Melanie Sirinathsingh
Peace in Kurdistan Campaign

The 8th International EUTCC conference*, titled ‘The Quest for Democracy in Turkey – Universal Rights and Kurdish Self-Determination and the Struggles over the New Constitution’ and held at the European Parliament in Brussels on the 7th and 8th December, came at a critical time for Turkey’s Kurds. Six months on from the June general elections that saw 36 Kurdish politicians elected to the National Assembly, amidst promises of a new draft constitution in the autumn, it has been becoming increasingly clear that the struggle for Kurdish self-determination is far from over. Military campaigns in Southeast Turkey, suddenly renewed in August this year, have continued throughout the autumn and winter, resulting in the deaths of dozens of guerrilla fighters and displacing thousands of villagers.[1] A variety of independent investigations, not to mention the personal testimonies of the victim’s relatives, have shown that the Turkish military used chemical weapons on fighters on the 22nd October, in violation of international treaties prohibiting their use.

In towns and cities, meanwhile, the police have also been playing their part, arresting academics, writers, human rights activists, journalists, elected officials and students. On the 22nd November, just two weeks before the conference was held, raids were conducted at legal offices across the country and around 70 lawyers, including Abduallah Ocalan’s entire defence team, were taken into custody. One of those, Mr. Cengiz Cicek, a lawyer from the Law Office of Century, had been scheduled to speak at the EUTCC conference.

In these conditions, it was no small feat that a significant number of prominent Kurdish politicians, such as Peace and Democracy Party (BDP) chairperson Selahattin Demirtas, and long-serving politician and Kurdish rights advocate Leyla Zana, were able to make it to Brussels. Also significant was the narrative that framed the conference; undeterred by roadblocks being put in place by the Turkish government, the discussions were decidedly forward looking, focused primarily around concrete measures for drafting a new, pluralistic, democratic and civil constitution.

The conference opened with a video message from Archbishop Desmond Tutu, patron of the EUTCC, and another from Diyabakir mayor Osman Baydemir, who has not been permitted to leave Turkey for the past two years. Veteran Kurdish politician and member of the BDP, Leyla Zana, began discussions with a call for a sincere approach to the talks, a clear message and for the truth to be discussed openly. Of course, she chose to speak in Kurdish and in doing so, made a defiant political statement that set the tone for later discussions around Kurdish linguistic rights.

After Ms Zana, Jürgen Klute MEP and member of the EU-Turkey Joint Parliamentary Committee, mentioned the efforts that the Turkish government has made since the last EUTCC conference, adding that he was encouraged by Prime Minister Erdogan’s recent apology for the Dersim Massacre of 1937 and by the recognition by Turkish judges that the constitution requires major fundamental changes. He did, however, raise the polemical issue of the role of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) in establishing a sustainable peace. Just as isolating the IRA from the peace process in Northern Ireland eventually became untenable, it is becoming increasingly clear that the Turkish government will have to engage with the PKK, and remedy PKK leader Abdullah Ocalan’s isolation in prison, to secure an end to the conflict. This sentiment was echoed on several occasions throughout the conference. This issue, of course, becomes all the more important when thousands of people involved in peaceful pro-Kurdish activities are being arrested under charges of association with a terrorist organisation, or promotion of terrorist activity. A recent survey by the Associated Press states that 12,897 people have been arrested under charges of terrorism in the last 10 years in Turkey, accounting for a third of the world ‘terrorist suspects’.[2] As Michael Gunter, Secretary General of the EUTCC, stated, ‘The time has surely come to stop calling the PKK a terrorist organisation’.

When the discussions moved on to Turkish constitution, there was a clear consensus that current document, written in 1982 for the purposes of protecting the state rather than its people, is fundamentally exclusive and actively denies Kurdish and other minority rights in a number of key sections. Firstly, Article 10 essentialises and ratifies into law Turkishness (called an ‘imagined community’ by Ertugrul Kürkçü, spokesperson for the Democratic People’s Congress). This article is conveniently sured up by Article 301 of the Penal Code, which makes it a crime to insult the Turkish nation, and denies the existence of the ethnic identity of Kurds and other minorities. Secondly, Article 3, which makes Turkish the official language of the country, along with Article 42, which prohibits mother-tongue education, were identified as key discriminatory elements of the constitution that need eliminating completely.

Öztürk Türkdogan, chairperson of the Human Rights Association (IHD), also mentioned that Turkeys highly centralised governmental system would need to be transformed to facilitate the process towards self-determination. Local government, and guaranteed protection of the right to participate in it, should also be a constitutive element of any new constitution.

It is, of course, difficult to conceive of a new constitution when realities on the ground in Turkey continue to be dominated by violent conflict and political repression. So it was powerful, then, to have the input of Judge Essa Moosa, patron of the EUTCC and veteran of the struggle against Apartheid in South Africa. He offered us the important historical lesson that the ANC, outlawed by the Apartheid regime in 1960 during a period of violent suppression of liberationist political activity, never abandoned armed struggle as a prerequisite to peace negotiations. Instead, they leveraged power by offering a commitment to a truce if the party were legalised and negotiations began with their leaders. In South Africa, Judge Moosa contends, the unbanning of political organisations and the release of political prisoners helped to create the conditions necessary for change.

Turkey’s renewed violence and its insistence on framing the Kurdish question in terms of terrorism and security, rather than identity and civil rights, perhaps tells an important story about state’s fears over its own legitimacy. Knowing this fact will help energise the ever-present Kurdish resistance, for, as Archbishop Desmond Tutu said in his opening message to the conference delegates, ‘A dying horse has a killing kick’. The recent attack by Turkish warplanes that killed 36 Kurds, mostly between the ages of 12 and 18, testifies to this. It was the single most deadly attack on civilians since fighting began in 1984. It also reached the international press on an unprecedented scale, forcing the eyes of the world, which has been so captivated by popular uprisings against repressive regimes in the Middle East over the past year, onto the actions of the Erdogan government.

* EUTCC 8th International Conference on EU, Turkey and the Kurds: ‘The quest for Democracy in Turkey – Universal Rights, Self-Determination and the struggles over the New Constitution’, 7-8 December 2011, European Parliament.

[1] The conference took place three weeks before the massacre at Uludere on 28 December 2011, in which 35 Kurdish civilians were killed by Turkish warplanes.

[2] See The Epidemic of Terrorism under Turkey’s Mubarak, by Eren Buğlalılar.