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EU Should Make Human Rights Core in Agenda with Turkey

Respect for Rights Should be Prerequisite for Closer Ties, More Trade

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan arrives for a meeting with European Council President Charles Michel at the European Council building in Brussels, Monday, March 9, 2020. © 2020 Virginia Mayo/AP Photo

European Union officials have a chance to send a clear message when they meet for an EU summit this week: the deplorable human rights situation in Turkey should have consequences for the country’s relationship with the EU.

During a visit to Turkey’s capital Ankara earlier this year, EU Commission President Ursula Von Der Leyen stated clearly: “Human rights are non-negotiable.” She added the EU “will never get tired” of raising concerns about Turkey’s withdrawal from the Istanbul Convention, a Council of Europe Convention aimed at combatting violence against women. After a previously muted approach, it was refreshing to hear a top EU official state these concerns.

Scores of journalists remain behind bars and a relentless crackdown on free speech targets people for social media posts. The jailing of expelled Turkish Parliament member Ömer Faruk Gergerlioğlu, a closure case against the Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP), and a separate show trial against dozens of its politicians, show how Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has turned the criminal justice system into a cudgel against parliamentary opposition. A gunman’s attack on the HDP office in Izmir and the murder of a young woman with police nearby also raises the specter of a possible descent into violence. Turkey has blatantly refused to implement European Court of Human Rights orders to release human rights defender Osman Kavala and Kurdish politician Selahattin Demirtaş.

EU leaders should explicitly call on the Turkish government to end attacks on opposition politicians, journalists, lawyers, and human rights defenders. They should urge the government to reverse its withdrawal from the Istanbul Convention and implement the European Court’s judgments on Kavala and Demirtaş.

EU officials should also insist on evidence of actual progress on rights, not mere talks. It was inappropriate for EU leaders to offer the weak suggestion that “dialogue” on rights is “part of the EU-Turkey relationship.”

They should make respect for rights a prerequisite for talks on new trade ties. Talks on the modernization of the Customs Union, called for by Ankara, should not begin until concrete measures for an independent judiciary and accountable institutions are taken.

An EU-Turkey agenda that does not affirm that human rights are key prerequisites would fail its commitments as much as it would fail Turkey’s citizens.

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