Over the last few weeks, various leaders and institutions have repeatedly expressed their “concern” over the alarming and criminal actions of the Turkish state. When discussing Turkey, the word “concern” is now an indispensable part of Europe’s vocabulary. When clear human rights violations, crimes against humanity, and war crimes committed by the Turkish state and military are on the agenda, European institutions voice concerns, list concerns, and sometimes even state that they are “deeply concerned”, as the EU said last month concerning the proposed ban of the progressive Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP), the third largest party in the country’s parliament.
When Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan announced Turkey’s withdrawal from the Istanbul Convention, a human rights treaty of the Council of Europe on preventing and combating violence against women and domestic violence, the Council of Europe reacted by saying that they “deeply regret the decision of the President of Turkey to withdraw from this Convention widely supported in the country, without any parliamentary debate.”
The very manner of withdrawal from the agreement itself demonstrates the authoritarian character of the current Turkish leadership. International law, if not sacrificed to economic and geostrategic interests, can prevent Erdoğan from strengthening his grip on power and removing any remaining measures in place to protect basic human rights. It is not unrealistic that Erdogan, at some point, may also declare the Universal Declaration of Human Rights to be null and void. The lack of strong international reaction to Erdoğan’s withdrawal from the Istanbul Convention actually emboldened him to discuss revisions to the Montreux Convention, an international agreement that regulates the passage of ships into and out of the Black Sea. Many legal experts accuse Erdogan of violating Turkey’s constitution by unilaterally withdrawing Turkey from international conventions ratified by parliament, though following the highly questionable 2017 referendum on an executive presidency (after which the EU and others cited alleged irregularities), Erdoğan has claimed unchecked powers to do so. The global community’s tolerance for Erdoğan’s authoritarian and policies of aggression and persecution are leading to increasing lawlessness, and indicate that political and geostrategic interests see international law nothing more than as an inconvenient obstacle. Indeed, international law is used only when political interests require it. While multilateral sanctions are imposed on China over persecution of the Uyghurs, the military in Myanmar, and institutions in Iran, North Korea, and Russia, Erdoğan’s disregard for international law, treaties, and human rights conventions elicits nothing more than verbal criticism and statements of concern.
Concern over concern. Successive statements of concern are toothless, and this is why the European institutions use the term “concern” again and again. Statements of concern do not open the way to any real consequences or to the International Criminal Court, where Erdoğan actually belongs.
Erdoğan’s hope at the outset of the new year was to give Turkey a big surprise on 15 February 2021, the anniversary of the abduction of Kurdish people’s leader Abdullah Öcalan. For this reason, he directed the Turkish Armed Forces to undertake a large-scale military offensive against the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) in Gare (South Kurdistan/North Iraq), which took place from 10-14 February. This campaign of military aggression backfired, as Erdoğan was surprised by the guerrillas of the PKK, who fiercely resisted the invading forces and successfully stopped them in their tracks. The Kurdish victory in Gare led to increased questioning of Erdogan’s leadership, as his attempt to use military intervention to distract from various domestic crises severely backfired.
Various regional and international powerbrokers, European institutions, and especially NATO, have shown a willingness to compromise with Erdoğan’s authoritarian regime by limiting themselves to expressions of concern, despite the increasing excesses of Erdoğan and the Turkish state and military. Erdoğan knows that, to preserve and strengthen his dictatorship domestically, he must reduce pressure from abroad. His approach to foreign policy is to accept certain compromises as long as outsiders do not interfere domestically within Turkey. Erdoğan understands the trend of the 21st century – interests take precedence over the law.
This unfortunate trend was clearly demonstrated by the recent events at the prison island of Imrali, where Abdullah Öcalan is being held. On 14 March, his life was called into question via digital media reports. This led to millions of Kurds in all four parts of Kurdistan and in the diaspora to once again demand Öcalan’s freedom during the Kurdish New Year festival of Newroz on 21 March. The Erdoğan regime tried to counter this pressure by arranging a 4-5 minute phone call between Abdullah Öcalan and his brother. However, Öcalan rejected this act as unlawful and insisted on his right to see his lawyers, a right that the European Committee for the Prevention of Torture (CPT) and the European Council, of which Turkey is a member, should guarantee. Öcalan played a central role in discussions of a peaceful solution to the Kurdish issue, and is accepted by millions of Kurds as the legitimate representative of the Kurdish people. The Turkish state’s ongoing threats against Öcalan and violations of his human rights are direct threats against the Kurdish people with serious ramifications. Öcalan’s situation demands action beyond statements of concern, and requires the urgent intervention of the CPT, which has determined last year that prison conditions at Imrali violated international human rights instruments and standards but has taken no recent steps to address this important issue.
If European institutions and international leaders actually care about promoting human rights and rule of law in Turkey, then serious action and implementation must occur at once – additional statements of concern will be nothing more than background noise as Erdoğan consolidates power, silences dissent, and fans the flames of war throughout the region.