Kurdish people began arriving in the UK in significant numbers in the 1980s and today there are Kurdish communities across much of the country, with a concentration in London. The people came from Iraq, Turkey, Iran, Syria and Armenia, generally fleeing conflict and repression.
British governments have a particular historical responsibility for the fate of the Kurds. At the end of the First World War the victorious British and French states partitioned much of the former Ottoman Empire. Initially, at the 1920 Treaty of Sevres, the Kurds were to be given land and an administration. However, the 1923 Treaty of Lausanne excluded all mention of the Kurds and their rights, and they were annexed between Turkey, Iran, Syria and Iraq. Ever since then, each of the four states has been founded on and imposed the denial of rights to the Kurds. The Kurds have periodically resisted their suppression in each state, often with tragic consequences; the Halabja massacre in Iraq in 1988 when 5,000 Kurds were gassed to death drew the world’s attention to the Kurds’ plight. The maintenance of the status quo in the Middle East has depended, to a significant degree, on the denial of the Kurds to the right to self-determination and democratic representation. There can be little progress towards democracy in any of Turkey, Iran, Syria or Iraq without recognition of the rights of the Kurdish people. The Kurds have variously at different times in different countries been denied their rights to use their language, express their culture, form associations or have political parties and representation.
The issue of democracy
In Turkey any expression of the Kurdish people’s desire for representation or rights is branded terrorism by Erdogan and the Turkish government. The Turkish judiciary and police serve the interests of a single political party in Turkey, the AKP (Justice and Development Party) which is Erdogan’s governing party.
Today, when people in the UK are in the process of electing MPs and a new government, 13 elected MPs in Turkey belonging to the country’s third largest political party, the People’s Democratic Party (HDP), are imprisoned. These prisoners include the former co-chairs of the HDP Selahattin Demirtas and Figen Yuksekdag; both gaoled now for over three years, and accused of supporting terrorism. Co-mayors of 96 HDP-held municipalities have been dismissed since 2015. This October, seven mayors of predominantly Kurdish municipalities in Turkey were arrested and accused of backing terrorism. Over 8,000 thousand members and supporters of the HDP have been imprisoned in the past four years. More than 160 journalists in Turkey have been imprisoned for terrorism related crimes; more journalists imprisoned than in any other country in the world. Turkey’s President Erdogan calls the HDP the ‘political extension’ of the PKK (Kurdistan Workers’ Party).
Abdullah Ocalan, the leader of the PKK, has been imprisoned by Turkey since 1999. He has repeatedly called for ceasefires in the conflict with the Turkish state and for negotiations to resolve the Kurdish question in Turkey and the Middle East. The Kurds seek autonomous administrations within Turkey, Syria, Iraq and Iran – not a separate state and not the partition of the four existing states. A truce in 2013 coincided with negotiations but these were ended by Erdogan in July 2015. Since then Turkey has sought to crush the Kurds in Turkey and Syria with intense repression and military force.
The example of Rojava
With the civil war in Syria the Kurds and other communities in northeast Syria took the opportunity to establish an autonomous administration that is called Rojava. The people there established a democratic, gender equal, secular and ecological non-sectarian administration with inter-ethnic cooperation. This is exceptional in the Middle East and has been a beacon of hope for its peoples. However, for Islamic State (IS) and for Erdogan and the Turkish government it was intolerable. When IS attacked Kobane in Rojava in 2014 Turkish troops looked on and then prevented assistance reaching the Kurds when they resisted and defeated the attack, with help from US war planes. Some 11,000 young men and women of the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces have been killed fighting IS. In August 2016 Turkish soldiers and their auxiliaries occupied the Syrian town of Jarabulus. In January 2018 these same forces invaded and occupied Afrin, one of the cantons of Rojava. At least 150,000 people have been exiled from Afrin and over 500 civilians have been killed by the invading forces.
On 9 October this year, Turkey invaded Rojava with tanks and fighter jets. President Erdogan announced his intention of establishing a safe zone in Syria where some two million Syrian refugees would be transplanted to replace the Kurdish inhabitants. This is a plan for ethnic cleansing; the Kurds have warned of genocide. Within two weeks of the invasion 180,000 people, including around 80,000 children, were driven from their homes by the Turkish forces; people continue to flee. Both the US and Russia have reached ceasefire agreements with Turkey, but Turkey has not stopped its military attacks. Kurdish people are being murdered and Turkey’s jihadi allies have committed atrocities to force the population to flee. Catholic priests have been killed as the cruellest forms of sectarianism are re-imposed.
End British support for Turkey
This could not happen without either the complicity or acquiescence of Britain, Europe, the US and Russia. Turkey joined NATO in 1952 and houses US bases and nuclear weapons. It has armed forces in excess of 630,000 troops; NATO’s second largest army. This army is equipped by the US, Germany and Britain among others. They supply the fighter jets, the tanks and heavy artillery guns that are being used by Turkey to destroy Rojava. Turkey is listed by the British government as being among the ‘priority markets’ for British arms exports. In 2017 the value of export licences issued by the British government for weapons sales to Turkey shot up to £723m. Some 112 firms in Britain supply the Turkish military machine; they include BAESystems, Rolls Royce and Cobham – all among the world’s largest arms companies. On 27 October 2019 The Sunday Times reported that British ‘ministers had issued more than 70 export licences for military products that can contain phosphorous in the past two decades’. Now the United Nations and the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons have launched investigations into what appears to be evidence that white phosphorous has been used by Turkish forces using drones against civilians in Rojava. The British government has refused to revoke licences for existing arms exports to Turkey.
This catastrophe for the Kurdish people cannot be allowed to continue. We must demand:
A complete end to British arms supplies to Turkey and all military collaboration with Turkey’s armed forces;
The British government must demand that the Turkish government negotiates with the leader of the PKK Abdullah Ocalan for a peaceful settlement of the Kurdish question in Turkey;
Diplomatic and political pressure must be applied on Turkey to release the imprisoned MPs, mayors and politicians and journalists held in Turkey;
The British overnment should take action to hold Turkey accountable by investigating charges of ethnic cleansing and war crimes.
Any future British government must acknowledge the right of the Kurdish people to self-determination and political representation.
And it must end the criminalisation of the Kurdish community and delist the PKK
We ask British people not to holiday in Turkey for as long as the suppression of the Kurds in Turkey, Syria and elsewhere by Turkey continues.
Publicise Turkey’s complicity in war crimes, especially its arms supplies to terrorist groups in Syria and support for militias which terrorise civilians;
End the persecution of journalists for exposing such complicity of the Turkish state of Turkish state in war crimes.
For information contact: Peace in Kurdistan Campaign for a political solution of the Kurdish Question Email: [email protected] Estella Schmid 07846 666 804 & Melanie Gingell – Tel: 020 7272 7890