With so much talk about war crimes and crimes against humanity, I thought I would begin this week by looking at what is meant by these terms. The theatre of war that is in most people’s minds at the moment is, of course, Gaza, but this is far from the only place that is currently witnessing horrific crimes that international organisations seem incapable of responding to, and in many cases are unwilling to even acknowledge. I will illustrate these crimes with examples from Turkey’s actions in North and East Syria – where they are intent on destroying the autonomous administration established by Syrian Kurds and their neighbours – and also from Turkey’s attacks on the Kurdistan Region of Iraq. I could also have chosen examples from many other parts of the world that are, perhaps, even less noticed.
International rules of war have developed over centuries, but many of today’s legal and organisational structures were created after the Second World War in an attempt to prevent a recurrence of the horrors of Nazism. Their existence has coincided with the growing power of the military industrial complex, and although old forms of colonialism may no longer be seen as acceptable, power is still in the hands of the wealthy in an ill-divided world, and resistance to the world’s inequalities and injustices is still being met by military repression. Rather than address the causes of discontent, governments seek to crush it.
So, perhaps it should not be surprising that, despite all the international organisations established to prevent them, war crimes and crimes against humanity have not stopped. International organisations are made up of states that act according to their own self-interest (or at least that of their ruling elites), and are not independent of the forces that they purport to police. At the same time, punishments imposed by states themselves, in response to actions by their own armed forces, rarely extend to the officers in charge.
Concrete action to impose law on war crimes is reliant on political will and opportunity, and perpetrators can be secure in the knowledge that the great majority of war crimes will never be tried in court, and may not even be discussed as such. People from other countries who help facilitate those crimes have especially little to worry about. Take, for example, the successive British governments – Conservative and Labour – who sent arms to Iraq in the 1960s, when Iraq was attempting to suppress a Kurdish revolt led by Mustafa Barzani. A recent article by Mark Curtis for Declassified UK shows that “Thousands of rockets were sent to Baghdad knowing they would be used to destroy Kurdish villages. The British attempted to ensure the United Nations would not discuss allegations of genocide in Iraq. [And the] Labour government ignored [the] Kurdish leader’s plea to prevent Iraq beginning possible chemical weapons attacks against Kurds”.
Customary laws concerning warfare have a long history, but war crimes began to be codified in the nineteenth century. The Hague Conventions of 1899 and 1907 focus on prohibiting certain methods of warfare, while the Geneva Conventions – developed from 1864 to 1949, and ratified by all members of the United Nations – focus on the protection of non-combatants. There were additional protocols added to the Geneva Conventions in 1977, which many states have not ratified, but the United Nations points out that customary law is anyway binding on all states and also on non-state actors.
The International Criminal Court
War crimes are considered to be committed by individuals (not states or organisations) and to be committed intentionally. They may be tried in national courts, or in special international tribunals, or, since 2002, in the International Criminal Court in the Hague. Many nations have not signed up to the court’s jurisdiction – including China, Russia, the United States and Turkey – and their nationals can only be indicted if the alleged offence took place in a member state’s territory, or if this is authorised by the United Nations’ Security Council.
Although the International Criminal Court is often mentioned by those looking for justice, the number of cases the court has tried so far is only 31, and these have been disproportionately from Africa. Ten people have been convicted, four have been acquitted and five died before their cases could be completed.
The crime of aggression
Before looking at how Turkey’s actions constitute war crimes, I want to look at another very specific crime that also falls under the remit of the International Criminal Court – the crime of aggression, which the International Military Tribunal at Nuremberg described as the “supreme international crime”. Turkey is carrying out unprovoked aggression against North and East Syria with continuous low-level attacks, as well as last month’s major bombardment, and previous invasions. Moreover, their military occupation and bombing of large areas of north Iraq cannot be justified by the actual threat posed by the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK). However, as Turkey is not a member of the court, any case against them would have to be referred by the UN Security Council.
Turkey’s war crimes
If we look at the list of possible war crimes on the United Nations website,
alongside the actions of the Turkish military and of their mercenaries, we can find numerous examples for many of the different categories of crime. There has been wilful killing of civilians by Turkish drones and shells in both Syria and north Iraq – although this week’s attacks have not resulted in actual fatalities three civilians were injured in a Turkish drone attack in Iraq and several civilians were injured in an attack on the Youth Council building in Syria’s Manbij. The militias that Turkey has put in charge of the occupied areas have been shown to have practised torture and “wilful suffering”, as well as destroying and appropriating property. Prisoners taken in Syria have been denied fair trial and even unlawfully deported to Turkey – North Press Agency reports that transfers to Turkish prisons have been on the rise, with eleven Syrian detainees transferred from Afrîn to Turkish prisons on Monday and nine last week. Attacks have been directed against the civilian population and against non-military targets including towns, villages, homes, schools, hospitals, religious buildings, historic and cultural monuments, and the natural environment. Turkey’s Foreign Minister, Hakan Fidan, even preannounced that Turkey would destroy North and East Syria’s vital infrastructure. Captured areas have been subject to pillage, and the people that didn’t flee from the invaders have been subjected to brutal and degrading treatment, including rape. Some of the mercenary militias have also been found to have conscripted children. In their attacks on the PKK in the Iraqi mountains, Turkey has been repeatedly accused of using chemical weapons.
Crimes against humanity
Others of Turkey’s actions might more readily be classed as crimes against humanity, which the United Nations describe as parts of a widespread or systematic attack on a civilian population carried out as part of a plan, even if that plan is not explicitly stated. In fact, there is a lot of overlap. Crimes against humanity don’t necessarily take place during war, and include murder, imprisonment, deportation, torture, sexual violence, disappearances and persecution.
Ethnic cleansing may be considered a war crime and a crime against humanity. Turkey’s brutal and discriminatory policies have driven most of the original residents to leave the occupied areas of Syria, and Turkey has replaced them with the families of their Islamist mercenaries and with Syrian Arab refugees, in what is generally regarded as a project of deliberate demographic change.
Turkey’s holding back of water supplies from North and East Syria, both from the rivers and from the captured Alouk pumping station, contravenes various international human rights laws. The impact has been compounded by poor rainfall and a legacy of inadequate water management, and – of course – by war damage, but a report published at the beginning of this year noted that 60% of Syria’s water comes from outside its borders. The authors recorded that 90% of the population had access to drinking water in 2010, but this has now dropped to a third; and, with many people forced to rely on buying water from trucks, a quarter of household income is being spent on water, while people are still receiving less than they need for maintaining hygiene and health. Lack of water has also affected agriculture, and food prices, and has limited the power that can be generated by hydroelectric dams – with knock-on impacts across the economy. Electricity in Kobanê is down to 7 hours a day.
Despite the blatant illegality of Turkey’s actions, they get very little mention, even in reports on Syria’s water crisis, such as the recent briefing paper by the international NGO, REACH, which omits any reference to Turkey’s role in declining river levels.
From international illegalities to domestic ones, and the constitutional crisis arising from the case of Can Atalay who was elected as an MP for the Turkish Workers’ Party (TİP) in May. Atalay had been in prison since April 2022 when he was sentenced to 18 years for “aiding the attempt to overthrow the government” due to his involvement in the 2013 Gezi Park protests, though his case had not been finalised. His election as an MP gave him parliamentary immunity, and this was confirmed by the Constitutional Court on 25 October, when they ruled that his rights had been violated, and demanded his release. Constitutional Court rulings are final, and that should have been that. However, the lower court that had originally sentenced him and was expected to release him, challenged the decision, and took the case back to the Court of Cassation. The Court of Cassation not only refused to release Atalay, but also filed a criminal complaint against the members of the Constitutional Court. And they wrote a letter to Parliament claiming that if Can Atalay’s parliamentary membership was not revoked, it would pave the way for leaders of the Gülen Movement and the PKK to enter parliament.
Both Özgür Özel, the newly elected leader of the Republican People’s Party (CHP), and Tuncer Bakırhan the co-chair of the Peoples Equality and Democracy Party (HEDEP) have described this as a coup against the constitution, Özel called for the coup to be resisted on the streets and declared that the CHP would not leave the parliament until the issue was resolved. Bar Associations around the country protested this “unlawful” decision which was “made by exceeding authority”, and which “has fundamentally shaken the trust in the constitutional order.” Ankara Bar Association held a protest march yesterday afternoon, complete with lawyers robes and copies of the constitution, and Özel joined their protest.
Meanwhile, President Erdoğan has defended the position of the Court of Cassation and accused the Constitutional Court of making a string of mistakes.
The CHP and the Kurds
Özel was elected CHP leader on Sunday. He replaces Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu, who had led the Party for 13 years and who insisted on taking the leadership vote to a second round even though it was clear he would lose. Kılıçdaroğlu’s going will be widely welcomed, and not just because he was associated with losing the last election. The message of hope and reconciliation with which Kılıçdaroğlu began that election had turned sour when he wooed the leader of the far-right Victory Party, Ümit Özdağ, for his support in the second round – especially when it was subsequently revealed that he had made a secret agreement to give Özdağ control of Turkey’s National Intelligence Organisation and three ministries. Kurdish voters had been persuaded that Kılıçdaroğlu was their chance for an end to their persecution, and this betrayal hit them particularly hard.
The pro-Kurdish leftist HDP – now HEDEP – had stood aside in the presidential election and asked their voters to vote for Kılıçdaroğlu, just as they had previously called for a vote for the CHP in the mayoral elections in Istanbul and Ankara, but they have made clear that they will stand their own candidates everywhere in the forthcoming regional elections in March. However, Özel has been quick to try and regain Kurdish support, and he made clear his belief that getting rid of Kılıçdaroğlu was essential for this. Speaking to his party’s Diyarbakır Provincial Congress when campaigning for their support in the leadership vote, he promised to solve the Kurdish Question and end anti-Kurdish discrimination, referring to Diyarbakır as a target for peace, brotherhood and freedom. He noted the necessity to “respectfully commemorate” Musa Anter, the Kurdish writer who was several times a political prisoner and was murdered by the Turkish state in 1992; and he rejected the dismissal of Kurdish mayors.
Also in Turkey
Meanwhile, the Turkish judicial system has provided further evidence of their politicisation by again detaining Kurdish politician, Aysel Tuğluk, who was released from prison a year ago when the authorities finally recognised her advanced dementia. This time she was only held for a few hours.
Also in Turkey, details of the new school curriculum reveal that religious education will begin in preschool, and that Islam and the views of Islamic scholars will be introduced into every subject, including science.
And much of the population has been distracted by false rumours circulating on social media that Israel had made an agreement to pay Turkey two billion dollars to accept one million Palestinians as Turkish citizens.
In Syria and Iraq
In Syria and Iraq, fears continue over the possible expansion of Israel’s war on Gaza. There have been further attacks by Iran-backed groups on United States bases in both countries, and the Pentagon claims they have now been targeted by 46 separate attacks causing 56 injuries, though non serious. America has carried out a second military retaliation with an attack on Iran-backed groups in Deir ez-Zor. The Iraqi Prime Minister tried, with no obvious success, to persuade Iran to curb attacks on US troops by the militias they support.
At the same time, attacks across the Euphrates by Syrian Government forces and Iran-backed militias, aimed at destabilising the Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria, have resulted in the death of a child.
Meanwhile, in Iran itself, uncommented on by international media, the steady roll-call of state executions only quickens in pace. Hengaw Organization for Human Rights records that “In the initial nine days of November 2023, a minimum of 45 individuals were subjected to execution within Iranian penitentiaries, amounting to an average of five executions daily.”
In Zahedan, site of regular Friday protests by the Baluch people, this Friday was marked by an intense security presence and physical searches of citizens. Ten of the children arrested in the major crackdown three weeks ago are still detained, with their parents left waiting for news.
The biggest crime
I have looked at internationally defined crimes against humanity, but the biggest crime has been the systematic crushing of every attempt everywhere to build an alternative form of society that prioritises mutual aid rather than capitalist competition, equality rather than survival of the richest, and natural harmony rather than the exploitation and destruction of our planet. This crime has been achieved not only through brute force, but also through the constant propaganda that conditions us to believe that anything other than our current system is not possible.
The lack of international support for the Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria is not only a consequence of states not wanting to antagonise Turkey. The powers-that-be have no desire to facilitate the survival of social organisations that, however incompletely, question the underlying assumptions of capitalism and the superiority of liberal democracy. Those who challenge the status quo have to expend enormous amounts of energy just defending themselves from the forces that seek to extinguish them.
This is also being brutally demonstrated the other side of the world, in Mexico. Comparisons have often been made between the autonomous system established by the Zapatistas in Chiapas and the more recent developments in North and East Syria. Chiapas has been under constant attack from government counter insurgency and increasingly by paramilitary groups, state mega-projects, and wars between competing drug cartels. The Zapatistas have just announced a major restructuring and have warned that though they invite people to the thirtieth anniversary celebration of their revolution, it is too dangerous to come – a situation that they blame on the Mexican state.
The growth of radical Islam in the Middle East and of right-wing populism in Europe and America has been made possible by the stifling of all socialist channels through which people could express opposition to the status quo. The failure of liberal democracies to generate governments – or even to sustain significant opposition parties – that represent the interests of a large part of the population is due to the systematic demolition of the left. We can see this demolition clearly in the establishment campaign to demonise Jeremy Corbyn and put a stop to his mild Labour reformism, and in the current lies being spread against La France Insoumise.
A call for resistance and solidarity
I want to end with a call for resistance and solidarity put out, in the form of an open letter, by the academics and staff of the universities of North and East Syria, which are temporarily closed in the wake of the Turkish bombardment. They ask, what is the purpose of scientific advances if they do not lead to progress in democracy, equality, ecology, peace and human rights? They write, “We recognize that our suffering is not confined to our region alone, as numerous parts of the world are grappling with severe challenges brought about by the global dynamics of power and capital.” And they call on their peers to take up their ethical responsibilities and unite against oppression everywhere.