24th of July marks the 99th anniversary of the signing of the Treaty of Lausanne. In line with this occasion, Medya News, by translating a Mesopotamia News Agency story, shares the views of Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) leader Abdullah Öcalan on the treaty and how a “social” version is needed for a solution to the Kurdish question.
The treaty that was signed in 1923 holds special importance for the Kurds, since it established artificial borders which divided their land Iran, Iraq, Turkey and Syria. While Turkey has long hailed the treaty as “a victory and a success,” the subsequent process brought about policies of assimilation, denial and destruction for the Kurds, who have been resisting these ever since.
Although the Kurds have fought for their freedom in a way that has gained the appreciation of the international community, attacks on the achievements of the Kurds continue in Turkey and other countries in the region. Being the leader of the latest uprising against the aforementioned anti-Kurdish policies, Öcalan has shared his views on a solution to the issue many times in the past. He is currently being held in total isolation in a prison on İmralı Island in the northwestern province of Bursa, despite the practice of isolation being a human rights violation.
Öcalan, who was imprisoned in 1999, has been serving his prison sentence in isolation since the collapse of the peace process between the state and the PKK in 2015. He was allowed to meet with his lawyers in 2019, and has been allowed just one phone call with his brother Mehmet Öcalan, in 2021.
In his defence statements and in meetings with his lawyers, Öcalan has described the Treaty of Lausanne as one of the most tragic incidents of the 20th century.
“With this treaty, not only was the oil of the Mosul-Kirkuk [area] lost, but the Kurds were also lost. The historical fraternity between the Kurds and Turks was lost,” he said.
In a meeting with his lawyers on 10 December 2008, Öcalan called for the treaty to be updated:
“The Kurds should say, ‘We don’t accept the Treaty of Sevres. We want to establish and update our own Treaty of Lausanne. We need to make a second [Treaty of] Lausanne by updating the first. In this way, the National Pact [Misak-ı Milli] would be widened to include the Kurds in Syria, Iraq and Iran. What I’m saying is not being fully understood. The words said today will become practice 10 years from now. Even if I were to call for the removal of the borders, it couldn’t happen today. What I mean by the National Pact is the formation of the bond of friendship and communion between the Kurds in all the parts [of Kurdistan]. What I say is misunderstood. My understanding of the National Pact is not that of [Ottoman Kurdish religious scholar] Idris Bitlisi. I’m talking about a bond of friendship and communion with Syria, Iran and Iraq. I’m talking about the creation of spaces where they can live together while also preserving individual characteristics. This is what I mean by a democratic confederal system. On this basis it is possible for all peoples, Arabs, Azeris, Persians and Turks, to live together while preserving the individual characteristics of the different parts. Pay attention, I’m not talking about separatism. I’m talking about a bond of communion. How is this evil? How is this separatism? Let’s give democratic politics a chance, instead of war.”
In a further meeting with his lawyers on 14 January 2009, Öcalan again stressed the need to update the Treaty of Lausanne:
“When I say that the National Pact can be updated, I’m not suggesting Turkey takes over the land of Iraq or other countries. The National Pact included some of the current land of Iraq until Sulaymaniyah. The Mosul/Kirkuk [area] was brought under Iraq’s control with the British intervention in 1926. Britain, which is a small island country, had the world in its pocket. Britain dominates world politics today as well. The Sykes–Picot Agreement and the Treaty of Zuhab both need to be updated too. The Treaty of Zuhab was made by the feudal [empires] of the time.
The Treaty of Lausanne was also signed by Kurdish legislators. But the treaty failed the Kurds. The National Pact failed the Kurds. Today these failings need to be rectified using democratic solutions and methods, and the rights of the Kurds need to be recognised. A democratic confederal system needs to be built among the peoples in the Middle East. I’m not against republics, but the existing republics need to be democratised.”
On 21 January 2009, Öcalan told his lawyers that Britain’s policies caused division:
“Many of the conspiracies against the Kurds began with Sykes-Picot. They made a plan to divide the Kurds. ‘The Great Kurdistan Project’ was drawn up under Sykes-Picot. They devised all kinds of plots. This is why I said that the National Pact should be updated. So, is this separatism? No, there is no separatism in our understanding of the solution. We are not against the republic or the borders. My aim is to make visible the spirit and principles of the first years of the Republic and the National Pact. My call is a call to return to the founding philosophy of the republic.”
A week later, on 28 January, Öcalan told his lawyers that nationalism brings about clashes, and said that what matters is democracy:
“Democracy is wealth. A true democracy brings wealth, peace and a healthy environment with it. This goes for women too. Turks and Kurds can live together and this is what is right, historical and just. This is democracy. What makes Britain so rich and powerful is its strong democracy. However, they don’t apply this abroad. They emphasise monopoly instead. They use money and nationalism. They try to gather the Kurds around them through a few holding companies they have set up in Diyarbakır, Bitlis and Van, to keep the Kurds under supervision and pressure and prevent democratic demands. I’m trying to warn the Kurds about this, they shouldn’t fall for these tricks. This needs to be clearly explained to the people.”
On 4 February 2009, the PKK leader suggested that the Kurds arrange their own “National Pact congress” and debate their own Treaty of Lausanne:
“In fact I want to pay my historical debt to the Kurds of that period. The Kurds acted together with the republic in the run-up to [the Treaty of] Lausanne. They need to recreate the Treaty of Lausanne, completing the Kurdish aspect of it that was left uncompleted. This can be made possible by recognition of and constitutional and legal guarantees of the democratic freedoms and rights of the Kurds. The Kurds need to work towards this.”
On 27 March 2009, Öcalan said that a democratic republic could be founded with a “Kurdish Treaty of Lausanne”:
“Some are talking about neo-Ottomanism. No, this is not neo-Ottomanism, rather it is the strategic partnership between the Kurds and Turks. This means both societies living together and becoming brothers. If this is achieved the Kurds will be able to play a leading role in the Middle East. If they achieve democratisation, it will spread across the entire Middle East.”
A neo-Ottomanist approach is discernible in speeches of President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, who in September 2016 denied that the Treaty of Lausanne was a “victory.”
Perhaps one of Öcalan’s most important suggestions was made on 1 July 2009. Speaking to his lawyers, Öcalan said that the Treaty of Lausanne needs to be democratised:
“The Treaty of Lausanne of the 1920s is the national treaty. By this treaty, the republic was founded. The republic has not been democratised, it is now in need of democratisation. This is why I call for a Social [Treaty of] Lausanne. With a social Treaty of Lausanne, all sectors of society would be democratised. The basis to do this exists, but a lot of work needs to be done. This needs to be thoroughly understood. The Kurds should prepare for a Social Treaty of Lausanne. With this Treaty the Kurds will lead in democratisation. The Kurds as a community need to prepare en masse for a Social Treaty of Lausanne, as if they were preparing for war.”