Early Elections, Human Rights and the Political Situation in Turkey

Yesterday, Mark spoke on the floor of the House on behalf of the Government in the debate tabled by Joan Ryan MP on Turkey. To read the debate in its entirety click here.

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Minister for Asia and the Pacific (Mark Field)

I congratulate my old sparring partner, the right hon. Member for Enfield North (Joan Ryan), on securing this debate. I also commend her for all of her sterling work as chair of the all-party parliamentary group for Alevis. The Minister for Europe and the Americas is currently travelling abroad on ministerial duties, and sends his apologies that he is unable to respond to this debate. It is my pleasure—in the broadest sense of the word, I hasten to add to take his place and respond on behalf of the Government.

I am grateful for the heartfelt contributions from a number of hon. Members, including that of my hon. Friend the Member for East Renfrewshire (Paul Masterton) and the right hon. Member for Cynon Valley (Ann Clwyd), who gave a heartfelt commentary. She is right to conclude that this trajectory is not one that inspires confidence for the credibility of the Turkish elections on 24 June. My hon. Friend the Member for Henley ​(John Howell) rightly talked about the Council of Europe, and said that Turkey needs to do more to fulfil its obligations. The hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) and my right hon. Friend the Member for Chesham and Amersham (Dame Cheryl Gillan) also spoke. I will try to touch on all those points.

The right hon. Member for Enfield North rightly pointed out in her opening comments that a long-standing relationship underpins the UK’s alliance with Turkey. Over the decades we have enjoyed many shared interests, including the strongest of people-to-people connections, trade, security, migration and of course the fellow membership of NATO. We rely on the Turkish state for the protection of millions of British tourists who enjoy Turkey’s historical sites, and sunshine, each and every year. Turkey deserves the gratitude of the international community for hosting over 3.5 million Syrian refugees on its soil, at considerable cost and potential danger. We should also recognise that Turkey has stood on the frontline in the battle against Daesh. We commend its continuing efforts to deter foreign terrorist fighters from engaging in the conflict in Syria and returning to wreak havoc in Europe.

Turkey is also, as has been pointed out, an important trading partner. We expect that relationship to continue once we leave the European Union. I want to touch on the issue of arms sales, which was brought up by a number of Opposition Members. UK arms exports are subject to export controls. Each and every decision to approve licences on exports is considered a on case-by-case basis against consolidated EU and national arms exporting licensing criteria. This approach is, I assure Members, under continual review and based on the best information available at the time. I hope that when we look at the review, full account will be taken of each of the contributions made in this debate.

President Erdoğan’s visit last month underlined the closeness of the UK-Turkey relationship and gave us the opportunity, as a candid friend of Turkey, to have some constructive discussions on the widest range of issues. The Prime Minister and President Erdoğan specifically referred to Turkey’s forthcoming parliamentary and presidential elections and the importance of observing international human rights obligations.

Let me touch on the issue of human rights priority country designation, which was also raised by a number of Members. We do not currently judge that Turkey meets the criterion to be designated as an HRPC. Notwithstanding that, the UK will be active and vocal in trying to promote a restoration of human rights within Turkey through all diplomatic channels, including at the very highest levels and through the support of civil society. We will keep this decision under close review.

A number of hon. Members in all parts of the House have raised great concerns that the elections in Turkey are taking place in an increasingly restrictive environment, against the backdrop of a continuing state of emergency. I share that concern. It is by no means an ideal time to have an election when there is an ongoing state of emergency. As has rightly been pointed out, it is now almost two years since the attempted coup, and we all understood that the state of emergency, understandable as it was at the time, was a temporary rather than a semi-permanent measure. The Foreign and Commonwealth Office shares these concerns. We have urged, and shall ​continue to urge, that the state of emergency is lifted in order to restore normality. We will also make the case to counterparts in Turkey and to its London-based diplomats that it should ensure that the elections later this month are held in a manner that is as transparent, democratic, fair and orderly as possible.

We have noted the very great concerns expressed by the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe about the conduct of the 2017 referendum in Turkey. We have encouraged the Turkish Government to ensure that those concerns are addressed in the conduct of upcoming elections. We welcome the fact that electoral observer missions from the OSCE and the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe will be monitoring the elections in Istanbul, Ankara and beyond. The UK is providing practical support to that observer mission. I am delighted that my right hon. Friend the Member for Chesham and Amersham (Dame Cheryl Gillan) is going to be involved in that—pending, of course, the voting arrangements. I very much hope that we will not have anything that is too pressing, although there may be something pressing at some point slightly nearer to 24 June. I hope that she will be able to play a robust role in this. We shall continue to monitor developments with interest as activity gets under way. I agree that it is important that all—I repeat, all—political parties within Turkey have the same opportunity to engage in a fully participatory and fair election campaign.

As I observed earlier, as a candid friend of the state of Turkey—I think we are all candid friends and want to see Turkey succeed for the future—we can and we do regularly raise sensitive subjects such as human rights with Turkish Ministers. In addition to my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister’s discussions with President Erdoğan last month, she and the Foreign Secretary raised specific human rights issues at the highest level when they visited Turkey last year. The Minister for Europe, who has visited Turkey no fewer than six times since the coup in June 2016, has consistently raised the need to uphold human rights and democracy, particularly in the aftermath of that failed coup and in response to the ongoing terrorist threat. That work will, I can assure the House, continue.

We have long encouraged Turkey to work towards the full protection of fundamental rights, particularly in the area of freedom of expression. Turkey’s new constitution, very narrowly passed in a referendum last year, comes into force immediately after the forthcoming elections. I accept that, regrettably, it concentrates Executive power into the hands of a single President, abolishes the office of Prime Minister and reduces parliamentary oversight. The Foreign and Commonwealth Office will continue to call for Turkey to enact those constitutional changes in a way that sustains democracy, respects the rule of law and protects fundamental freedoms in line with its international commitments, which many Members have referred to, including my hon. Friend the Member for Henley.

We also urge respect for freedom of the media, which is essential to the long-term health of Turkish democracy. I share the deep reservations expressed by Members today about the high number of journalists and social media users currently in detention. The FCO will strongly support protection of the rights of minority groups in ​Turkey, including Kurdish and Alevi communities, among others. I call today on the Turkish authorities to safeguard their welfare and respect their human rights.

I think we all accept that PKK terrorism presents a severe challenge to Turkey and its allies in the region. The PKK is a proscribed terrorist group in the EU and the US, and we stand shoulder to shoulder with Turkey in condemning that group’s ongoing campaign of violence, which has led to thousands of deaths since the 1980s. While firmly condemning PKK violence, we continue to call for a return to a peace process. The UK Government have supported and will continue to support a number of organisations seeking to build active dialogue between different actors on the Kurdish issue and address related human rights issues. We also maintain keen links with all parties represented in the Turkish Parliament, including the largely Kurdish HDP and a wide variety of civil society organisations. As a consequence, we regard the reports of pre-trial detention of opposition politicians as unacceptable.

We welcome the early steps that Turkey has taken to address some of the human rights concerns internationally by reducing the custody period and creating a commission to review dismissals carried out under the state of emergency, but those are very small steps, and much more needs to be done. I know that I speak for all Members who have contributed to the debate in urging the Turkish Government to empower the commission further to deal effectively with the high volume of cases it faces.

In conclusion, I sympathise with the misgivings expressed by Members, not least the right hon. Member for Enfield North, about the situation in Turkey in the lead-up to the elections. I want to reassure the House that the UK, along with international partners, will be examining and reporting on the conduct of the forthcoming elections very closely indeed.