Turkey must remain in the European family

Turkey must remain in the European family

Much has been written and said about the recent military coup attempt in Turkey and its aftermath. Yet it is difficult to comprehend, until you have witnessed it for yourself, the deep impact on Turkish citizens of these violent events which claimed 290 lives.

During my recent visit to Ankara, I saw the substantial damage caused to the Turkish parliament by jet fighters controlled by those behind the coup attempt. The fear and shock were still palpable among those I met.

Such violence cannot be tolerated on European soil. Whatever your view of the current government, we can all agree that any attempt to overthrow a legitimate, democratically elected government by force is unacceptable. In modern Europe, such an assault on democratic institutions is an affront to us all.

Turkey is clearly frustrated with what it sees as European leaders’ failure to recognize the deep impact of the coup on Turkish society. There is wide consensus within the country that it was planned and executed by a secret network which has infiltrated the military, the police and the judiciary. 

I heard this in my talks with the leaders of all three opposition parties in parliament as well from President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and his ministers. If we wish to have a positive influence on Turkey, it is necessary to show solidarity and understand the current Turkish mind-set.

Moreover, I am convinced that Europe now needs to engage more with Turkey, not less.

Reports of excessive and indiscriminate measures to clamp down on those believed to have been connected to the failed coup are alarming.

Turkey used its right to derogate from the European Convention of Human Rights, but the convention continues to apply under the supervision of the European Court of Human Rights. Thus, any measures taken have to be strictly necessary and proportionate to the nature of the threat faced by the authorities.

Identifying the perpetrators should be done with great care. Compelling evidence must be presented against the accused. A clear distinction is needed between those who aided the violence and those who may have sympathies toward its goal. The latter have broken no laws.

Showing such restraint will be in Turkey’s own interests. One positive development in recent weeks has been a rare show of unity among its political parties. Yet a far-reaching purge of public officials, journalists and academics which incriminates the innocent will only deepen divisions and mistrust in society. It will leave state institutions fragile and have a chilling effect on the media, which, even before the coup attempt, suffered from undue limits on freedom of expression.

Talk of restoring the death penalty should also now stop. Such a move would force Turkey out of the Council of Europe and end its objective to eventually join the European Union. It would be a regressive, unethical and isolating step.

The Council of Europe for its part will seek every opportunity to build trust and provide assistance and expertise to Turkey’s authorities.

Since my visit, the authorities have agreed to work with Council of Europe experts to bring the recent decree laws, issued under the state of emergency, in line with Turkey’s obligations under the European Convention on Human Rights. Failing this, Turkey risks a flood of applications before the European Court of Human Rights.

It will be especially important, in order to avoid abuse of power, that Turkey acts to better guarantee the procedural rights of individuals who are in custody or pre-trial detention (including the length of custody, access to a lawyer, doctor, relatives and the possibility of judicial review) and to better ensure their right to a fair trial, which starts with the presumption of innocence. Turkey needs to make sure that efficient safeguards are in place for journalists, educators and academics.

The Venice Commission, the Council of Europe’s group of constitutional experts, will continue to evaluate the situation of judges and prosecutors in Turkey and any amendments to the constitution.

The Council of Europe and its Committee for the Prevention of Torture take the allegations of torture and ill-treatment voiced by Amnesty International and other observers very seriously. By convention, details of ad-hoc country visits of the Committee for the Prevention of Torture are not announced publicly, so suffice to say here that we will soon have more clarity about these allegations.

We will also intensify our cooperation with Turkey on freedom of expression. This is also important in the context of Turkey’s anti-terror legislation, which has been a stumbling block to EU visa liberalization. Anti-terror laws cannot lead to journalists being detained simply for having reported about terrorism or terrorist organizations. Talks between Council of Europe experts and the Turkish authorities will resume in the coming weeks to find a way out of the current impasse.

Finally, the Council of Europe is an intergovernmental organization in which its 47 states share a collective responsibility for implementing the human rights convention. Member states have a key role to play in supervising the execution of judgments against Turkey from the European Court of Human Rights, many of them regarding freedom of expression and freedom of assembly, and reminding Ankara of its obligations under the convention.

This is a tense and unpredictable period for Turkey. Our approach to it should be united and aimed at restoring mutual trust and understanding. Our common aim is to see Turkey remaining in the European family and recognizing the importance of democracy, human rights and the rule of law, even at this most challenging time.

*Thorbjørn Jagland is secretary-general of the Council of Europe.