The United States’ ambassador to Turkey David Satterfield has served in Ankara for over 18 months now, but has remained generally silent on human rights. This pattern has persisted as the Turkish government continues its crackdown on protests and other forms of criticism against it in the last year.
Satterfield previously served as the acting Assistant Secretary of State for Near-Eastern Affairs and before that as the ambassador to Baghdad at the height of the Iraq War, in which the diplomat played an instrumental role during the Bush administration. He was later sent to serve in Rome where he spent the entire tenure of the Obama administration away from home.
Satterfield has been described as a “seasoned professional diplomat” with decades of experience in the Middle East, so his nomination to serve in Turkey was welcomed by observers.
Before he arrived in August 2019, the U.S. embassy was leaderless for well over a year and without a voice as the Turkish government continued to challenge the independence of the courts, suppress the rights of its minority communities and continued arresting citizens on spurious grounds. The ambassador’s seat was also left vacant during particularly tense points in bilateral relations.
However, since Satterfield’s confirmation, the U.S. embassy has continued to hold its tongue on human rights in Turkey, leaving the most critical statements towards it coming directly from Secretary of State Mike Pompeo.
To an extent, Satterfield’s publicly muted responses to Turkey’s democratic backsliding go beyond his tenure. Nicholas Danforth, an expert on Turkey and a senior fellow at the German Marshall Fund, suggests that this quiet position reflected the attitude of the Trump administration.
“Given the president and his priorities, the embassy’s silence on human rights is hardly a surprise,” Danforth said.
President Donald Trump had developed a close friendship with his Turkish counterpart Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and is known to not personally place a priority on human rights within U.S. foreign policy. To be sure, the president acted strongly through issuing sanctions and tariffs against Ankara for its continued imprisonment of American pastor Andrew Brunson in 2018, but has since re-embraced Erdoğan.
The Turkish president and his government have pointed to abuses inside the United States, particularly police brutality to draw a moral equivalence to deflect criticism of its own rights violations. Erdoğan is also not known to particularly respect the word of foreign dignitaries below the level of a fellow head of state.
Since his initial confirmation hearings in the summer of 2019, Satterfield was expected to continue a tradition of U.S. ambassadors in Turkey to speak up for democratic norms when they are undermined. In his remarks to the Senate Foreign Affairs committee, Satterfield promised to “challenge Turkey to uphold its domestic and international human rights commitments” if confirmed for the role and seek the release of other Americans and employees from the U.S. diplomatic mission imprisoned in the country.
In October, a Turkish court sentenced Nazmi Mete Cantürk, an employee of the U.S. consulate in Istanbul to five years in prison on charges of aiding the followers of Fethullah Gülen, a self-exiled preacher in Pennsylvania who Erdoğan accuses of orchestrating the July 2016 coup attempt against him. Another locally employed Turk, Metin Topuz, was sentenced in July on similar charges.
The U.S. embassy called the events in the Topuz case a misrepresentation of his work and said the charges were not supported by credible evidence. There was no statement issued in the aftermath of Cantürk’s conviction.
Under Satterfield, there have been other instances where the Turkish government has drawn concern from rights watchers but minimum response from the embassy.
Since his arrival, Turkish authorities removed mayors from the pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) under dubious grounds. Another major incident came when Turkish philanthropist and human rights defender Osman Kavala was released from jail only to be arrested a day later in a move Human Rights Watch slammed as politically motivated. Protests by women’s rights and LGBT+ activists have also faced police repression and trials in the last year as well.
Satterfield’s silence in many ways is unique from his immediate predecessors. While the previous U.S. ambassadors occasionally gave interviews or spoke publicly, Satterfield has not done the same.
Francis J Ricciardone Jr, who served in Turkey during the 2013 Gezi protests, called on the government to respect the voices of the protestors in the street. He drew further ire from his hosts when he called attention to the number of prisoners in Turkey on political charges.
Erdoğan attacked Ricciardione for critical remarks on Turkey’s press freedom record immediately after he started his term in Ankara in early 2011. Erdoğan called Ricciardione, a career diplomat of decades, a “rookie ambassador” for these comments.
John Bass, the previous Senate-confirmed ambassador under President Barack Obama and Trump, was also criticised by Erdoğan as a “presumptuous ambassador” for speaking against the Turkish government. Bass drew particular scorn for statements he made explaining the U.S. refusal to extradite Gülen without credible evidence.
It was during Bass’ tenure that Turkish authorities began arresting U.S. government employees, including Topuz, and Brunson, the pastor. Bass said the arrest of Topuz in particular “deeply disturbed” him and accused Ankara of seeking “vengeance” over justice in these arrests.
It is unknown if Satterfield will continue in his role as U.S. ambassador under the incoming Joe Biden administration. Traditionally, many ambassadors resign or are replaced following a grace period that ensures a smooth transition to the new team selected by a new president.
Satterfield himself served previously as a chief of mission in Egypt under the Obama administration and he previously worked as an ambassador to Lebanon under George W. Bush and Bill Clinton.
If Satterfield indeed continues his post during the incoming Biden administration, it remains to be seen whether he would start speaking up about the democracy deficits in Turkey given that the Biden team has already made it clear that shared values will be forefront again while dealing with the NATO members.