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UK arms exports to other countries of concern

UK arms exports to Turkey

Turkey: Country overview
The secular republic of Turkey is a transcontinental country located on both the European and Asian continents and borders Greece, Bulgaria, Georgia, Armenia, Azerbaijan, Iran, Iraq and Syria. Turkey has a population of an estimated 80 million and has, since 2003, been ruled by President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who after ruling as prime minister from 2003 to 2014, became president in 2014. After a failed coup attempt in 2016, Turkey has witnessed massive restrictions on the freedom of speech with hundreds of journalists, human rights defenders and activists being detained.

Turkey signed the Arms Trade Treaty in July 2013, but as of 2018, ratification remains.

How many licenses for the sale of arms to Turkey has the UK issued between 2008 and 2017?
The number of export licenses granted to Turkey increased under the UK’s Lib-Con coalition government and even more so under single Tory rule. It spiked in 2016, hitting 1,263 licenses for both civilian and military use in just one year.

Turkey has one of the biggest order books with the UK arms industry, with the number of licenses granted in a year never dropping below 376 in the period from 2008 to 2017. From 2011 to 2015, it stayed relatively stable at a low of 771 licenses in 2012 to a high the following year of 856 licenses. In total, from 2008 to 2017, 7,928 licenses were granted for Turkey, out of which 6,162 were all kind of weapons and equipment for military use.

Source: Campaign Against Arms Trade, 2017

What is the total value of those exports in GBP?
The value of exports to Turkey has increased rapidly under the coalition government, more than quadrupling from 2010 to 2014, from £48.3m to £209.5m. The number of licenses exported to Turkey rose in 2015 to £231.7m. By 2017, this had surged to £608.6m. In total, from 2008 to 2017, £1.3bn worth of military weaponry and £300m of dual-use equipment were exported to Turkey from the UK.

Source: Campaign Against Arms Trade, 2017

Source: Campaign Against Arms Trade, 2017

What are the top 10 types of weaponry Britain is selling to Turkey?
Turkey has been condemned widely for its crackdown on journalists and dissidents. The largest number of export licenses for “equipment employing cryptography” dwarfs all others, a matter of significant concern when it is considered how hacking and intrusion on civil society has been reported. The other significant type of weaponry which dominates the list is that of components for helicopters and aircraft, as well as attendant technology. This is significant because of Turkey’s ongoing air war in Syria and the Kurdish south-east, and northern Iraq, where accusations of targeting of civilian infrastructure have been widespread.

Source: Campaign Against Arms Trade, 2017

Why should British citizens be concerned about arms sales?
Overall, violations of human rights in Turkey have escalated from 2010 to 2017. After a failed coup against President Erdoğan in 2016, the country experienced a crackdown that, in the words of Human Rights Watch, was “symptomatic of the government’s increasing authoritarianism.”  The crackdown targeted, and still does, mainly the Gülen movement (whom the government accuses of being behind the coup), pro-Kurdish opposition party and political and human rights activists in general. Turkey has become one of the countries in the world that prosecute and jail most journalists. As of 2017, 150 reporters were behind bars. In 2016 alone, at least 81 journalists were locked up “in relation to their work”,  according to the Committee to Protect Journalists. In 2016, Turkey suspended the European Convention on Human Rights.

In 2017, Turkey underwent the most significant changes to its political institutions in decades as it turned into a presidential system of governance. This system is a major setback for human rights and the rule of law as it consolidates the incumbent president’s hold on power. Moreover, the system lacks sufficient mechanisms against abuse of executive power and diminishes the power of parliament.

Lastly, Turkey’s military campaign against Kurdish militias in Syria, that was launched in January 2018, has been subject to widespread criticism, as the high civilian toll indicates indiscriminate targeting of civilians and excessive use of force.

UK arms sales to Turkey poses a matter of grave concern for several reasons, and could arguably constitute a breach of UK law. Turkey systematically suppresses, tortures and occasionally exercises violent collective punishment against minorities. Most recently it has used disproportionate violence against Kurds in Afrin, Syria. It is possible UK arms have been directly used against Kurdish communities in Afrin, Syria, though this accusation remains disputed. A British Labour MP, Lloyd Russell-Moyle, claims that UK-produced arms have been used by Turkey against Kurdish minorities; the British government says it cannot categorically state that UK weapons have not been used in Turkish military operations in Afrin.

What has the British government said about these concerns?
UK diplomats say they often raise human rights issues with Turkey, but the FCO has remained largely silent about the rise in human rights abuses taking place in the country. As a fellow NATO member, Erdogan remains a key partner in fighting ISIS and on the refugee issues, and the UK government has stressed that: “The FCO does not shy away from using our strong relationship with Turkey to ensure that the UK, Turkey, US and EU work together to tackle shared challenges including migration and regional conflicts including Syria. We also continue to be clear with both the EU and Turkey on the strategic importance of a constructive EU-Turkey relationship, and actively support strengthening the partnership.”

Despite serious human rights abuses and erosion of the country’s rule of law, Turkey remains a so-called “priority market” for the UK government’s arms export unit, and as the second-largest army in NATO, Turkey gives opportunities for UK industry. In January 2017, Theresa May signed a £100 million deal for British BAE Systems and Turkish TAI to develop fighter jets for Turkey. The UK government even established an Open General Export Licence, designed to ease the transfer of military equipment to Turkey. The UK government has shown a tendency to prioritise a strategic relationship and a lucrative arms market rather than making efforts to minimise civilian harm and human rights abuses.

What evidence is there of human rights abuses that the Turkish government has committed since 2010?

Events in 2010
Turkey’s human rights conditions were mixed in this period. The country saw many restrictions in basic freedoms, arbitrary detentions, prosecutions and convictions under terrorism laws. And despite a more open climate for debate, individuals, especially journalists, continued to be prosecuted and convicted for speeches, writings and peaceful participation in demonstrations.

Events in 2011
The government did not take sufficient steps to improve the human rights situations, and the freedom of expression and association continued to be systematically violated, mainly targeting journalists, writers, and hundreds of Kurdish political activists. Security officials reportedly used excessive use of force against demonstrators, and allegations against the police were rarely investigated. Detainees were reportedly beaten during arrests.

The regime was implicated in the death of civilians in its fight against Kurdish militants. One notable case took place on December 28, when military bombing mistakenly killed 34 villagers in Roboski, mainly children. There was no credible investigation nor punishment process for justice.

Events in 2012

The government continued to violate freedom of expression, and numerous journalists where charged mainly under the wide antiterror laws or for connections to an illegal organization. Generally, among the human rights problems reported this year were; unlawful killings committed by security forces, authorities obstructing demonstrations, and their excessive force during protests related to the Kurdish issue. Moreover, impunity remained a problem. Allegations of abuse by security forces were investigated, but rarely saw arrests or prosecutions. A report by the Council of Europe (CoE) commissioner for human rights reported about “long-term, systemic problems in the administration of justice,” and the negative impact such problems had on human rights.

Events in 2013
Turkey’s human rights record remained unchanged in 2013. The antiterror law persisted to restrict freedom of expression, the press, and the internet, especially against journalists. The authorities continued to harass and prosecute political, religious and ethnic minorities (the Kurds in particular), and excessive force against protesters was reported.

The summer’s Gezi Park protests became a clear example of this. Non-violent political activists, who had staged a sit-in protest against plans to build on Istanbul’s Taksim Gezi Park, were violently dispersed by police. The violence triggered weeks of anti-government protests in cities throughout the country, where security officials reportedly responded to the protesters with brutality, leading to mass casualties, including seven deaths. The case clearly demonstrated the regime’s intolerance of the right to peaceful assembly and free expression.

Events in 2014
No significant changes in Turkey’s human rights record were reported this year. Impunity and weak administration of justice remained major issues, with highly politicised law enforcement agencies. There were reportedly cases where the government closed ongoing investigations and destroyed evidence. Only a handful of police were prosecuted for the excessive force that led to dozens of deaths and scores of injuries among demonstrators in 2013 and 2014.

Events in 2015
Human rights violations deteriorated massively in 2015. A Kurdish peace process broke down, violence escalated in the Southeast, and journalists and political opponents of the ruling AKP party were subject to a massive crackdown.

A breakdown of a government-initiated peace process with Abdullah Öcalan, PKK’s imprisoned leader, was followed by a rise in violent attacks, armed clashes and human rights abuses. Reports told about violations of the right to life, arrests of non-violent protesters and activists on terrorism charges and ill-treatment of detainees

Turkey’s involvement in Syria also took speed in 2015, where the Turkish military conducted military operations as a part of the American-led coalition fighting IS. A campaign, that reportedly hit several civilian targets as well. Also, the YPG and the Peshmerga said their forces had been targeted in the Turkish strikes.

Events in 2016
A failed coup attempt against the Erdogan government took place in July and resulted in the killing of 241 citizens amid a seriously deteriorating human rights record. Erdogan’s AKP party managed to regain control, setting off a nation-wide purge, stretching it to any critical voice against the government. The state of the purge after the coup was defined by the Human Rights Watch Director Hugh Williamson as a “repressive new low”.  

The religious movement of U.S.-based Islamic cleric Fethullah Gulen, named Fethullah Terrorist Organisation (FETÖ) was blamed for the coup attempt. The purge, founded amind an imposed state of emergency, resulted in the jailing and suspension of many as they were accused of being or aiding FETÖ or PKK members.

Since the coup attempt, an ongoing state of emergency had been declared. Under the state of emergency, the right to peaceful assembly has been blocked. Also, there has also been an increase in cases of torture, as well as the pre-charge detention having risen to 30 days, with those being charged are deprived of access to lawyers for the first 5 days.

Security forces also reportedly killed and injured unarmed residents (including children) and destroyed civilian homes. One of the worst atrocities during this year was when around 130 wounded militants and unarmed activists, who had sought shelter in three basements surrounded by the security forces, were killed. The Turkish regime has, as of 2018, neither explained nor effectively investigated the incident.

Adding to the worrying human rights record, the UN Committee against Torture expressed grave concerns about “numerous credible reports of law enforcement officials engaging in torture and ill-treatment of detainees while responding to perceived and alleged security threats in the south-eastern part of the country.”

Events in 2017
The Turkish human rights situation continued to deteriorate in 2017. The state of emergency had been renewed for the fourth time, and more than 100,000 people had been dismissed from their jobs with executive decrees issued under the powers of the state of emergency in Turkey. Also, more than 180 media outlets were shut by decree, and over 140 journalists detained. At least 3,800 non-governmental organisations were also shut down.

Following the coup, the authorities imposed around-the-clock curfews on more than 30 towns, prohibiting any movement without permission for periods lasting up to several weeks. According to the Human Rights Foundation of Turkey (TİHV) almost two million people were affected by the curfews. The curfews meant that water, electricity, vital health services and food deliveries were interrupted to all residents, which by the population was interpreted as a form of collective punishment.

According to the Crisis Group Report, published in July 2017, at least 3,132 people have been killed in clashes between security forces and the PKK since 20 July 2015. 408 were reportedly civilians. The United Nations Committee against Torture, also underlined that “numerous credible reports of law enforcement officials engaging in torture and ill-treatment of detainees while responding to perceived and alleged security threats in the south-eastern part of the country”. On March 2017, the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights accused the Turkish government of ” massive and unnecessary destruction” against its Kurdish minority.

Finally, it should be added that Turkey in early 2018 carried out a massive aerial campaign, “Operation Olive Branch” against the Kurdish militias YPG in Afrin, Syria. The strikes were subject to international condemnation as reportedly 120 civilians were killed in the first weeks of the campaign, and numerous reports say that Turkish warplanes indiscriminately targeted civilians. While Turkey claims the strikes served a legitimate purpose, human rights experts remain highly sceptical, arguing that the strikes potentially violates fundamental principles in international humanitarian law, namely the protection of civilians.

Despite this catalogue of harm, the UK still deems it acceptable to sell weapons and arms to the Government of Turkey.  Human rights abuses continue.
For more from this investigation please go here