With increasing numbers of reports and international appeals taking note of the statements of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) and the People’s Defence Forces (HPG) that have accused Turkey of using various toxic gases in its current military operations in the Zap, Metina and Avashin regions of Iraqi Kurdistan (a semi-autonomous region in northern Iraq), political activists around the world have been more intently focusing on Turkey’s reported actions using chemical warfare against Kurdish fighters.
Connor Hayes, an activist from the US and a member of the Peace in Kurdistan Campaign, a UK-based campaigning organisation that was launched in 1994 to advance the rights of the Kurdish people and achieve a political resolution of the Kurdish question, is among those who recently shared his concerns regarding the use of chemicals as a form of warfare against Kurdish fighters.
“There is an international prohibition on the use of chemical weapons or against chemicals in weapons form. There is a long history of chemical weapons usage, of course. The prohibition of them is relatively recent. Even more recent is the attempt to place strong sanctions against countries where there are instances of chemicals usage,” he told MA.
Hayes pointed out to the fact that the evidence suggested by the Kurdish movement is insufficient, because of the fact that the regions where they claim that Turkey uses chemical warfare are generally mountanous conflict zones, namely the Medya Defence Zones, where no independent parties or individuals have conducted research.
“Concerning South Kurdistan in particular, there is no material evidence sufficient to say chemical weapons are being used,” he said and added that that is why “the Kurdish movement and other organisations are calling on the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) or other international bodies to investigate, to launch a formal investigation.”
Hayes drew attention to the videos and images regarding Turkey’s reported use of chemical warfare, provided by Kurdish fighters and representatives of the PKK and the HPG, especially relating to the footage of the unexploded ammonium nitrate bombs dropped by the Turkish army.
“The evidence” lies in “videos of what appear to be chemical weapons attacks: there are photos of canisters marked with amonium nitrate and others that can be used as chemical weapons. That is probably part of the cleverness of the use of such substances. Amonium nitrate is technically not a banned substance, it has legitimate uses, but it can also be used as a chemical.”
Hayes also drew attention to reports of non-combatants being treated for symptoms of a chemical weapons attack.
“There are other videos, most recently one has emerged around a certain green gas that people were seeing,” Hayes said, referring to footage that emerged in early October of ‘green smoke’ that was inside the tunnels used by Kurdish fighters.
“But it is difficult to say exactly what is what. This is why we are calling for an investigation,” he said.
He added: “Other organisations, such as the IPPW, International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War as well as the CPT, the Christian Peacemaker Teams organisations working in northern Iraq, have raised concerns that there is belief that chemical weapons are being used. CPT raised evidence about the possibility of white phosphorus being used.”
On 1 October, CPT shared an update on the impacts of Turkey’s military operation in Iraqi Kurdistan, with a significant note referring to reports suggesting that chemical weapons or white phosphorus were used by Turkey in an attack on farmland on 4 September.
In light of all the reports, claims, images and videos, Hayes says there is definitely an urgent need of a “formal investigation” by relevant international organisations such as the OPCW.
“The issue is that it requires formal confirmation and formal testing,” he said. “The OPCW, as an example, has investigated numerous chemical weapons reports around the world with less evidence than this.”
And the reason why this hasn’t yet happened, according to Hayes, is because of the “politicisation of the OPCW and other international bodies.”
“The fact is that it is a NATO power attacking what is deemed by international powers to be a ‘terrorist organisation’ and they have given carte blanche to commit whatever war crimes and crimes against humanity, for that purpose.”
Hayes also shared his views regarding the Kurdish question and the Turkish government’s approach to its resolution based on security policies. “What they see as a solution to the sitution is that there is a kind of a regime of perpetual crisis and continuing crisis, trying to keep and maintain its current dynamics of power. The issue, regardless of where it is coming from, is not sustainable,” he said.
Hayes warned that insistence on violence, on a war against the Kurds, “will lead to collective self-destruction. What I would say to the governments of the UK and the USA, which is my home country, and to the governments of all other European states, is to really try to consider what a sustainable resolution may look like.”
Hayes shared his own account of what a sustainable resolution may be by making reference to the “democratic confederalism” that has been suggested by Abdullah Öcalan, the jailed leader of the PKK.
“I personally and as a member of the Peace in Kurdistan Campaign find so much inspiration in the Kurdish movement and in the approach of ‘democratic confederalism’ as an idea, as a proposal that is coming from this thought, of how we can actually work towards a resolution of the situation given where we are at now. This is self-determination.”
The Peace in Kurdistan Campaign will continue to campaign for a peaceful resolution of the Kurdish question, Hayes noted.
“We often send open letters to the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office. One of the results of our work is that an All Party Parliamentary Group in the UK government published a report that made a recommendation to the UK government to ‘de-list’ the PKK from the listing of ‘terrorist organisations,'” he said, adding that they will carry on with their efforts to urge the UK government to act against the violations of rights the Kurds suffer from.
“So, we are making some headway on this angle, especially on the issue of the criminalisation of the Kurdish movement and the Turkish state’s abuse of anti-terror legislation to justify an authoritarian crackdown on opposition.”