Turkey’s Human Rights Pledge, Seeking To Improve Western Relations And National Image, Under Scrutiny

In early March, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan announced a “Human Rights Action Plan,” which would help place Turkey on a path towards improving the rule of law and national democracy declines in recent years. The plan would also improve Turkey’s relations with Western powers, which have accused it of cracking down on journalists, opposition parties, and pro-democracy advocates. Despite Erdogan’s intentions, the plan will not be as straightforward to implement given existing sanctions on Turkey and skepticism from some Western countries in its going through with the plan.

According to Erdogan, this plan “is not a wish list. We will do everything to substantiate this plan,” however, there was no mention of a specific timeline. Other key proposals for the plan include journalist protection, judiciary reform, and improving freedom of expression, all of which are leading steps towards establishing a new constitution, according to Balkan Insight. While this plan appears to be promising on paper, in practice, some experts are unimpressed and see this as strategic planning by Erdogan. Experts note that the plan is meant to “decrease the pressure from the E.U. and the U.S. and to attract more investments and to stabilise the country after years of turbulence in domestic and international politics.” Both the E.U. and the U.S. have questioned Turkey’s human rights actions, freedom of expression, and have imposed some sanctions on the country.

Additionally, Emma Sinclair-Webb, Turkey Director for Human Rights Watch (HRW), said the plan leaves out “arbitrary detentions, prosecutions and convictions without evidence in Turkey,” according to Reuters. While the plan may seem to have welcomed intentions and goals, Erdogan’s plan alone has key shortcomings that many will want to see addressed and put into action before lifting sanctions or beginning work on new agreements.

The next steps Erdogan takes will be crucial in ensuring the success and longevity of the proposed plan. The successful implementation and rollout of this plan would better position the country in the human rights context, signal a change to Western powers that have been skeptical, and launch a political change in the country after Erdogan has “[invited] all political parties, NGOs, intellectuals…to join the preparations for the new constitution.”

What is keeping many skeptical and unmoved is the Turkish government’s recent history of targeting journalists, opposition parties, and government critics. HRW in its World Report for Turkey shows that media agencies “are owned by companies close to the Erdogan presidency or avoid reporting critical of the government” and in the context of freedom of expression, “Terrorism charges continue to be widely misused to restrict the rights to free expression and association.” In other words, as critics have noted, when showcasing the country’s plan, Erdogan will need to acknowledge these shortcomings if he wants to change the U.S. and the E.U. perception of the country.

Recently, the U.S. House of Representatives sent a report to Secretary of State Anthony Blinken “urging President Joe Biden’s administration to address “troubling” human rights issues when he formulates his policies towards Turkey,” according to Balkan Insight. Until Erdogan and his government begin to firmly address its recent history of journalist and opposition crackdowns and demonstrate action on the matters, it will be challenging to win immediate support from the U.S., E.U., national and Kurdish oppositions, and human rights watchdogs.

Erdogan’s plan comes nearly five years since the attempted coup in Turkey in July 2016. Since then, Erdogan and his government have cracked down on opposition parties and critical reporting of his administration via political pressure, accusations, censorship, and planned disappearances, according to an HRW report. These trends have not improved during the pandemic. For instance, HRW highlights that in the past year, the Turkish government has put people “under criminal investigation or detained by police for social media postings deemed to “create fear and panic” about the pandemic [or criticising] the government’s response to the pandemic.”

At the end of last year, the U.S. and the E.U. placed limited sanctions on Turkey due to its conduct on journalist crackdown and worsening human rights record. The “Human Rights Action Plan” recently introduced is meant to mitigate these accusations and improve Turkey’s ability to improve its economy, international relations, and politics. However, little is likely to change unless Erdogan takes firm steps to make a change, undo existing troubling practices, and shift towards rule of law.

Now that Erdogan has proposed the “Human Rights Action Plan,” the next steps are to create a timeline that highlights the steps along the way in executing the plan. Since the end goal is a new national constitution, support from various groups, including opposition parties, media outlets, and journalists, is key in its success, but the task is not simple. Recent reports and sanctions from the U.S and the E.U. are meant to hold its government accountable for the decline in rule of law and freedom of expression, and the country’s people and other countries need to know. Other groups, such as Human Rights Watch, must continue reporting on the government’s progress and shortcomings to better inform policymakers in the U.S. and E.U. about the next steps, such as elevating sanctions or considering negotiations depending on the type of progress. Until Erdogan and his government demonstrate specific action steps and significant progress on the plan, current attitudes and skepticism about the plan are unlikely to change.