“War is Peace”, “Freedom is Slavery”, and the silencing and imprisonment of political opponents is human rights: or so it seems in Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s Turkey. Turkey needs European trade and investment, and Europe clings to an image of democracy and human rights. The Human Rights Action Plan unveiled by president Erdoğan on Tuesday is designed to oil the wheels of the economy. However, the same day that he spoke of the state’s irrevocable commitment that “No one can be deprived of freedom because of expressing criticism or thoughts”, Turkey’s highest court took what could be the first step towards closing down the country’s third largest party. As the court called for copies of the evidence being used in cases against Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) MPs, the government’s far-right partner, the Nationalist Movement Party (MHP), repeated their insistent demand for the HDP’s closure.
The next day, a further eight MPs were added to the list of those facing summary proceedings to have their parliamentary immunity removed so that they can be brought to trial. Two hundred and three MPs now face this possibility, but action is focussed on members of the HDP. A mass purge of judges has eliminated almost all possibility of judicial independence, and the final decision over parliamentary immunity is taken by parliament, where, with MHP support, the government has a majority.
At the same time as the government’s actions expose the hollowness of their commitment to human rights, Erdoğan’s repeated emphasis on addressing Islamophobia could open the door to further harassment of secularists.
Whether or not Turkey actually bans the HDP, as they have banned so many other pro-Kurdish parties in the past, the government clearly aims to tie them up with court cases, detentions and security raids, so that their ability to campaign is seriously impeded. Erdoğan wants to ensure that the HDP is so badly hobbled they are unable to function sufficiently to get over the 10% voting threshold that must be crossed for a party to get any representatives in parliament. At the same time, Erdoğan’s nationalist, anti-Kurdish rhetoric is designed to fire up his populist support base.
Human rights talk is especially unconvincing at a time when Turkey is claiming it doesn’t have to abide by decisions made against them by the European Court of Human Rights, even though compliance with the court is a fundamental condition of Council of Europe membership. The court has ruled for the immediate release from prison of the former co-chair of the HDP, Selahattin Demirtaș, and the philanthropist Osman Kavala. As the Council of Europe’s Committee of Ministers prepares to discuss this issue next week, five human rights organisations have sent them a joint submission telling them to “call on Turkey to release Demirtaş immediately and leave no doubt that disregarding or attempting to bypass judgments of the Strasbourg court is unacceptable”.
The Committee of Ministers is currently chaired by German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas, who responded to Erdoğan’s “human rights” plans by pointing out that the situation in Turkey has reached a very alarming state, and by stressing the need for the Turkish judicial system to comply fully with the European Court’s ruling.
Time is important here, too. If compliance is only achieved after several years, it will be too late to undo what the Court has recognised as a deliberate block on Demirtaș’s ability to take part in politics. It would be the legal equivalent of the doctor who declared that the operation was a success, but the patient died. The pursuit of this case is a test of credibility for the Court and for the Council of Europe, which holds the protection of human rights as a core mission.
On Wednesday, too, the court case restarted in Turkey against the suspected killers of prominent human rights lawyer, Tahir Elçi, chair of the Diyarbakir Bar Association. Elçi, who had won cases against Turkey in the European Court of Human Rights, was shot dead while giving a speech calling for peace in 2015. He died when police opened fire on two running PKK fighters who had shot two policemen in an adjacent street. The investigation promised by the government never happened, and instead they blamed the PKK. Blaming the PKK is a standard government position, which Elçi had himself exposed at the European Court in the case of the Kușkonar Massacre, when 38 Kurdish villagers were killed by the Turkish military in 1994.
As the state had failed to investigate Elçi’s death, the bar association commissioned UK-based Forensic Architecture to do an independent analysis, piecing together what could have happened from the different camera footage of the events. This was published in February 2019 and concluded that the fatal shot could have been fired by one of three police officers. The Turkish state was thus compelled to bring the officers to trial, but they have also charged one of the PKK men. (The other is no longer alive.) As Forensic Architecture tweeted, “On 3 March, the trial of Tahir Elçi’s killing reopens. But there is a problem with the indictment. It charges the officers we identified, but also charges a PKK militant, despite our findings showing clearly that he could not be responsible for Elçi’s death”. A letter has been sent to UN Special Rapporteurs, signed by a long list of lawyers’ associations from different countries, requesting urgent action to ensure a proper investigation.
While Forensic Architecture was unable to examine the motive, the three policemen have only been accused of “negligent homicide”, but the PKK militant has been charged with intentional homicide. Elçi had received numerous death threats and also been arrested for propagandising terrorism, after stating on CNN Turk the month before that the PKK is not a terrorist organisation, but an armed political movement with political demands and a significant support base in society. This is a similar argument to that accepted by Belgium’s highest court last year, which defined the organisation as “a party in a non-international armed conflict”. The people who wanted Elçi dead were not the PKK.
Across the border in the Kurdistan Region of Iraq, the dominant Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) appears to be taking lessons in judicial spin from their Turkish neighbours. On Thursday the Kurdistan Regional Security Council released a short, heavily edited, video that they described as “confessions of a spy network”. This sets out to support the widely-criticised convictions last month of five journalists and activists who were accused of plotting sabotage in league with the PKK and foreign states. But the video has resulted in a further round of criticism – not least by three prominent members of the Regional Security Council linked to the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (the KDP’s main rival), who claimed to have been told nothing about it. All five men had told the court that they were forced to sign “confessions” under duress, and they have made serious allegations of torture.
Meanwhile, as the region prepares for the visit by the Pope next week and the positive publicity they hope that it will bring, the Kurdish Regional Government has been rolling out the red carpet for a rather less peaceful leader. Photographs show Masoud Barzani, head of the KDP, posing next to a neatly suited Nasr al-Hariri, who was leading a three-day visit by a delegation from the Turkish-backed Syrian National Council. Al-Hariri has supported Turkey’s brutal occupations in Syria, and another well-shared image shows him presiding over a meeting whose members include Hatem Abu Shaqra, who was present at the murder of Hevrîn Xelef. This hardly bodes well for those who look for a peaceful future through inter-Kurdish unity, or support US-backed plans to negotiate an accommodation in North East Syria between the KDP-supported groups and the dominant Democratic Union Party (PYD).
In East (Iranian) Kurdistan, repackaging human rights abuses is not seen as necessary. There is no European Court to comply with: indeed the Islamic Republic stands in resolute opposition to Western values. But this doesn’t mean that we should let its abuses go by unnoticed and unmarked. Last month, Hengaw Human Rights Association recorded twenty Kurdish citizens “arrested on charges of political activity and cooperation with Kurdish parties, one on charges of civic activity and one on charges of ideological and religious activity”. And they counted that “at least 15 kolbars [mountain porters] and local tradesmen were killed and injured on the borders of Iranian Kurdistan… by direct fire from the Iranian armed forces”.
The various jihadi groups that control the Turkish-occupied areas of Syria – and often vie with each other for that control – also feel under no compulsion to disguise the atrocities that they commit. And Turkey, despite bearing overall responsibility for what is happening, can distance itself from the mercenaries in its pay. Turkey also attempts to keep control of the narrative by not allowing access to unaccompanied journalists – a practice that reached its apogee in the recent Turkish propaganda piece about Afrîn written by the New York Times. The backlash this provoked revealed the limits of this policy.
Of course, Turkey’s approach to Syria, and to the Kurds more generally, is very much in line with 1984’s “War is Peace”, including the names of the invasions, Olive Branch and Peace Spring, and the creation of a notoriously dangerous “safe zone”.
(Just in case anyone is tempted to use this litany of hypocrisy to justify a sense of Western superiority, Counter Punch has published a useful summary of the CIA’s role in making modern Turkey. This describes actions about as far removed from America’s self, and public, image of democracy and freedom as it is possible to be.)
But there is nothing inevitable about all this, as the HDP reminded us last Sunday. On the last day of February six years ago, the Dolmabahçe Agreement was declared in Istanbul: a ten-point plan to resolve the future of Kurds in Turkey, which had been negotiated between Abdullah Öcalan and the Turkish state. The Turkish government later denied the agreement and pulled out of the negotiations, but its existence demonstrates that there is another way. The HDP’s sixth anniversary statement reads, “The only way out of [today’s] dark scenario is a return to a will for a democratic solution, which was expressed in the Dolmabahçe Agreement. The interlocutor for this agreement is the entire society…”