Hazards of Using Human Rights as Political Leverage

When it comes to the Middle East, it has been a common occurrence to witness that Western governments occasionally accuse certain countries in the region of breaching fundamental human rights.

It is one of the age-old tactics employed by global powers to adapt rhetoric of protecting fundamental human rights and liberties to justify interventions into internal affairs of other countries, or the aggressive pursuit of their interests around the world. Throughout history, numerous versions of the same rhetoric have been pragmatically developed and applied through public diplomacy as a pretext and discursive cover to camouflage political interventions for regime change, military coups, socio-economic blockades and even hot wars. The global dissemination of liberal democracy in the second half of the 20th century as a widely conceived norm for modern political regimes increased opportunities for the use and abuse of human rights as political leverage even further. The pragmatic and selective nature of the use of human rights rhetoric in international relations dictates that frequently countries that are accused of breaching fundamental human rights are selected in line with overwhelming foreign policy interests while acute breaches might easily be neglected under certain circumstances. Adoption of human rights discourse to pressure the opponents during China’s integration into the global system in the 1990s, the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq in the 2000s and the global war on terror against the so-called axis of evil under former U.S. President George W. Bush all exemplified the same pattern.

When it comes to the Middle East, it has been a common occurrence to witness that Western governments occasionally accuse certain countries in the region of breaching fundamental human rights. Examples include Libya under Muammar Gadhafi, Iraq under Saddam Hussain, Iran before the Tehran accords and Syria under Hafez Assad. The perseverance of an anti-Western (or pro-Russian) foreign policy might easily attract harsh criticism from Western media circles, policymakers and civil society institutions bundled into accusations of human rights breaches. The human rights discourse gradually crystallizes as an instrument of pressuring, isolating and alienating regimes in order to instigate radical policy diversions, domestic upheavals, coups or foreign invasions. Meanwhile, overtly authoritarian regimes that follow an unquestioning pro-Western foreign policy and work in tandem with multinational corporations enjoy the luxury of being exempt from international pressures on the pretext of human rights abuses.

The intensification of accusations of Turkey for breaches of fundamental human rights and liberties must be evaluated from this wider global perspective. Turkey has excelled in its region as an island of stability, democratic consolidation, human rights and rule of law over the course of the 2000s. Successive single-party governments oversaw a comprehensive structural transformation that galvanized democratic legitimacy and institutions, including the independent-civil judiciary, extended the rights of minorities, women and disadvantaged groups while systematically decreasing the ad hoc policy influence of the military. Accession negotiations with the EU accelerated the process of democratic consolidation and a series of reforms were enacted reinforcing fundamental human rights and liberties in socio-political and economic areas. As such, up until 2010, Turkey was frequently cited as a role model for Muslim countries in the Middle East and beyond thanks to its strong market economy and robust democratic regime.

But then came the reversal of the Arab Spring, the Mavi Marmara incident, the Syrian civil war, the Gezi Park protests, the Dec. 17-25 operations, secessionist aggression by the PKK and, ultimately, the July 15 coup attempt by Gülenist Terror Group- (FETÖ) affiliated military officers. The country entered a vicious spiral of domestic and international threats while its foreign policy started to go through a strategic divergence from that of the U.S. and EU in an increasingly volatile Middle East. Worsening relations with Israel, strategic divergence with the U.S. in Syria and Iraq in the wake of its continuing support for FETÖ and the Democratic Union Party (PYD) and the PKK, and cooling relations with the EU as a result of rising far-right populism changed all major foreign policy parameters. It seems that the popular perception and the image of Turkey in Western capitals deteriorated along with that policy divergence. As a result, the pragmatic and selective use of human rights discourse throughout political history came to the fore again.

Particularly following the coup attempt last year, Turkey had no other choice but to enter into a period of emergency in order to restore the fundamental institutions of her national security. But this does not mean that the country totally lost all its democratic credentials accumulated over the course of recent decades. When the legal processes are completed against the perpetrators of the abortive coup, the state of emergency will be lifted and the country will enter a mode of normalization. In the meantime, the disproportionate reactions of some of the Western actors such as Germany to the security steps taken during this transitory period are truly disappointing. Mind you, Turkey still has 3 million refugees who escaped from the largest breach of human rights through violent wars; while Germany which claims to defend human rights by influencing the judiciary in Turkey is home to various terrorist elements associated with FETÖ and the PKK.

International relations might be a pragmatic, realistic and power-based, but opportunistic actions based on virtuous pretexts are always bound to fail.

[Daily Sabah, July 21, 2017]

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