing the burden of looking at the question of human rights so that each of the embassies does not have the enormous amount of work to do, which at present is falling on us and us alone, in terms of attending trials, going down to the south east, and so on. This is something that we can discuss and share with our European partners.

I was very encouraged by what the noble Baroness said in response to the noble Lord, Lord Rea, and his remarks about the state of public health in the shanty towns of the Diyarbakir and elsewhere and that there might be some way in which we can offer some constructive help in looking after the displaced people of whom there are between 2 million and 3 million. If that can be done then we have a carrot to offer the Turkish authorities as well as the stick of always beating them around the head with human rights violations. It could be a quid pro quo.

If we go there with aid to help the innocent victims of the conflict it could persuade them to pay more attention to what we say about human rights violations, not only as regards the Kurds, who have been uppermost in our thoughts in this debate, but also the other minorities such as those mentioned by the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Oxford. I particularly sympathise with what he said. I believe it was my honourable friend David Alton who visited that community and recently made a very moving report on it for the Jubilee Trust. Some of your Lordships may have seen that report. I believe that these tiny communities are owed particularly the support of Christians in the west. I am very glad that the right reverend Prelate managed to raise that this evening.

I thought that the noble Baroness, Lady Cox, did not get a complete answer to her question on the misuse of arms because it is not a matter solely for the British Government, but for the OSCE. It is all very well to say that there are agreements with other OSCE states on not using arms for internal repression or for the exacerbation of an existing armed conflict, as was the case in Nagorno Karabakh. The question is what mechanism is available apart from raising the matter across the Floor of the House where we have a nice debate and then go home and nothing further happens? The fact that the international community and the NGOs in particular, do not have a means of raising this with the alleged offenders who are supplying the weapons means that the governments are judge and jury in their own case.

I believe that the noble Lord, Lord Hylton, was right when he put his finger on the straitjacket of unitary centralised government. Unless we can get the Turks to move on that, they are not going to move on the question of freedom of expression. The central point in their constitution is not being able to do anything that undermines the indivisible integrity of the Turkish state, public and people. That means if one says or does anything which is in contravention of that principle, one is ipso facto committing a criminal offence. That means that freedom of expression entails some further amendments of the Turkish constitution in a way which may be very difficult for them because it departs from something which dates back to the time of Atatürk.

The noble Lord raised the question of MED-TV. I know that the noble Baroness did not have time to deal with that. It is extremely important that if we uphold the principle of freedom of expression, it extends to people operating on our own soil. We are not to give way to blackmail by states which do not like what broadcasting authorities or even individuals, who are exiles from their own country, have to say about human rights violations back at home.

I am also very grateful to the noble Baroness, Lady Blackstone, for raising another point that was not dealt with—that is to say, the financial agreement with Turkey, which I know caused consternation among many of our colleagues in the European Parliament. It was not just regarding this particular instance. I thought that there were general clauses inserted in the agreement which had been agreed by the European Parliament, yet we find suddenly in this instance that the wording was changed between the first draft and the final document presented for the European Parliament to agree. No one knew what went on behind the scenes or why the Council of Ministers suddenly decided to make any violation of human rights that the Turkish Government committed under this agreement the subject of unanimity instead of majority voting. It seems to me that if one does that one might as well throw away all the human rights clauses in agreements that we have with third countries.

It only remains for me to say how extraordinarily grateful I am to everybody who has spoken in this debate, which I found not only useful but constructive. I hope that it will enable us to bring additional pressure to bear on the Turks within the parameters that the noble Baroness has outlined. I beg leave to withdraw the Motion.

Motion for Papers, by leave, withdrawn.