Turkish democracy is deteriorating into authoritarianism, so why is the UK turning a blind-eye?

As Europe is distancing itself from Erdogan's increasingly authoritarian regime, the UK is getting closer. Is it to sell them even more weapons?

Andrew Smith
5 May 2017

Flickr/GuidoMenato. Some Rights ReservedIt is now ten months since Turkish government declared a state of emergency in response to the attempted coup. In that time it has cracked down on critics and waged a war on free speech and media. More than 160 media outlets have either been closed down or taken under state control and scores of journalists have been locked up. Research from Reporters Without Borders shows that 130 journalists and media employees remain behind bars, one third of the total around the world.

The attacks haven’t been limited to the media, with 125,000 state workers having been purged from their jobs, including 4000 civil servants who have been removed in the last week alone. A further 40,000 people have been arrested, with reports from Amnesty suggesting that torture, beatings and sexual violence against prisoners has become widespread.

It was to this backdrop that Theresa May became the first Western leader to visit Erdogan since the crackdown began. Her visit, which took place in January, was a clear and unambiguous statement of political and military support.

She didn’t use it to raise hard questions or demand that democracy is upheld, quite the opposite. Instead she used it to praise Erdogan’s handling of the coup and announced a £100 million fighter jet deal, which she said would mark “the start of a new and deeper trading relationship.”

"Democracy is like a street-car. You ride it until you arrive at your destination and then step off." - Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, in 1996.

Erdogan’s has tightened his grip in the months that have followed. Three weeks ago, almost 50 million Turkish people voted in a closely-fought referendum that opted, by a very small margin (51%-49%), to replace the parliamentary system with a presidential one, handing more power to Erdogan’s office.

The opposition was faced with an uphill battle from the start, with curbs and restrictions on their campaign and a concerted media campaign to ensure the government won.

The Council of Europe expressed its opposition too, before voting to restart monitoring in Turkey and put it back on its list of countries with ‘serious concerns’ in relation to human rights and democracy for the first time since it began EU accession talks in 2005.

Erdogan hasn’t taken their criticism well. His immediate response was to call on his critics to “know your place” before telling Reuters that Turkey ‘will not wait at Europe's door forever’ and is ‘ready to walk away from EU accession talks.’

So far the EU has stood its ground, with the European Parliament President Antonio Tajani stressing that “Freedom of the press, freedom of expression, are vital rights for anyone wanting to join the European Union and the death penalty, similarly, is an inviolable red line.”

Any hopes that the referendum would be followed by a period of reflection and a sincere attempt to bring Turkey together were quickly dispelled. Within days the Turkish authorities had detained over 1000 people and issued arrest warrants for a further 3224.

Despite the intensifying crackdown, and the diplomatic fallout, the UK position has been continue business as usual and strengthening its political and military ties with the regime.

Not a single comment or press release has been issued by the Foreign and Commonwealth Office in the aftermath of April’s controversial ballot. This is despite a Former Deputy Speaker of the House of Commons, Nigel Evans, who spent four days in Turkey as an official international monitor, concluding the process “fell short of the standards required for the conduct of a referendum.”

Turkey remains on the government’s list of ‘priority markets’ for arms exports, and the last few years have seen a significant increase in arms sales. Since 2015, Whitehall has licensed £350 million worth of arms to Turkey, including £70 million in the six months that followed the coup attempt. This is all on top of the aforementioned £100 million fighter jet deal.

In February, the Foreign Office minister, Alan Duncan, acknowledged the repression taking place, but has also made clear that it is not a block to deeper and closer ties with the UK. “The scale of people being arrested is massive and needs to be justified … but we have made it very clear that we need to deepen our bilateral relationship. Turkey is a large and significant economy which cannot be ignored.”

It is far from the first time that the UK government has been willing to put arms sales ahead of human rights, and, unfortunately, it won’t be the last. The UK has always taken a very selective approach to the promotion of human rights, and, with May making grovelling visits to Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and other human rights abusers, the signs are that it will only become worse following Brexit.

The decisions being made in Turkey today could be felt for years to come. Erdogan has made a conscious decision to centralise power, curb the media and stamp out dissent. As long as governments like the UK are prepared to arm and support him then they are complicit in the repression he is waging.

International relations isn’t always straightforward but politics is about choices. Will May and her colleagues stand up for those on the receiving end of torture, repression and human rights abuses, or will they continue to arm, support and strengthen those who are responsible for it?

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