The Council of Europe and the death of the peace process in Turkey

by Dr. Jeffrey Miley   Getty Images  

 

Judge Essa Moosa passed away at the end of February (2017).  His death – its timing – seemed symbolic.  For his had been a consistent voice of optimism, of hope, in the quest for a peaceful, political solution to the long and bloody conflict between the Turkish state and the Kurdish Freedom Movement. 

Judge Moosa was a man with decades of experience fighting for peace and justice in the anti-apartheid struggle, a close confidante of Nelson Mandela who served as his lawyer when the great South African leader was imprisoned on Robbin Island.  He was fond of telling the story: “Before the ANC and its alliance partners were banned, one of the slogans often repeated at their political meetings was: ‘Freedom in Our Lifetime’.  As a student I thought it was a pipedream”.  Nevertheless, he lived to see the freedom of Mandela and the end of apartheid; and in the many meetings and press conferences I attended with him as a member of the Imrali Delegations he spearheaded in the last years of his life, he would invariably add: “I hope that I can also see in my lifetime the freedom of Abdullah Öcalan,” the Kurdish Mandela.

The Imrali Delegations were the culmination of close to two decades of activism and commitment on the part of Judge Moosa to the cause of Kurdish freedom.  When Abdullah Öcalan was abducted in Kenya back in 1998, he was on his way to South Africa.  It was Judge Moosa who had convinced President Mandela to offer Öcalan asylum. And ever since Öcalan’s abduction, Judge Moosa had been active in the attempts to contest Öcalan’s unlawful trial and treatment, his inhumane isolation on the island of Imrali, and in the campaigns calling for his freedom.

Not long ago, it looked like Judge Moosa might get his wish.  But the window of opportunity for peace and for a political solution to the conflict between the Turkish state and the Kurdish Freedom Movement slammed shut in July of 2015. 

The Imrali Delegations were launched by the European Union Turkey Civic Commission (EUTCC), with Judge Moosa originally in lead role, in a last-ditch effort to exert international pressure to help resuscitate a moribund peace process.  To date, there have been four such delegations, though Judge Moosa’s health held out only long enough for him to participate in the first two – to Istanbul in February of 2016, then to Strasbourg in April of 2016.  

On the first delegation to Istanbul, one of the politicians with whom we met was Ertugrul Kürkçü, who has served since 2014 as the Honorary President of the People’s Democratic Party (HDP).  The HDP is an umbrella party that seeks to re-unite the Turkish Left with the Kurdish Freedom Movement.  Its historic success in the last cycle of general elections, in combination with the breakdown of peace negotiations, had already provoked a wave of vicious state repression by the time our Delegation had arrived in Istanbul in February of 2016.  When we met Mr. Kürkçü, the military sieges of urban centers across the Kurdish region, which have displaced approximately half a million Kurds, were already well under way.  Understandably, he was not in an optimistic mood.  After the meeting, he approached Judge Moosa and hugged him, before addressing his comparison between the apartheid regime and the Turkish state by pointing out: “Fortunately for you, the anti-apartheid movement had the majority on your side, whereas the Kurds are a minority.  Moreover, by the 1980’s, it had become increasingly easy to isolate the South African government, both politically and economically.  We who struggle with the Kurds unfortunately do not enjoy such crucial advantages.”  Points well-put, even the ever-optimistic Judge Moosa had to tacitly concede, in silence. 

Mr. Kürkçü, too, is a man with decades of experience in high-stakes political struggles.  Born in the city of Bursa, in the northwest of Anatolia, he first came to prominence as a student activist in the 1960’s, and in 1970, was elected president of the Turkish Revolutionary Youth Federation.  After the  “military coup by memorandum” of 1971, Mr. Kürkçü joined the armed resistance, and in March of 1972, along with ten other activists, took part in the kidnapping of three NATO technicians.  The group demanded in exchange for their hostages’ release that the military junta not execute Denis Gezmis, one of the founding members of the Turkish People’s Liberation Army, and referred to by some as the Turkish Che Guevara, who had been condemned to death for having kidnapped and held hostage four US soldiers. 

Not only did the authorities not give in to the group’s demand; but they bombed the house in the village where the eleven activists with their three captives had gone into hiding.  Mr. Kürçkü was the only survivor.  He would be tried under martial law and also sentenced to death, but after a general amnesty in 1974, his sentence would be commuted to 30 years, of which he would serve 14.  Since the 1990s, Mr. Kürkçü has been active in several successive attempts to unite the Turkish left, and in efforts to unite the Turkish and Kurdish lefts.  Since 2011, he has been a member of the Turkish Parliament; and in 2013-2014, he served as co-chair of the People’s Democratic Party (HDP), before becoming its Honorary President.           

Mr. Kürkçü also represents the HDP in the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE), in Strasbourg, where we met again this past April, two months after Judge Moosa’s death.  

Our Delegation arrived in Strasbourg on the morning of the 25th, just in time to witness the Assembly debate and pass a resolution in favor of re-opening a human rights’ monitoring procedure for Turkey.  The resolution got a lot of press in the West, with The Guardian running the headline the following day, “Council of Europe Vote Puts Pressure on Turkey over Human Rights.”  The resolution was framed as expressing “‘serious concerns’ about democracy and human rights,” the vote in its favor deemed “an unprecedented decision,” meant to “put pressure on the EU to reassess relations with Ankara”. 

But on the issue of the end of the peace process, and the still-escalating conflict between the Turkish state and the Kurdish Freedom Movement, the Council’s Resolution was anything but unprecedented, perpetrating false equivalences, trapped in the limitations and contradictions of the lethally inept paradigm of the “War on Terror.”

Mr. Kürkçü would be among the members of the Group of the United European Left who proposed a formal amendment to the fifth paragraph, where the issue of “terror” is addressed.  Specifically, paragraph 5 of the draft resolution read:

“Turkey has faced massive and repeated terrorist attacks perpetrated by the so-called ‘Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant’ (ISIL/Daesh), the ‘Kurdistan Workers’ Party’ (PKK) and the PKK-affiliated ‘Kurdistan Freedom Hawks’ (TAK).  These attacks caused hundreds of casualties in Ankara, Suruç, Istanbul, Bursa, Diyarbakir, Kayseri and other cities in Turkey.  In addition, the border city of Kilis was targeted by shelling from Syrian territory.  The Assembly unequivocally condemns these attacks and all terrorist action and violence perpetrated by the PKK, Daesh, or any other organization, which can by no means be tolerated.”

The amendment proposed by Kürkçü and his colleagues would have stated instead:

“The Assembly clearly condemns all terrorist attacks in Turkey.  Both the so-called ‘Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant’ (ISIL/Daesh) and ‘Kurdistan Freedom Hawks’ (TAK) have conducted massive and repeated attacks that have caused hundreds of casualties in Ankara, Suruc, Istanbul, Bursa, Diyarbakir, Kayseri and other cities in Turkey.  In addition, the border city of Kilis was targeted by shelling from Syrian territory.  The Assembly regrets that the peace process between the Turkish Government and the PKK has ended leading to a vicious circle of violence and many casualties.  The Assembly urges all sides of the conflict to resume the peace process in order to reach a peaceful solution to the conflict.”

But the amendment did not pass.  Evidently, for the committee in charge of drafting the resolution, as well as for the majority in the Parliamentary Assembly, any official distinction between the PKK and ISIS remains unpalatable.  The situation the PKK and, by extension, the Kurdish Freedom Movement, thus finds itself in is indeed surreal, reflecting more than the mere true-ism that one person’s terrorist is another person’s freedom fighter.  For in effect, the PKK and the Kurdish Freedom Movement have come to be considered, in the eyes of the very same people, freedom fighters on one side of the border (in Syria), terrorists on the other (in Turkey).  Reference to a “vicious circle of violence” is explicitly rejected, even amidst a brutal wave of state terror that has led to half a million displaced Kurds and hundreds of civilians killed, including elderly women and children, and with dozens burnt alive in basements.  When it comes to the Turkish state’s war with the PKK and on the Kurdish people, the Council of Europe still obstinately reserves its “unequivocal condemnation[s]” for non-state actors alone.   And as for pressure to restart the “peace process” with the PKK?  It remains off the agenda for now, manifestly beyond the Assembly’s mandate and horizons.

The Council of Europe was nevertheless “unequivocal” in expressing clear concerns about the escalation of authoritarianism by the Erdogan government in the aftermath of the July 2016 failed coup; and in this vein, it did denounce the persecution of the pro-Kurdish People’s Democratic Party (HDP), with special focus on the lifting of immunity and subsequent imprisonment of many of its MPs, including co-chairs, Mr. Selahattin Demirtas and Ms. Figen Yüksekdag, as well as the imprisonment of pro-Kurdish mayors and the suppression of local administrations that had been governed by pro-Kurdish forces (paragraphs nine, ten, and eleven).    

The peace process off the agenda, but democracy on.  The link between the two somehow severed, as if the authoritarian escalation, the persecution of the HDP and of pro-Kurdish local administrations were unrelated to the breakdown of peace and the resurgence of war.  The fate of Demirtas and the HDP distinguished, if not disentangled, from those of Öcalan and the PKK. 

Our Delegation had the opportunity to meet with the Council’s Secretary General, Mr. Thorbjorrn Jagland, just a few hours after the resolution was passed.  Mr. Jagland’s credentials are formidable.  Former Prime Minister of Norway, former Chair of the Socialist International’s Committee on the Middle East, member of the Mitchell Committee, former chair of the Oslo Centre for Peace and Human Rights, member of the Norwegian Nobel Committee, an impressive institutional CV.  An expert-practitioner of failed peace processes if ever there was one.  

We presented Mr. Jagland with a copy of our latest report, titled “State Terror, Human Rights Violations, and Authoritarianism in Turkey”; we stressed our conviction that the isolation of Öcalan and the breakdown of the peace negotiations are central components of the Erdogan government’s authoritarian turn; and we argued that a call for all sides to return to the peace process should be a prominent item on the Council’s agenda.      

Mr. Jagland listened carefully to our plea, with a couple of advisors taking notes.  He conceded: “I fully agree that the Kurdish issue is at the centre of the problems in Turkey.  It has been the pretext.  It is very important to come back to the peace process.”  However, he was quick to add: “The importance of Öcalan is undeniable, but the PKK’s structure is a problem.  Let’s not be naïve about the PKK.”  Given his trajectory, it is perhaps not surprising that the comparison on Mr. Jagland’s mind was the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.  For he continued: “It reminds me of the many times I met with Arafat and had discussions with the PLO.  The PLO did come to accept the existence of Israel.  But on the other hand, they would go back and forth, now peace, now war, nobody trusted them when they said they were committed to peace.”

Utopian tendencies, and a lack of sincerity, or at least of credibility, in terms of commitment to peace.  Not to be trusted.  These were the charges implicitly invoked by the Secretary General when pressed to justify the Council’s silence about the breakdown of the peace process. 

What, according to Mr. Jagland, was the Kurdish parallel to the Palestinian refusal to recognize Israel?  “The idea of an independent Greater Kurdistan,” an idea which Mr. Jagland dismissed as “a fantasy, a utopia,” as “unrealistic.”  Either he didn’t know or he simply didn’t believe that the Kurdish Freedom Movement had renounced that goal and had replaced it with the alternative model of “democratic confederalism.”  Moreover, in his mind’s eye, Öcalan was indelibly cast in the role of Arafat, and the PKK playing the part of the PLO.  Not Mandela and the ANC.   

As for the Kurdish Freedom Movement’s commitment to peace, Mr. Jagland was sceptical.  He criticized the PKK for what he saw as its role in reproducing a vicious cycle of violence and repression, for its recourse to “terror.”  In his words: “And of course, terrorism is a huge problem, in Turkey and across the globe, in terms of respect for human rights and democracy.  It gives the authorities a pretext.”  A “pretext” for what?  For human rights’ atrocities, he was willing to admit: “Anti-terrorist legislation leads to violations.”

Indeed, Mr. Jagland was more than willing to be critical of both sides in the conflict.  A plague on both their houses, he seemed to suggest.  Though he made sure to clarify that he believed it wrong to pin too much blame on Erdogan himself.  He argued: “Erdogan did a lot – remember, before him the state’s official position was that the Kurds were Mountain Turks.”  Rather, for the Secretary General, “Turkish nationalists,” not Erdogan, were to blame – “forces who dislike talks with the PKK,” some of whom, he insisted, “were behind the coup attempt.”  Indeed, he was even willing to add: “The same Turkish nationalist forces who leaked the secret Oslo talks, to damage the process, to reduce Erdogan’s room for manoeuvre.  They succeeded.”  On one side, the PKK, on the other, the Turkish nationalists, presumably with organic links to the so-called deep-state (though Mr. Jagland was careful to avoid such a term).  The two sides locked into a vicious cycle of endemic violence and repression.  The space for peace, for politics, erased. 

However, in the mind and the discourse of the Secretary General, the veteran peace-negotiator, the link between justice and peace, though never denied, is clearly downplayed.  Thrasymachus’s conflation of might with right, simultaneously eschewed and assumed.

Nor was Mr. Jagland optimistic about the ability of European institutions to exercise much leverage over the political dynamics in Turkey at this point.  The resolution passed by the Parliamentary Assembly, he seemed to suggest, was a sign of weakness, not strength, and a measure that might even backfire.  “You have seen the debate in the assembly,” he remarked, towards the end of our meeting.  “Turkey is once again under the monitoring process.  But I am not sure what effect the monitoring will have on the Turkish government.  Things are very unpredictable now.” 

The Secretary General came across as a pessimist and a sceptic, if not a cynic.  He was sceptical of Öcalan and the PKK; sceptical of the Turkish nationalists, the government, and the state; sceptical of the efficacy of the monitoring process; even sceptical of our Delegation.   When our half-hour was up, on our way out the door, he obliged our request for a group photo, on one condition – that we not “put words in my mouth.” 

On our last day in Strasbourg, our Delegation had the chance to meet with the Council’s Commissioner for Human Rights, Dr. Nils Muiznieks.  When Dr. Muiznieks speaks, he sounds like an unlikely candidate for the post.  Not because of what he says, but because of his distinctively American English.  He is a Latvian-American, born and raised in Los Angeles, with a PhD. in Political Science from U.C. Berkeley.  After finishing his doctoral dissertation, on the Baltic independence movements and the dissolution of the Soviet Union, in 1993 he moved to Latvia for a post-doctoral fellowship, and never looked back.  He has been a founding member of the Latvian Centre for Human Rights and Ethnic Studies, the Director of the Soros Foundation-Latvia, and has served as Latvian Government Minister for Social Integration, and as a member and then as the Chair of the European Commission against Racism and Intolerance.   

The Commissioner was in Turkey twice in 2016, once before the failed July coup, in April, and once just after, in August, and it is clear that he has been following events there very closely since.  Indeed, two days before our meeting, on the same day that the resolution was passed, he had published his third report on the human rights’ situation in Turkey, two of which focus on counter-terrorism measures and the curfews in municipalities across the Kurdish region, one on the Erdogan government’s crackdown on freedom of expression and on the media. 

This third report was submitted to the European Court of Human Rights as a third party intervention, in relation to 34 cases associated with the counter-terrorism measures and the curfews, and contains a clear denunciation of violations of “the protection of the right to life; the lack of effective investigations and the problem of impunity; restrictions on relatives paying their last respects to their deceased family members; and undue interference with the work of human rights’ defenders”.   

The Commissioner’s report nevertheless qualifies this denunciation somewhat by also including mention of “the severe terrorist threat faced by Turkey,” recognising “the right and duty of the Turkish state to fight against terrorism in all its forms,” and by referring to the “deteriorating security situation in South-Eastern Turkey, which included the building of trenches and barricades by armed terrorist groups in certain neighbourhoods” which preceded the declaration of the curfews in urban centres.  Moreover, the report ends with an acknowledgement of “the predicament of the Turkish authorities and the Turkish security forces, who have the duty to fight against terrorism,” before recalling “that in this fight they should show much higher regard to the human rights of populations affected by the measures they take and ensure that all allegations are promptly, adequately and effectively investigated by the judicial authorities with a view to enforcing laws and maintaining the principle of the rule of law”.

In effect, the report thus calls for a more humane, more proportional, waging of the war on terror.  But though the report does refer to the “legacy of the armed confrontation between Kurdish separatists and the Turkish security forces,” nowhere are the underlying issues of injustice that have motivated the Kurdish movement anywhere addressed by the Commissioner of Human Rights. 

Dr. Muiznieks was affable and engaged during our meeting.  He even agreed with our point about both Demirtas and Öcalan being key role players for peace.  But like the Secretary General, he registered a certain scepticism about the prospects for peace in the near future.  He originally cited the Gezi Park protests as the crucial turning point for the Erdogan government’s escalation of authoritarianism, but also agreed with our claim that Kobane was crucial as well.  He admitted that the successful defence of Kobane by Kurdish forces in Rojava had “spilled over into Turkey,” and were “intimately intertwined with domestic affairs,” an “intertwining which leads me to be more pessimistic about Turkey.”   

Unlike the Secretary General, Dr. Muiznieks did not question the credibility of Öcalan’s commitment to peace, but he did register scepticism about Öcalan nonetheless.  For he posed to us the question: “Is it really true that Öcalan has the power to control the younger generation?”  When we responded by suggesting that Öcalan is perhaps the only person who can control the youth, he responded: “I heard that the younger generation who dug the trenches is not interested in listening to Öcalan’s calls for a peace process and for a political solution.”

And when we pushed him on the importance of emphasizing the centrality of a peaceful, political resolution to the Kurdish question for the prospects of democracy in Turkey, he pushed back: “To what extent does it tactically make sense to stress the Kurdish question in particular instead of the human rights and freedom of expression issues more generally?  I am not convinced it makes sense to stress the Kurdish question, because there are too many Turkish people who don’t want to hear about it.”  Tactical prudence, or evasion of truth?  Yet again, we seemed to witness a difficult balancing act between the logic of might and the logic of right, performed this time by none other than the Commissioner of Human Rights. 

Before leaving Strasbourg, we had the chance to sit down with Mr. Kürkçü, to ask him for some reflections on the current conjuncture, and to get his opinion about what the priorities for future international Imrali Delegations should be.  The Honorary President of the HDP was eloquent and incisive in his response, as usual.  He began by alluding to the disturbing significance of the silence surrounding Öcalan’s isolation, even as an issue for debate.  According to Mr. Kürkçu: “The Ocalan issue seems to have been pushed back to the second or third row now.”  The emergence of the figure of Demirtas, perhaps especially after his imprisonment, he admitted, has something to do with the silence about Öcalan.  “Demirtas' situation has gained further priority,” Mr. Kürkçü argued.  “He has gained a reputation of his own, especially in international circles, as also a legitimate representative of the Kurds.  Around here, for example, he is praised by many as a spokesperson for the Kurds.  Releasing him has become a priority.” 

The figure and fate of Öcalan he thus contrasted to the figure and fate of Demirtas, before continuing: “This unfortunately, however, has also the consequence that it pushes the cause of Öcalan into the shadows.”  He nevertheless made a point of emphasizing: “This was never Demirtas' intention. Neither he nor anyone in the HDP would deny that Öcalan is the leader of the Kurds. It is the image, not the reality.”  Or perhaps more precisely, an image that has become part of the reality, since “the reality, though, is, that international circles are much more comfortable agitating in favor of Demirtas.”   

From this line of reasoning, Mr. Kürkçu would draw a first practical conclusion for our delegation: “So the challenge for your delegation is, without hurting Demirtas' cause, to put forward Ocalan and his role.”  He again insisted: “Öcalan's role is not contested by the Kurds. But explaining this situation, his unique role, his uncontested leadership, this is much more difficult to explain to the international community.”

It is a difficult challenge, he would insist, especially since the breakdown of the peace negotiations and the resurgence of war.  In this vein, he contrasted the media coverage of our delegations to Turkey in February 2016 and February of 2017: “This year the Imrali Delegation got no media coverage in Turkey.  Last year it got some.”  What accounts for the contrasting receptions?  “The most important factor, of course, has to do with the strict ban in the Turkish media.”  Even so, he continued: “But also the urgent situation has changed. When the peace process was on, this was an urgent issue.  Now relieving city sieges is what everyone is worried about most urgently.  The attention of the Kurdish movement, and the broader Kurdish public, is perplexed.”

Adding to and perhaps underlying such perplexion, Mr. Kürkçü would suggest, are differences in sensibility, associated with tactical priorities and organizational differences, within the movement itself, differences between the HDP and the PKK.  In Mr. Kürkçü’s words: “There is also another issue.  On the one hand, Demirtas has from the start insisted that the HDP campaign should be separate from the PKK campaign.  He has refused to be part of the PKK campaign.  He has always wanted it this way.  He believes the two should not be mixed.”  As for the PKK?  “On the other hand, the PKK is not raising Öcalan's situation as an immediate issue.  Tactically, in the recent hunger strike wave, the PKK warned them [imprisoned HDP MPs] not to start the hunger strike.  The PKK then issued a written statement to stop the hunger strike.”  Then he turned to pose the question: “What is accepted? I do not know.  What are their priorities?”  He paused, a pregnant silence, before concluding instead: “But whatever these may be, there are domestic premises required to start a new campaign with a focus on the freedom of Öcalan.”  By way of example, Mr. Kürkçu would relay: “Today, I had a little talk with the former head of the Republican People’s Party (CHP). He doesn't want to hear such issues.  But he is open to talking about Kurds in general. The season is not yet suitable for a reopening, for a renewed attack on this point.”

Mr. Kürkçü would finish his reflections by drawing a distinction between “powerful, everlasting” issues and “urgent” ones, and by suggesting that in a climate of emergency such as the one in Turkey, the two can easily get confused.  “Keep in mind,” he pointed out, “there is a difference between a powerful issue and an urgent issue.”  And in this vein, he would insist, “the freedom of Öcalan is an everlasting issue.  It is still the number one issue for the Kurdish movement for the patriotic masses.  The peace process helped a lot.  But when there is no peace process, Öcalan's voice is not heard as much.  A new phase of the peace process would certainly help highlight the Öcalan issue.”  Of course, he admitted, the two issues should not be separated, Öcalan and peace; rather, it makes more sense to frame the matter as one and the same issue, “Öcalan as a peacemaker … Peace and Öcalan understood as one.  But you witnessed the debate in the Assembly, you witnessed the rejection of our proposed amendment to paragraph five.  Proposing a new peace process is understood as not right.  Not now.  We have to cook the idea again.”  Another pregnant pause, before a final conclusion, a final question: “Time is running out.  He is 69 now, one year older than me. How many more years will he live?”

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