Thomas Seibert, Foreign Correspondent
ISTANBUL // A summit meeting in Istanbul aimed at strengthening Turkey’s economic and political ties to Africa and boosting its chances for a non-permanent seat on the UN Security Council could land Ankara in international trouble because of the expected participation of Omar Hassan al Bashir, Sudan’s president, who is accused of genocide.
Leaders from 43 African countries are expected to fly into Istanbul today for the three-day Turkey-Africa Co-operation Summit. Turkey has been stepping up its political and economic role in Africa, with plans to open 19 new embassies on the continent and a goal of more than doubling its trade volume.
But Turkey’s invitation to Mr Bashir has turned the summit into a controversial affair even before it has started.
“I don’t think Turkey was right in inviting Bashir,” said Ozlem Altiparmak, head of the Turkey bureau of Amnesty International. Ms Altiparmak is also general coordinator of UCMK, a group of 13 non-governmental organisations calling on Turkey to ratify the treaty forming the International Criminal Court, or ICC. “It will hurt Turkey’s image abroad, especially with respect to the EU bid,” Ms Altiparmak said about the visit of the Sudanese leader.
Human Rights Watch also expressed “concern” at Turkey’s invitation of Mr Bashir and called on the Turkish government to “support justice in Darfur” and reject any calls by Sudan for a suspension of the ICC’s investigation.
“The Sudanese government remains responsible for massive atrocities in Darfur,” Georgette Gagnon, Africa director at Human Rights Watch, said in a statement. “To suspend the ICC investigation … would be to betray the victims in Darfur.”
Turkey is under pressure to ratify the ICC treaty in the framework of its application for EU membership. The UCMK called on Abdullah Gul, Turkey’s president, and Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the prime minister, to use the summit to warn Mr Bashir about “the issue of extraditing people to the ICC if arrest warrants have been issued” against them.
Luis Moreno-Ocampo, the ICC chief prosecutor, has asked the court to issue an international arrest warrant for Mr Bashir on charges of genocide, war crimes and crimes against humanity in Darfur, saying his state apparatus killed 35,000 people and indirectly at least another 100,000. According to government sources and state media in Sudan, Mr Bashir will travel to Istanbul for the summit despite the prosecutor’s move, Reuters reported from Khartoum. The Turkish newspaper Vatan said the arrest warrant could be issued while Mr Bashir was in Istanbul.
It is not the first time that Turkey has come under fire for close contacts with Sudan. Ankara hosted Mr Bashir during a state visit to Ankara in January. At the time, Mr Gul called Sudan “a friend” and said Turkey supported peace efforts for Darfur.
Some observers think that Ankara is right in engaging the regime in Khartoum. “In my opinion, Turkey has the right strategy,“ said Halil Bahar, an Africa specialist at the International Strategic Research Organisation, a think tank in Ankara. “Sudan wants Turkey to be a referee in Darfur, because it trusts Turkey.”
Ankara should stay “neutral” on the genocide accusations against Mr Bashir, because of the principle that “everyone is innocent until proven guilty”, Mr Bahar said.
Turkey’s efforts to play a role in Africa go far beyond the Darfur issue. The push for closer relations with Africa is part of a broader ambition by Ankara to promote its international role. “Turkey wants to be a regional player,” Mr Bahar said.
One immediate aim for Ankara is to garner African support for Turkey’s bid to become a non-permanent member of the UN Security Council when the UN General Assembly votes on the matter this year. “We are expecting support from all African countries in the elections for the UN Security Council in October,” Ali Babacan, the foreign minister, said at a meeting of Turkish and African businessmen this year. If Turkey was elected, his country would do everything it could to draw attention to and solve Africa’s problems, the minister said.
According to Suha Umar, director-general for bilateral political relations with Africa and East Asia at Turkey’s foreign ministry, Ankara plans to open up 19 new embassies in Africa by 2010. Turkey currently has 12 embassies on the continent. “Africa is an important continent,” Mr Umar said.
In January, Turkey was officially declared a “strategic partner” by the 53 nations of the African Union, at the organisation’s summit in Ethiopia, which Mr Erdogan attended. Such Turkish diplomats as Mr Umar are proud of that decision, as Turkey is only the fifth country after China, India, Japan and South Korea to be awarded the title.
Turkey has entered the group of the world’s 20 biggest economies and will continue to grow, Mr Umar said. The trade volume between Turkey and Africa more than doubled between 2003 and 2006, rising from $5bn (Dh18.4bn) a year to $12bn (Dh44bn). According to media reports, Ankara wants to increase this figure to $30bn within five years.
Bonds between Turkey and Africa go back to the times of the Ottoman Empire, but unlike in the case of some European countries, there is no colonial past that could be cause for distrust, Mr Bahar said. “Africa sees Turkey in a positive light. Turkey is not France or England,” he said.