Rights watchdogs to EU: Put respect for human rights at center of relations with Turkey

Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International in a joint letter on Tuesday to EU High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy Josep Borrel and the foreign ministers of member states called on the EU and its member states to “put respect for human rights and civil society at the center of EU-Turkey relations.”

The letter comes ahead of a Foreign Affairs Council discussion on EU-Turkey relations scheduled for Monday. According to the human rights watchdogs, “the grave deterioration of the human rights situation in Turkey since 2016 has shown no sign of respite.”

The letter highlights the protracted clampdown on human rights in Turkey and the Turkish government’s willingness to weaponize its continued control of the judiciary against perceived critics. The recent conviction of four human rights activists, including the Amnesty International’s former Turkey chairman, Taner Kılıç, on terrorism-related charges and the ongoing detention of civil society leader and human rights defender Osman Kavala are cited as emblematic cases that “illustrate the extent of executive control and political influence over the judiciary in Turkey, leading courts to systematically accept bogus indictments and to detain and convict individuals and groups that the government regards as political opponents without compelling evidence of criminal activity.”

Some other alarming developments mentioned in the letter include:

  • The ongoing imprisonment and prosecution of members of the press on such charges as “making propaganda for a terrorist organization” and “membership in a terrorist organization”;
  • A renewed crackdown on media freedom on the pretext of combating misinformation in the face of the COVID-19 crisis;
  • Prison overcrowding and exclusion of inmates convicted on trump-up terrorism charges from an early release law that was adopted due to the pandemic;
  • A pledge by the government of Recep Tayyip Erdoğan to increase control over social media;
  • A rise in allegations of torture or inhuman or degrading treatment; and
  • The prosecution and conviction of lawyers, including those focusing on human rights, by abusing terrorism charges.

In their letter the human rights watchdogs also claim that “Turkey does not meet the EU’s criteria for a safe third country to which an asylum seeker can be returned. This includes respect for the principle of non-refoulment.”

Under international human rights law, the principle of non-refoulment guarantees that no one should be returned to a country where they would face torture, cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment and other irreparable harm. This principle applies to all migrants at all times, irrespective of migration status.

But the letter claims that in 2019 Turkish authorities arrested and forcibly deported hundreds of Syrians to their home country. Turkey is also accused of summarily deporting thousands of Afghans to their country of origin.

An agreement that went into effect in March 2016 between the EU and Turkey provides that Syrian asylum seekers in Greece can be returned to Turkey without EU evaluation of their original protection claims concerning conditions in their home countries because Turkey is a “safe third country” or “first country of asylum” for them.

The letter calls on the EU and its member states to:

  1. Address the sharp decline in respect for fundamental rights and freedoms in Turkey during the July 13 Foreign Affairs Council and any public communications around the meeting.
  2. Publicly reaffirm that respect for human rights and a thriving, independent civil society are essential to EU-Turkey relations at all levels and remains a prerequisite to progress in areas where Turkey seeks normalization.
  3. Use all upcoming exchanges with the Turkish authorities to seek tangible human rights commitments and genuine reforms.

Ensure that the human rights of refugees, asylum seekers and migrants are central to the negotiation and implementation of any formal or informal migration cooperation.

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