Can the Kurds emerge from the political wilderness?

by Nov 13, 2013Magazine

Kurdish Human Rights Action Group, South Africa

Amidst political turmoil in the Middle East, the fledgling peace process aimed at resolving the Kurdish question in Turkey remains on the agenda.

A process has begun in Turkey which has the potential to find solutions to the Kurdish question.

Turkey has held initial talks with Kurdish leader Abdullah Ocalan at his Imrali Island prison, and various groups and prominent individuals on both sides have come out in support of a peaceful negotiated settlement to the long-standing Kurdish issue.

In a significant move, the Kurdistan People’s Party (PKK) declared a ceasefire in the 29-year armed conflict with the Turkish State in April this year and withdrew its guerrillas to the movement’s base in the Qandil Mountains in Northern Iraq.

The conflict has claimed the lives of some 40 000 people, most from the Kurdish side.

Ocalan, a widely respected resistance leader, was abducted by Western intelligence groups in Kenya in 1999 and handed over to Turkey. He was first sentenced to death for treason and then had his sentence commuted to life imprisonment. He has served more than 13 years on the Island prison, much of it in total isolation.

In order to have a better understanding of the Kurdish question, it is important to understand a bit about the history of the people and the politics in that region.

The chairperson of the Kurdish Human Rights Action Group (KHRAG) in South Africa, Judge Essa Moosa, said the Kurds initially lived in their own country which was commonly known as Kurdistan. It was situated between the Euphrates and Tigris rivers.

‘It was regarded as the cradle of civilization. Prophet Abraham who is regarded as the father of the Jews, Christians and Muslims is reputed to have come from a place called Urfa situated in Kurdistan,’ he said.

He continued: ‘The Kurdish people have all the attributes of a nation. They have their own 5 000-year-old language, their culture, customs and practices, holidays and festivities, songs, dances and national dress handed down from generation to generation over centuries.’

Newroz, the Kurdish New Year, is an important festival that is celebrated with great fervour, coinciding with the spring solstice, which falls generally on 21 March.

The Kurds were a nomadic people who lived in mountainous terrain. While their principal religion is Sunni Islam, there are significant Shiite, Christian and Jewish minorities. Yazidism or the ‘cult of the angels’ is also a minor faith.

The Kurdish language belongs to the Indo-Iranian branch of the Indo-European Language. The language, which has at least four major dialects, has been vigorously suppressed in almost all the countries in which the Kurds live. Restrictions relating to its use and radio and TV broadcasting exist in almost all these countries. In Iraq, under the new Constitution, the language has been granted official status.

There is no universal script for the Kurdish language. The script in use depends on the geographic location. In Iran and Iraq, for instance, the language is written using a modified Arabic script, while in Turkey and Syria the Latin script is used.

Kurdistan used to be part of the Ottoman Empire. With the collapse of the Empire in the early part of the last century, the colonial powers of Britain and France divided up the region.

A number of agreements were reached between 1915 and 1917 in terms of which the Ottoman Empire would be partitioned and Kurdish areas would fall under the control of Britain, Russia and France.

A Turkish resistance movement emerged in Anatolia and their campaign resulted in the Treaty of Lausanne in 1923, which led to the establishment of the Republic of Turkey.

This left the Kurds stateless and they faced a future as oppressed minorities in four countries – Turkey, Iran, Iraq and Syria.

Since then the Kurdish people, like the Palestinians, have been fighting for their freedom, independence and basic human rights.

In all four countries they find themselves in, there have been attempts to deny them their identity as Kurds or the right to speak their language or to practise their customs or to sing their songs or to educate themselves in their mother-tongue or to belong to their own organisations or to have their own newspapers, radio stations or TV stations.

Various separatist Kurdish movements emerged over the years and were violently crushed. The Kurds have suffered terrible violence over time, the most brutal being the poison gas attack on thousands of Kurds by the Saddam Hussein regime and the razing of hundreds of Kurdish villages during military rule in Turkey.

Kurds have been denied basic cultural and political rights and have had to endure immense repression over decades. Turkey’s Constitution makes no provision for the recognition of Kurdish identity. There has been a long process of assimilating the Kurds which included, among other things, the suppression of their language.

With the support of the United States and other Western Powers, the regime in Turkey has continued to visit the most extreme repression on the Kurdish minority population of 20 million people – during and after military rule.

Presently in Turkey, despite talks about peace, there are more than 8 000 Kurdish activists, politicians, mayors, professors, academics, writers, children and women either in prison or on trial for political offences.

A Kurdish TV station, Roj TV, broadcasting from Copenhagen to millions of Kurds worldwide, was recently closed down by order of a Danish Court. It is widely alleged that this was a political decision, taken at the behest of Turkey.

Turkey is regarded as one of the worst violators of media freedom and Kurdish media have been the prime victims. A number of lawyers, including the representatives of Abdullah Ocalan, have appeared on various charges over an extended period of time.

It does appear that, like South Africa in the early 90s, a joint strategy of repression and reform is being pursued. Nonetheless, the question of a peaceful negotiated solution to the Kurdish question still remains on the agenda.

Currently there are approximately 40 million Kurds in the World. There are 20 million Kurds in Turkey; 8 million in Iraq; 7 million in Iran; 3 million in Syria, and 2 million spread over the world, with the majority in Europe.

Initially, Kurdish demands included the re-establishment of Kurdistan, but in recent years they have spoken more of regional autonomy within a constitutional democracy.

The demands of the Kurds are to be recognised as a national group in a democratic country in which they can enjoy basic human rights, freedom, dignity and equality – a country in which they will be free to form their own political, civic and social organisations; and in areas where they form the majority they should enjoy political autonomy or self-rule.

KHRAG believes that a number of important steps have to be taken for peace negotiations to have any meaning. It said recently in a statement: ‘Firstly, the repression must stop. Secondly, the climate for bona fide negotiations must be created through releasing Abdullah Ocalan and other political prisoners, unbanning Kurdish organisations, allowing exiles to return, scrapping repressive legislation such as the anti-terror law and permitting free political activity.’

Abdullah Ocalan called for a ceasefire on 21 March this year, in a message broadcast to some 1 million Kurds gathered at Newroz celebrations in Dyarbakir. In the weeks that followed, PKK soldiers withdrew to the Qandil Mountains in Northern Iraq.

It appears that Erdogan has taken reciprocal steps to implement parallel measures for the peace process: he has tacitly agreed, first, to permit the combatants to leave the country without intercepting them; second, to implement the peace process by introducing reforms to recognise the identity of the Kurdish people by acknowledging the right to speak their mother-tongue in public and in court proceedings which were hitherto prohibited; third, that the pro-Kurdish BDP party act as interlocutor between the government and Ocalan; fourthly, that legislation is currently being drafted to amend articles in the criminal code, the anti-terrorism law and the media law to bring it in line with international standards; fifth, that Erdogan has established the ‘Wise Men Commission’ comprising influential members of civil society, from all walks of life, to monitor and report on the ceasefire and the peace process; and sixth, that Erdogan has established a Parliamentary Constitutional Reconciliation Commission comprising members of all the political parties to draft a new democratic and civilian Constitution for the country.

In order to move towards the resolution of the Kurdish question and strengthen democracy in Turkey, it is imperative that the new Turkish democratic and civilian Constitution includes the following constitutional principles:

  • a democratic system of government embracing a multi- party democracy, and regular elections based on universal adult franchise on the principle of one-person-one-vote;
  • an entrenched and justiciable bill of rights, which shall acknowledge and protect diversity of cultures, languages and religions and provide for the recognition and protection of organs of civil society including political, cultural and religious associations and for the right of its citizens to be educated in their mother-tongue;
  • for the participation of minority political parties in the legislative process in a manner consistent with democracy, there shall be separation of powers between the legislature, the executive and the judiciary;
  • the judiciary shall be independent and impartial and shall be entrusted with the task of protecting and enforcing the Constitution and the fundamental human rights;
  • all levels of government, including the security forces, shall be accountable to the political head of the executive who, in turn, shall be responsible to the President, and he or she shall be answerable to Parliament; and
  • any amendment to the constitution shall require special procedures involving special majorities.

KHRAG calls on the Kurds and the Turks to ‘grasp this historic opportunity and take it to its logical conclusion’.

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