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Parliamentarians Jill Evans MEP, Jeremy Corbyn MP and Lord Hylton were invited to Ankara last month by the Peace and Democracy Party (BDP) to discuss the deteriorating human rights situation facing the Kurdish people of Turkey.
Set against the back-drop of the drafting of a new constitution, the Turkish government are intensifying their oppression of those speaking out for self determination for the Kurds and rights for minority groups, as well as anyone going against the official line of the government, which is to promote an exclusively “Turkish” identity. Since 2009, a crackdown on Kurdish civil society and political assembly has taken place under the guise of counter-terrorism operations. Politicians, journalists and even children are routinely detained for nothing more than attending a political demonstration.
The oppression is evident and blatant – police forces armed with riot shields water-cannons and armoured cars were visible on the streets. Many of these people we met had been arrested and or imprisoned by the government.
Wherever we travelled and whoever we met in the city, we received a warm welcome and plenty of tea and cakes! Our first day of meetings concentrated on organisations working for a peaceful solution to the Kurdish crisis. Armed attacks by both the Turkish government and the PKK group continue. 679 people were taken into custody over Newroz (New Year) celebrations in March. One BDP official was killed after he was hit by a gas bomb fired by police.
The Turkish Peace Assembly was founded in 2007. This civil society group is concerned that peaceful co-existence is not currently possible in the current environment. The fact that the number of political prisoners is on the increase is symptomatic of the state’s intense persecution of anyone advocating an identity other than Turkish. This is leading to some sections of society isolating themselves, thus hindering co-existence, especially within the younger generation. The Peace Assembly told us that “Turkey is at a potentially deadly cross-road” but the international community seem disinterested in the situation.
They are concerned that Turkey is being held up by the international community as a model for countries in the Middle East after the Arab Spring. This is unhelpful as Turkey is a secular state and should not be confused with Islamic states. In any case, Turkey is hardly a model of democracy and personal freedom, especially when the Turkish Minister of Internal Affairs has recently called Kurdish artists and poets “the back-garden of terrorism”.
The Peace Assembly believes that the government’s strategy is to put the Kurds, and their political party the BDP, in a weak negotiating position as regards the drafting of the new constitution. Certainly, recent events support that theory. The BDP Member of Parliament who sits on the committee drafting the constitution is another who has been arrested and is in prison.
It became evident that this organisation, and others, are pinning a lot of hope on the potential of a new constitution securing peace for the Kurds. At the same time, they are pessimistic about the chances of this happening.
One official we met at the Peace Assembly offices, who had just been released from prison after eight years, had been charged again for speaking at a public conference in support of the Kurdish demands for the new constitution.
Apart from the new constitution, another particular issue causing great concern to organisations was the new education law. This has already been adopted by the Parliament, without any consultation with those directly affected. It is currently awaiting presidential approval.
The Education Workers Trade Union whom we met explained that this law does not guarantee any rights for children to receive education through their mother tongue but it does open the way for child labour and child marriage from 14 years of age. It also allows children to be remotely educated, which will lead to less girls going to school. The trade union (which has 123,000 members working in the education sector) was particularly concerned that optional lessons on the Qur’an have been introduced where girls and boys have to be segregated and girls have to wear head-scarves. While these lessons are optional, the trade union maintained that in reality, there will be pressure to attend and it goes against the spirit of a secular state.
State repression was an ongoing theme. Staff told us that members of the union have their phone calls tapped and are then arrested. A strike arranged in Ankara in March was disrupted when the government confiscated the buses that were to be used for transporting members. Some participants were arrested using tear-gas. We were also told about a telephone line that has been set up to report teachers who teach beyond the official ideology; teachers have been prosecuted as a result.
Over more tea, we met the oldest human rights group in Turkey – the Human Rights Association. The organisation works on a voluntary basis, with 10,000 members working across the country, monitoring human rights abuses. They were not optimistic about the general landscape of Turkish human rights. Their message was that Turkey is struggling to achieve democracy. Symbolic improvements such as a state-run Kurdish TV station are not sufficient. The Turkish government should guarantee the basic rights of the Kurdish people. Instead, they are afraid of a ‘Kurdish Spring’. The Human Rights Association told us that the Kurdish people want democracy and constitutional change, rather than wanting to overthrow the government. Again, we heard the same messages – that they are being oppressed, with their volunteers arrested for participating in meetings (even those outside Turkey); and that the international community should not treat Turkey as a model of Western-Eastern relations, but rather they should confront the government about its human rights abuses
Another group representing a minority was the Pir Sultan Abdal Culture Association, which is an Alevi organisation. There are around 15 million Alevis, a sect of Shi’a Islam and the second largest religious community in the country, in Turkey and they have a sad history of many massacres. The most notable one was in July 1993 where Sunni fundamentalists set a hotel on fire, killing 37 Alevis. The police and the fire services did nothing to stop the fire or save the victims. 33 individuals were sentenced to death in 1997 for the massacre but they were never executed and are now free, many living in Europe. They asked us to press the Turkish government to bring these people to justice. Their headquarters, where we met, had a museum dedicated to the memory of those who died that day. They are unable to move on until their suffering is acknowledged by the Turkish government. Instead, the Alevis are prevented from commemorating their massacres – organising committees have been sued in the past. They also maintain that the Turkish government prevent the Alevi people from taking advantage of European funds for social and cultural projects.
This was one of the points we raised with Mr David Reddaway, the United Kingdom Ambassador to Turkey in what was a very constructive meeting. The Ambassador agreed that the Turkish government is a highly centralised system and that the human rights situation is not acceptable. He believes that Turkey would like to begin negotiations with the Kurdish side and are very serious about their ambition to join the EU but are frustrated with the process. We discussed the trials of those accused under the anti-terrorism laws and the Ambassador agreed that there should be more of a European effort to coordinate the monitoring of important trials.
The next day, we visited the Turkish Parliament to meet with the political parties. Unfortunately, the Justice and Development Party (AKP) were unable to meet with us but we did meet with BDP parliamentary members Hasip Kaplan (the deputy chair of the group) and Adil Kurt. They welcomed us to Ankara and stressed how important it was for European delegations such as ours to come to Turkey. They do not understand the lack of reaction from the EU and the United Nations. They believe that the EU especially should play a more important role to ensure stability. Most people we met on the trip reiterated these feelings to us and expressed disappointment at the lack of interest from European countries.
The BDP group in the Turkish Parliament is struggling to include the Kurdish demands in the new constitution. This is especially hard when five of their MP’s are in prison. Additionally, over 6,000 members of their party have been detained since the 2009 elections. They told us of the 1500 prisoners on hunger strike across Turkey since February 15th, in support of Kurdish rights. They are demanding that all political and military action against the Kurds is stopped. We expressed concern that this was (even though it should not be) a very general and enormous thing to be demanding at the moment and that perhaps they should be asking for certain steps to be taken instead. Sadly, the BDP feel that hunger strikes are the only weapon they have and they have been driven to such desperate lengths by the AKP government.
The Republican Peoples’ Party (CHP) expressed some sympathy for the BDP’s plight. This party is the oldest in Turkey and we met with their Vice President Dr Sezgin Tanrikulu. Theirs was a moderate voice which Mr Tanrikulu himself acknowledged was not enough for the Kurdish people, but too much for the Turkish government. CHP have published their views on the new constitution. They want a special focus on freedom, human rights and justice. More specifically, they want local authorities to have more power and for education to be taught in an individual’s mother tongue alongside Turkish. Their aim is to try to find common ground, which is not easy following an armed conflict. Kurdish aims have been described by the current Prime Minister as “separatist”.
The CHP seemed to be in agreement with most of the groups we had met on our visit – they thought the religious changes in society introduced by the AKP were not suitable for a secular state. They support EU membership and were glad to see the recent European Parliament resolution taking a stronger stance on Turkey.We were anxious to meet all political parties in the Turkish Parliament, and this was broadly successful except, due to unforeseen circumstances and for which no blame should be attached to anyone, it was not possible to meet representatives from the AKP Parliamentary group. Members of the group are looking forward to meeting them on another occasion, perhaps on any future visits to London or Brussels.
As mentioned, there was a strong sentiment amongst most organisations and individuals that a new constitution offers the greatest immediate potential for advancing Kurdish rights in Turkey.
The Kurdish people have published their key demands for inclusion in the new constitution:
- A constitutional guarantee of the Kurdish identity
- Rights of the Kurdish language: for it to be made an official language; for education to be provided through the medium of Kurdish and for Kurdish language to be used in public life
- Kurdish self-determination: de-centralisation, more power to local authorities and regional assemblies
- The right to organise in the name of the Kurdish people
It should be noted that, as was pointed out to us many times, a campaign to collect signatures in support of these demands has been outlawed by the government.
This delegation supports the demands laid out above, noting that at the present time, securing those rights for the Kurdish people of Turkey will be crucial for the further democratisation of the country as a whole. The delegation will continue to oppose EU membership for Turkey while these constitutional demands are not met.
The delegation also supports Kurdish demands for the resumption of the peace process by restarting the Oslo negotiations between the Turkish government and the PKK. Abdullah Öcalan, who has published a proposal for a peaceful and negotiated settlement to the conflict, is widely regarded as the Kurds’ legitimate representative. He should therefore be included in any negotiations that take place. We call on both Turkey and the international community to acknowledge that military action in the Southeast will only delay the possibility of a political resolution to the Kurdish question.
Furthermore, the visit to Ankara reaffirmed that more awareness is needed among the international community about the Turkish government’s repression of the Kurdish people. Elected members and children are in prison, basic human rights are not being respected and yet Turkey is used as a model country for East-West relations.
More visits should be arranged for others to see and hear the reality for themselves. Turkey’s efforts to join the European Union should be used as much as possible to highlight the issues that were witnessed on this visit. They should also be raised in bilateral negotiations when they occur.
The visit was arranged by
Contacts Estella Schmid 020 7586 5892 & Melanie Sirinathsingh – Tel: 020 7272 4131
Patrons: Lord Avebury, Lord Rea, Lord Dholakia, Baroness Sarah Ludford MEP, Jill Evans MEP, Jean Lambert MEP, Alyn Smith MEP, Bairbre de Brún MEP, Jeremy Corbyn MP, Hywel Williams MP, Elfyn Llwyd MP, John Austin, Bruce Kent, Gareth Peirce, Julie Christie, Noam Chomsky, John Berger, Edward Albee, Margaret Owen OBE, Mark Thomas
 Abdullah Öcalan, Prison Writings III: The Road Map to Negotiations. Published by the International Initiative, 2012.