In a significant ruling made on 14 September 2017, the Belgium Court of Appeal ruled that the PKK (Kurdistan Workers’ Party) is not a terrorist organisation as defined by Belgian law. Rather, the PKK is ‘a party to an armed conflict as defined by and subject to international humanitarian law’. The government of the United Kingdom classified the PKK as terrorists in 2001 and the European Union did so the following year. It is testimony to the determination of the Kurds to fight for justice and the legitimacy of their cause that the Belgium Court of Appeal has now reversed the previous definition. It is to be hoped that the Belgium Court’s decision will set a precedent that other judicial bodies will follow.

The case involved the prosecution of individuals for alleged participation in the activities of a terrorist group. A number of the defendants claimed grounds for exclusion from prosecution. According to the Court of Appeal, ‘The question is therefore whether the PKK is a terrorist organisation or whether it is an armed force involved in an armed conflict as defined by and subject to international law.’ The Court examined international law, case law definitions and material provided by different parties.

The Public Prosecutor argued that the size of the PKK and the proportion of the Kurdish population of Turkey in its ranks precluded the PKK from being considered as representative of the Kurdish people. Additionally, the Prosecutor identified the predominance of guerrilla actions in the HPG’s (armed wing of the PKK) operations as being indicative of a terrorist organisation.

In its judgement the Court of Appeal recognised 40,000 deaths caused by conflict between the PKK and Turkey since 1984, with at least 2,000 deaths since the end of the ceasefire in 2015. The Court referred to the destruction of more than 3,000 Kurdish villages and stated that the ‘Turkish army has conducted ground and air offensives and air bombardments and deployed fighter planes, plus it has used long range missiles to attack PKK positions in the Qandil Mountains (Iraq).’ The Court considered the conflict to be ‘a prolonged armed violent conflict with a certain intensity’. The Court identified the PKK as a democratic centralist organisation and said the HPG applies rules governing its conduct of warfare.

Furthermore, the Court judged that ‘Civilians… are not targeted by the HPG, even though civilian victims do occur during the armed actions’. The Court stated that ‘…the objective of the PKK is to establish an independent state, not to terrorise civilians’.

Although the PKK now seeks a confederal solution rather than independence for Kurdistan it is extremely heartening to see a European court at last acknowledge a legitimate struggle for self-determination in relation to the Kurdish question.

In the course of its deliberations the court considered whether the PKK is directing the activities of TAK (Kurdish Freedom Falcons) as maintained by the Turkish State. The Appeal Court concluded that on the basis of the information it had seen ‘it cannot be concluded with certainty that the PKK should be considered a terrorist group because of an alleged link with the TAK’. The PKK has consistently denied any such ties with the TAK.

The Court of Appeal’s conclusion that the PKK is party to an armed conflict as defined by and subject to international humanitarian law and that ‘as a result, the terrorist legislation does not apply’ is certainly a more accurate legal analysis of the conflict than the prior conclusion that the Kurdish struggle for self-determination amounts to terrorism. In this regard the ruling marks a very important decision with potentially wide ranging ramifications for the political struggle of the Kurds.

The Court’s judgement is not only an overdue reassessment by a European judicial body of what has been happening in Turkey, but it is also indicative that Europe is becoming exasperated with the Turkish state’s disregard for human rights and the rule of law and its futile attempt to solve the Kurdish question by political repression and military means. The ruling vindicates the arguments for delisting of the PKK propounded over many years by the Peace in Kurdistan Campaign, various expert observers and the main Kurdish organisations themselves.The sooner the parties to the conflict can return to the negotiating table the sooner there will be a lasting solution to this decades old problem.