March 2, 2021 | Policy Brief

House Joins Senate’s Call for Tougher Action Against Erdogan

March 2, 2021 | Policy Brief

House Joins Senate’s Call for Tougher Action Against Erdogan

One hundred seventy U.S. House members released a bipartisan letter Monday urging Secretary of State Antony Blinken to address “the troubling human rights abuses taking place under [Turkish] President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.” The letter, which follows last month’s call by 54 U.S. Senators urging President Joe Biden to confront Erdogan over Ankara’s democratic backsliding and hostile behavior, highlights the bipartisan, bicameral congressional support for tougher action against Turkey’s authoritarian government.

These House and Senate letters follow earlier bipartisan initiatives to hold Erdogan accountable for Ankara’s hostile posturing and belligerent rhetoric. In 2018, 66 senators and 154 House members sent letters to Erdogan accusing Ankara of using unjustly detained U.S. nationals and Turkish employees of U.S. consulates as “political pawns.” Monday’s House letter similarly urges Blinken to prioritize the cases of three consular workers targeted with “dubious criminal charges.”

Blinken has already signaled his willingness to hold Erdogan accountable. During his confirmation hearing, Blinken referred to Turkey as a “so-called strategic partner of ours” and criticized Ankara for aligning “with one of our biggest strategic competitors” through its purchase of Russia’s S-400 surface-to-air missile system. Blinken reiterated his concerns about the S-400 during a February 15 call with Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu, urging Turkey “not to retain” the Russian system. Blinken also used the opportunity to emphasize “the importance of democratic institutions, inclusive governance, and respect for human rights.”

Blinken’s State Department has followed his lead. On February 3, State Department Spokesperson Ned Price strongly condemned the anti-LGBTI rhetoric of Turkish Interior Minister Suleyman Soylu. The next day, Foggy Bottom rejected Soylu’s accusations that the United States was behind a 2016 failed coup attempt in Turkey, calling the minister’s remarks “unfounded and irresponsible claims” that are “inconsistent with Turkey’s status as a NATO Ally and strategic partner of the United States.” On February 10, the State Department called on Ankara to “immediately release” unjustly detained Turkish philanthropist Osman Kavala and to resolve the “baseless” charges against former State Department official Henri Barkey “in a just, transparent, and rapid manner.”

The Biden administration’s pressure on Erdogan represents a positive change. Under the previous administration, President Donald Trump’s puzzling rapport with the Turkish president helped shield Erdogan from criticism, particularly concerning Ankara’s human rights violations. Erdogan appears worried about the growing bipartisan sentiment in Washington about his dismal human rights record and transgressions. One day after the publication of Monday’s House letter, Erdogan unveiled a Human Rights Action Plan, promising 393 reform initiatives.

The Biden administration should not be fooled by the Turkish president’s charade. As Erdogan announced his human rights agenda, the Turkish government was busy taking steps to strip 21 pro-Kurdish lawmakers of their parliamentary immunity. Last month, Turkey’s top appeals court fast-tracked the jail sentence of Omer Faruk Gergerlioglu, a leading human rights defender and opposition lawmaker, for simply sharing a news article on Twitter almost five years ago. Turkey’s interior minister branded Gergerlioglu as a “terrorist” last December, after the lawmaker exposed wrongdoing by Turkish police.

The Biden administration should take concrete actions to back up its criticism of the Erdogan regime. The State Department’s recently unveiled “Khashoggi Ban,” a new visa-restriction authority targeting individuals who engage in extraterritorial counter-dissident activities on behalf of a foreign government, offers a useful tool to do so. As a Freedom House report released in February shows, Ankara is the world’s leading perpetrator of renditions and transnational repression. The Biden administration should complement those visa restrictions with Global Magnitsky sanctions against Turkey’s most egregious violators of human rights, both within Turkey and without.

Aykan Erdemir is a former member of the Turkish parliament and senior director of the Turkey Program at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies (FDD), where he also contributes to FDD’s Center on Military and Political Power (CMPP) and Center on Economic and Financial Power (CEFP). For more analysis from Aykan, the Turkey Program, CMPP, and CEFP, please subscribe HERE. Follow Aykan on Twitter @aykan_erdemir. Follow FDD on Twitter @FDD and @FDD_CMPP and @FDD_CEFP. FDD is a Washington, DC-based, nonpartisan research institute focusing on national security and foreign policy.


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