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Turkey: Human Rights

Volume 788: debated on Monday 29 January 2018

Question

Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what assessment they have made of the strength and effectiveness of their representations about human rights abuses to the government of Turkey once the United Kingdom is outside the European Union.

My Lords, the United Kingdom and Turkey have a close and constructive relationship that enables us to raise our human rights concerns at the highest levels. We do not expect this to change as we leave the European Union. In addition to bilateral channels, we address human rights issues in other multilateral fora, including the Council of Europe, of which Turkey is also a member.

I thank the Minister for his reply, but point out that when we are outside the European Union we will no longer be a part of its common position. That will mean that we are not able to shape that common position, nor will we be part of it when we are making representations. Does the Minister consider that the little bit of independence which we gain is worth putting us in the same position as, say, Canada, another largish NATO ally but one which is very much on the margin when it comes to making representations in Ankara?

Britain’s position with Turkey goes beyond our membership of the European Union. Let it not be forgotten that the United Kingdom has been the strongest voice for Turkey’s membership, to broaden the base of the European Union. I disagree with my noble friend: it is not a small decision or issue. Leaving the European Union, with the opportunities that provides to global Britain, will present the United Kingdom with a new way of defining relationships; we will continue to strengthen our existing relationship and influence with Turkey.

My Lords, for a long time the United Kingdom’s policy towards Turkey was to encourage it to join the European Union, for the very good reason that it improved standards, held people to account and applied the rule of law. By leaving, we will be saying to Turkey: “Do what we say”. That is not good enough. Surely, we need to act collectively to defend human rights.

The noble Lord is aware that we will act to defend human rights, not just with our European Union partners—we will continue to have a strong relationship with them on this important issue once we have left the Union—but also through other bodies such as the UN body on human rights. We will continue to make the case for human rights across the piece. That also means that when we see human rights abuses in countries such as Turkey, with which we have relationships, we stand up and make our position absolutely clear.

The Minister will be aware of the repeated abuses of Turkish LGBTI citizens’ human rights by their own Government, including the firing of rubber bullets to stop Pride celebrations. The EU has withheld €175 million of money due to Turkey to protest at this and other human rights abuses. If we are to leave the EU, what will come first in the Foreign Office’s policy towards Turkey: trade or action on standing up to protect human rights?

The noble Lord does a disservice to Britain’s history. Britain has always been a proud proponent of human rights. It continues to be so while it is a member of the European Union, and it will continue to be a proud proponent of human rights once we leave the European Union.

My Lords, can my noble friend tell me how successful have been the European Union’s representations to Turkey to clear these matters up? From what we have heard, it should have been a pushover for them.

That is for objective commentators to assess but, as my noble friend will recognise, we have had success in influencing Turkey on a range of human rights issues. Recently, it was British representation which ensured the release on bail of most of the human rights defenders before trial, although one is still in detention. That is down to the strong relationship which the United Kingdom has with Turkey on human rights. Turkey does listen to our protests.

My Lords, there have been worrying developments in Turkey recently, and the EU has been very vocal and effective. I refer specifically to the president’s denouncement of the established and renowned Boğaziçi University in Istanbul and the banning of any lesbian, gay, bisexual or trans exhibitions and cultural events in Ankara. Will the Minister join with others in reinforcing that such a ban, supposedly due to security concerns, should not be used to diminish the human rights and civil liberties of all citizens in Turkey, particularly those who are lesbian, gay, bisexual and trans?

As the noble Lord will know, the United Kingdom did at that time make its position on this issue absolutely clear to the Turkish authorities and continues to do so. We will continue to raise it in international fora. Indeed, it continues to be raised in all our bilateral meetings and dealings with our Turkish counterparts.

Does the noble Lord agree that, despite the many qualities of the European Union, its handling of Turkey has been negative, retrogressive and incompetent, and that you can tell that by the way in which north Cyprus responded to the excellent overtures from the European Union at the time when Cyprus joined? Does he also agree that Britain is in a unique position with respect to Turkey, given that both are very early members—almost founder members—of the Council of Europe, and that it is much better to have Turkey discussing issues round the table than to have it outside the door, as the European Union has successively proved?

I share my noble friend’s sentiment that we have been disappointed with colleagues across the European Union who have not been supportive of the United Kingdom’s position of encouraging Turkey’s membership. However, we will continue to work with Turkey after we leave the European Union, and we will work with the European Union—whether that is through our membership of the Council of Europe or whether it is through our continued membership of NATO—to ensure that on important issues, where we agree, we will make those positions absolutely clear and, where we need to make our position clear to the likes of Turkey on human rights, that position will also be made clear.

My Lords, the Minister speaks very proudly of this Government’s defence of human rights, but when will they start to defend the human rights of Palestinians, particularly Palestinian children?

I know that the noble Baroness has been a very strong campaigner on this issue, and she knows for a fact that the United Kingdom has been, and continues to be, very vocal on it. We have a very strong relationship with Israel which allows us to have candid conversations in which we stand up for the rights of the Palestinian people and of the children held in detention in Israel. I reiterate that the United Kingdom believes that the long-term solution to the crisis in the Holy Land and the Middle East that is ripping apart communities at times is a two-state solution, and the United Kingdom stands by that.

My Lords, in view of the Minister’s answers regarding our support for Turkey’s position, is it not ironic that the will of the people, to which he and other Ministers keep referring, was persuaded, at least in substantial part, by the dreadful rumours that 76 million Turks would join the European Union?

The noble Lord may speculate, and there will be different reasons as to why people voted, but I do not agree. I accept that certain elements of the campaign were not desirable. I made my position clear at that time, as did the Government. That applied to those on both sides of the campaign. However, the fact is that, in a referendum voted for by both Houses, the majority of people voted to leave the European Union. We are not listening to the likes of Mr Barnier, and we do not need his direction; we needed the direction of the British people, they have given it and we are following it.