February 4, 2022 | Policy Brief

Turkey a Step Closer to Suspension From the Council of Europe

February 4, 2022 | Policy Brief

Turkey a Step Closer to Suspension From the Council of Europe

The Committee of Ministers of the Council of Europe adopted an interim resolution on Wednesday officially launching 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. With this landmark decision by Europe’s top human rights body, Turkey comes a step closer to losing not only its voting rights but also its 72-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. Last December, in another interim resolution, the Committee of Ministers warned Ankara of its intention to refer the case to the European Court of Human Rights, a threat on which it followed through with the official start of Turkey’s infringement proceedings on Wednesday. That warning came following an Istanbul court’s extension of Kavala’s imprisonment in November, in defiance of the council’s September threats to launch the infringement procedure.

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, at the time 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.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s Islamist-ultranationalist ruling bloc sees the values of the council and the binding rulings of its human rights court as threats to its illiberal vision for, and authoritarian rule in, Turkey. 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 its human rights court.

The Council of Europe first introduced infringement proceedings as a policy tool in 2010. Since then, the council has used it only once, in 2017, when it initiated proceedings against Azerbaijan after Baku refused to release opposition politician Ilgar Mammadov following a 2014 judgment from the European Court of Human Rights. The Mammadov case shows the efficacy of punitive action by the Council of Europe. In 2020, the Supreme Court of Azerbaijan overturned Mammadov’s conviction and awarded him compensation for damages resulting from his unlawful arrest and imprisonment, bringing the infringement procedure to an end.

So far, Erdogan has remained defiant. The Turkish president responded to the Committee of Ministers’ resolution by saying that Turkey will not respect the Council of Europe if it does not respect Turkish courts. Turkey’s Foreign Ministry joined Erdogan, calling the committee’s decision “prejudiced and politically motivated” and even claiming it “damages the credibility of the European human rights system.”

In declaring the European Union’s support for the Council of Europe’s resolution, Peter Stano, the EU spokesperson for foreign affairs and security policy, stated that Ankara’s attitude “sets a worrying precedent and further increases the EU’s concerns regarding [the] Turkish judiciary’s adherence to international and European standards.” European unity is essential for the infringement proceedings to move forward, since the Committee of Ministers requires a two-thirds majority to take further steps. During the December vote, which was not public, only 32 to 35 member states reportedly voted against Turkey. According to Al-Monitor, Ankara has been working hard to get as many council members as possible “to vote on the side of Turkey or at least abstain from pushing forward the infringement process.”

The Biden administration, which has chosen to remain silent on this landmark case since October, should use this opportunity to reach out to its European allies and urge them not to break ranks. For Washington, this is a unique opportunity to declare its commitment not only to solidarity with Kavala but also to Europe’s post-World War II human rights regime. If Erdogan succeeds in dividing the Council of Europe, it will constitute a significant step toward dismantling Europe’s liberal democratic order.

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