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Mike speaks Turkey Human Rights and the Political Situation debate

Yesterday (9th March 2017) Mike Gapes, Labour MP for Ilford South intervened on Fabian Hamilton MP Shadow Minister (Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs), Shadow Minister (Defence), during the debate on Turkey's Human Rights and the Political Situation.

A transcript of their exchange is provided below:

Mike Gapes (Labour/Co-operative, Ilford South): My hon. Friend stresses the importance of the UK’s relations with Turkey. The Foreign Affairs Committee is carrying out an inquiry into that subject, and I was in Ankara with other Committee members in January. I hope that when we publish our report in a few weeks’ time, we will have the opportunity to debate it in Parliament properly and at length.

Fabian Hamilton, Shadow Minister (Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs), Shadow Minister (Defence): It was with the Foreign Affairs Committee that I first visited Turkey; I enjoyed being there and seeing my own inheritance from that country. I look forward to reading the Committee’s report, to the debate on it and to the contributions of many hon. Members to that debate.

The coup of July 2016 resulted in a state of emergency enacted by Parliament that was expected to be temporary, but as we know, it was extended in January 2017 and now appears to be indefinite. The state of emergency allows for rule by decree and the temporary suspension of many rights in Turkey. Authorities have used it to target suspected political rivals and reduce the space for civil society. As a consequence, as we have heard today, checks and balances and human rights have shrunk in Turkey as it has been pushed further away from a system in which the rule of law was guaranteed.

On 18 January, just before Donald Trump was installed as President of the United States, The Guardian wrote:

“Turkey’s regime is fast degenerating into outright dictatorship, emboldened by the imminent ascent of Donald Trump”.

The irony is that before President Erdogan and his party democratically won power, they themselves were victims of human rights abuses. Erdogan was imprisoned in 1999 for reciting a religious poem, and the fiercely secular constitution and the elite consistently attempted to undermine his mildly Islamist political forces in the country. I find that deeply ironic.

As hon. Members have emphasised, more than 40,000 people have been imprisoned and more than 120,000 public sector workers—police, prosecutors, judges, civil servants and academics—have been dismissed. Turkey temporarily derogated from many of the protections in the European convention on human rights and the international covenant on civil and political rights. As Hugh Williamson, Europe and Central Asia director at Human Rights Watch, said:

“Instead of building on the cross-party unity opposed to the coup to strengthen democracy, Turkey’s government has opted for a ruthless crackdown on critics and opponents”.

We have heard some excellent speeches this afternoon. It goes without saying that my right hon. Friend the Member for Enfield North, who moved the motion, said many important things, including that the UK Government must do better in supporting human rights; I will be interested to hear the Minister’s reply to that. My right hon. Friend Mr Lammy made a powerful speech. I had not realised that his constituency has the largest number of Turkish speakers in the entire United Kingdom. He made the essential point that Turkey is now a democracy in name only. I hope that the Minister will pick up on some of the issues that my right hon. Friend raised.

My right hon. Friend Ann Clwyd, who has an impeccable record on human rights, raised the subject of arms sales. Will we increase our arms sales to Turkey? Labour Members hope not, but what are the Government doing to ensure that that does not happen? Jim Shannon, as always, highlighted the persecution of Christians and other groups in countries where they are in a minority; we can always rely on him to emphasise that and to stand up for oppressed minorities. Natalie McGarry said that the use of the coup as a “bloody blank cheque” to oppress opponents of the regime cannot possibly be acceptable.

I will conclude shortly, because I want to hear what the Minister has to say, as we all do. The constitutional referendum that will take place on 16 April is worrying. Many people in Cyprus talked about it when I was there this week; they are very concerned, because 100,000 people in Northern Cyprus will have a vote. The Turkish Deputy Prime Minister is currently in the north of Cyprus, canvassing support for the referendum. He is encouraging people to vote, because they believe that it is on a knife edge. The referendum is on changing the constitution to give President Erdogan huge new powers to remain as President until 2019—barring any future attempts to change the constitution to allow him to rule for any longer. That is something that Presidents in Bolivia and Burundi, for example, have attempted in the past. Is Turkey really on a par with those countries? I believe not; I believe that Turkey and the Turkish people certainly deserve better.

I will briefly mention the issue of asylum seekers. Four years ago, I went to Yayladagi, a refugee camp just on the tip of southern Hatay, almost butting into Syria, where the Turkish authorities were looking after hundreds of thousands of desperate refugees. We must take our hats off to Turkey for the work it has done for Syrian refugees, and we must give it more support, but what is currently happening makes that more difficult.

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