A lot has been said in the run-up to the Turkish elections about the effect of the results on Turkey’s relations with the EU and NATO. Turkey’s position in the Council of Europe is hardly ever mentioned though, while there is a very interesting balancing act going on that directly affects the most dedicated human rights defenders in Turkey. Now that Erdoğan has crowned himself president for yet another period, this balancing act will continue. It will further erode the trust that the most marginalised people in Turkey have in Europe’s institutions.
I have talked to several media in the Netherlands, the UK and Belgium about the presidential elections in Turkey. The interviews were about the Kurdish perspective, but also about the implications of either an Erdoğan or Kılıçdaroğlu win for Turkey’s relations with the EU and NATO. What were the candidates’ stances on Sweden’s NATO membership bid, and on the EU-Turkey refugee deal?
On a few occasions, I tried to bring up the Council of Europe (CoE in short), but without success. But it’s not a very simple story. For starters, many listeners don’t know much about the CoE, and many may not even be aware that Turkey has been a member of it since 1950, the year after the Council’s foundation. The CoE is Europe’s main intergovernmental human rights organisation, and all member states have signed up to the European Convention on Human Rights.
Turkey is in trouble with the other member states because it refuses to implement rulings of the European Court of Human Rights, most importantly the rulings to immediately release Osman Kavala and Selahattin Demirtaş. These refusals have been taken to the Committee of Ministers of the CoE, which started infringement procedures against Turkey in February last year in the Kavala case. This is extremely rare. The ultimate sanction against Turkey could be that it loses its right to vote, and even expulsion from the CoE is possible.
Had Kılıçdaroğlu won the elections, Kavala and Demirtaş would likely have been released, instantly decreasing tensions within the Council. But Erdoğan won. On the evening he claimed his victory, he vowed Demirtaş wouldn’t be released. This week, the Committee of Ministers had a meeting, and again urged Turkey to release Demirtaş and Kavala. The ‘further steps’ the Committee of Ministers considers taking if Demirtaş is still not released when the ministers meet again, in September, could be another infringement procedure.
I could have summed that up in very broad but accurate streaks, but the stations I proposed it to decided to leave it out of the conversation. But that’s not just because it’s a rather complicated topic, I think, but because the EU and NATO are considered to be more directly in Europe’s interest. How willing are Erdoğan and Kılıçdaroğlu to keep the door closed for Syrians and other refugees wanting to enter the EU? Would both candidates be willing to approve Sweden’s NATO membership, considered of crucial importance against Putin’s aggression?
Osman Kavala and Selahattin Demirtaş versus Turkey, the average European media consumer couldn’t care less. But for millions of citizens of Turkey, it’s extremely important. Mind you: Turkey had the most pending cases at the European Court of Human Rights last year and has been one of the ‘top contributors’ since many years – also before the Erdoğan era. Many of these cases have been brought to the Court by Kurds. Turkey loses most of the cases, and the Court is therefore the last chance Kurds and other citizens of Turkey have to get some kind of justice for the human rights violations against them.
But now, Turkey isn’t following judgements anymore. Kurds wonder what takes ‘Europe’ so long to get their popular leader out of jail. They want firmer action. But a Kurdish lawyer I talked to said that the CoE is taking it slower than necessary because it is afraid to ‘lose’ Turkey all together. If the pressure is too severe, Turkey might refuse to comply in other cases as well, or ultimately even withdraw from the Council, just as Russia did last year (a day before the CoE threw it out) and just as the UK is openly debating to do. Or Turkey may become harder to get a grip on in NATO and EU issues, including refugees.
If the Council is forced to throw Turkey out – and the procedure is by far not at that stage yet – citizens of Turkey will have no institute left to turn to when their human rights are violated. But when Turkey isn’t pressured enough to follow the rules, the trust in the Court is eroded and people may find it useless to take cases to the court at all. Quite the Catch 22.
Complicated? Let me sum it up in very basic terms. A pan-European institution that is crucial for the protection of individual human rights on the continent, is weakening. It’s weakening because it is as strong as the member states want it to be. In other words, their commitment to the human rights of their own citizens is crumbling. We have to demand it to be stronger, so all of us are protected. Let’s start by demanding the release of Osman Kavala and Selahattin Demirtaş – now.