Is Theresa May Compromising Human Rights Values?

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Theresa May has signed a £100 million deal with Turkey’s President Erdoğan, which will see the cooperation of BAE and TAI (Turkish Aerospace Industries) to construct 250 bespoke TF-X fighter jets.

The deal was the result of ‘fruitful’ discussions between May and Turkey’s President Recep Erdoğan and Prime Minister Binali Yıldırım as she passed the final leg of her diplomatic tour in Ankara. May asserts that the agreement ‘underlines once again that Britain is a great, global trading nation and that we are open for business.

The visit also saw the countries agree to form a working group with the intention of establishing a post-Brexit bilateral trade agreement. Erdoğan expressed hope that trade between the two countries could soon escalate from £12.4 billion to £15.9 billion.  Turkey has been a priority market for UK trade ministers since 2009, and the UK was the second largest market for Turkish exports in 2015 according to IMF trade data.

The trip to Ankara followed a visit to Washington D.C. in a rather unprecedented tour during which Theresa May has been both the first World leader to meet newly inaugurated President Trump and the first Western leader to visit President Erdoğan since the failed coup of July last year. While Britain cannot formally open negotiations while still inside the EU, these visits are a good indication of May’s post-Brexit trade strategy.

Yet, May has come under fire for compromising human rights values in search of trade deals during the visit. The Prime Minister attempted to appease critics by expressing pride at the ‘defence of democracy’ after the failed coup of July last year, and stressing the importance that Turkey ‘sustains (its) democracy by maintaining rule of law and upholding its international human rights obligations as the government has undertaken to do.’

However, human rights group Amnesty International report that since the state of emergency declared last July in Turkey the human rights situation there has ‘deteriorated markedly’, with more than 40,000 arrests, the dismissal of thousands of public officials and the forced closure of 130 media outlets. This joins claims by Human Rights Watch of ‘mounting civilian deaths and multiple rights violations’ since the re-emergence of the Kurdish conflict in 2015.

During the same period, $400 million worth of arms has been traded to Turkey by the UK, including $60 million after the coup. When the appropriateness of a UK arms deal with President Erdoğan was questioned a Downing Street spokeswoman asserted that human rights concerns were a ‘separate issue.’

This is not the first time questions have been raised about arms deals between the UK government and other nations. There is to be a judicial review in the high court this February into the legality of the UK arms trade to Saudi Arabia amid reports that they have been used in the bombing of Yemen. The legal action has been raised by Campaign Against Arms Trade whose spokesperson Andrew Smith said the result could ‘set a vital precedent in challenging arms exports to human rights abusers across the world’, including the UK’s agreement with Turkey.

The prospect of a flourishing relationship with Turkey post-Brexit may seem surprising given the rhetoric of leave campaigners who used Turkey’s potential accession into the EU as a fundamental argument to vote leave. In particular, Foreign secretary and fervent leave campaigner Boris Johnson has been at the heart of controversy surrounding a lewd poem written during an interview about the Turkish president having sex with a goat.

Yet, this too had Turkish human rights violations at its centre. Commenting on the limerick, Johnson upheld that ‘If somebody wants to make a joke about the love that flowers between the Turkish president and a goat, he should be able to do so, in any European country, including Turkey.’ It formed part of a backlash against Erdoğan last year after his demand for the criminal prosecution of German satirist Jan Böhmermann, which highlighted the severe mistreatment of journalists critical of the Erdoğan government in Turkey.

It would appear that this marks the beginning of an era of controversy for the British government. After facing fierce criticism for not addressing civil rights issues in her talks with President Trump, May has refused to retract a state invitation scheduled for later this year. This adds to reports in December that May will propose to leave the European Convention of Human Rights as a central platform of her 2020 election campaign.

Liam Fox, International Trade Secretary, has recently paid visits to Gulf states with questionable human rights records such as Kuwait, Oman and Bahrain, and has similarly established a trade working group with the Gulf Cooperation council. All of the above seems to project the impression that May’s government is prepared to compromise human rights values in the pursuit of financial and political success in its post-Brexit agenda.

 

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