A Backbench Business debate on ‘Human rights and the political situation in Turkey’ will be held in Westminster Hall on Thursday 9 March 2017 from 3.00pm. The debate has been initiated by Joan Ryan, David Lammy, Tommy Sheppard and Sir Peter Bottomley.Jump to full report >>
Turkey’s 16 April referendum is likely to pass, changing the constitution to give President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan significantly greater powers. Erdogan has been in power (first as Prime Minister and then as President) since 2002, and has made no secret of his ambition. The reforms have already been passed by Turkey’s parliament, with the support of the governing AK Party and the smaller nationalist MHP, but amid angry scenes.
The referendum comes in the wake of the July’s failed coup. The Government blamed the coup on followers of the exiled Turkish Islamic cleric Fethullah Gülen, and imposed a State of Emergency (renewed most recently in January 2017) which suspends some of the normal functions of the constitution and derogates from many provisions of the European Convention on Human Rights. Under this, the Government has conducted a widespread campaign of media clampdowns, arrests and dismissals: over 40,000 people have been imprisoned and over 120,000 public sector workers – police, prosecutors, judges, civil servants, academics – dismissed (though some were later reinstated).
Among those imprisoned are ten MPs from the pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP), including the party’s two co-leaders (Turkey’s parliament voted to remove legal immunity from them and dozens of other MPs in May 2016). The Government considers the HDP to be linked to the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), which is recognised as terrorists by the EU, US, and UK. Fighting between the Government and the PKK resumed in the summer of 2015: some of the actions of Turkey’s security forces have been criticised on human rights grounds, while the PKK and its offshoots have been targeting state employees and institutions.
The increase in tension between the Turkish government and Kurdish militants is related to developments in Syria’s war. Turkish forces have backed Syrian opposition fighters in taking a large area of northern Syria from ISIL, so as to deny it to the Kurds. Meanwhile Kurdish militia – backed by the US – have significantly expanded their control across northern Syria.
Turkey and Russia – who back opposing sides in Syria – joined Iran to organise a peace conference for Syria in January 2017, and both were involved in negotiating the surrender and evacuation of Aleppo. This thaw in relations follows several setbacks, including Turkey shooting down a Russian bomber in December 2015, and the assassination of the Russian ambassador in Ankara in December 2016.
Meanwhile, EU-Turkey relations, recently focused on security cooperation and restricting the flow of migrants, have deteriorated. Turkey resented a perceived lack of sympathy from the EU after the attempted overthrow of its government. The EU – already suspicious of perceived authoritarianism in Turkey – was critical of the post-coup purges and the resumption of fighting with the PKK. In November 2016 the European Parliament passed a non-binding vote to suspend Turkey’s EU accession process, after which Turkey’s Foreign Minister said that the EU was ‘wasting Turkey’s time’ and its EU Minister said that Turkey would not change its terrorism laws (a key point of contention with the EU).
However, the UK and Turkish governments continue to emphasise their strong friendship. In particular, Turkey has thanked Britain for being the first country to send a senior envoy to Turkey in the aftermath of the failed coup (Sir Alan Duncan, on 20 and 21 July). The Foreign Secretary visited Turkey in September 2016, and Prime Minister Theresa May visited in January 2017, agreeing a strategic security partnership and a large defence contract for BAE systems to help Turkey develop its fighter jets.
Meanwhile optimism over the reunification of Cyprus has been rekindled following the election in April 2015 of Mustafa Akinci as President of the unrecognised ‘Turkish Republic of North Cyprus’. Peace talks resumed in May 2015, and a UN Conference on Cyprus was convened in Geneva on 12 January 2017 with some progress but no final agreement. Challenging issues remain the role of Turkish troops and of the three Guarantor Powers (Turkey, Greece and the UK), details of internal borders, repatriation and property issues.
Commons Debate packs CDP-2017-0077
Authors: Timothy Robinson; Arabella Lang