Can Europe Make It?

Erdogan’s unexpected ally

By failing to condemn ongoing human rights violations in Turkey, the Council of Europe Secretary General betrays the regional human rights system he is supposed to promote. Originally published on 1 September 2016, updated September 6.

Kirill Koroteev Sergey Golubok
5 September 2016
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Thorbjorn Jagland, newly elected as General Secretary of the Council of Europe, delivers his speech in Strasbourg, September,2009. Cedric Joubert/Press Association. All rights reserved.There was exhaustive coverage by international media of the post-coup meeting between Vladimir Putin and Recep Tayyip Erdogan in St. Petersburg. Now the Kremlin host may pay a return visit. The media spotlight however did not fall on one other – perhaps, quite unexpected – Erdogan ally: Thorbjorn Jagland, the Council of Europe’s Secretary General.

In August Mr Jagland met President Ergodan and other high-ranking Turkish officials in Ankara. Mr Jagland publicly expressed his support for the measures taken by Erdogan in the aftermath of the abortive coup attempt of 15 July. Most revealingly, the Secretary General stated the following in remarks published on the official website of the Council of Europe: “There has been too little understanding in Europe about the challenges facing democracy and state institutions in Turkey after the outrageous coup attempt of 15 July”.

Jagland’s apparent willingness to serve as Erdogan’s advocate undermines the very values and objectives of the Council of Europe he is supposed to promote.

Several days before Jagland’s visit to Ankara Erdogan had flagged up the possibility of restoring the death penalty in Turkey, citing popular support for this idea. The abolition of the death penalty is one of the cornerstones of the European regional system of human rights protection. There is no legal way for it to be restored under the European Convention on Human Rights, to which Turkey is a party. Secretary General Jagland did not dare even to pay lip service to the sanctity of the abolition of the death penalty in the Council of Europe.

Furthermore, the Turkish High Council of Justice officially published a decision removing over 2,000 judges from their posts. Government arbitrarily dismissed thousands of scholars from their positions and prohibited academic travel. Hundreds of journalists and other public figures were detained. Amnesty International cited credible allegations of widespread and systematic ill-treatment in detention. Secretary General Jagland did not express even routine “concern” about all those troubling developments in this member state of the Council of Europe.

Of course, individual applications will be lodged with the European Court of Human Rights in due course. They will be adjudicated. This process will take years.

However, it is not for the Court to act proactively. It is for the political figures of the Council of Europe to act as standard bearers of values of democracy, human rights and rule of law. At the very least, it implies calling a snake a snake. Failure to do so betrays the very system Jagland is paid to defend and promote. Symbols mean a lot, especially in times of trouble.

It goes without saying that Jagland and politicians of his calibre will argue that they need to establish relations with Erdogan to be able to 'strike deals' and maintain 'constructive dialogue'. Jagland is not the first and not the last European leader to visit Ankara in the aftermath of 15 July, who has turned a blind eye to the ongoing widespread and systematic human rights violations in Turkey.

But it is a very different thing for the head of the organisation dedicated to the protection and promotion of human rights to trade principles for political expedience. If he does that, he will jeopardise the authority of the very organisation he presides over. Without human rights, its raison d'être, its soul, the Council of Europe is meaningless and has no purpose.

It is highly probable that the failure of the Council of Europe to speak out in defence of human rights in Turkey will lead to a domino effect throughout Europe, with increasingly autocratic governments realizing that they are free to duck Strasbourg human rights supervision with impunity.

Most importantly, however, it will lead to perfectly valid questions about why European taxpayers should spend their hard-earned euros and pounds on paying Mr Jagland’s bills.

Kirill Koroteev and Sergey Golubok reply to the Council of Europe on September 6:

We appreciate the reply from the Secretary General and his intention to engage in public debate. We are happy that our text was read in Strasbourg, Brussels and elsewhere. At the end of August Mr Jagland published an op-ed in several European newspapers gently rebuking Mr Erdogan for some human rights violations in Turkey, without however acknowledging their widespread and systematic character and sweeping effect. The Secretary General did pay some lip service to these issues – too late and too weak and not while in Ankara. But he is yet to do something, for example, like launching an inquiry into the situation in Turkey pursuant to Article 52 of the European Convention on Human Rights (“On receipt of a request from the Secretary General of the Council of Europe any High Contracting Party shall furnish an explanation of the manner in which its internal law ensures the effective implementation of any provisions of the Convention”).

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