Biden needs to buckle down on human rights - or else Turkey will take advantage of it

By Crystal Staebell

Human rights issues have been highly scrutinized for their role in international politics, with prominent schools of thought claiming that such institutions hardly play a role in the grand scheme of international politics when they don’t serve the self-interest of states. At the same time, human rights have been acknowledged - if not accepted - by a majority of states, and the United States acting as the dominant champion and authority of this globally adopted institution would be a comparative advantage. Backing away from a human-rights-centered foreign policy would equate to stepping down from this position of power would be a foolish move. So when President Biden campaigned on bringing human rights back to the top of the U.S. principles, a debate ensued as to how big of a deal this would play in future bilateral relationships with the United States. The previous administration had turned a blind eye towards human rights abuses and praised dictators, but returning to the status quo symbolic embracement of human rights treaties is far from the action-oriented, self-sacrificing policies that human rights activists advocate for from the Biden administration.  Will we see Biden take human rights a step further, and, more specifically, how might this approach impact the already-strained US-Turkey relationship?

The administration has taken steps to condemn domestic human rights violations of other states, such as addressing Russia’s Alexi Navalny or calling for Turkey to release Osman Kavala, a human rights activist. However, when it came down to Biden’s handling of the information that Saudi Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman was behind the murder of an America-residing Saudi journalist, Biden let him off with a slap on the wrist. While the justification for this weak address was that the United States and Saudi Arabia were critical allies, it begs the question of how would Biden respond to Turkey, a key - yet volatile - ally of the United States.

The United States and Turkey maintain a tense alliance, with both sides reaffirming the critical nature of their relationship while politically jabbing their partner behind their back (the United States with Fetullah Gulen and supporting the YPG; Turkey with the S-400s and their dealings with Halkbank). The S-400s acquisition issue has been at the center of this tension for the past few years, and with Turkey refusing to bow to American pressure, the United States finally retaliated with sanctions. As a result, the two states have thus far been engaging in a standoff to prove to the other that they don’t need the other as much as the other needs them.

From imprisoning journalists and dissenters, contesting elections, and arbitrary arrests and degrading prison treatments, Turkey has had a long history of violating liberal values and human rights. The two weeks ago alone have been a tumultuous one for Turkey in terms of human rights. Prosecutors went to the top Turkish courts on March 17th requesting for the termination of the pro-Kurdish People’s Democratic Party (HDP), the third-largest party in Parliament, in response to allegations of their linkage to the terrorist group, the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK). A few days later, Turkey withdrew from the namesake Istanbul Convention, an EU treaty that defends women's rights. So far, the White House has condemned both actions, referring to the events as “troubling” and “disheartening” respectively, but how would Biden react if Turkey were to commit a larger violation? 

As we saw with the MBS case, Biden understood how standing up for human rights would take a toll on the US-Saudi relationship and decided to avoid rifts in the relationship. Unlike the US-Saudi relationship, which has been stable and strong for years, the US-Turkey relationship has been rocky and doubted for many years now, with suggestions going as far as to say the United States should give up on Turkey for now. But while Biden has committed to taking a harsher stance on authoritarian leaders, President Erdogan included, there may be more opportunities for the United States to rebuild a stronger relationship with Turkey. In early March, Erdogan made statements declaring his intention to institute legal reforms and improve freedom of speech laws, and more recently, he announced that Turkey would begin ‘bitter economic reforms’. Combined with his speech late last year declaring his intention to pivot Turkey towards the West, Erdogan is signaling his willingness to cooperate with Europe and the United States more. Furthermore, Turkey has been experiencing trouble with its Russian ally, as the state has been bombing Turkish-backed forces in Syria, and in Libya, Russia and Turkey find themselves on opposite sides. The United States has openly stated that it is going to confront China and Russia around the world, so Turkey means much more to the United States than ever before. Turkey may be trying to become a major regional power, but it certainly benefits from having a positive relationship with the United States if they’re backing Turkey up while being so geographically far away. If the United States is serious about rebuilding its relationship with its NATO ally, then Biden has the opportunity to do so.

Unfortunately, as the relationship is already unstable, Biden would risk aggravating the tension by calling out Turkey. If Turkey were to commit further human rights violations, Biden could then be accused of taking the same stance on working with authoritarian leaders as the previous administration had been. Turkey and the United States need each other right now, and while Biden would be willing to administer a perfunctory condemnation for any domestic instances of human rights violations, the administration would likely put general human rights aside. As Turkish presidential elections are approaching in 2023, we can expect to see Erdogan alter more electoral laws to boost his numbers and continue his gradual authoritarian transition, despite concerns vocalized by the EU, with no expected curbing of his habitual censorship methods in sight. With that in mind, while the United States is engaging less with the Middle East, it would be best for Biden to show Turkey that the United States values their relationship but means business in stepping back into the human rights spotlight, and Erdogan ought to keep this in mind next time he makes an illiberal step.