As the free world turns up the heat on the repressive regime of President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan in Turkey with increased vigilance and closer scrutiny, Ankara has not only resorted to a policy of denial of massive rights violations to deflect a growing outcry from the international audience but has also launched a campaign to discredit international monitors and human rights defenders on a global scale.
That is exactly what happened during the United Nations Human Rights Council’s (UNHRC) 37th Regular Session on Feb. 28 and March 1, 2018, when Turkey’s Deputy Foreign Minister Ahmet Yıldız and UN Ambassador in Geneva Ali Naci Koru unashamedly attacked international monitors who have been critical of Turkey. Frustrated with hard and bitter facts on rights violations that are difficult to challenge on merit and substance, they instead tried to shoot down the UN special rapporteurs to discredit their well-founded criticism.
“The Office [High Commissioner for Human Rights] should act responsibly … if this office disseminates unfounded allegations about member countries, it will only harm its own credibility. The office should remain a reputable body, making unbiased, impartial and objective assessments based on sound and clear facts collected through appropriate methodology. Only then will its recommendations be meaningful and only then can it claim to be an interlocutor,” Yıldız said while speaking at the UNHRC meeting in Geneva.
This was mainly aimed at UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein, who has been a vocal critic of the regime. In his opening statement on Feb. 28, 2018 Al Hussein asked, “When journalists are jailed in huge numbers in Turkey, and the Rohingya are dehumanized, deprived and slaughtered in their homes – with all these examples bedeviling us, why are we doing so little to stop them, even though we should know how dangerous all of this is?” He had previously raised questions on the unprecedented crackdown on the civic Gülen movement and Kurdish political movement by the Turkish government.
The next day in Geneva came attacks on UN special rapporteurs by Turkish Ambassador Koru, who was actually demoted at the Turkish Foreign Ministry from a deputy minister position that is now occupied by Yıldız. Reading from a prepared text as if he did not even believe what he uttered in the room, Koru said: “We were dismayed to see that some special rapporteurs disseminated unacceptable messages through social media and behaved irresponsibly on highly controversial political matters. Some press statement and reports included evidence of factual errors as well as found misleading comments and misrepresentation of realities. These attitudes seriously harm the credibility of the UN special mechanisms and we expect that they will be avoided in the future.”
Koru’s broadside primarily targeted David Kaye, special rapporteur on the promotion and protection of the right to freedom of opinion and expression; Fionnuala D. Ní Aoláin, special rapporteur on the promotion and protection of human rights while countering terrorism; Michel Forst, special rapporteur on the situation of human rights defenders; Diego García-Sayán, special rapporteur on the independence of judges and lawyers; José Antonio Guevara Bermúdez, chair-rapporteur of the Working Group on Arbitrary Detention; Nils Melzer, special rapporteur on torture and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment; and Annalisa Ciampi, special rapporteur on freedom of peaceful assembly and association.
The reason is obvious: These rapporteurs have clearly documented the human rights violations in Turkey in various fields and did not cave in to the pressure, manipulation and misleading statements by the Erdoğan government and its proxies. They have created a record for accountability in the future when the rule of law is restored in the country and those aggressors and violators will be held accountable for what they have done. They have named and shamed the Turkish government for putting 240 journalists behind bars, imprisoning close to 600 lawyers and dismissing and/or jailing one-third of all judges and prosecutors as well as one-third of all diplomats including ambassadors. No wonder Koru and others in the Turkish Foreign Ministry have to parrot the government line and stick to a policy of denial because they may very well be branded as “terrorists” themselves the very next day if they do not toe the line.
The world no longer believes Erdoğan’s propaganda and certainly has a problem understanding how some 60,000 people who were affiliated with government critic the Gülen movement can be “terrorists” overnight when the group was never associated with any violence whatsoever in the past. As more evidence has emerged with regard to the failed coup of July 15, 2016, it has become clear that it was like Nazi Germany’s Reichstag fire and a false flag orchestrated by Erdoğan’s intelligence to set up all opposition groups in Turkey for a mass crackdown and justify emergency rule under which human rights have been violated on a major scale.
We need to stand by the UN special rapporteurs who have been doing an absolutely vital job in documenting, reporting and highlighting the gross violations in Turkey, encourage them to do more and provide a platform for raising the issues they care about. I for one am grateful for the valuable work done by the UN special rapporteurs and derive some solace from realizing that there are people out there who care what is going on in Turkey. As a journalist who had to drop everything and leave Turkey in a hurry to avoid ending up in jail on trumped-up charges of terrorism, I even value comments made by rapporteurs in panel discussions, in news articles and on social media. It certainly gets me going to see that the faint voices under the crackdown in Turkey are broadcast to a larger audience when the UN provides a platform to highlight their cases.
It was also encouraging to see Jason Mack, the US’s deputy permanent representative to the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva, allocate almost half of his time to speak about rights violations in Turkey during the same session in which the Turkish ambassador attacked the UN rapporteurs. “The United States categorically condemns all acts of torture and calls on Turkey to act on its obligations and commitments, investigate all credible allegations of torture and hold accountable any individuals found responsible for such acts. Due to the potential risk of ill treatment, we also call on Turkey to end the protracted state of emergency, commit to restoring democracy and rule of law and to respecting individual freedoms and cease the arbitrary detentions of government critics,” Mack said.
His comments were in support of Nils Melzer, the UN special rapporteur on torture and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment, who told the same session that his office has received an increasing number of allegations of torture and ill-treatment since he visited Turkey Nov. 28-Dec. 2, 2016 and particularly in the past few months resulting from government efforts to obtain forced confessions to justify mass arrests.
Turkey was also troubled by a report issued by Michel Forst, the special rapporteur on the situation of human rights defenders, on Jan.16, 2018 that highlighted several cases where he expressed concern “over the lack of evidentiary bases used in the arrest and prosecution of human rights defenders, many of whom were not provided with evidence against them and/or were unaware of investigations against them. Many accusations are based solely on actions such as downloading data protection software, publishing opinions disagreeing with the Government’s anti-terrorism policies, organizing demonstrations, or providing legal representation for other activists.”
If the Erdoğan government is really sincere in addressing rights violations under emergency rule, it should study the recommendations instead of attacking the messengers who advise Turkey on how to go about doing it. In that context, I would highly recommend that Turkey examine a Feb. 27, 2018 report by Fionnuala Ní Aoláin, the special rapporteur on the promotion and protection of human rights and fundamental freedoms while countering terrorism, on the human rights challenges of states of emergency in the context of countering terrorism. Although she does not name Turkey individually in her report, Ní Aoláin offers a way out of the debacle Turkey now finds itself in. Her excellent report fits like a glove for what we see in today’s Turkey and can provide a roadmap for a return to democracy. Only, of course, if we have receptive ears in Turkey, which we unfortunately do not.