December 3, 2021 | Policy Brief

Turkey’s Council of Europe Voting Rights and Membership at Risk

December 3, 2021 | Policy Brief

Turkey’s Council of Europe Voting Rights and Membership at Risk

The Committee of Ministers of the Council of Europe announced today its decision to begin infringement proceedings against Turkey for Ankara’s refusal to release Turkish philanthropist Osman Kavala despite a binding 2019 ruling by the European Court of Human Rights. This landmark decision by Europe’s top human rights body could jeopardize not only Turkey’s voting rights but also its 71-year membership in the council.

Kavala, one of Turkey’s leading philanthropists and human rights activists, has been in solitary confinement in a maximum security prison on the outskirts of Istanbul for over four years on fabricated charges. Despite Kavala’s acquittal by a Turkish court in 2020, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s Islamist-ultranationalist ruling bloc has successfully pressured the judiciary to prevent his release through the introduction of a new set of fabricated charges. An Istanbul court extended Kavala’s imprisonment on November 26, in breach of Turkey’s obligations under the European Convention on Human Rights and in defiance of the September threats by the Council of Europe to launch infringement proceedings.

The Council of Europe was established in 1949 to defend fundamental rights and freedoms and to prevent a repeat of the atrocities committed during World War II. While Turkey, as a staunch Western ally, joined the council right from the start, the international organization expanded to 47 member states following the end of the Cold War. The council’s infringement proceedings are the set of actions — including the suspension of voting rights or membership — the organization takes against members that fail to abide by the binding rulings of the European Court of Human Rights.

The only other time in its history that the Council of Europe initiated infringement proceedings against a member state was in 2017, when Azerbaijan refused to release opposition politician Ilgar Mammadov following a 2014 judgment from the European Court of Human Rights. The Committee of Ministers only closed the infringement proceedings in 2020, after the Supreme Court of Azerbaijan overturned Mammadov’s conviction and awarded him compensation for damages resulting from his unlawful arrest and imprisonment.

The Mammadov case shows the efficacy of punitive action by the Council of Europe. The Committee of Ministers should similarly keep the pressure on the Erdogan government even as Ankara attempts to divide Europe. A two-thirds majority within the Committee of Ministers would be necessary to take further steps concerning infringement proceedings, so unity remains essential.

The Western alliance failed a similar test in October, retreating from its principled stance on the Kavala case after pushback from Erdogan. When the U.S. Embassy in Ankara joined nine other Western embassies in demanding “a just and speedy resolution” to the Kavala case, a furious Erdogan threatened to expel the 10 ambassadors. A week later, the U.S. Embassy issued an ambiguously worded statement that gave the impression of bowing under Erdogan’s pressure, allowing the Turkish president to claim victory and drop the threatened expulsions.

The Council of Europe’s decision to move forward with the infringement proceedings provides an opportunity for the United States and Canada to join Europe in concerted transatlantic action. To that end, Washington and Ottawa should act in unison to impose Magnitsky human rights sanctions, under their respective statutes, against Turkish officials responsible for Kavala’s unlawful imprisonment. Such a move would also offer the Biden administration a chance to put into action its promise of a human rights-centered foreign policy.

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 Economic and Financial Power (CEFP). For more analysis from Aykan, the Turkey Program, and CEFP, please subscribe HERE. Follow Aykan on Twitter @aykan_erdemir. Follow FDD on Twitter @FDD and @FDD_CEFP. FDD is a Washington, DC-based, nonpartisan research institute focusing on national security and foreign policy.


Sanctions and Illicit Finance Turkey