A Kurdish culture researcher Naci Kutlay, when asked why Turkey needed its Kurdish community replied, “so that the real meanings of democracy and human rights are understood in this country.” Though it might seem paradoxical that this impoverished region of the country could bring a new quality into Turkish politics, there is a clear indication that improvements in governmental standards of Ankara will be achieved through addressing the “Kurdish issue”.
Turkish officials have presented Kurdish culture to the international community as backward and inherently marked with violence, which was supposed to be an argument for its eradication and replacement with “modern” Turkish values. Conversely, in recent years, it has been Kurdish activists who have acted in fostering the respect of human rights, such as freedom of expression, an impartial judicial system, abolition of the death penalty and torture, equal status of men and women, better legal protection against sexual abuse and finally, cultural minority rights.
The EU accession bid (Copenhagen criteria) along with the European Convention on Human Rights signed by Turkey are currently the main international driving forces for improvements with respect to the aforementioned rights. Consequently, in 2007 the European Court of Human Rights issued 319 judgments against Turkey (23,6% of judgments against all concerned countries). The scale of unprecedented changes, as perceived by the Turkish society, extends to a point where some believe in a conspiracy theory whereby the EU, (e.g. by according more rights to the Kurdish people), is attempting to split their republic in half, with the western section to be included in the EU independently.
Other binding international mechanisms in Turkey are those adopted by the United Nations (UN) and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE). However, Turkey signed neither the Framework Convention for the Protection of National Minorities (FCNM) nor the European Charter for Regional or Minority Languages (ESRML) and claims to be bound only by the Lausanne treaty. The treaty of 1923 is thought to no longer comply with modern standards for minority protection, yet there have been reports that Turkey fails to obey its regulations.
Furthermore, the advocacy of the Kurdish Diaspora (which benefits from the freedom of expression in the western world) as well as the creation of the Kurdish Region in neighbouring Iraq have increased Turkish Kurds’ awareness of their rights. A London-based organization, Kurdish Human Rights Project (KHRP), has been one of the main actors in bringing Turkish legislation up to European standards. Moreover, thanks to its activity, rape carried out “by or with the acquiescence” of the state is now classified by all Council of Europe states as a form of torture. Also, unlike the Turkish government, Kurdish representatives recognize the massacre on Armenians committed by the Turkish army with an active participation of the Kurds during WWI as a crime.
Being home to numerous ethnic minorities, Turkey faces a challenging feat of appropriate management of minority issues. The country’s constitution of 1982 expresses a nationalist approach based on kemalist ideology, which denies the multicultural character of the state and promotes unity at the expense of diversity. Consequently, instead of laws specifically protecting minorities, Turkey has a battery of regulations aimed at suppression of any activities promoting minority rights.
The Jews, the Greek Orthodox Christians, and the Armenian Orthodox Christians are the only recognized minorities in Turkey. They are defined as “non-Muslim” minorities – the only recognized criterion.
There is no special status for the Kurds, the Roma, the Alevis, the Laz and the Circassians as well as for smaller communities of Bosnians, Bulgarians, Georgians, Arabs, Africans, Yazidis, Assyro-Chaldeans, Bahais, Protestant and Catholic Christians, Shia Muslims and Jacobite peoples.
The most complex situation concerns the ca. 15-20 million ethno-linguistic group of the Kurdish, which constitutes about 20% of the country’s population. The use of the term “minority” has in Turkey negative connotations and is not always well regarded by Kurds themselves. In their mosaic national identity, they often consider themselves as Ottoman peoples and co-founders of the Turkish Republic.
In recent years there have been several in-depth studies on minority rights in Turkey (for example, those of the Human Rights Watch, the International Helsinki Federation for Human Rights or the Kurdish Human Rights Project). The following sections will cover the most recent developments in human rights area of the Kurdish community in Turkey.
Although there have been many fewer violations against Turkish Kurds in relation to the right to life, freedom of expression and association, the right to a fair trial, and the prohibition of torture than during the 1980s and 1990s, the situation has deteriorated since an amendment of the Law on the Fight against Terrorism came into power in 2006.
According to Human Rights Watch, 2007 saw increased reports of police brutality during routine identity checks and ill-treatment of prisoners as well as fatal shootings of civilians suspected to be extrajudicial executions. Those were particularly widespread in southeast Turkey and with respect to Kurdish individuals.
Along with imposing threats to the abovementioned rights, the most criticized aspects of those new regulations are: a vague and wide definition of terrorism, increased range of crimes that can count as terrorist offences and more competences for security forces. For example, access to a lawyer for suspected detainees may now be denied for a period of 24 hours, publishing houses can be temporary closed without court decision under accusation of “terrorist propaganda” and conscientious objection (from military service) can now be considered as a terrorist offence. As pointed out by the 2008 European Commission report, Turkish judges are likely to exercise a wide interpretation of the provision on “incitement to violence” or “public interest” concerning Kurdish-related issues, which would lead to serious violations of the freedom of expression.
The inappropriate use of force and intimidating security measures have an undeniably negative influence on the renewal process in the conflict-torn society in Kurdish regions of Turkey. Many human rights reports have brought out particularly worrying concerns of impunity for members of security forces who avoided facing impartial investigation. Furthermore, there is a general concern over distribution of state funds and efforts between anti-terror security forces and local police, the latter often failing to assure execution of the basic rule of law. Of special concern are persistent cases of domestic violence, honour killings and forced (barter) marriages. Further educational programs for police officers, judiciaries and civil society are advised in the recent EC report.
Although this new anti-terror legislation seems to reflect an international trend to put security concerns before the protection of human rights, some observers suggest that the Turkish army fuels its indubitable hegemony in Turkish politics by sustaining a continuous threat from PKK. A recent investigation into an ultra-secularist and kemalist secret radical network, known as Ergenekon, led to the arrest of 86 people, including retired army generals. The process, voiced by Turkish newspapers as the “biggest trial of modern Turkey”, may reveal new architects of murders and terrorist attacks, some of which being formerly annotated to PKK militants.
The existence of Kurds in Turkey is marked by dark decades of repression and attempts to eradicate their culture. A fastidious ideology has been invented in attempts to replace Kurdish ethnical identity. To give an example, the origin of the word “Kurd” was explained as an onomatopoeia of the sound which is made by snow cracking under the feet of the “highlander Turks” when they were walking in their mountainous region.
One of the main goals of the Kurdish community in modern Turkey is the right to use and learn their language. This will not be possible until suitable changes are made in the Turkish constitution – a feat unlikely to be achieved under current military influences and the myth of immunity of the constitution created by Turkish media. In spite of preliminary arrangements, no draft of such amendments has been presented so far.
Although still far from western democratic standards, the area of cultural minority rights has benefited from many improvements in the past decade. Most recently, in 2008, the public broadcaster TRT has been allowed to broadcast nationally all day long in languages other than Turkish and a new local radio Mus FM to broadcast in Kurdish. However, educational programmes teaching the Kurdish language are still not allowed and emissions presented in Kurdish are prohibited from targeting young audiences.
There are currently no opportunities to learn Kurdish in either the public or private schooling system (the former being now permitted by an amendment of a relevant law). The use of languages other than Turkish by administration and political parties remains illegal.
The traditional Kurdish Newroz Spring celebrations in March as well as May 1st celebrations in recent years have resulted in clashes with security forces which were afterwards condemned by outside observers for inappropriate use of force.
Kurdish, as well as other minority rights defenders have faced serious obstacles in expressing their opinions freely in recent years and have often been prosecuted under Article 301 of the Turkish Penal Law for “denigrating Turkishness” and state institutions. Following amendments in 2008, the Minister of Justice authorized 37 out of 257 cases to be forwarded by Turkish courts in September of that year. The novel authorization requirement was supposed to be a step towards bringing the Law towards European standards, yet it maintains a possibility of political interpretations of the Law.
After decades of a counterproductive policy of force and negation, the only solution of the Kurdish issue seems to be a fresh and bold strategy of Turkish politicians, which opposes military influences and is based on a genuine dialogue with Kurdish community.
During the 1980s and 1990s Turkish security forces forcibly evacuated rural communities in Kurdish regions of Turkey in an attempt to deprive armed PKK militants the access to goods and infrastructure. Ca. 3,500 towns and villages were destroyed under the rule of the state of emergency. Since separatist activities were initially centred in main cities of Turkey, some outside observers and NGOs suggested that the elimination of Kurdish dominancy in the region was as an ulterior motive for a strategy aimed at rural South-Eastern Turkey.
A survey announced by the government in December 2006 estimates that nearly one million people were displaced from the south east of Turkey between 1986 and 2005. Until December 2006, the Ankara had given a number of 355,807; outside observers and Turkish NGOs put the total of IDPs at between 1 and 4.5 million.
In the process of compensation of losses due to the forced displacement, 313,829 cases had been filed by the deadline in May 2008 and 40% of these have been finalized (out of which 82,893 obtained a favourable response).
The KHRP list a number of flaws in the relevant Law. They report that IDPs are to receive less pecuniary compensation than state officials who have suffered damages in the course of the conflict, gender-based discrimination of applicants, unrealistic demands for documentary evidence to back up compensation claims and finally exclusion of non- pecuniary damages such as post-traumatic stress.
As pointed out in the 2008 Progress Report of the European Commission, with no national strategy to address the situation, IDPs will continue to suffer from economic and social marginalisation and have little or no access to social, educational, or health services. Return of IDPs is prevented mainly by the security situation, lack of basic infrastructure and capital, limited employment opportunities and the threat posed by the village guard system.
Income is not evenly distributed in regions of Turkey and Kurds inhabiting Eastern and South-eastern Turkey are placed at an obvious disadvantage by this huge disparity. In the UNDP’s Human Development Index (HDI) 2007/2008 Turkey ranked below all the OECD countries, other EU candidate countries and Latin America Countries. In the last Inter Regional UNDP study for Turkey from 1997 the HDI ranged from 0,595 in Eastern Anatolia to 0,780 in the Marmara Region with the biggest gaps being in education and income. There were over two fold differences in the Human Poverty Index between the Marmara region and Eastern/ South-eastern Anatolia.
Although economic development of mainly Kurdish inhabited Southeaster Turkey is necessary for reinforcement of respect to human rights in this region, the roots of the Kurdish issue seem to be rather of political substance. Consequently, recent declarations of the Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan to invest up to 11.7 billion euro in infrastructure projects in the region are seen rather as a preparation for regional elections in March 2009 than as a true sign of a change in state policy. His visit in Diyarbakir province in November 2008 evoked riots and clashes of the local Kurdish community with security forces.
The failure of Turkey to provide genuine representation of the Kurdish community in the Grand National Assembly is put by some in the centre of the ongoing conflict. The pro-Kurdish DTP party, by fielding independent candidates, circumvented a restrictive requirement of 10% of the national vote and gained 23 seats in the Assembly. Until recently the party had broad public support, but numerous cases of corruption and nepotism along with allegations of links to PKK, convinced a part of its Kurdish electorate to give their votes to the currently ruling AKP. Indeed, some Kurds deplore the lack of a mature democratic commitment among Kurdish politicians holding offices in Ankara, and blame them for failure to take legitimate action for the Kurdish case.
There exist, however, non-governmental organizations of independent politicians, intellectualists, and journalists such as the TEVKURD movement which promote a democratic and peaceful solution of the Kurdish issue, an attitude shared by a prevalent part of the Kurdish community.
It seems vital that, in the future, Turkey provides the necessary conditions for democratic development of political groups which will represent the Kurdish community and be an attractive and powerful alternative to outlawed movements such us PKK. Study cases of Rwanda, South Africa and Northern Ireland have shown that women involved in governance in conflict and post-conflict situations display increased commitment in consultative processes and create links between the officials and community which leads to a strengthened democracy. Encouraging women to active participation in politics should be one of the strategies to follow for an effective democratization in Turkey. This is particularly important because the rate of women's employment is on the decrease and remains the lowest among the EU and OECD countries. The desire of emancipation among Kurdish women finds a desperate expression in all-female ranks of PKK where women fighters comprise ca. 20%.
With or without the view of possible accession of Turkey to the EU, it is desirable that the Commonwealth not only monitors the country’s progress in areas of human rights and democracy but also strongly encourages such advancement.
World Report 2008, Human Rights Watch, www.hrw.org
A Children’s Choir Face Terrorism Charges: Juveniles In The Turkish Justice System, 2008, Kurdish Human Rights Project, Bar Human Rights Committee Of England And Wales, www.khrp.org
Return To A State Of Emergency? Fact-Finding Mission Report Protecting Human Rights In South-East Turkey, 2008, Kurdish Human Rights Project, Bar Human Rights Committee Of England And Wales, www.khrp.org
The Role of Kurdish Women in Dialogue, Conflict resolution and Reconstruction, and in Their Struggle for Human Rights and Democracy, 2008, Kurdish Human Rights Project, www.khrp.org
Turkey’s Anti-Terror Laws: Threatening the Protection of Human Rights, 2008, Kurdish Human Rights Project, www.khrp.org
Turkey: A Minority Policy of Systematic Negation, 2006, International Helsinki Federation for Human Rights (IHF), www.ihf-hr.org
Countering Terrorism, Protecting Human Rights. A Manual, 2007, OSCE Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR), www.osce.org/odihr
European Court of Human Rights, ANNUAL REPORT 2007, Registry of the European Court of Human Rights, Strasbourg, 2008, www.echr.coe.int
Human development Reports, Turkey 2008, 2004 and 2001, United Nations Development Programme in Turkey, www.undp.org.tr
Turkey 2008 and 2007 Progress Reports, Commission Of The European Communities, http://ec.europa.eu
Turkey Human Rights Report–2007, Turkish Prime Ministry, Human Rights Presidency, Ankara, 2008, www.ihb.gov.tr
Institut Kurde de Paris, France, http://www.institutkurde.org/en/
Kurdish Centre of Information and Documentation, Kraków, Poland, www.kurd.pl
Szymon Jarosławski, Institut Curie and member of "Les Jeunes Européens France", 2008