Following talks between top European Union officials and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, it has emerged that greater protections for basic human rights are “non-negotiable” and a prerequisite for further bilateral cooperation between Brussels and Ankara.
Domestic economic troubles and a tougher line from the Biden administration have somewhat forced Turkey to pursue improved relations with the EU.
European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen and European Council President Charles Michel spoke to Erdogan, traversing a wide range of issues and discussing key economic and diplomatic incentives.
Von der Leyen reiterated the importance of “fundamental rights and rule of law”, stating that they “must be an integral part of our relationship”. She went on to say that:
“it is for us important that there is a true attitude towards respecting human rights, respecting the rule of law and moving in that direction.”
The 2016 EU-Turkey migration pact was raised, with von der Leyen and Michel urging greater adherence to the agreement which has seen over 28,000 relocations since its imposition. Von der Leyen said that:
“We expect Turkey to stand by its commitments and deliver on them, this includes preventing irregular departures and it also included resuming return operations from the Greek islands to Turkey without any delay”
She also said that the continuation of de-escalation efforts with Cyprus and Greece and the provision of a “stable and secure environment” in the Mediterranean is required for closer ties. The resumption of talks with Greece over their disputed maritime border and plans to restart UN peace efforts for Cyprus have been welcomed by EU chiefs, though scepticism remains as to whether they will be sustained. After the meeting, Charles Michel said that:
“The EU strategic interest remains a stable and secure environment in the eastern Mediterranean and a mutually beneficial and positive relationship with Turkey”
Letter from 20 international organisations calls for human rights to top meeting agenda
Prior to arriving in Turkey, the presidents of the European Council and European Commission had been sent a letter from the International Press Institute (IPI) and 20 international human rights and freedom of expression organisations, including the International Observatory of Human Rights. The joint letter was sent on 1 April and called on EU leaders to prioritize improved human rights records in Turkey ahead of their visit to meet with the Turkish president Erdoğan on 6 April.
Human rights in Turkey
The situation of human rights in Turkey has declined massively in recent years, with broadly defined anti-terrorism laws combined with the partisan judiciary resulting in acute restrictions on civic space.
The Istanbul Convention, a human rights treaty of the Council of Europe against violence against women, was signed by Turkey in 2012. However, on 20 March 2021, Erdogan withdrew from the convention, a direct contravention of Turkey’s 2020 Universal Periodic Review (UPR) commitments, which has drawn international condemnation. Von der Leyen called on the Turkish President to reverse his decision, stating that:
“We urge Turkey to reverse its decision because it is the first international binding instrument to combat violence against women and children”
Part of the government’s protracted campaign against political opposition, moves to dissolve Turkey’s third-largest political party the pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP), following allegations of collusion with militant groups, have also been criticised.
Progress on EU-Turkey ties is set to be reviewed by EU leaders when they meet again in June.
Read international groups including IOHR’s open letter calling on EU leaders to prioritise human rights in Turkey below: