Stop the silence: We need to tackle Turkey’s human rights crisis

By Alex Neve, Amnesty Canada Secretary General. Follow Alex on Twitter @AlexNeveAmnesty.

As a human rights advocate you know you will not make everyone happy. Government officials, military leaders, armed groups and businesses all attract your scrutiny, criticism and suggestions for improvement. Some act on the advice. Others ignore it. Some strenuously disagree.

Public debate can get heated. The recent exchanges around Omar Khadr’s case are a striking reminder of that. Even in Canada, leading Amnesty International, I’ve felt that heat. I’ve been insulted and called names. I’ve been rebuffed. I’ve been threatened.

But no matter how inflamed things have become, I’ve never been jailed for standing up for human rights.

My close colleague Idil Eser, who does my job in Turkey, heading up our national section there, has been jailed for doing just that. She has been behind bars for the past two weeks because she passionately defends human rights; in Turkey and around the world.

It doesn’t end with Ms. Eser. Nine other human rights activists were arrested at the same time; five of whom are in jail, the other four out on bail pending their trial.

Turkish authorities have, in fact, locked up not one, but two Amnesty International leaders. Taner Kilic, the chair of Amnesty Turkey, has been imprisoned for the past six weeks. Never in our 56-year history have the two main leaders of a national section of Amnesty International been locked up at the same time.

And this in a country whose president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, was himself once an Amnesty International prisoner of conscience. The very organization whose leaders his government now jails campaigned for his freedom almost 20 years ago. Irony doesn’t come close to describing that injustice.

The backdrop to all of this is a staggering human rights crackdown in Turkey over the past year, in the aftermath of an unsuccessful coup attempt against the Erdogan government in July 2016. Turkish authorities have set out to root out any supporter of the Gulen movement, who they accuse of being behind the coup attempt.

Clearly anyone responsible should face justice for their crimes. But the breadth of the crackdown in Turkey has been stunning. Some 50,000 people languish in jail. Among them are at least 130 journalists, the highest number of any country in the world. More than 100,000 public sector workers, including a quarter of the judiciary, have been arbitrarily dismissed. Last week alone, more than 140 arrest warrants were issued for IT workers, and hundreds of academics were cast out of their jobs.

And it has struck close to home here in Canada. At least five Canadian/Turkish dual nationals have been swept up in the crackdown. While one woman, Ece Heper, has been tried, convicted and conditionally released on bail pending an appeal, the other four remain jailed and have not even been allowed a Canadian consular visit. Canada and Turkey are NATO allies; yet no consular access?

No doubt about it; this human rights crackdown does not end.

Yet with each worsening step over the past 12 months – the world has been largely silent.

After all, Turkey is an ally, a trading partner, the country that shelters more Syrian refugees than any other, and a key nation when it comes to battling ISIS.

That cannot be an excuse to let Turkey off easy. It should, if anything, compel a concerted, forceful international effort to turn things around.

A human rights crisis for a close ally is bad news all around. It certainly won’t lead to expanded trade. It won’t ensure Turkey continues to shelter refugees. And it doesn’t bolster Turkey’s standing in the fight against ISIS. At the end of the day it mainly means more turmoil and instability.

This unprecedented move against Amnesty International must catalyze global action. Finally, we are starting to hear some more forceful interventions from Europe and the United States.  The Canadian government has taken to Twitter on two occasions to express concern; certainly welcome in today’s “twiplomacy” world.  We are now looking for a strong public statement from the Prime Minister or Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland. (Update: a short statement was released the afternoon of 21 July 2017)

Governments need to make it very clear that this is serious.  It cannot be situation normal while this siege against human rights worsens daily. Now is not a time to make excuses for Turkey.  It is time for unequivocal demands: free Amnesty International’s leaders, free imprisoned human rights activists and journalists. Commit to human rights.

This op-ed was originally published by the Globe and Mail