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Why is Britain so quiet on Turkey?

Why is Britain so quiet on Turkey?
20.06.2013
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  • No direct word from William Hague

  • Cameron praises ‘our friend’ Turkey

  • Labour and Greens criticise ‘meek’ UK statements

  • UN and Germany slam Turkish police response

William Hague, the foreign secretary, who did not answer questions on Turkey from MPs on Tuesday

William Hague, the foreign secretary, who did not answer questions on Turkey from MPs on Tuesday

By Michael Daventry

Opposition MPs have slammed the British government for its guarded response to the unrest in Turkey as world leaders continued to condemn the heavy-handed police response.

On Saturday night Istanbul police again used tear gas and water cannon to clear protesters from Taksim Square and the nearby Gezi Park, which is the subject of a controversial redevelopment. Four people have died and thousands more injured across the country since the protests first broke out on 31 May.

UN secretary-general Ban Ki-moon and German chancellor Angela Merkel joined the growing number of world leaders expressing concern over developments in the country, but the UK’s Foreign Office (FCO) has been notably quiet.

Foreign Secretary William Hague appeared in the House of Commons on Tuesday to answer questions from MPs during the regular FCO slot, but referred all questions on Turkey to his deputy David Lidington, who confirmed they were speaking to “our Turkish counterparts” but offered no criticism.

The opposition Labour Party’s shadow foreign minister, Emma Reynolds, said many people would be worried and concerned about the government’s answers.

She told Londra Gazete on Wednesday: “I am troubled that the British government has expressed only general concerns in public so far.

“The violent scenes we have witnessed in Istanbul in recent days are both worrying and disturbing. Excessive use of force in response to peaceful protests cannot be justified and should cease immediately.

“I hope the British government will make strong representations to the Turkish government to exercise restraint and respect people’s right to freedom of expression.”

Emma Reynolds, shadow foreign minister

Emma Reynolds, shadow foreign minister

WORLD CONCERN

On Tuesday, Ban Ki-moon urged “maximum restraint and the pursuit of constructive dialogue in order to resolve differences” in Turkey, while Angela Merkel said she was “appalled, like many others” at the authorities’ handling of the protesters.

Navi Pillay, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, added it was important for the authorities to recognise that “the initial extremely heavy-handed response to the protests, which resulted in many injuries, is still a major part of the problem”.

DOCTOR ARRESTS

On Tuesday, the Green MP Caroline Lucas asked FCO ministers about the doctors and lawyers who were arrested while treating injured protesters in Istanbul.

“We haven’t heard enough [from the UK government] of the public outrage that needs to be stated today,” she said.

But Mr Lidington, a foreign minister at the FCO, said the British had to respect the fact that Turkey’s government is democratically elected.

“We are obviously concerned about the reports of the arrest of lawyers and doctors who were treating injured protesters at the scene of the demonstrations. The freedoms of assembly, association and expression are important rights,” Mr Lidington told MPs on Tuesday.

“It is fair to recognise that Turkey has carried through substantial judicial and political reforms in the past 20 years.

“It is a very different country from when the military ruled and the army were deployed on the streets at the first sign of a demonstration, but that does not detract from the fact that the basic freedoms and human rights that Turkey has signed up to need to be respected.”

David Lidington, FCO minister for Europe

David Lidington, FCO minister for Europe

LIMITED UK RESPONSE

But the Labour MP Toby Perkins described Mr Lidington’s response as “meek” and called on the FCO to give “a little bit more of a sense of the outrage that people are feeling around the world and confirm that he is putting real pressure on the Turkish Government to respect the right to peaceful protest”.

The only other UK government voice commenting on Turkey has been the prime minister, David Cameron, who said the clashes were “disturbing and concerned” but stopped short of directly criticising the way the demonstrators had been dealt with.

Instead, Mr Cameron appeared keen to stress his country was a friend of Turkey: “What I would say is that I think that Turkey’s journey over the last few decades in terms of political freedom and economic freedom has been remarkable, and has been very important for the stability of our world, and is something we should encourage and something I’ve talked about to prime minister Erdoğan frequently. And we admire that progress.

“Obviously the events taking place in Istanbul are disturbing and concerning and what I’d say is that it’s very important that everyone shows a proper sense of responsibility. And that is the view that I take about what needs to happen.

“But let me just reinforce the point that I do think Turkey’s progress overall is something that other countries have quite rightly looked up to.”

The prime minister made the remarks last Thursday, ahead of the G8 summit in Northern Ireland.

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