President Recep Tayyip Erdogan says that the ruling by the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) regarding the incarceration of Selahattin Demirtas, of the pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP), is not binding on Turkey.
The Court ruled that Demirtas, a former presidential candidate who has been in prison since November 2016 on terrorism charges, should be released immediately because he had been detained for political reasons.
The ruling puts Ankara in a bind, because, contrary to what Erdogan is arguing, ECHR rulings are binding. The reason why they are binding is that Turkey wanted this to be the case when it gave its citizens the right to petition this court.
This matter also involves Turkey’s membership of the Council of Europe (COE). Turkey’s joined the COE so soon after it was established that it has become a common habit to refer to it as a “founding member,” even if that is not strictly the case.
No one forced Ankara to become a member in 1949. A former foreign minister, now long deceased, who was a young diplomat then, once told me that Ankara had to work hard to become a COE member, because many in Europe doubted her European vocation.
Nevertheless Turkey has remained a member, through thick and thin, since it was admitted into the COE.
Successive Turkish governments since then have valued this membership, despite tense moment during times of military rule in Turkey following coups that toppled democratically elected governments.
Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu lays particular stress on this membership because he served as President of The Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE) from 2010 to 2012.
One of the functions of PACE is the election of ECHR judges, one of whom is Turkish.
Erdogan is entitled to his opinions, of course. He may have simply expressed his dislike of the ECHR ruling on Demirtas, when he said this ruling was not binding for Turkey.
He has openly expressed disrespect for rulings by Turkey’s Constitutional Court, especially after the Court ordered the release of journalists he would have preferred to see in prison.
The crucial point is that while Erdogan may have disrespected those rulings he accepted them. Whether he will do so in this case is not clear, though.
Having declared the EHCR’s ruling on Demirtas to be non-binding, Erdogan’s choices are limited. He can either comply with the Court’s order, or refuse to do so.
Complying may tarnish his image in the eyes of his constituency at a time when the country is preparing for local elections. It will, however, help improve Turkey’s image in Europe, which remains tarnished over issues relating to democracy, human rights, and the rule of law.
However, if he refuses to comply with the Demirtas ruling, he has to also consider what this may do to Turkey’s COE membership. Refusing to comply with an ECHR ruling puts a member state on a road that can lead all the way to having its COE membership suspended.
Would Erdogan want to go down as the one who endangered this membership, which has been cherished by all previous governments?
We would like to believe that his is unlikely.