Turkish Ambassador Defends Human Rights Record
by The Current - CBC.ca
March 24, 2016
It means that migrants, such as he, could now be sent back to Turkey if their asylum applications fail.
Turkish Ambassador, Selcuk Unal
The deal was struck in an effort to end Europe's ongoing migrant crisis. And Turkey will receive up to six billion Euros for its part in that.
The plan is controversial with human rights campaigners and it's not the only controversy hanging over Turkey right now. From its fight against Kurdish separatists at home questions about freedom of the press and academic freedoms, and bombings in the cities of Istanbul and Ankara in the past couple of weeks and really the past couple of months, Turkey is the subject of much discussion and concern.
Turkey's ambassador to Canada Selçuk Ünal is with us from Ottawa to talk about it all. Hello and welcome.
SELÇUK ÜNAL: Hello. Good morning.
AMT: You know, within the first 24 hours of Turkey's agreement with the EU an estimated 1,600 migrants arrived in Greece, twice as many as the day before. How effective will that agreement be in stemming the tide?
SELÇUK ÜNAL: Well, we, of course, hope for the best for both the EU and Turkey, of course, because there's a tremendous flow from different countries to the EU and there's also an issue of sustainable support to those people in Turkey. As you know, we have been hosting almost three million Syrians and Iraqis from different groups without any international support and one part of the deal is actually to provide also economic support to the Syrians in Turkey, Syrians and Iraqis in Turkey. So we hope it will be a balanced approach for everybody.
AMT: Once the rejected asylum seekers arrive back in Turkey, what happens?
SELÇUK ÜNAL: Well, the deal is to receive back everybody who passed from Turkey to Greece illegally, after the day of the signature, and when they come they will be, if they are not recorded, they will be recorded and we will try to continue to look after them. The EU will take the same amount of people within the limits of the court of 72,000 and, of course, the return conditions from Turkey to the EU of the Syrian refugees will be handled by the UNHCR rules and regulations and principles.
AMT: You know, critics have called this deal a PR stunt for Turkey. They say it won't work to stop the flow of immigrants. How serious is your country in this aim?
SELÇUK ÜNAL: I would totally disagree whether this is a PR stunt or not. I would ask the owners of those questions where were they in the last five years since the outbreak of the Syrian conflict while we have been handling so many people who are escaping from a certain death with our own budgets and own assets. We have spent so far ten billion US dollars to Syrian and Iraqi refugees in the last five years with only 455 million US dollars that we received from the international community. That's, I think, a shame. The UN funds are also underfunded, so from that perspective the Syrians and the Iraqis in Turkey are also in dire straits. So first of all, we have to, I think, acknowledged the fact that this is not a sustainable situation and in order to make the life of Syrians in Turkey in a better mood we have to prepare a framework. This is the framework that we get. The problem here is mainly political. We have to find a solution to the Syrian issue in Syria, otherwise people will continue to escape from Syria and Iraq.
AMT: Turkish citizens will soon be able to travel to the European Union without a visa as part of this agreement. There is a promise to renew talks by July about Turkey joining the EU. Do you feel that this is a win for Turkey?
SELÇUK ÜNAL: Actually, I think the talks of Turkey with the EU to become a full member have never been stopped, at least from our side#, but have been sort of stalled by a few EU countries in the past for political reasons, especially regarding the Cyprus issue. But I think the EU now realizes the strategic importance of Turkey once again. Being a full member of the EU is still a strategic objective, foreign policy objective of Turkey. We wish to continue the talks with the EU. And visa facilitation for Turkish citizens is actually something in the Turkey-EU relationship, which has never been granted so far.
AMT: The European Commission has said that Turkey needs to strengthen human rights and democracy before becoming an EU member. How will your country address those concerns?
SELÇUK ÜNAL: Well, there are two sets of criteria in becoming an EU full member. First is the economic criteria, second is a political criteria. Nobody is disputing the fact that Turkey has fulfilled the economic criteria a decade ago and most of the political criteria have been fulfilled as well. There are, of course, issues which needs improvement, which needs further development, which we agree. And we will be working on them. For the most important point for us, for Turkey, and for the other countries concerned is whether EU will consider itself as a club or as a cultural club or the or a club acting on fair terms to everybody. We believe EU and Europe has a set of values, ideals that we subscribe ourselves to and we ready to do everything to fulfill that political criteria as well, including, of course, human rights.
AMT: What needs further fulfillment when you talk about issues?
SELÇUK ÜNAL: Well, actually, most of the issues regarding human rights issues have been addressed. I understand their concerns regarding press freedom issue, which there are all the necessary checks and balances in the Turkish court and constitutional system. And I think that's the most important issue from the EU perspective.
AMT: Well, let's talk a little more about human rights in Turkey. Turkey's fight against the Kurdish Workers Party, the PK K, has involved 24-hour curfews on many towns. It has seen thousands -some say hundreds of thousands - displaced. There are towns in the country’s South-East that have been left in ruins, one in particular – and I'm probably going to mispronounce it – Cizre? How do I say town?
SELÇUK ÜNAL: “Chizruh.”
AMT: Cizre. How do you justify the treatment of citizens of Cizre?
SELÇUK ÜNAL: Thank you very much for asking the question, but let me start by labeling issue. PKK is a terror organization and called as such by EU, Canada, United States, and all of our Western and NATO allies. We have to fix that first. Second, Kurdish origin of Turkish citizens in Turkey, they mostly do not support the PKK terrorism. What we are fighting with are the PKK militants in Cizre. There were two other towns which they have blocked all public facilities to go into the city itself, like ambulances, like other municipality issues—
AMT: The PKK has done that?
SELÇUK ÜNAL: Yes. Yes. And like every other government, the government should restore the public authority first.
AMT: Okay, well, let me ask you—
SELÇUK ÜNAL: Yes.
AMT: Let me ask you, because—Fair enough that they blocked towns, but they are non-state players, labeled a terrorist organization, as you say, not only by your country but by other countries including Canada. But Amnesty International says that what you are doing as a state player is collective punishment. And that the UN has called on you to respect the fundamental rights of civilians.
SELÇUK ÜNAL: No, there’s no collective punishment, but we have to also recognize one thing. We have found in many places-- I mean, the Turkish law enforcement agencies found in many places, huge amounts of ammunition and explosives. In one single place, just to give an example, they found a quarter million bullets, and another one, one and a half tonnes of explosives, ofG-4. I wonder what those people refer to, I mean those agencies, have said anything about the rights of life to the normal Turkish citizens - Turkish or Kurdish origin - who had to be evacuated from Cizre and another small towns, Sur, because of this terroristic instance of blockage.
AMT: Okay. So you're saying that the PKK is doing that to citizens?
SELÇUK ÜNAL: Exactly. I mean, we didn't wake up one morning and start attacking these towns. Why should we? It is actually from a broader perspective. The PKK, who broke the internal processes which have been going on in Turkey with them from the start of 2015 and especially you know. Put in a high place with so many terroristic activities after the elections in Turkey. So that's why we had to take measures to stop those high profile terrorist incidents, as you have seen from the--
AMT: But you're making the point that they're going after civilians. This is always the problem. Civilians get caught in the middle. Isn't it incumbent upon the government to protect civilians? Regardless, isn't it incumbent upon you to find a way to do that as opposed to leave them stuck in the middle like that?
SELÇUK ÜNAL: No, no. You're totally right. And I totally agree. That's what the law enforcement agencies have been trying to do in Cizre and Sur and there are so many instances when an ambulance was called in to pick up, for example, a sick lady. When they approached they were fired by the PKK. I can provide a long list of similar events, but that's the responsible of law enforcement agencies to, first of all, take out the civilians and then, of course, deal with the terroristic units or elements. But if you have followed the Turkish press there are so many Kurdish inhabitants of these towns who complained or escaped-- You gave a number, the exact number of 39,000 in total in a couple of provinces. They escaped from the PKK blockage and they’ve said this in the Turkish public and media as well.
AMT: Turkey has been hit with a series of deadly suicide bombings in the last six months, two in the last week or so. How serious is the security threat in your country?
SELÇUK ÜNAL: Well, the first one is of course related PKK. As you referred to, they have started very high profile attacks to civilian targets. I think there is no doubt that we will continue to fight this scourge and increase and step up security in the [indecipherable] as well. The second one is common threats. As part of the coalition Turkey is also facing this ISIL/DAESH threat as a national secretary threat and there were a couple of very highly deadly attacks. That's exactly what the ISIL or DAESH istrying to do against Turkey because we are part of the coalition. We have been fighting against this international scourge.
AMT: You know, your critics say that you are less concerned with fighting ISIS or DAESH and more concerned with getting rid of Bashar al Assad. How do you respond to that?
SELÇUK ÜNAL: Well, I would ask them to ask the question to the civilians killed by ISIL/DAESH in the last year in Turkey. We have never supported this terror organization. It’s absurd, especially taking into consideration the fact that they have been attacking Turkey, Turkish civilian targets or military targets at the border as well.
AMT: Well, there are those who say that you look the other way, though, that you have a very porous border, that trade goes on, that you're more interested in going after the PKK inside Syria and Northern Iraq than you are going after ISIS. Not that you are working with them but that you are in fact being passive.
SELÇUK ÜNAL: No, I don't think that reflects the reality. Just this morning we have caught ten people who are trying to pass the border from Syria to Turkey who are ISIL members. Now, the border is 911 kilometres. And we have stepped up our security precautions to the maximum as possible. So far, in the last five years, we have caught more than 2,500 people and returned them. I mean, I'm talking about foreign fighters by the way who joined this organization, returned them to other Western countries. We have put more than 15,000 people on our blacklist for not entering Turkey, but there's another issue of the foreign fighters joining this ISIL, or organizations, PKK, PYD, in Syria. On that we need more international cooperation from our Western partners.
AMT: Well, let me ask you about that, because we know that Canadians have gone through Turkey to join ISIS. They get through your airport. Are your border people at all suspicious when people land in Turkey, like, of a certain demographic and age group traveling alone or that you think they're going to cross that border?
SELÇUK ÜNAL: Yes. Let me first say that Turkey is a country of 78 million and just last year we have received 80 million passengers traveling through or to Turkey. Secondly, we have stepped up in the last two years and established special units at the ports of entry to assess the incoming people. For International Cooperation, which is very important, we expect all countries to provide any suspicious element, person to us in advance so we can take the necessary precautions and prevent people joining terror organizations in Syria.
AMT: I just want to clarify something. You mentioned that Wednesday security forces captured ten men suspected of being linked to ISIS in Southern Turkey. So southern Turkey, that same area is the area of PKK activity, am I correct?
SELÇUK ÜNAL: Yes, but they were apprehended while they were trying to enter from Syria to Turkey and it was immediately understood that they were ISIL or DAESH members.
AMT: Okay. The other thing I was going to raise with you is that you are trying to fight the PKK in Southern Turkey, you have ISIS coming in, you have a war next door where you have allies like Canada the US working with the Kurdish regional government, which is located right on the edge of PKK-controlled territory—It’s a real jumble. How do you navigate that as a country knowing that your allies expect a certain level of cooperation from you?
SELÇUK ÜNAL: Yeah. Let me first correct you on something. We, also as Turkey, have good relations with the Iraqi Kurdish [indecipherable] in Northern Iraq.
AMT: You have no quarrel with them?
SELÇUK ÜNAL: Not at the moment.
AMT: Okay. Keep going.
SELÇUK ÜNAL: And that’s not very well known. We also support Iraqi central authorities in training their units. So we are taking the training issue in Iraq also seriously with our allies and the partners in the coalition. On the Syrian side, we believe the PYD, YPG, whatever you call it, is a sister organization of PKK and we warn everybody, of course, that support given to them should be very carefully assessed in the fight against DAESH because being a terror organization fighting another terror organization – which I mean DAESH - doesn't change your status actually. On that second note, of concern to us, of course, the arms and ammunition given to them should not be passed to any terror organization in the region. That's crucially important for all neighbours of Syria, I believe.
AMT: I want to pick up on something you mentioned earlier and that is how you are working on freedom of the press. The Turkish government has taken control of newspapers, a news agency, a television station. We spoke with Abdullah Ayasun, a journalist and editor with Today’s Zaman, shortly after that newspaper was taken over by government trustees. Listen to this.
Zaman played an important role for anybody who cannot give its voice to the nation because of the government monopoly over media outlets. And considering its wide reach in society, it was of crucial importance for presenting independent and different voices.
AMT: Ambassador Ünal, why is the government doing that?
SELÇUK ÜNAL: Well, let me also start by a correction. The government is not entitled to take over any media outlet anyway. What has been done was an implementation of a court order which believed that this paper and two affiliate organizations from the same media group has been involved in efforts to infiltrate the police and judiciary as well as change to government with different ways than a vote. So that's done by a court decision and we'll have to wait for the court processes—
AMT: Well, with all respect, sir, we've seen other countries where suddenly a journalist writing in a newspaper becomes a criminal because of the law. And even English PEN, just on Wednesday, published a report saying press freedom in Turkey has suffered an immense and systematic assault under President Erdoğan. It says journalists and media outlets are subjected to imprisonment, intimidation, harassment, and assault. How do you respond to that?
SELÇUK ÜNAL: No, I heard you, but what I'm trying to say is something different. When there's a court order there are also checks and balances. There was another case, and in that the court decided that two journalists who published a story regarding a spying case and so on and so forth should be kept in jail. But these two journalists, by using their individual rights of petition to the constitutional court the constitutional court decided that they should be released. And the court should continue without keeping them in jail. So the necessary checks and balances are present and available to all at every step of the judicial process. That's what I can say.
AMT: Well, you know, it is precisely the nature of your courts that have people concerned because people are still going on trial on issues that are questionable. The Turkish government has also been under fire for jailing three academics who signed a petition calling for peace talks between the government and the PKK. And last week we spoke to an academic who signed that petition. She spoke to us - she wouldn't allow us to use her name because she's afraid that even using it in Canada could hurt her safety. Listen how she describes that petition.
We still believe that has to do with freedom of expression. And that is not a crime. That should not be a crime. And the petition was actually calling for peace. So we were surprised, in that sense, that three academics can be detained because they expressed an opinion.
AMT: How do you respond to the concern that the government is jailing academics for expressing opinions?
SELÇUK ÜNAL: Well, of course, I can't respond to the lady since I don’t want to ask her name. But there were two public statements made by certain academics. The first one was not giving any kind of reference to terroristic activities of the PKK and even not mentioning the nature of the organization. And it was, of course, by that nature, I think, very [indecipherable] There was a second one which defended more on the freedom of expression, that there is a difference between the petitions of the academics and There are so many people who signed up to that and only, I think, three have been on the court process. And, as I said, it's the court's decision that will decide the story behind.
AMT: You know, there have also been reports that there are something like 1,800 cases opened against Turkish citizens for insulting the president since he took on his role in August of 2014. So it becomes a question of the expression of political opinions. There is a difference, is there not, between terrorist activity and speech that makes a government uncomfortable?
SELÇUK ÜNAL: No, but insulting an authority – which means, like, a president or parliament or a prime minister – in different countries have different obligations in penal codes. For example, it's starts with five years of jail in France or some other countries have different implementations. I don't know the exact number of cases in that sphere, but I can just say that just yesterday there were two different separate cases that the courts, they declined and they have dropped the cases. So the court process in Turkey is in order and then taking the necessary steps according to the present legislation.
AMT: Just a clarification: That is no longer a criminal offense in France.
SELÇUK ÜNAL: That's good.
AMT: Yeah. Turkey has arguably been paying the biggest price outside of Syria for the war in Syria. What do you believe the world needs to know to understand about what it will take to end that war?
SELÇUK ÜNAL: I think we have to find a negotiated political statement, solution within the framework of UN. That's why we are supportive of and hopeful of Geneva talks. But from a realistic point of view, we also believe that foreign elements, countries who are involved in bombarding the civilians or [indecipherable] should also take into consideration while we are talking about peace. What I mean is we have to find a solution in Syria to prevent the exodus of the Syrian people, first of all, and secondly, we have to find a negotiated settlement in Syria. Otherwise the exodus of the Syrian people will continue and the instability created by the regime itself as well as other terror organizations in Syria will not stop. And that will have ripple effects in, not only for the neighbouring countries, but the whole world as well.
AMT: Ambassador Ünal, thank you for sharing your perspective today.
SELÇUK ÜNAL: Thank you.
AMT: Selçuk Ünal is Turkey's ambassador to Canada. He joined us from Ottawa. If you want to share your thoughts as you listen to him and let us know what you're thinking. You can reach us online. We're at cbc.ca/thecurrent and click on the Contact link. You can also download the podcast, if you’re joining us partway through. Or listen right there, cbc.ca/thecurrent. Tweet us. We are on Twitter, @thecurrentCBC. Find us on Facebook. I’m Anna Maria Tremonti. This is The Current on CBC Radio One, Sirius XM, and online at cbc.ca/thecurrent.