May 2012

The recent report of the Foreign Affairs Committee on ‘UK-Turkey Relations and Turkey’s Regional Role’ responds in large part to the economic imperative of strengthening trade relations with Turkey. [1] Turkey is seen by the UK as a lucrative and fast expanding export market and consequently the UK aims to build on co-operation across trade, defence, security, energy and foreign policy. A key debate highlighted in the report, is how the FCO should engage with Turkey about its troubling human rights record. [2]

The question of incompatibility between a strong economic partnership and robust criticism of Turkeys’ authoritarian approach to the Kurdish issues was raised by members of the Committee.  Mr Watts asked the following questions to Former British ambassador to Turkey, David Logan:

 “British foreign policy seems to be to improve trade…What does our present position do to our ability to influence things such as human rights? Are we concentrating on the wrong things, both for our own interest and for Turkey’s? Can we influence them by being a bit more critical and by putting down some markers on where we think they are going wrong and where they need to go…Perhaps we are not as critical as we should be, because we are interested in promoting trade?” [Evidence session 18 October 2011, Q78]

David Logan conceded that the UKs close relationship with Turkey necessitates soft, supportive strategies towards ‘practical’ human rights improvements such as training Turkish police rather than strident criticism. This view appears to be endorsed by the Committee. In its report, the Committee “wondered whether the Government might be cautious about raising such concerns, at least in public, in case Turkey’s EU ambitions were damaged as a result” [Report, para. 75].

In the Committee’s analysis, practical ways to improve human rights practices are sought. The Committee outlined a number of concerns about the absence of freedom of expression, poor observance of the rule of law and judicial accountability and the authoritarian tendencies of the AKP. The analysis presented in the report details promised improvements from Turkey, noting the view of Rt Hon David Lidington MP, Minister of State for Europe, that the willingness of Turkish officials to discuss freedom of expression with his office present ‘encouraging signs’.  In David Logan’s evidence he points to the efforts of the AKP in moderating right wing anti-Kurdish press and that the AKP were the first to speak with Ocalan. While there have been many improvements initiated by Turkey, we urge the committee to not ignore the serious decline into state repressions against primarily the Kurds.

The major deficiency of the report’s object for practical improvements lies with its failure to come to terms with Turkey’s role in escalating the armed conflict with the PKK.  The human rights concerns outlined in the report are symptoms of the underlying issue of Turkey’s escalating practices of violence.  The key challenge for the UK is how to influence Turkey towards a political democratic resolution of the conflict, rather than the military solution currently favoured.

David Lidington argued for the validity of the UK’s approach in supporting Turkey in its counter-terrorism efforts and in simultaneously promoting human rights.  It is clear that in Turkey, the military approach to attempting to annihilate the PKK and the related counter-insurgency operations against the Kurdish people are escalating human rights violations. Several witnesses to the committee, including our own submission and that of Human Rights Watch, evidence this.  The strategy of promoting reconciliation “on the basis of improved freedom of expression and Kurdish language use” [para. 84] will not however resolve the conflict until the primary question of giving the Kurds space for political participation through decentralisation and regional autonomy is addressed.

We briefly identify key aspects of the conflict not given sufficient attention in the report.  We urge the committee to give due importance to these matters in providing advice to the FCO.  The issues outlined below go to the heart of the UK’s positive role in influencing resolution of the conflict in line with FCO objectives.

1. Mass arrests of BDP members and political inclusion

The committee notes that as of March 2012 6 BDP MP’s had been arrested for allegedly supporting the KCK [para. 63]. Those 6 MP’s are still imprisoned. Perhaps more worryingly, some 8,190 BDP party members, human rights activists, lawyers, trade unionists and activists from women’s and youth organisations have been arrested under terrorism charges – and 4000 of them remain in custody.  That figure includes the 6 MP’s, but also 15 current elected mayors, as well as former mayors and local councillors, all members of the BDP. All 14 female BDP mayors in South East Turkey, each elected with 80% of the vote, have been arrested.

Those arrests also include prominent party members, including Professor Busra Ersanli, for whom the prosecution has recommended a sentence of 22.5 years for supporting an illegal organisation. Professor Ersanli is an academic and expert in constitutional law, and a member of the BDP’s Constitutional Commission established to contribute to the drafting of Turkey’s new civilian constitution – efforts which are now underway.

It should be understood that these arrests create the conditions for continued violent conflict by removing legitimate democratic channels for advancing Kurdish rights. This inevitably leads to an inclination to view the Kurdish question, and its resolution, only in militaristic terms. They also make David Lidington’s assertion that Turkey is a ‘functioning democracy’ seem somewhat idealistic; firstly because it calls the independence of the country’s judicial system into question (an issue that the Committee has noted elsewhere). And secondly, because it demonstrates that anti-democratic practice and violations of international human rights standards, particularly freedom of expression and political assembly, finds refuge in anti-terror laws that are disproportionately used against the Kurds and to dismantle Kurdish politics.

It should be noted that this campaign of mass arrests and the corresponding show trials that include the KCK proceedings has coincided with a series of negotiations between officials within the AKP government and Abdullah Ocalan, which took place between 2009 and the elections in June 2011. The emergence of information about these negotiations reveals two key things. Firstly, that there is a willingness on the part of the Turkish government to talk to the senior levels of the PKK, which in itself should be welcomed (it was certainly welcomed by the Turkish public when news about the talks broke in the press); and secondly, that that willingness appears to be conditional on the weakness of Kurdish democratic politics.

We urge the FCO to encourage the resumption of negotiations whilst insisting on an end to legal proceedings against BDP members, as these mass arrests lead to an imbalance that fails to recognise the role of the Turkish state in facilitating the repression of legitimate Kurdish political parties. The BDP has repeatedly stated that it wants a peaceful, negotiated and political resolution to the Kurdish conflict. This is being made virtually impossible by the broad scope of anti-terror law that has led to arrests of elected BDP MP’s, mayors and local councillors, effectively removing their legitimacy in the political sphere and labelling them as terrorists.

2. Defining legitimate political representatives and engaging with Kurdish proposals for peace.

We would hope that the committee could be more precise and specific in addressing the issue of who constitutes a true and credible “representative of the Kurdish community” [para. 85]. We suggest that the reference to the case of Northern Ireland in the same paragraph points the way forward since the solution that was eventually achieved through the peace process in that situation was brought about by engaging the representatives of the Irish republican movement in careful and sustained negotiations. In the case of Turkey and the Kurds a similar approach surely needs to be adopted. Talks need to involve credible Kurdish representatives who have a strong base of support among the Kurdish community themselves and in fact, as far as it is possible to establish what Kurdish affiliations are, it is clear that the BDP has significant electoral support and certainly should be participants in any negotiations. But the leaders of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) will also need to be engaged with; it is an organisation which has retained a substantial following among the Kurds and is able to inspire them politically. The organisation has shown a great degree of sophistication and flexibility in its politics and has evolved its outlook in response to changing circumstances.

The party’s jailed leader Abdullah Ocalan has retained substantial personal loyalties among his Kurdish supporters. Furthermore, the movement that Ocalan has inspired clearly cannot be removed from the scene nor can it be suppressed by security and military measures. Consistent and repeated peace proposals have been formulated by Ocalan over the years, culminating most recently in what is described as the “Road Map”, which includes detailed action plans for the processes of democratisation, disarmament and the strengthening of civil society. [3] Thus he has demonstrated consistently from his prison cell and while in exile that he is prepared to make a constructive contribution towards the achievement of lasting peace including a full cessation of hostilities and the laying down of arms. The Kurdish guerrilla forces have offered and maintained unilateral ceasefires on numerous occasions and taken up purely self-defence positions.

Kurdish civil society leaders and the BDP also advocate democratic autonomy as a decentralised system of governance that could offer a new path for democratisation in Turkey. This system suggests that the power of regional, provincial, and municipal councils should be strengthened through a federalist system, with autonomy exercised at a regional level. The BDP has also presented protocol for a democratic solution to the conflict, with suggested amendments to the constitution that include a guarantee of protection of identity and the free use of the mother tongue, as well as changes to Turkish Criminal Law (TCK) and the Anti-Terror Law (TMK).

We would suggest that, rather than urging Kurdish representatives to “clearly spell out their wishes for enhanced cultural rights and sub-national government within Turkey” [para. 85], the FCO should encourage the Turkish government to make greater efforts to engage with those proposals for peace that have been presented and thus far ignored.

Talks therefore need to be encouraged more openly by the FCO and Turkey needs to be persuaded to regard the Kurds as joint partners in search for the peace that in the long-term interest of all parties.

3. Cross-border military operations, the Roboski massacre and allegations of the use of chemical weapons:

It is both a surprise and a concern for the Peace in Kurdistan Campaign that Turkey’s cross border military operations, and particularly, the air-strike in Uludere near the Iraqi border on 28 December 2011 that killed 35 civilians, has been given such little regard in the Committee’s report [para 78].

In the aftermath of that incident, in which all of the victims were aged between 12 and 25, an investigation by the Turkish Parliamentary Human Rights Commission into the killings has failed to provide sufficient answers as to how and why this group was targeted, or to determine who was responsible for ordering the bombardment. Members of that commission have spoken publicly after viewing the Heron images that surveyed the group for around ten hours prior to the strike, to assert that the group were clearly unarmed civilians, smuggling goods across the border. Given that there had not been an armed clash between the Turkish army and the PKK in that area since 1999, and that it has long been determined that the PKK do not operate in that area, Kurdish people in Turkey remain frustrated and angry about the slow progress in investigating the attack and providing redress for the victims’ families.

Despite significant international media coverage in the immediate aftermath of the attack, international condemnation of the Turkish army’s actions has been surprisingly quiet. In the UK, an EDM condemning the attack tabled in January was signed by just 9 members of Parliament, and no public statements have been made regarding this issue.

There is also evidence that chemical weapons were used in another military operation, which killed 24 PKK members on 31 October 2011. Officials from the Turkish Human Rights Association (IHD), which has extensive experience in investigating the use of chemical weapons, identified that the bodies of the militants had been burned beyond recognition; the assertion that illegal chemical weapons have been used on numerous occasions since the 1990’s is detailed in the IHD’s ‘Report on Chemical Weapons’.

The report states:

We are concerned about the civilian casualties—both inside and outside Turkey—which are being caused by the upsurge in the use of violence by both the PKK and the Turkish state…We further recommend that the FCO should urge representatives of the Kurdish minority to condemn PKK violence.” [para. 85]

It is hardly balanced and even handed to call on the FCO to demand that Kurdish representatives condemn ‘PKK violence’ while not at the same time specifically asking the Turkish government to refrain from engaging in military and paramilitary activities or condemning violence inflicted by army and police units against Kurdish civilians and combatants. There is a contradiction in the report’s acknowledgment that there has been an upsurge in the use of violence by the Turkish state and its failure to call emphatically for this to be stopped.

We feel it is important that the UK government is aware of the above allegations of violations of international law by Turkey and makes the appropriate responses to the Turkish government in this regard.  We also echo the concerns of Ms Ann Clwyd MP, who asks Rt Hon David Lidington MP whether the continued unrest has been taken into account when weapons deals have been signed between the UK and Turkey.

Such an aggressive militaristic approach by the Turkish government is clearly counter-productive. One should not isolate military operations on the Turkey-Iraq border with Turkey’s pursuit of democratisation and human rights, firstly because the conflict itself leads to human rights violations via proscription (see below) but it also creates a paradigm which views all Kurdish politics as a terrorist, and potentially violent, act.

4. The effect of UK and EU bans and effects on Turkish policy

The report makes no mention of the effect of the policy of proscription on resolution of the conflict. The policy of banning non-state parties to armed conflicts as terrorist organisations escalates conflict rather than resolving it.  This is understood by experts and policy makers engaged in conflict resolution work to be a key barrier to dialogue by depriving the non-state actors of political status. The proscription of the PKK is an example of the counterproductive effects of counter-terrorism in achieving resolution of complex political problems.

The object of proscription has been identified by the UK parliament as depriving non state armed actors of the legitimacy of their cause.  It is the legitimacy of the Kurds cause however, which requires urgent recognition and attention, rather than criminalisation. Banning the PKK in the UK and EU therefore does nothing to prevent violence in Turkey.  Proscription however, gives the thousands of Kurds in the UK the impression that the UK enacts domestic criminal laws for foreign policy purposes. Independent reviewer of Counter-Terrorism Laws David Anderson has acknowledged that most proscriptions have come at the behest of foreign governments.  While supporting Turkey in its military campaign against the PKK may be open to the UK government as foreign policy goal (however unadvised), we submit it is anti-democratic for those who non-violently support the PKK in the UK to be criminalised in pursuit of this foreign policy.

We advise a more appropriate route to ending the conflict is for the FCO to engage in supporting both parties towards dialogue.

In summary:

We respond below to the three key recommendations made to the FCO in relation to the conflict:

Firstly, the committee recommend “that the FCO should urge the Turkish government to make clear that the peaceful participation of representatives of the Kurdish community in Turkish public life remains welcome.”

We support this action and would hope that this consist of representation to the Turkish government to halt the legal proceedings against BDP politicians, ex-politicians and members of Kurdish civil society, which have been documented as based on nothing other than ‘thought crimes’ and ‘crimes of association’.

Secondly, the committee recommend “that the FCO should urge representatives of the Kurdish minority to condemn PKK violence and clearly spell out their wishes for enhanced cultural rights and sub-national government within Turkey.”

The BDP has repeatedly expressed its desire for an end to the conflict, and for the conditions which promote violence by both the PKK and by the Turkish state to be addressed.   Asking non-violent political parties such as the BDP to condemn the PKK may be both a counter-productive and unrealistic strategy. It is well acknowledged by peace and conflict experts that asking armed actors to renounce violence ‘by deed and by word’ has never resulted in disarmament.  Rather, the conditions which fuel violence should be addressed. Setting such preconditions can only act as another unnecessary obstacle to the peace process.

Further, the BDP has also made clear its commitment and strategy for sub-national governance within Turkey, as has the PKK.  Indeed the PKK abandoned the quest for a separate state in 1999. Abdullah Ocalan launched a detailed ‘road map’ for achieving a peaceful resolution of the conflict in August 2009.  However the Turkish state prevented public release of the road map until February 2011. We submit that the FCO could direct its energies towards supporting the dialogue processes which the BDP has sought to engage with the government which are routinely frustrated.

Thirdly, the committee recommend “that the FCO should offer the parties assistance, on the basis of the UK experience with the Northern Irish terrorism and UK devolution, in exploring practical steps that could be taken now towards ending violence and achieving an accommodation between the Turkish state and Turkey’s Kurdish minority.”

We strongly support this recommendation and urge the FCO to take steps to urge Turkey to recommence discussions with Abdullah Ocalan and to escalate these to the level of political negotiations for peace.


 [1] The full Committee report can be found here:

[2] Peace in Kurdistan Campaign’s submission to the Committee on this issue can be found here:

[3] International Initiative “Freedom for Abdullah Ocalan – Peace in Kurdistan”,


Peace in Kurdistan Campaign is a UK based lobby group which seeks to raise awareness about the situation facing the Kurds – primarily in Turkey – and campaigns for a change in UK government policy. Peace in Kurdistan supports the rights of the Kurdish people to self-determination and to choose their own political representatives. The campaign seeks to communicate the arguments for a democratic peace settlement to be achieved through negotiations between Turkey and the Kurdish side.



Peace in Kurdistan
Campaign for a political solution of the Kurdish Question

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