Middle East,  Turkey

Guardian commends Turkey’s defence of al-Bashir

This is a cross-post from Just Journalism.

Following Tuesday’s speech by David Cameron in Ankara, where the British Prime Minister controversially described Gaza as a ‘prison camp’ in the context of regional challenges that Turkey should help to resolve, The Guardian yesterday published an editorial on the growing influence of the secular Muslim country. While ‘Turkey: A vital player’ claimed that the paper did not seek to ‘paper over’ some of the less palatable aspects of the government’s conduct, the editorial did not give any specific details of the criticisms that are often raised by human rights groups. Instead, the editorial favourably listed some of Turkey’s notable foreign policy decisions – including defending a head of state indicted for war crimes, crimes against humanity, and genocide.

Stating that Cameron had acknowledged ‘how important a regional power’ the country had become, the editorial went on to describe some of the decisions that make up ‘the dramatic expansion of Turkey’s influence.’ Some of these were described in neutral terms – such as the signing of ‘accords with Syria and Iraq.’ On the other hand, The Guardian also implicitly commended some of the decisions. The newspaper held that Turkey’s argument that it brokered a deal with Brazil to transfer Iranian uranium for external refinement ‘could still form part of the solution to the crisis’, and noted that the country ‘was the first to rush to Kyrgyzstan after the attempted ethnic cleansing of Uzbeks in the south.’

There was one statement, however, that stood out from the others: Turkey ‘defended the Sudanese president Omar al-Bashir as a good Muslim.’ Appearing in a list of events that show how Turkey’s influence has grown, in an editorial that praises the country for ‘using its soft power effectively’, the reference to defending al-Bashir as a good Muslim could be read as a commendable example of Ankara reaching out to the Middle East whilst still trying to join the EU, a development that would give Europe a ‘secular, majority Muslim bridge to the Middle East, the Caucasus and central Asia.’

The reality is that Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the Turkish Prime Minister, was arguing that al-Bashir could not be guilty of genocide because he is a Muslim, and that the Sudanese ruler was free to visit Turkey without fear of being extradited to The Hague. This view is at odds with that of the International Criminal Court, which in 2010 made legal history by indicting al-Bashir on genocide charges, the first time such a charge had been made against an incumbent head of state. This followed the issuing of an arrest warrant by the ICC for al-Bashir in 2009 for war crimes and crimes against humanity; again, the first time such a warrant had been issued for a current head of state.

Given the seriousness of these charges, it is unclear why The Guardian has chosen to uncritically include Erdogan’s defence of al-Bashir in its list of notable foreign policy achievements by Turkey. This is especially true given the broadsheet has previously argued that the international community must take an active role in holding those accused of war crimes to account.

In ‘Arrest warrants: Short arm of international law’, The Guardian’s editorial from December 2009, the broadsheet criticised the British government for seeking to make it more difficult for Israeli politicians to be prosecuted for war crimes in the UK. The editorial stated that since ‘law is meaningless without enforcement, we also have to buy into the principle that universal jurisdiction is an essential arm of international law. Without it, war crimes are commited with impunity.’ However, in ‘Turkey: A vital player’, it seems that The Guardian is commending, rather than condemning, Ankara’s decision not to take seriously the accusations levelled against Omar al-Bashir.