Oireachtas Joint and Select Committees
Tuesday, 12 October 2021
Joint Oireachtas Committee on Foreign Affairs and Trade, and Defence
Turkish Foreign Policy and Turkey-Ireland Relations: Engagement with Ambassador of Turkey
I am pleased to welcome to our meeting this afternoon H. E. Mr. Mehmet Hakan Olcay, ambassador of the Republic of Turkey to Ireland. He is very welcome. This is the first opportunity for the members of the Joint Committee on Foreign Affairs and Defence to meet him since his arrival in Ireland earlier in the year. I welcome you on behalf of the committee. We look forward to working with him not only today but also throughout his tenure here as ambassador to Ireland. I also welcome his deputy head of mission, Ms Balca Kurhan Elayouti. Some members of the committee are wearing face coverings in accordance with our restrictions. Some members are in here in the room and others are joining us from their offices because of the Covid-19 restrictions. The witnesses will appreciate that our meetings are not yet back to what we would describe as normality. In any event, they are most welcome.
The format of the meeting is that we will hear the ambassador's opening statement, following by discussion, with some questions and answers from members of the committee. I ask members to be concise in their questions so as to allow all members an opportunity to participate. We may even have a second opportunity for members to come back in if they so desire.
I remind our witnesses of the long-standing parliamentary practice that they should not criticise or make charges against any person or entity, by name or in such a way as to make them identifiable. I remind witnesses that if they make any statements that might be potentially defamatory in relation to an identifiable person, they will be directed to discontinue their remarks. It goes without saying that any such direction should be complied with. I remind members of the long-standing parliamentary practice to the effect that they should not comment on, criticise or make charges against any person or body outside the House, or any official, either by name or in such a way as to make them in any way identifiable. Members may only participate in this meeting if they are physically located in the Leinster House complex.
Ambassador, once again you are very welcome. I now call upon you to make your opening statement.
H.E. Mr. Mehmet Hakan Olcay:
I thank the Chair and distinguished members of the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Foreign Affairs and Defence for giving me this opportunity to address this respectable committee about Turkish foreign policy and Turkish foreign relations, as well as matters of mutual interest between Turkey and Ireland. Before proceeding to Turkish foreign policy, I would like to dwell shortly on the bilateral relations between Turkey and Ireland.
Turkey and Ireland enjoy historical bonds of friendship dating back to the Great Irish Famine. Aid sent by the then Ottoman Sultan to Ireland in 1847 built an everlasting friendship bridge between our countries. We are pleased that there is no outstanding political dispute between Turkey and Ireland. Hence, we strive to give an impetus to our current political relations and interactions. We also would like to increase our economic, commercial, trade, cultural and educational relations. We are eager to make efforts to double the current trade volume between our countries, which is around €1.5 billion. Also, we would like to increase mutual investments in our countries.
There are almost 5,000 Turkish citizens in Ireland. Most of them are working in international companies and one fifth of them are students. We believe that further interaction between educational institutions in Turkey and Ireland is needed. It will further increase the number of Turkish students in Irish universities and language schools.
The Covid-19 pandemic has proved that Turkey has a more resilient health system when compared to many developed countries in the world. While providing the best healthcare to our citizens, we sent medical aid to 159 countries and 12 international organisations. We also know that many non-Covid-19 patients from Ireland choose Turkey for their routine or normal medical treatments. Owing to this background, we can increase the co-operation between our medical institutions and healthcare workers. One other promising co-operation area is in the construction sector. Turkey, which ranks in the top five countries in this sector, may contribute to Ireland’s ambitious new housing and infrastructure projects.
After this short introduction about Turkey-Ireland relations, I would like to continue with Turkish foreign policy and matters of mutual interest. Turkish foreign policy aims to protect Turkey’s interests in a volatile regional and global environment, while also shaping conditions for sustainable peace and development in our neighbourhood and beyond. In the pursuit of this primary goal, like Ireland, Turkey contributes to peace, prosperity, and stability around the world.
Guided by our enduring objective to achieve "peace at home, peace in the world", as set out by the founder of our republic, Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, we implement an enterprising and humanitarian foreign policy, which, in our President's words, "reflects the enterprising spirit and humanitarian values of our nation".
In order to eliminate threats and challenges and to take advantage of emerging opportunities, Turkey is compelled to pursue a foreign policy that is strong on the ground and at the table by implementing an insightful and agile diplomacy. In this regard, Turkey benefits from deep-rooted traditions of diplomacy and derives strength from several factors, including its central geographical position, rich historical experience, robust institutions, strong human resources and a dynamic economy. As such, Turkey's foreign policy is the embodiment of a bridge between tradition and the future.
In line with the enterprising aspect of its foreign policy, Turkey conducts a diplomacy that thinks globally but also acts locally in every corner of the world. With 253 diplomatic and consular missions, Turkey has spawned the fifth largest diplomatic network globally. Turkey maintains close ties with countries in the Balkans, the Middle East, north Africa, the southern Caucasus, and southern and central Asia. Beyond these neighbouring regions, we are expanding the horizons of Turkish foreign policy, reaching out to Africa and Latin America. In Africa, we have increased the number of our embassies from 12 to 43. Our trade volume with Africa is currently approximately $26 billion. We intend to hold the third Turkey-Africa summit in December 2021. In Latin America, we have increased the number of our embassies from six to 17 and our trade volume, parallel to that increase, has gone up from $1 billion to $12 billion. The Asia Anew initiative announced in 2019 has given Turkey the opportunity to lay the foundations of a holistic and comprehensive policy towards Asia and the Pacific, home of the rising powers of the 21st century. We have established strategic relations with China, Japan, Indonesia, Malaysia, South Korea and Singapore.
As a pluralist secular democracy that began westernising its economic, political and social structures in the 19th century, Turkey chose western Europe as the model for its new secular structure following the proclamation of the republic in 1923. Ever since, Turkey has closely aligned itself with the West. Turkey is a founding member of the Council of Europe and the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe, OSCE, and a member of NATO and the OECD. Turkey is a part of Europe and will remain so. In addition, Turkey has a strategic partnership with the United States as a NATO ally and considers the transatlantic link vital for security and prosperity in Europe.
As the committee knows, Turkey has been a candidate country to the EU since 1963. Full membership of the Union remains a strategic priority for Turkey and accession negotiations are the backbone of Turkey-EU relations. Turkey believes in the necessity of developing a positive agenda in Turkey-EU relations based on our accession perspective. That will serve the interests of both sides and contribute to the stability in our region. Starting a Turkey-EU customs union modernisation process and full implementation of the 18 March statement will make a difference in the relations we have with the EU. In this context, we appreciate the ongoing support of Ireland for Turkey's EU accession process and for keeping the channels of communication open.
As a founding member of the United Nations, Turkey, like Ireland, is a strong supporter of multilateralism. Finding solutions to global challenges depends on collective efforts forged by co-operation and effective multilateralism. This reality guides Turkey's active diplomacy within multilateral fora. We are a founding member of several regional organisations and initiatives such as the Organization of the Black Sea Economic Cooperation, the South-East European Cooperation Process and the Economic Cooperation Organization. In addition, Turkey is a prominent member of the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation, the Developing-8 Organization for Economic Cooperation, the Cooperation Council of Turkic-Speaking States, the Asia Cooperation Dialogue and the MIKTA partnership comprising Mexico, Indonesia, Korea, Turkey and Australia. Turkey has also been an active member of the G20 since its inception, holding its term presidency for 2015. Turkey served at the UN Security Council during 2009 and 2010 as a constructive member, contributing to global peace, stability and security. Under the motto of "The world is bigger than five", coined by President Erdoan, Turkey has been advocating the reform of the UN Security Council, the UN and other multilateral organisations in order that they be fit for the purpose of today.
On the basis of its enterprising and humanitarian foreign policy, Turkey provides developmental and humanitarian aid programmes. Turkey is the largest humanitarian donor in the world and the most generous country on the basis of per capitahumanitarian spending. At the same time, Turkey is currently the top refugee-hosting country in the world. It hosts almost 5 million externally displaced people, approximately 3.7 million of whom are Syrians under temporary protection. Turkey has spent more than $40 billion to provide aid and services to the Syrians. Turkey supports the voluntary and dignified return of Syrians to Syria and, thanks to our efforts, nearly 462,000 of them were able to return to their homes.
The international community cannot allow the Syrian crisis to linger on for another ten years. We need to display a stronger will to find a political solution to the problem, based on United Nations Security Council Resolution 2254 and in a way that will meet the expectations of the Syrian people. We welcome the extension of the United Nations' humanitarian assistance mechanism, which is delivered to the north-west of Syria via Turkey, for another 12 months. We appreciate the strong efforts of Ireland and the Minister for Foreign Affairs, Deputy Coveney, in this regard. We had the pleasure to host the Minister in Turkey last January within the framework of those efforts.
Following developments in Afghanistan, we have recently been faced with the possibility of yet another inflow of migrants from that country. The humanitarian situation in Afghanistan is getting worse. There are approximately 300,000 Afghans in Turkey. For comparison, the figure was 35,000 in 2015. As a country that saved human dignity in the Syrian crisis, we no longer have the capability, nor the tolerance, to absorb new immigration waves. On the basis of fair burden and responsibility sharing, it is high time for all stakeholders to do their part on this issue. We support the UN's efforts to provide impartial humanitarian assistance to Afghans in Afghanistan and neighbouring countries.
As far as the Syrian crisis is concerned, our struggle against terrorist organisations that threaten the territorial integrity of Syria and our national security will continue with determination. Making any distinction between terrorist organisations in the region and using them as subcontractors is unacceptable. Acts of terrorism in different countries of the world over the past ten years have shown that terrorism is not only our common enemy but also a common enemy of all mankind.
While combating terrorism, Turkey gives particular attention to fundamental rights and freedoms. Advancing our democracy to a higher level has always been a top priority on our agenda. Our policies of zero tolerance against torture and violence against women continue firmly. Two years after the publication of the judicial reform strategy, the human rights action plan is a further indication of Turkey's unwavering resolve for reform. The action plan lays out concrete steps for further protecting and promoting human rights and strengthening the independence of the judiciary, such as reviewing legislation on freedom of expression and assembly, enhancing women's rights and combating violence against women, fighting against discrimination and hate crime and intensifying meetings with representatives of non-Muslim communities living in Turkey.
I am aware that the eastern Mediterranean issue and the situation in Cyprus have been discussed in the Oireachtas on several occasions. I consider today's session as an opportunity to put forward Turkey's views on those issues. Turkey's policy towards the eastern Mediterranean has two dimensions. The first is related to the maritime boundary delimitation in the region. The second dimension concerns the protection of the rights of Turkish Cypriots over the offshore resources of the island. We hope the problems regarding maritime boundary delimitation will be resolved within the framework of international law and good neighbourly relations.
Our proposal to organise an eastern Mediterranean conference in which all actors in the region will take part for dialogue and co-operation is still on the table.
Similarly, we believe that the problems in the Aegean Sea should be resolved through a bilateral dialogue. Thanks to our efforts, dialogue channels are in place and are operating. The 63rd round of consultative talks with Greece were held in Turkey last week on 6 October. With regard to the Cyprus issue, the current deadlock proves the failure of all federation negotiations since 1968. A new round of federation negotiations will lead us nowhere. Neither Turkey nor the Turkish Cypriots have another 50 years to lose. A fair, lasting and sustainable solution to the Cyprus issue is possible only through a result-oriented, realistic approach. It should be based on the realities on the island. Also, for a solution, it is necessary to reaffirm the sovereign equality and equal international status of the Turkish Cypriot people, who are the co-owners of the island. Therefore, we believe that it is high time to consider a negotiated two-state settlement. We just want the international community to evaluate the views of the Turkish Cypriots as announced in Geneva with an open mind and without prejudice.
Another primary issue in Turkish foreign policy is the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, which fuels instability and threatens peace and security in our region. As long as the persecution of the Palestinian people continues, lasting peace and stability in the Middle East is not possible. Therefore, occupation, annexation and illegal settlement policies must absolutely and immediately be brought to an end. In this context, we welcome and are closely following the developments regarding the occupied territories Bill in Ireland. The peace process and the vision of a two-state solution must be revived without further delay. The establishment of an independent and contiguous Palestinian state, with Jerusalem as its capital, on the basis of the 1967 borders remains among our primary objectives.
There is one crucial issue that is common for all countries and nations, irrespective of being European, Asian, American, African, rich or poor. It is climate change. As our President put in detail during the UN General Assembly meeting last September in New York, Turkey plays its role in taking necessary measures in fighting climate change. If effective measures are not taken and greenhouse gas emissions continue to increase, our children will not inherit a habitable world. The duty for all of us is to take measures against this threat, with fair burden-sharing, and to fulfil our obligations quickly. Acting with this understanding, Turkey was among the first signatories of the Paris Agreement of 2015. President Erdoan announced during the United Nations General Assembly meeting that the agreement will be submitted to the Grand National Assembly of Turkey this month for approval, and the ratification process of the agreement will be completed before the United Nations Climate Change Conference which will be held in Glasgow in late November. Indeed, I am happy to announce that the agreement was ratified by the assembly on 6 October last.
Before finalising my remarks, I wish to take this opportunity to renew the invitation from Mr. Çaatay Klç, the president of the commission for foreign affairs of the Grand National Assembly of Turkey to visit Turkey. The committee's alternate date proposals for the visit will be welcome in due course. With such a visit, I am confident that the inter-parliamentary contacts between our two countries will also develop and strengthen to our mutual benefit. I thank the committee for this opportunity.
Thank you for that wide-ranging and comprehensive overview of Turkish foreign policy and, at the outset, a comprehensive note on the positive and constructive bilateral relations between Ireland and Turkey. As you pointed out, there is much to build on in our relationship.
I will call on members of the committee for questions. I will commence with Deputy Gannon who is with us in the committee room. Members can raise their hands if they wish. I will follow on to Deputy Clarke as soon as we can.
I thank the ambassador for his statement. I have a question about Turkey's role in the conflict in the Nagorno-Karabakh region. Does the ambassador have any comments on the recent conflict in that region? Does he believe that the issue of drone warfare, particularly in that conflict, would aid a further destabilisation of tensions and add new dimensions to warfare in that region? I also have a question about Turkey's relationship with Azerbaijan. Who else is Turkey providing regional support to in that region in a manner similar to that which it is doing for Azerbaijan?
I thank the ambassador for his time today. He is most welcome to the committee meeting. I have one question. How does the ambassador reconcile his opening statement with the withdrawal of Turkey from the Istanbul Convention, which set out comprehensive standards for the prevention of violence against women, protection and support for survivors and prosecution of perpetrators, as well as establishing minimum essential support services for victims, such as shelters and medical assistance? I ask for his own view on this and for his opinion on the impact the withdrawal has had on Turkey's international standing and on how women from outside Turkey view Turkey as a safe place for them. I say that as the only female Deputy on this committee. Given that I have researched this and seen over 2,000 cases of femicide reported between 2008 and 2017, which I understand was also echoed in another report by Turkish law enforcement, how can the ambassador reassure the international community and this committee that Turkey is a safe place for women and girls, particularly in light of yesterday being the International Day of the Girl Child?
H.E. Mr. Mehmet Hakan Olcay:
As the committee knows, the Karabakh conflict has been going on for 30 years, ever since the independence of Azerbaijan. One fifth of its territory was occupied by Armenian forces. Then the Minsk Group was established to try to find a diplomatic solution to the problem. However, it did not work for the last 30 years. In June 2020, new attacks started and they started to escalate going into September. Finally, a year ago today, the Azeri forces started their 44-day operation in Nagorno-Karabakh. Nagorno-Karabakh is Azeri territory. The committee must also take that into account. I am sure the ambassador of Azerbaijan would have been in a much better position to answer this question but Turkey wants normalisation across the region. The new landscape in Karabakh offers a realistic opportunity to establish enduring peace and stability and this opportunity should not be missed.
President Erdoan announced recently that we can gradually also normalise our relations with Armenia if it takes concrete and sincere steps. We will reciprocate to any positive steps coming from Armenia. We also expect Armenia to be part of the regional co-operation projects. We are of the opinion that the recent Azeri proposal to negotiate a peace agreement with Armenia will contribute to lasting peace across the region, so there will be a win-win situation with a normalisation in that region.
Coming to the drones, we see Azerbaijan as one nation, two states - Turkey and Azerbaijan. For the last 30 years since its independence, we have developed many co-operation projects, including co-operation in military training and technical aid. As a free country to purchase its weaponry, it may have bought drones from Turkey as well.
It may have also been involved in training in Turkey for its operations. That is all the information I have on the use of drones.
The Istanbul Convention has been the subject of debate in Turkey since its entry into force not only in Turkey but also in a lot of other Council of Europe countries. Six EU members and the UK have not ratified it yet. In different segments of our society some elements of the convention became the subject of criticism. As a result of the evaluation made, the decision to withdraw from the agreement was taken. Our decision is not a step back from our determination to fight violence against women, and in all our laws we have the strictest applicability to punish any crime against women. We will continue to show no tolerance to violence against women. Also, we announced the fourth national action plan on combating violence against women on 1 July of this year.
This is not a follow-up question. I asked who else in the region Turkey is providing such support to. Is Turkey selling drones to Morocco, for example, similar to the way it is selling to Azerbaijan?
The ambassador mentioned in his opening statement the situation in Syria, Turkey's neighbour. He will be aware of the dire humanitarian situation in evidence in Syria and the fact that in the north east, for example, the water level in the Euphrates river has become critically low. Currently, more than 13 million Syrians are reliant on humanitarian aid to survive. I note, as the ambassador stated, that Turkey is currently hosting more than 3.5 million Syrians, who have been in Turkey for some time. The ambassador might be in a position to expand on how he and the Turkish Government see a resolution of the conflict in Syria, having regard to the fact that, as he stated, it is over ten years since the horrific conflict commenced. There does not appear to be an immediate sense of a resolution. Having regard to the authority and influence of Turkey in the neighbourhood, what does the ambassador see as being the priority situation?
As for the issue of refugees specifically, given the large number of Syrians in Turkey, given the strain and pressure that this places on the country's resources and given the dangerous situation for many returnees from many refugee camps to Syria, what does the ambassador see as the priority?
H.E. Mr. Mehmet Hakan Olcay:
Since the beginning of the Syrian crisis, Turkey has followed a human-centred approach. We had our borders open to refugees. For the past ten years we have been providing many services to Syrian refugees, including counselling, language courses, vocational training, health, education and social services free of charge. The number of Syrian children born in Turkey since the beginning of the crisis and since their arrival into Turkey exceeds 700,000 newborns. There are more than 1 million school-aged children attending schools in Turkey. In the initial years the attendance rate was about 30% but, as of 2016, we have achieved a school attendance rate of 64.4%. The number of Syrians attending Turkish universities is about 40,000. This figure is higher for refugees because the global average is about 2% but in Turkey the average is about 7%. The healthcare sector is another area where we continue our efforts. To date, more than 2.2 million surgeries have been conducted on Syrians, inpatient treatment exceeds 2.7 million and the number of polyclinic visits is over 80 million. The committee will understand that the amount of resources needed to maintain this is quite high. The $40 billion I mentioned in my opening statement is just a rough estimate because it is not possible to quantify some of the services provided.
Providing only financial support is not a sufficient answer to solve the problem. We need to focus more on preparing the conditions that could facilitate returns of Syrians. That should be one of our primary tasks. Owing to our efforts and the operations we had in the border region - we have a 900 km joint border with Syria - almost 500,000 Syrians have been able to return to Turkey in the past year or so. The returns have to be safe, dignified and voluntary, based on legal guarantees and in line with international law. The process has to be co-ordinated with the United Nations, and priority should be given to the return of internally displaced peoples and to the prevention of new displacements in Syria. UN Security Council Resolution 2254 gives the framework for resolving the crisis. There are two process continuing. One is the Geneva process and the other is the Astana process, in which we take part as well. If the new constitutional commission can establish a new constitution for the Syrians and if the will of the Syrian people is taken into consideration, I think that would be the only way of resolving the problem. In the meantime we have to make sure we preserve the territorial integrity of Syria from other sources.
I confirm I am in my office in Leinster House. I welcome the ambassador to the meeting and thank him for his presentation. Obviously, Turkey is a very important country, historically and geographically. It is a very influential country as well. Turkey is involved in lots of engagements right across the region. The ambassador might comment on the current situation with respect to the involvement in Libya and how he sees that developing.
I note that the ambassador spoke about climate change earlier. He might let us know how that is progressing and what the plans and targets are in respect of Turkey. How does he see that developing and what are Turkey's plans in that regard?
The Istanbul Convention was mentioned by my colleague, Deputy Clarke, and the ambassador has covered that.
Can the ambassador tell me whether Turkey has plans to withdraw from north-eastern Syria and what the situation is there at the moment?
I note that the United States has been concerned about religious freedom in Turkey. The ambassador might take the opportunity to comment on that as well.
Finally, what is the position of the Turkish Government on LGBT rights, that is, the rights of gay or homosexual people? I note there have been some media reports that tolerance in Turkey is not very high but, again, the ambassador might comment on that.
H.E. Mr. Mehmet Hakan Olcay:
We are heavily engaged in Libya and trying to help it to find a peaceful resolution of the divisions in the country.
After long years of war, the fighting is still continuing within Libya between two factions. We have been on the side of the legal government, which is recognised by the United Nations and we have had some agreements with them. Some of that is for military co-operation - training, for the most part. If the elections take place as scheduled in December, they will give a clearer pathway to a solution in Libya.
Withdrawal from the north-east or the north-west of Syria for the time being is not possible because without the maintenance of the Turkish presence there, we will not be able to protect the civilian population which is finding a safe haven or refuge in north-east Syria along the Turkish border. Our withdrawal would increase pressure for a new exodus because there are more than 1.5 million people living in the border area. If the protection shield is lifted from there, we will have a new impetus for a new wave of migration from Syria to Turkey, which is not desirable.
As far as LGBT rights are concerned, I am sure the Deputy is referring to the events that took place in Istanbul during Pride week. We do not distinguish between the preferences of people and there is no sentiment against that. Of course, Turkish culture may not see LGBT as “normal” – I am just quoting - but with regard to the standpoint of the state, there is no discrimination against that.
We are joined by Deputy John Brady, who is welcome. Before I call Deputy Brady to make some observations and ask questions of the ambassador, I want to briefly raise the issue of Cyprus. It is a long-standing issue of controversy going back to 1974. In particular, I want to raise with the ambassador the issue that, on the anniversary of the invasion, during a visit to northern Cyprus, President Erdoan raised the issue of the fenced-off area of Varosha. This is a matter of some controversy. I and the Irish Government are concerned at recent actions in regard to Varosha. The ambassador states that dialogue is the only way forward and that any long-term settlement can only be achieved by a dialogue and by people around the table by way of talks. Again, the Irish Government would encourage progress towards the achievement of a long-term settlement and the achievement of a bizonal, bicommunal federal state on the island of Cyprus in accordance with UN Security Council resolutions. I ask the ambassador how he would see a Turkish contribution towards that, having regard to what, on the face of it, would appear to be action on Varosha that would seem to fly in the face of what might be described as diplomatic dialogue.
H.E. Mr. Mehmet Hakan Olcay:
The Chairman referred to 1974 as being the start of the conflict but it goes back to 1968 because the Cyprus state really never functioned from its outset. The main reason for that is the Greek Cypriot side does not want to share power of governance and also the wealth with the Turkish Cypriots. This fact lies behind the failure of all federation negotiations ongoing since 1968. The Greek Cypriot side rejected the solution in the Annan plan in 2004, which was an opportunity missed, in my opinion. In turn, however, they were rewarded with EU membership in 2004. Later on, the Greek Cypriot side left the table at the conference on Cyprus in Crans-Montana in 2017.
We need to be realistic because there are two peoples and two states on the island. The Turkish Cypriot side wants to establish a co-operative relationship in Cyprus. They submitted a written proposal at the informal five-plus UN meeting in Geneva in April of this year. The essence of the proposal is to secure enhanced sovereign equality and equal international status of the Turkish Cypriot people, and Turkey fully supports that vision. Any future negotiations should be carried out between two states on the island, not between two communities.
The Greek Cypriots still hide behind the EU, as well as the outdated UN Security Council resolutions stemming from the 1970s. The EU's blank cheque to the Greek Cypriots under the pretext of Union solidarity does not help the efforts for a settlement. If the EU sincerely wishes to contribute to the settlement of the Cyprus issue, first and foremost, it should acknowledge the existence and the will of the Turkish Cypriot people, and should fulfil its commitments stemming from the 2004 arrangement. On the other hand, the UN parameters, to which the Chairman referred, reflect an understanding between the two sides reached at the end of the 1970s and there is no agreement on that today.
On Varosha, the Turkish Cypriot Government exercises full control, jurisdiction and authority in Varosha and is the only authority to decide on matters pertaining to that suburb. Varosha is a suburb of the city of Mausa. In October 2020, the Turkish republic of northern Cyprus allowed public access to two main streets and the beach and, since that date, more than 200,000 people, including Greek Cypriots, have visited the area. On 20 July, the anniversary of the founding, the Turkish republic of northern Cyprus lifted military zone political status only to a pilot area, which corresponds to about 3.5% of Mara, that is, Varosha. The decision allows it to address the property issue in Varosha through the immovable property commission, which expands the horizons for the people who own properties there. The Greek Cypriot side attempts to portray these developments as if Varosha is open for new settlements at the expense of property rights, and this is absolutely not the case.
Would the ambassador accept, with respect, that the recent action amounts to something of a breach of trust and if there is going to be a long-term settlement, that settlement will be based on trust and confidence? What steps would he see as appropriate for his government to take in order to rebuild trust and ensure a level of trust and confidence that would engender talks towards a longer-term solution?
H.E. Mr. Mehmet Hakan Olcay:
That trust should be built between the two communities, first and foremost, because we are the guarantor power, like the UK and Greece. It should be the two peoples on the island which should have trust in each other and build on that. For the Turkish Government to talk on behalf of a decision taken by the Turkish Cypriot Government on partially opening Varosha would not be appropriate.
I thank the Chairman and wish the ambassador a good afternoon. He is very welcome to the committee. I congratulate him on his recent appointment to Ireland. I apologise for being late in joining the meeting. Much like other colleagues, I was tied up in the Dáil Chamber dealing with the budget, which is a not insignificant event going on as a backdrop within the Dáil today.
I have a number of questions and issues I want to try to address this afternoon. I will pick up the topic on which the Chairman finished, which is the whole issue of Cyprus. It is an issue on which I have been very vocal and one of the many reasons for which I wanted an engagement with a representative from the Turkish Embassy. I am, therefore, glad to be able to raise the issue directly with the ambassador today.
In my mind, the occupation by Turkey of northern Cyprus since Operation Atilla in 1974 must not only be condemned but the ratcheting up of tensions by Turkey, certainly over the last year or more, has really added to tensions rather than to the prospect of any peaceful resolution to the issue. As I stated, this has gone on now since the occupation of northern Cyprus in 1974.
I will not labour some of the points the Chairman made around tangible talks and efforts which are, in my mind, being taken by Turkey to undermine any prospect for talks. Last year, there were major tensions in the eastern Mediterranean Sea and much of that would have stemmed from the Turkish position and rights around exploration for oil and gas. Is the position of Turkey really ultimately about controlling large sections of the Mediterranean Sea for oil and gas? Is that influencing any positions being taken by Turkey with regard to a peaceful resolution?
I have a number of questions. Perhaps we will deal with them first and maybe the ambassador will want to come in at that point. Over the last number of years, an approach has been adopted by Turkey on the international stage and particularly in that region, which I believe to have been a very unsettling position. We see that in terms of the Turkish involvement in the recent Armenia-Azerbaijan conflict around Nagorno-Karabakh. The Turkish intelligence transferring of jihadis from places such as Syria into the midst of that conflict was widely reported. The ambassador might address the Turkish involvement in tensions and hostilities in that particular region, what involvement Turkey had in it and what involvement it still has to this day. The use of drones, for example, which were used to target Armenian civilian populations, was widely reported. He might address that issue.
While I am talking about the transfer of jihadis from places such as Syria, it was also widely reported that Turkish intelligence again transported thousands of jihadis from places like Idlib in Syria into Egypt. Again, I listened intently to what the ambassador had to say in terms of why Turkey was involved in the situation in Libya. I will pose the point that the involvement of Turkey actually ratcheted up tensions within the region, particularly the transferring of thousands of jihadis into that particular conflict zone. The ambassador might also touch on that.
I have a couple of other issues, one of which is the treatment of the Kurdish population and Kurdish people by Turkey. We see that in terms of the ongoing attempts to ban a Kurdish political party, namely, the Peoples Democratic Party, HDP. I want to ask specifically about the ongoing efforts by President Erdoan and Turkey to ban the HDP. What is the rationale for that? Why has the decision been taken to outlaw political activity?
With regard to the ongoing tensions within the region concerning the Kurdish population, we see continuous incursions into Iraq by Turkey to target Kurdistan people, much to their annoyance and rightfully so. Ongoing incursions into Iraq are an intrusion into another country against international law. We also see the unlawful occupation of large sections of Syria. I mentioned the Idlib province already. We see it right along the northern borders of Syria and the southern borders of Turkey.
I noted with interest comments made yesterday by President Erdoan that in my mind were almost an indication that there was going to be a renewal of military hostilities against Kurdish people in those regions. I would like to get a view from the ambassador on the illegal occupation of Syria, the ongoing hostilities against the Kurds and their right to self-determination.
The final issue I want to raise with the ambassador is the that of the prevention of violence against women and combatting domestic violence. Of course, I am talking about the decision taken by Turkey to withdraw from the Istanbul accord. That was the 2011 Istanbul Convention, which was ratified by Turkey in 2012 and to which it was the first country to sign up. The decision by Turkey to withdraw from the accord is a retrograde step. It has been condemned and rightfully so. I utterly condemn the position taken by Turkey on its withdrawal from the Istanbul accord.
I will pose this question to the ambassador. What is the rationale for the withdrawal from the Istanbul accord? Ongoing violence against women is obviously prevalent in society right across the world and it must be condemned. Signing up to conventions such as this must be welcomed. I do not believe enough has been done internationally to target the ongoing issues of persecution and violence against women. Any withdrawal of positions by a government or by a country with regard to any measures to protect women in society anywhere in the world must be condemned. What is the rationale? I do not think any rationale would stand up to scrutiny. I would be interested to hear what the ambassador has to say to try to defend that indefensible position, however.
I thank Deputy Brady. The ambassador dealt with the latter issue in the context of an earlier question from Deputy Clarke. I understand that the Deputy was otherwise engaged. I am sure the ambassador would like to advert to matters in his reply to Deputy Brady. There were a number of questions, which I will leave with the ambassador for his reply.
H.E. Mr. Mehmet Hakan Olcay:
I thank Deputy Brady for that short question. It was a rather extensive statement for the most part.
As the Chair has said I have already answered some of the questions but I am happy to repeat some of what I have said.
The Turkish policy towards the eastern Mediterranean has two dimensions. The first is related to the maritime boundary delimitation in the eastern Mediterranean. According to international law, coastal states should enter into negotiations in order to reach an agreement on maritime boundaries and this should be based on the principle of equity. Turkey has the longest coast in the eastern Mediterranean. The second dimension of Turkey's eastern Mediterranean policy concerns the protection of the rights of the Turkish Cypriots over the offshore resources of the island. I am happy to say that since July 2020 there have been no additional tensions in the eastern Mediterranean. With Germany as an intermediary, we have come to an understanding and the drilling and exploration were halted by both sides. I hope the status quoremains in the coming period.
The tensions started in 2003 when the Greek Cypriots concluded a delimitation agreement with Egypt despite our objections because that agreement violated the Turkish continental shelf. In 2007 the Greek Cypriots signed another delimitation agreement with Lebanon, disregarding the Turkish Cypriots' rights in the zone. In 2011 the Greek Cypriots started their drilling activities in the region. We did not take any action at sea from 2003 until the first offshore drilling operation of the Greek Cypriots in 2011. The commencement of those unilateral actions left us with no option but to react. Following the first drilling, Turkey signed a maritime boundary delimitation agreement with the Turkish Cypriots in 2011. Then we identified offshore licence blocks just like the Greek Cypriots have done and we granted survey and drilling licences to the Turkish Petroleum Corporation. We still waited until 2019 for our first drilling activity in the region, which was eight years after the first drilling activity of the Greek Cypriots. These developments brought us to sign a maritime delimitation agreement with the UN recognised legitimate government in Libya in 2019.
All these topics are being taken up with Greece as well and the latest round of the consultative talks were held on 6 October this year. The continuation of the calm environment in the eastern Mediterranean is in our common interest. For this it is necessary to first abandon the understanding whereby Turkey, which has the longest coast in the eastern Mediterranean, is ignored in the region. Our proposal to organise an eastern Mediterranean conference in which all actors in the region would take part for dialogue and co-operation is still on the table. Recently there was a slight provocation with a Maltese-flagged ship, Nautical Geo, which tried to do some research on our continental shelf but that was also averted and the situation did not grow out of proportion.
The Deputy asked about our policy on the HDP and the intention of closing that party down. Political parties in Turkey are among the indispensable elements of democratic and political life but they are also expected to respect democratic and universal principles of law. The request by the chief public prosecutor to Turkey's Court of Cassation for the dissolution of HDP was made on the grounds that its actions as a political extension of the terrorist organisation the Kurdistan Worker's Party, PKK, and statements and activities that it made are not in line with the democratic and universal principles of law. Dissolution of political parties is a legal measure applied in all democracies so it is nothing particular to Turkey. Everybody should respect the judicial process, which is carried out in accordance with the Turkish constitution. As for the lifting of the parliamentary immunity of some members of the HDP, there are judicial remedies and in a recent example Mr. Ömer Faruk Gergerliolu took his case to the Constitutional Court of Turkey and was reinstated.
In northern Syria we have established a secure zone for the internally displaced persons, IDPs, in that region to avoid another influx of migrants coming to Turkey who would then go onwards to European countries. The PKK's extension in northern Syria, the YPG, which is the so called People's Defence Units, exploits the pretext of fighting against Daesh to gain legitimacy and to expand its oppressive role in the region. For this reason we had to fight Daesh and the PKK in the region. Turkey has carried out three operations in the region. The first was in 2017, Operation Spring Shield and then in 2019 and 2020, two other operations took place.
Turkey has not sent any jihadists to Azerbaijan at all but the opposite is true because there is plenty of evidence that PKK elements were used in Nagorno-Karabakh by the Armenian forces and by some foreign fighters from its diaspora. That is all I have to say on that issue. I refer to President Erdoan's statement yesterday that we may have to do something in Syria. That was a reaction to the sad event of two police officers who were stationed in northern Syria being killed on the same day near Idlib.
I thank the ambassador for his comments but he did not really deal with the question on the banning of political parties. He danced around the issue and said it was a matter for the Turkish judiciary. I posed the point that many members of the Turkish judiciary, many journalists and many members of opposition political parties have been rounded up and are languishing in prison because of their opposition to the Turkish Government and its policy under President Erdoan. I would not take what the ambassador is saying at face value. How many political prisoners are in prison in Turkey? How many journalists are in prison in Turkey for speaking out against the Turkish Government? How many members of political parties are languishing in prison in Turkey for speaking out against the oppressive nature of the Turkish regime?
When I was in earlier I asked the ambassador to comment on religious freedom in Turkey. We have seen some reports which would lead us to be concerned about that. Could he also comment on the impact of Covid-19 in Turkey, especially on the economy?
Could the ambassador give us an update on the economic situation in Turkey?
H.E. Mr. Mehmet Hakan Olcay:
Religious freedoms are constitutional guarantees, so I see no problem in that area. They enjoy all the rights the Muslim majority in the country enjoys.
Coming to the Covid-19 problem, as I said in my opening statement, we have a resilient healthcare system, so we were not that bad. On the vaccines, although we cannot match Ireland, where 90% have been vaccinated, in Turkey 112,356,099 vaccines have been used. Some 54 million are first dose, which represents 75% of the population, while 46 million are second dose, which represents 74.36% of the population. During the pandemic, we had 7 million people who were infected by the virus and to date we have recorded 63,000 deaths, but of course we are a country of 83 million so when you take this figure, you have to base it on that population.
Our economy was also affected by the pandemic and the curfew which was imposed on and off. We had a different system. Instead of a prolonged lockdown, it was lockdown on the weekends, on certain holidays and so forth. However, the economy was affected just like all other countries. The economy is also being affected by the rise in energy prices, which is the same problem Ireland has begun to experience in the last year. Electricity and natural gas prices have gone up, so it has affected many areas of life. Part of that is because of the pandemic, which I hope we will soon leave behind.
I thank the ambassador. It is my intention to bring matters to a conclusion. I remind members that we have some private business to engage in immediately following this meeting.
Again I thank the ambassador for being with us. I wish you well in your tenure in Ireland in terms of our bilateral relationship with Turkey. Ireland, as an active and engaged member of the European Union, acknowledges the fact that relations between the European Union and Turkey have regressed somewhat in recent years. We believe it is important that there is a constructive and stable relationship between the European Union and Turkey. We trust that both you and your government will positively engage to ensure that stable, constructive and positive relationship.
With that in mind, I thank you most sincerely for your invitation on behalf of Mr. Çaatay Klç, the president of the commission for foreign affairs in the Turkish Grand National Assembly. My members and I would be very keen to give appropriate and due consideration to that invitation and we will revert to you.
On behalf of members I thank the ambassador for being with us and dealing with the many and varied questions. We look forward to an active and positive engagement between our committee and yourself in your time here. I also thank Mrs. Elayouti for being with us.