A decade ago, Turkey’s ruling Justice and Development Party declared “zero tolerance” for torture and deepened reforms aimed at eradicating torture by state agents. There were reasons for cautious optimism that this indefensible practice might be on the way out. No longer.
A government crackdown in the wake of a failed July 2016 coup has led to widespread detentions, with more than 50,000 people rounded up on suspicion of links to the coup, and human rights defenders and journalists jailed on politically motivated charges. Hand in hand with these mass detentions has been the emergence of repeated, consistent, credible allegations of serious abuse in police custody.
When it comes to such grave violations of human rights, the international community has a vital role to play in protecting Turkish citizens by seeking to influence Turkey to improve its practices.
Take the British government. It states publicly its abhorrence of torture in all its forms, and Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson declared this summer that “human rights is an essential aim of British foreign policy.” Yet he has said almost nothing about the brutal abuses in Turkey. Indeed, the Foreign and Commonwealth Office decided – foolishly and incomprehensibly – in issuing its annual report on human rights in July, that Turkey didn’t merit inclusion among the 30 countries identified as warranting particular concern on human rights grounds. As one of Turkey’s closest partners in Europe, the UK has a responsibility to speak out.
British Ministers and officials should start by reading the latest chilling Human Rights Watch report on torture in Turkey, published just last week. The 43-page report: “In custody: Police Torture and Abductions in Turkey” provides evidence of 11 cases of torture in detention, including police severely beating and threatening detainees, stripping them naked, and threatening or sexually assaulting them. We also documented abductions of people from the streets that have all the hallmarks of government-backed enforced disappearances. People seen as linked to the coup or with the armed Kurdistan Workers’ Party are at greater risk of torture and other human rights violations.
At the very minimum, the British government should be pressing these concerns about torture and wider human rights violations at the highest levels of the Turkish government. Boris Johnson has said that a global Britain will stand for certain values in the world. What is he waiting for? If he is not prepared to challenge Turkey over torture and ill-treatment in police custody, then these words mean nothing at all.