In dealing with Turkey’s Erdoğan, the EU betrays its core values

The EU looks away as Kurdish villages are razed and elected officials ousted, writes Dilek Kurban.

The familiar picture of a war zone: Houses destroyed by rockets and cannon fire; injured civilians who have bled to death for lack of medical help; civilians turned into refugees in their own country, dead bodies of opposition fighters dragged behind tanks or exposed naked on the streets… Only, this is not a description of Aleppo in Syria or Mosul in Iraq. It is of Turkey, a member of NATO, an EU accession candidate and a strategic partner of Germany.

This is what has been happening in Turkey’s Kurdish region, a few hours drive from the Syrian refugee camp in Nizip, where Chancellor Angela Merkel and EU officials visited on April 24th. Donald Tusk, the President of the European Council, praised the Turkish government for setting “an example for the whole world on how we should treat refugees”, while in the company of Ahmet Davutoğlu, at the time the still-undisputed Prime Minister of Turkey, and Merkel was all smiles. Yet they were a few hundred kilometers from towns hosting Turkey’s most recent internal refugees –355,000 according to the Turkish Minister of Health. Merkel and Tusk inaugurated an EU-funded project for Syrian children, but tens of thousands of Turkey’s Kurdish children are not allowed to go back to their homes while their parents are trying to survive without access to any government aid.

Human rights abuses in Kurdish towns

Since 16 August 2015, the Turkish government imposed indefinite 24- hour curfews in at least 22 Kurdish towns. The military went into densely populated towns with tanks, armored vehicles and heavy artillery to remove the barricades and trenches of the PKK-associated Patriotic Revolutionary Youth Movement (YDG-H). Residents were not allowed to leave their homes even for medical emergencies, while no one, including parliamentarians, journalists and international observers, was allowed to enter the curfew areas. More than 1.5 million people were locked up, without access to food, water and electricity. The military bombed and razed entire towns, regardless of the presence of civilians. Trying to make them invisible, the government does not keep a civilian death toll, but the Turkish Human Rights Foundation has reported that at least 338 civilian died, including 78 children and 69 women.

The reports about the alleged violations by Turkish security forces have been so “extremely alarming” that the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein issued a statement on 10 May, urging the Turkish authorities to give independent investigators, including UN staff, unimpeded access to the curfew area to verify these reports. Zeid referred, among others, to the “extremely serious allegations” that “100 people were burned to death as they sheltered in three different basements that had been surrounded by security forces.”

In addition to these grave abuses, special operations forces, unidentifiable behind masks, carried out a psychological terror campaign against residents of the curfew zones. They spray-painted the walls of houses and shops with religious and nationalistic messages and played military marches from armed vehicles. A gruesome music video released on YouTube vividly documents what words fail to describe. A masked man, later disclosed by the government to be a policeman, walks through the devastated streets of ancient Sur, the old center of Diyarbakir, singing a rap song, slamming the “Kurdish lie”, the “Armenian swindlers” and the “Zionist plan.” The only way to get peace, he says, is to “shoot them in the head.”

Turkish nationals who spoke up against these atrocities have been subject to government harassment, police violence and judicial repression. Academics who signed a peace petition to condemn the military operations in the Kurdish region are facing criminal charges for terrorist propaganda and ‘insulting Turkishness,’ upon the orders of President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. The Kurds’ elected representatives have not been spared either. 29 elected mayors belonging to the pro-Kurdish People’s Democratic Party (HDP) have been removed from office, 14 of them arrested on terrorism charges. On 20 May, the Turkish Parliament approved an unconstitutional bill to strip the immunities of 50 HDP deputies, including the party’s co-chairs Selahattin Demirtaş and Figen Yuksekdağ, to enable their prosecution under Turkey’s draconian terrorism law. While the move also implicates dozens of deputies belonging to other political parties represented in Parliament, the real target was the HDP deputies, as repeatedly and vividly made clear by Erdoğan.

Merkel as the mouthpiece of Turkish government policy

Chancellor Merkel and EU officials were surely aware of the situation in the Kurdish region as they were touring a picture-perfect refugee camp. Yet, they did not speak up, cognizant that the deal they had brokered with Erdoğan required their complacency. This time, however, Merkel went beyond remaining silent; she became an advocate of the Turkish government’s political agenda. During a speech in the city of Gaziantep, Merkel called for the creation of a “safe zone” inside Syria, an idea Erdoğan has been pushing for since 2013. While he claims to be solely concerned for the safety of refugees, his ulterior motive is to preclude the Syrian Kurds from claiming from ISIS the piece of territory left between their two cantons and controlling an uninterrupted stretch of land along Turkey’s southern border. The UNHCR and rights groups have persistently objected to Erdoğan’s proposal, recalling the 1995 massacre of over 8,000 refugees in Srebrenica, a UN-declared “safe area.” The US administration has also long opposed the idea. It was not surprising therefore that President Obama reiterated his opposition during a news conference with Merkel.

In September 2015, after the curfews were first imposed in the Kurdish region, the Commission added Turkey to its proposed list of safe countries of origin. If accepted, Turkey will be considered a non-refugee producing country, yet another goal Erdoğan has been relentlessly pursuing. In justifying Turkey’s inclusion in the list, the Commission refers to the percentage of successful asylum applications in the EU. The logic is as follows: the lower the chances of its nationals to receive asylum, the higher Turkey’s chances to be accepted as a safe country of origin. However, there is a significant discrepancy among the candidates. Compared to an 8 % for Albanian nationals, the recognition rate for asylum applications originating from Turkey is as high as 23 %. And these are 2014 figures, not reflecting the current political situation which has produced hundreds of thousands of new internal refugees. One cannot help but ask what on earth the Commission was thinking in nominating Turkey to be a safe country of origin.

As Turkey is pulled into deeper political chaos by an increasingly dangerous autocratic president, Europe and its leaders are standing at a crossroads. During critical times such as these, this continent’s history reminds us, Europeans cannot let the practical considerations and the self-interest of the refugee deal prevail over core democratic values and human rights. So far, Merkel and her EU partners have stood morally on the wrong side of history. It is not too late for a change of course, although time is running out. With the forced resignation of Prime Minister Davutoğlu, Erdoğan has removed the last arguable resistance within his party. Following the Parliament’s vote on 20 May, Erdoğan is one step closer to ousting the HDP deputies from the Parliament in order to obtain the two-third majority necessary for the introduction of a presidential system. Given his total control over the majority of the Parliament and the judiciary, Erdoğan will not find it difficult to ensure that the investigations against HDP deputies are processed as a matter of priority and expeditiously approved for criminal prosecution. EU politicians should follow the moral and political lead of the UN High Commissioner Zeid and finally take a stance against Erdoğan to prevent the ousting of HDP deputies from Parliament. After the damage they have caused, they owe this to the pro-democracy forces in Turkey.

This in an updated version of an article which first appeared on 14 May on ZEIT online.

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