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It is time to hold Erdogan accountable for his human rights violations

April 2, 204

Credits @FFHR.CZ

It is time to hold Turkey’s President Erdogan accountable for his egregious human rights violations and defiance of NATO’s charter, which weakens the alliance and plays directly into the hands of Russia and China

It is hard to fathom why, over the past eight years since the failed military coup in 2016 in particular, Erdogan has and still is rampaging against his people and defying his Western allies with near impunity. What makes this even more absurd is that Turkey is a NATO member state, which requires all members to uphold democratic principles while fully adhering to its military doctrine and foreign policy that directly and indirectly impacts its unity and effectiveness. Western officials who have been asked this question often revert to the explanation that Turkey occupies a critical geostrategic location between East and West and is the energy hub for Europe and a bridge that plays a critical geopolitical role. In addition, Turkey is important to NATO as it hosts the bloc’s long-range missile systems, and to US military operations in the Middle East, especially the strategic use of the Incirlik Air Base in Adana, close to the Syrian border.

Whereas some of these elucidations may have some merit, it is hard to square them with Erdogan’s egregious human rights violations and abrogation of Western values, which he must uphold. To effect a change in his behavior, it is essential to first survey and put in context the litany of his egregious domestic and foreign transgressions and take the necessary measures that correspond to the scope of his misconduct.

Erdogan’s human rights violations

Sadly, Erdogan’s voracious lust for human rights violations seems to have no boundaries and transcends any scale of cruelty and brutality.

During the prolonged state of emergency that he imposed following the failed coup in 2016, there have been and continue to this day widespread human rights violations, which include arbitrary detentions, infringements of freedom of association and expression, violations of the right to work, and freedom of movement. In addition, he fired thousands of people, including public servants and teachers, and prosecuted journalists, often without adequate due process. Torture and ill-treatment became routine in police custody and prisons, which included severe beatings, sexual assault, and deprivation of sleep. To make matters worse, he detained human rights defenders and activists, intended to exert pressure on civil society groups and NGOs critical of him.

In addition, Erdogan detained thousands, accusing them, without any proof, of having links with terrorist organizations. He dismissed 150,000 from their jobs, falsely accusing them of affiliation with the Gülen movement, which Turkey alone considers a terrorist group, and also sought the extradition of Turkish citizens from other countries who are allegedly affiliated with the movement. He persecuted scores of academics, wrongly accusing them of spreading militant propaganda, and removed thousands of judges and prosecutors and replaced them with lackeys to do his bidding. And he led a witch hunt throughout the Turkish air force, accusing many officers of being Gülenists and behind the coup. He regularly bypasses legal procedures, and engages in enforced disappearances and illegal transfers. The extensive use of his emergency decrees has eroded the rule of law in Turkey, drastically limited civil society activities, and nurtured impunity.

Erdogan aggressively pursued those he perceived as critics, especially journalists, while blocking websites, media outlets, and general restrictions on the internet, with over 100,000 websites blocked, including many pro-Kurdish ones. In particular, Erdogan targeted the Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP), which predominantly represents the Kurdish community, by shutting down the party and attacking the rights of millions of Kurdish voters, deliberately subverting parliamentary democracy.

Erdoğan encouraged anti-LGBT speeches and social media posts by top government officials, which have become more common, and targets LGBT students, particularly on days like International Women’s Day. In this connection, Erdoğan withdrew from the Istanbul Convention, a treaty designed to protect women from violence and femicide. Finally, but certainly not exhaustively, Erdogan has systematically violated Turkey’s substantial Kurdish community, using excessive force, torture, and violence against Kurdish women while destroying their housing and cultural heritage, which has become standard under his reign of terror.

Erdogan’s defiance of his Western allies

Since the failed coup, many contentious issues have strained the relationship between Turkey, NATO, and the United States, and there seems to be no sign that any of these conflicting issues can be mitigated as long as Erdogan is allowed to leverage Turkey’s “unique” geostrategic importance to the West.

Erdogan’s human rights abuses, democratic backsliding, and erosion of the rule of law in Turkey have been and remain significant causes of friction between the two sides, which in fact led the vast majority of EU states to reject the country’s candidacy. Erdogan has also initiated foreign policies contrary to the alliance’s military and political interests. Turkey’s purchase of the Russian S-400 missile defense system has been a primary source of tension, leading to US sanctions. This move was incompatible with Turkey’s commitments as a NATO ally. Adding to that is that Turkey’s military interventions in Syria and its forceful posture in the Eastern Mediterranean have often been at odds with US strategic interests in these regions. In that connection, the US support for Kurdish forces in Syria, which is seen as vital in the fight against ISIS, has infuriated Erdogan, who views the Kurdish YPG militia as a terrorist group linked to the PKK.

Turkey’s growing relationship with Russia, typified by the S-400 purchase, and its cautious stance toward China, particularly regarding the Uyghurs and cooperation in Syria, have been another source of constant friction and raised concerns in the US about Turkey’s strategic alignment and commitment to NATO principles, which challenges the traditional dynamics within NATO and between the US and Turkey.

The scope of disagreement between NATO and Turkey regarding Cyprus and Greece primarily involves territorial disputes and military tensions. Turkey’s military presence in Northern Cyprus since 1974 and its maritime boundary disputes with Greece in the Eastern Mediterranean have led to heightened tensions. His threats to invade NATO member Greece and annex parts of EU member Cyprus over territorial disputes, particularly related to natural gas drilling rights, have been seen as undermining the safety and security of the region. These issues are compounded by Turkey’s military exercises, which Greece and Cyprus view as violating their sovereignty and challenging the alliance’s cohesion while complicating diplomatic relations within the region.

Erdogan’s objection to NATO membership of Sweden and Finland left the alliance troubled with essential points of dispute, including how to deal with Erdogan’s voracious thirst to impose his will and how that might play out in any future disagreement.  Erdogan blackmailed Sweden, in particular, to take a firmer stance against groups it considers terrorist organizations, such as the PKK. It was not until Sweden addressed Turkey’s concerns, which included lifting an arms embargo against Turkey and enhancing anti-terrorism laws, that he finally conceded and allowed Sweden accession to NATO.

There are other contentious issues between the US and Erdogan, including Erdogan’s repeated demand to extradite Fethullah Gülen, whom he blames for the 2016 coup attempt. The US refused to comply, citing a lack of evidence. Another quarrelsome issue is the US and French recognition of the 1915 Armenian genocide committed by the Ottoman Empire, which Erdogan fervently denies.

More recently, Erdogan has openly expressed support for Hamas, describing them not as terrorists but as “liberators” who are defending their land. Erdogan’s statements highlight a significant divergence from Western perspectives, which classify Hamas as a terrorist organization. Erdogan’s refusal to label it as such highlights his complicated relationship with regional powers and his efforts to position himself as a key player in Middle Eastern affairs. Erdogan’s hypocrisy was in full display when he refused to condemn Hamas’ savage attack that butchered 1,200 Israelis but accused Israel of behaving like a “war criminal” and committing “massacres” in Gaza and called for Israeli leaders to be tried for war crimes. Erdogan in the past has even gone as far as offering Turkish citizenship to Hamas officials, and has for years provided them with shelter.

NATO’s share of the blame

There is no doubt that Erdogan might have behaved differently had he been confronted by NATO and credibly been threatened with severe consequences if he did not change course and comply with NATO’s core requirements. NATO’s failure to stand up to Erdogan, and its permissiveness in letting him violate its charter without penalties, has only encouraged Erdogan to become ever more ruthless and defiant, knowing he can do so with impunity.

That is, NATO’s failure to demand that all member states adhere to its values erodes the foundation of the organization. And while it is difficult to take a stand against Turkey due to its contributions and immensely important strategic location, to allow it to continue uncritically is nothing but a slippery slope that will destroy the moral foundation of NATO. Another renegade is Hungary’s President Orban, who became a de facto dictator and systematically violated human rights and freedom of the press and has not been called to task by NATO, which is only compounding the Organization’s malaise.

Indeed, if NATO wants to maintain its cohesiveness and effectiveness as the military powerhouse that safeguards European security, especially at this juncture when the Ukraine war and the Israel-Hamas war are raging, NATO cannot afford to allow any of its members to fan the flames. Thus, the time is overdue for NATO to take several punitive measures against Erdogan.

Punitive measures

Although the NATO Charter doesn’t provide a mechanism to expel a member state, it is time for NATO to stop relying solely on political and diplomatic channels to address disagreements with Erdogan, which have been elusive on many levels, and instead resort to broad and transparent punitive measures. In taking such measures against a head of state like Erdogan for human rights violations or actions that defy NATO agreements, these measures must be considered in the context of the complexity of international law, diplomacy, and geopolitical relationships. These measures include:

Imposing economic sanctions on Turkey, whether individual countries or groups of countries, such as those within the European Union. These could range from targeted sanctions affecting specific individuals or sectors to more comprehensive economic measures. The imposition of more sanctions, such as Turkey’s removal from the US F-35 program because of Erdogan’s military operation in Syria and his purchase of the S-400 system from Russia, offers one good example.

Limiting cooperation and participation in NATO activities by member states, which could limit military cooperation or exclude Turkey from certain joint activities. These include disallowing Turkey from participating in specific NATO military exercises, stopping sharing sensitive intelligence, and excluding Turkey from NATO’s decision-making processes.

Freezing or terminating bilateral or multilateral agreements between Turkey and other countries, or between Turkey and international organizations. This includes not receiving Turkish attaches, finding an alternative to the Incirlik Air Base in Turkey once the turmoil in Europe and the Middle East subsides, which Erdogan has been using as leverage, and suspending collaboration on particular projects, especially on defense cooperation. Many countries and international organizations can exert diplomatic pressure on Turkey by publicly expressing disapproval of specific actions through formal condemnations, public statements, and high-level diplomatic talks. And finally, international legal mechanisms can address human rights violations. Bodies like the International Criminal Court (ICC) can investigate allegations of human rights abuses and expose Erdogan for what he is.

Notwithstanding Turkey’s geostrategic importance, NATO should weigh Turkey’s contribution to the alliance against Erdogan’s consistent defiance of what NATO stands for. NATO can make some concessions to accommodate a particular member state like Turkey. Still, it cannot compromise its core values, the foundation that sustains it as a viable and powerful military alliance.

Dr. Alon Ben-Meir is a retired professor of international relations, most recently at the Center forGlobal Affairs at NYU. He teaches courses on international negotiation and Middle Eastern studies.


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