Turkey human rights plan ‘mere paper' as abuses unaddressed - critics

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan announced a package of human rights reforms on Tuesday, pledging sweeping changes to the judiciary, a heavily revised constitution and respect for freedom of expression.

But the plan has failed to address key infringements on democracy, including arbitrary detentions and prosecutions without evidence, according to its critics, who include Emma Sinclair-Webb, Turkey director for Human Rights Watch.

Turkey has arrested tens of thousands of people on terrorism charges since a failed military coup in 2016. The authorities have intensified a crackdown on the political opposition since presidential and parliamentary elections in 2018, when Erdoğan gained vast new executive powers following a nationwide referendum marred by opposition accusations of vote-rigging.

“No human rights plan is going to be more than the paper it is written on” until such prisoners are released and “bogus” charges against dissenters are dropped, Sinclair-Webb said in an interview with Reuters.

“Just saying the courts are going to be independent won’t make them more independent,” she said.

Among the detainees is Osman Kavala, a high-profile philanthropist and human rights defender who has been incarcerated for more than three years without a conviction. Erdoğan did not mention him by name when outlining the reform plans in an address to EU envoys in Ankara.

The European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) has ruled for Kavala’s immediate release, along with the imprisoned former co-leader of the pro-Kurdish Democratic People’s Party (HDP), Selahattin Demirtaş, a strong critic of Erdoğan who is accused of terrorism. Turkish courts have ignored the rulings, which ECHR judges said were based on respect for human rights, pluralism and political freedoms.

Demonstrators hold up a poster of Kurdish leader Selahattin Demirtaş

Erdoğan is pledging the human rights reforms amid strained relations with leading Western governments, particularly the United States. The Turkish president is also seeking a new refugee deal with the EU worth billions of dollars and visa-free access to the continent for the country’s citizens.

U.S. President Joe Biden, who has criticised Erdoğan’s authoritarian tendencies, is vowing to make human rights a central plank of his administration’s foreign policy. Biden may also respond positively to calls by Congress to sanction Erdoğan’s government for purchasing S-400 air defence missiles from Russia, an acquisition that has helped cement relations with Moscow.

Erdoğan said that his human rights action plan will guarantee freedom of expression, so long as that did not infringe on the rights of others, and would also include improvements to the judiciary. He said a central plank of the reforms would involve sweeping changes to the constitution and amendments to laws governing political parties and elections.

Pro-government media pundits and columnists applauded Erdoğan's plans.

"I am saying this without exaggerating - if the three great philosophers of freedom and human rights John Locke, David Hume and John Stuart Mill rose together from the grave, got their heads together and prepared a human rights plan for Turkey, it would only be this good," said Nagehan Alçı, a columnist for news website Habertürk.

The Turkish president’s popularity among Turkish voters has declined since the elections of 2018, partly due to a currency crisis in 2018 that has curtailed spending power and led to a spike in unemployment, particularly among the country’s youth.

“Bottom line: no real reform, but a lot of focus on retaining power,” said Howard Eissenstat, an associate professor of Middle Eastern History. “This will surprise absolutely no one.”

Turkey’s economic troubles returned last year after the authorities kept interest rates at below the rate of inflation to engineer a borrowing boom and help cash-strapped companies. The central bank also spent tens of billions of dollars of its foreign exchange reserves, leaving its war chest severely depleted and the lira exposed. The currency fell to a record low in November.

Public support for an alliance of Erdoğan’s governing Justice and Development Party (AKP) and the far-right Nationalist Movement Party (MHP) has dropped to 46 percent from 54 percent at the 2018 elections, the Diken news website reported on Tuesday, citing an average of opinion polls conducted by 16 research companies over the last three months.

Erdoğan provided more ammunition to his critics in January after a heavy police crackdown on university students who were protesting his selection of a party loyalist to head the prestigious Boğaziçi University. Members of his government said the demonstrations were led by “LGBT deviants” and supporters of terrorist groups. The U.S. government and the EU urged Turkish officials to respect the freedom to protest and not to target minorities.

Erdoğan’s promises to improve human rights are just not credible, said Kemal Kilicdaroglu, the leader of Turkey’s main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP).

“There is a 180-degree difference between what he says and what he does,” Kılıçdaroğlu said in comments to the Sözcü newspaper on Wednesday. “People see all these injustices in their everyday lives."

(This article was updated with columnist in 12th paragraph.)