On 2 November the UK parliament debated the issue of ‘Kurdish Political Representation and Equality in Turkey,’ even as a demonstration by Kurds took place just outside the parliament building protesting against Turkey’s use of chemical weapons against Kurds in Iraqi Kurdistan.
Lloyd Russell-Moyle (Lab/Co-op) MP, chair of the All-Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) for Kurdistan in Turkey and Syria noted that the APPG in question had published a report in June this year, with the same thematic title.
That APPG’s 56 page report had concluded that it was being released “at a time of acute crisis: a crisis of human rights and freedom of speech, and a fundamental collapse of democracy. This report outlines the dire situation in Turkey regarding the repression of political representatives, violence against women and girls, the quashing of journalistic freedoms and militarised attacks targeting majority-Kurdish regions.
“Recent years under President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s ruling party have seen a return to repressive and violent targeting of Kurds,” it noted, adding: “The treatment of the Kurdish population and of elected representatives is one of the greatest threats to democracy in Turkey and the wider region. As the repression of democratically elected representatives has increased in severity, the violence directed at Kurdish civil society has also become more pronounced.”
In the parliamentary debate, Russell-Moyle sought to highlight these detailed concerns raised in the APPG report. He was joined by a number of cross-party MPs who also expressed their concern over several matters pertaining to the British government’s policy towards the criminalisation of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), its arms trade and its lack of pressure on the Turkish government to address a range of severe human rights violations.
Key concerns that were raised related to the treatment of the imprisoned PKK leader Abdullah Öcalan, the criminalisation of people, parties (particularly the Peoples’ Democratic Party, the HDP), politicians and journalists in Turkey advocating Kurdish rights, confederalism, political co-chair systems and women’s equality rights, as well as linguistic rights.
The lack of freedom of the press and the criminalisation of journalists was also debated, as was the recommendation by the APPG to the British government to consider reappraising its listing of the PKK as a ‘terrorist organisation.’
Amongst the key concerns raised by Kim Johnson MP during the parliamentary debate was “the fact that Abdullah Öcalan is still imprisoned on Imrali island, without fundamental rights being met.”
This “is nothing short of an outrage,” she asserted. “The escalation by Erdoğan and the Turkish state, particularly since the attempted coup in 2016, with the arrests of hundreds of activists, journalists, mayors and MPs, is morally contemptible and undermines any attempts to broker a just and sustainable peace process.
“Britain has a powerful role in holding Turkey to account on human rights and its violation of international law and the European Convention on Human Rights. We must be bold in our demands to put an end to these injustices, to protect political representation and inalienable human rights and to ensure peace and stability for all communities living in Turkey.”
Regarding the violation of linguistic rights, Russell-Moyle made reference to a report that “stated that 200,000 children in Diyarbakır alone and 6 million children in south-east Turkey were being denied an education entirely or being forced to learn exclusively in Turkish and not their mother language. This is, of course, a denial of human rights.”
The assault on journalism was also discussed. “There are attacks not just on individual journalists, but on publications and radio stations in Turkey,” noted Russell-Moyle. “According to Amnesty International, one third of all the world’s jailed journalists are imprisoned in Turkey. That is a disgraceful statistic.”
Concern over the targeting of certain opposition parties and groups and women’s organisations
Russell-Moyle, in expressing his concern over the targeting of the Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) and its MPs and supporters, noted in the parliamentary debate that “there is a great deal of precedent for targeting MPs. In the past six years, the former HDP chairs were arrested for alleged connections to the PKK.
“Part of the Government’s case was that they had used the words ‘Kurds’ and ‘Kurdistan’ in public speeches in 2012. The other citation in the case was that they had been involved in the creation of the PKK. The PKK was created in 1978, when both the co-chairs were five years old. We can clearly see that this does not seem to stand up to fair and due process.”
John Spellar (Labour) MP: “Is not the important thing here that the HDP and other groups that may just disagree with the current regime are being denied their democratic rights and are being attacked? (…) Should not NATO, and Britain through NATO, put pressure on the regime, as a member of NATO, to hold to democratic values?”
Russell-Moyle stated bluntly that “NATO and the Council of Europe, both of which we and Turkey are members of, need to be holding Turkey to greater account. (…) An expansive approach,” as taken by the Turkish government, “including anyone who just shares the ideals of self-determination is not helpful in the fight against terrorism, because it makes a mockery of the whole system. (…)
“In December 2020, the European Court of Human Rights ordered the immediate release of the Chairs and other Members of Parliament and a suspension of their trials, saying that they were politically motivated. That ruling is now wilfully ignored by Turkey.
“In addition, the European Parliament passed, by 590 votes to 16, a motion saying that they should be released. The testimony is supported by the ‘World Report 2020,’ published by Human Rights Watch. (…) The 2020 Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe resolution dealt with the political crackdown on political opposition, highlighting how immunity for politicians had been stripped away from 2016 onwards.”
In this context, he concluded that “it is clear that this is an organised targeting of opposition MPs just for calling for autonomy or self-determination for majority Kurdish areas. Previously, it had been an attack on HDP MPs, but recently and worryingly” now, “it has been extended to Republican People’s Party (CHP) Members of Parliament. (…)
“The idea of supporting Kurdish autonomy and self-determination [also] seems to be all that is now required to trigger an accusation of terrorism or subversion. That is a dangerous precedent.”
Several MPs, including Russell-Moyle, also highlighted concerns over the replacement of HDP mayors by ‘trustees’ of the state and other criminalisation measures against the Democratic Society Congress (DTK – the umbrella group of the Kurdish political movement).
Russell-Moyle also drew attention to other aspects of targeting by the Turkish government: “The HDP operates a co-chair system, whereby a man and a woman co-chair the party and many municipalities. The HDP maintains a quota of 50% female candidates and, I think almost uniquely for any political party in the world, 10% of members must come from the LGBT+ community.
“That means that repression of Kurdish and Kurdish-supporting MPs has ended up disproportionately affecting women and LGBT+ people, because they are disproportionately represented – not disproportionately according to the population, but in the Turkish Parliament.”
This “practice of having co-chairs has even been cited by the Turkish Government as evidence of links to the PKK, which was the first to use the co-chair system.” Russell-Moyle noted with alarm. “That is further evidence that the expansive practice of just sharing any similar idea or practice with the PKK will mean that an organisation is branded as terrorists. It is clearly ridiculous.”
Moreover, he noted that “it is not just the HDP that has been targeted in a gendered way. The Free Women’s Congress and 49 other women’s organisations were closed down in the state of emergency that was declared in 2016. As a result of that declaration, the bank accounts of many of these women’s organisations were closed, making it impossible for them to continue to operate.”
This targeting took place also within a frightening context in which, “in the 18 years that the AKP [Turkey’s ruling Justice and Development Party] has been in power, femicide in Turkey overall has increased by 1,400%. That is a shocking amount.”
Frustration and concern over the UK government’s stance
Concern was raised – and frustration expressed – during the parliamentary debate over the British government’s seeming reluctance to proactively address these concerns that had been raised, for example by the APPG in its June report.
Russell-Moyle stated: “Our report was 56 pages in total, with 32 recommendations for the UK Government. We received comments based on the first-hand experience of MPs, mayors, civil society and women’s organisations, and I sent the report to the Minister [the Foreign Secretary, Elizabeth Truss] in July.
“I received a one-and-a-quarter-page reply, the substantive part of which said: ‘We were concerned by recent reports of increased violence in the region and the Minister for the Middle East and North Africa tweeted on 1 September calling for de-escalation.’ Is a tweet really the maximum amount of our diplomatic effort?” he asked.
He called for forthright responses from the government regarding a number of pressing concerns: “I would like the Government to give some concrete responses. Will the Minister and the Government demand the release of the HDP co-leaders, in accordance with the decision by the European Court of Human Rights in December 2020? Will she condemn the closure of the DTK and remind the Turkish Government of their previous commitment to find a peaceful solution to the ongoing conflict?
“Will the Government push the Turkish Government to accept the revised European charter on the participation of young people in local and regional life, which is a Council of Europe charter for young people, so that it applies to young people in Turkey? (…) What will the Government do to press the Turkish Government to uphold the rule of law and democratic principles in Turkey?
“Will the Government condemn the Turkish Government’s decision to close multiple institutions that uphold Kurdish cultural life? Furthermore, what steps will the Minister take to raise this issue with her Turkish counterparts? Will she discuss the support that the British Council could offer in Kurdish-English work and co-operation? (…)
“May I ask the Minister: will the Government condemn the measures to restrict freedom of speech implemented in Turkey and remind the Turkish Government that criticism of the Government – criticism of any Government – is a fundamental aspect of the public’s right to participation?”
Alex Sobel (Lab/Co-op) MP noted that the concerns that were being raised “are really important, and are ones that the Prime Minister has spoken about in a UK context. However, there is no evidence that the Prime Minister, when he met the President of Turkey at the NATO summit or, more recently, the G20 (I do not know whether he had a bilateral at this weekend’s G20) discussed any of these issues.
“The main issues on the agenda seemed to be tourism and vaccines, but nothing about Kurdish rights or the rights of women in Turkey.”
Crispin Blunt (Con) MP also expressed his frustration at the following situation: “The final recommendation of the Foreign Affairs Committee in its 2017 report ‘The UK’s Relations with Turkey,’ paragraph 179, is that: ‘We recommend that the FCO designate Turkey as a Human Rights Priority Country in its next Human Rights and Democracy Report.’ Matters have hardly improved over the past four years. What consideration is now being given to so designate Turkey?”
Alyn Smith (SNP) MP also raised the following concerns: “On arms export licenses, the UK has sent £212 million-worth of materiel to Turkey. What human rights assessment has been made of those arms exports, and what reassurance can we hear that those arms have not been used in the oppression of the Kurdish people?”
To this, Catherine West (Lab) MP also noted: “Personally, I found it a little troubling that, following the Brexit vote, the first excursion that the (…) then Prime Minister [Theresa May] made was to Turkey to shake hands with the President and to sell more weapons.”
She also added: “Only yesterday, I received a copy of a letter sent to the Foreign Secretary by the UK Civil Society Women’s Alliance international working group, which outlines their serious concerns about the ongoing pattern of detention and the unfair trials of activists, particularly those from the Kurdish minority, and includes specific examples of those who have been detained.”
Feryal Clark (Lab) MP also addressed the government in the following manner: “The systemic abuse of the Kurdish community has continued unchecked for far too long. My parents were forced to flee Turkey in the 1980s, due to the systemic abuse faced by the Kurdish community. When I was growing up it was illegal to learn or speak Kurdish.”
Little has changed in many respects, in terms of the human rights violations that Kurds continue to suffer in Turkey, she noted: “It is a shameful mark of the lack of progress that Kurds have continued to feel the need to leave their homes, and that the attitude of President Erdoğan’s regime shows no sign of changing. The discriminatory attitude of the Turkish Government is entrenched by President Erdoğan’s persistent interference in the courts, creating a judicial system that has become institutionally prejudiced against Kurds and other minorities in Turkey.”
And yet, she noted: “I am sure the Minister will set out the UK Government’s fantastic relationship with Turkey and the significant role that Turkey plays within NATO – it has been repeated before.
“However, I have asked before and I ask again: as allies, surely we should be calling on Turkey to stop the abuse and persecution of Kurds and Kurdish politicians. If we cannot ask our friends to stop this, how do we deal with the less friendly nations? How much longer will the UK Government stand by and let this disregard for human rights continue?
“The rights of Kurds and other minorities in Turkey have been at best ignored and at worst abused, for far too long. It is time for change. I urge the Minister to take note of the 32 recommendations set out in the APPG’s report and call on Turkey to stop the persecution of Kurds and come to the table to negotiate for a peaceful solution to the Kurdish question.”
Conservative, Labour and SNP MPs also appealed to the government to accept the APPG’s recommendation to review its labelling of the PKK as a ‘terrorist organisation,’ citing findings from recent legal cases. Responding to the questions of the parliamentarians, the Minister for Asia, Amanda Milling, speaking for the government in the absence of the Under-Secretary of State for Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Affairs (due to the summit in Scotland), stated: “It is well known that the UK has proscribed the PKK as a terrorist group, as have many of our international partners. We do not share the view of the APPG and some Members today that there are grounds to justify unproscribing the PKK.”
Russell-Moyle: The government’s response to Turkey’s withdrawal from the Istanbul Convention is ‘worrying’
The reported 1,400% increase in femicide in Turkey since the AKP came to power, Catherine West noted, represents a “level of abuse against women that must be taken seriously” and acted upon. She also added: “We need assurances that our own manufactured weapons are not being used for internal repression. (…) We seek assurances that those weapons are not being used for any violence against Kurdish people in Turkey.”
Concerning gender equality and women’s rights based concerns, Russell-Moyle stated that the situation in Turkey “is very worrying. During our report, the Turkish Government withdrew from the Istanbul Convention. (…) The evidence that the APPG took shows that the situation is becoming dire for women, so may I ask the Minister what support the Government will give to international organisations aiding women in vulnerable situations in Turkey?
“What steps is she taking to ensure that the UK Government aid is directed to women-led organisations in Turkey, and that that aid reaches majority Kurdish areas? Will her Government call in the strongest terms for Turkey to rejoin the Istanbul Convention and fully implement it?”
When the Minister for Asia, Amanda Milling, responded on behalf of the government by stating that the UK government expressed “regret” over Turkey’s decision to pull out of the Istanbul Convention, Russell-Moyle replied: “The Minister said that she ‘regrets’ this, but could she at least push a bit further on the Istanbul Convention to say that our Government calls on Turkey to re-sign it? She did not seem to be able to say those words and I think that is deeply disappointing. (…)
“I must say that I am disappointed that we are not able to offer more than ‘concern’ or ‘regret’ about Turkey’s withdrawal from the Istanbul Convention. The Minister used slightly stronger language, which was slightly more welcome, on the European Court of Human Rights’ judgment than on the Istanbul Convention.
“I do not understand why we are not able to use stronger language on the Istanbul Convention. It is worrying; the withdrawal predominantly affects Kurds, but it actually affects all women in Turkey. I just do not understand that.
“I am disappointed that we did not get more concrete answers on the co-ordination of British aid and development in Turkey. (…) We know that women’s organisations are being shut down in Turkey, that Kurdish women’s organisations are often deprived of money and that journalists are being locked up. We should put in aid and support to ensure that those organisations are able to work and are not repressed.”