The Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) has promoted the idea of democratic confederalism and this has led to a transformation in both its ideology and politics since 2005. This mode of politics has been adopted by a great number of communes and assemblies. The PKK continues to face bans in several countries, even as several lawyers and human rights commentators have appealed for the bans to be repealed.
The Kurdish Diaspora in Europe
The Kurdish diaspora in Europe numbers hundreds of thousands of people from Turkey. Many settled in Germany and other European countries during periods of worker migration. After the 1980 military coup in Turkey which resulted in the severe repression and criminalisation of mainly left-wing parties and groups, many Kurdish intellectuals, activists, and members took refuge in Europe. They politicized many Kurds living in the diaspora. The PKK reportedly had the largest numbers of supporters amongst the Turkish-Kurdish diaspora. It helped to mobilize students and workers and set up publishing houses.
The governments of certain European countries such as Germany and France defined the PKK as a ‘terrorist organization’. Some other Western countries provided political support to the PKK. Several non-government organisations (NGOs) and human rights organisations have documented human rights concerns relating to the ‘Kurdish Question’ alongside Kurdish diaspora organisations based in Europe.
A number of PKK members were arrested right after the ban in Germany in 1993 and the ban was followed by further Kurdish protests. Kurdish activism in Germany has continued even as German authorities have controversially deported PKK members (arrested in Germany) to Turkey. As Bahar Baser, in ‘Diasporas and homeland conflicts: A comparative perspective’ noted in 2015, activists have been affected by these deportations and arrests.
The United States also designated the PKK as a terrorist organization in 1997, and re-designated it as a terrorist organization in 1999 and 2001. In 2004, the United States stated that “the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK)/ Freedom and Democracy Congress of Kurdistan (KADEK), under any alias, is a terrorist organization, and no name change or press release can alter that fact”. Furthermore, the United States agreed to provide intelligence and political support to Turkey in the international arena in its counterterrorism campaign against the PKK, under the cover of the ‘War on Terror’.
What is different about Sweden?
In 1983, Sweden categorized the PKK as a terrorist organization and denied an entry visa to the Kurdish leader Abdullah Öcalan. However, Swedish authorities allowed other members of the PKK into the country. In 1984, Baser, in ‘Diasporas and homeland conflicts, reported that 18 Kurds were deported because of their alleged links with the PKK. Sweden’s attitude towards the Kurdish question and the PKK is reportedly different from other European countries such as Germany. Because of the Swedish government’s approach towards self-determination, its stance differed somewhat from Germany’s (during the period after the 1993 ban on the PKK).
Many members of the Kurdish diaspora in Sweden, having fled Turkey after the 1980 military coup, have mobilised and continued with activities that have connected Kurdish communities in Sweden with human rights concerns in Turkey. Several Kurdish associations have been established in Sweden and they have sought to nurture Kurdish culture through the preservation of their traditions and the promotion of education using their mother-tongue (something which has been largely repressed in Turkey). Members of the Kurdish diaspora in Sweden have contributed significantly to Kurdish cultural revitalisation and literature.
It is time to rethink the ban on the PKK
Turkey has long criticized European authorities for tolerating PKK activities in their countries. In 2016, Turkey’s President Erdoğan claimed that Germany was encouraging ‘PKK terrorism’ and the EU was allowing the banned PKK to operate in its member states. German Chancellor Angela Merkel rejected Turkey’s allegations, stating that Germany was strongly committed to fighting the PKK, which is considered a terrorist organization across the EU. Merkel also pointed out that over the years, German authorities had, in fact, opened legal proceedings against alleged PKK members in over 4,000 cases. These proceedings had resulted in the arrest of many Kurdish activists and the closure of many Kurdish media outlets.
German Interior Minister Horst Seehofer banned two broadcasters operating in Germany on the grounds that they were affiliated to the PKK as recently as November 2019. The German Interior Ministry banned ROJ TV 11 years ago on the grounds that it operated under the organizational structure of the PKK. The PKK, which reportedly has 14,500 followers in Germany, is officially considered to be a radical foreign organisation in the country with a large number of supporters and/or sympathisers.
The PKK ban: an obstacle to peace?
A prominent lawyer who has defended Kurds in German courts, Peer Stolle, the chair of the Republican Lawyers Association (RAV), told Yeni Özgür Politika that Germany has provided sustained support to Turkey in its persecution of Kurds. Stolle said: ”This is an open ended process. Political discussions will be a determining factor here, but the legal fight is also important. We, the lawyers, for instance, were able to influence the lifting of several bans cited there. Because it is absurd for Germany to ban the flags when on the one hand, the global public has sympathy for Syrian Kurdish organizations, and the international coalition works”.
Peer Stolle also stated that the PKK ban imposes restrictions on the scope of political involvement of Kurds living in Germany. He emphasized that this represents an obstacle to resolving the conflict in Turkey. “Any type of political activity pursued by Kurds in Germany falls under a cloud of being related to the PKK. And being politically active can be enough to launch legal proceedings against people, often resulting in several years of imprisonment. These people effectively have no right to resist. The PKK ban makes it impossible to pursue a peaceful solution to the conflict”, he said, adding that: ”The PKK ban is of German origin. It is a decision made as a result of a political attitude”.
Die Linke’s (The Left Party’s) deputy Jan van Aken in a tweet in 2016 appealed to the German government to halt its support for Erdoğan’s regime, starting with the lifting of the PKK ban. However, the Turkish government wishes to see even more intense prosecution of alleged PKK supporters in Germany.
Rethinking the ban
The European Union regularly reviews its list of terrorist organizations both within and outside the EU at least every 6 months. Germany renewed the ban in April 2015 a few months before the end of a ceasefire between the PKK and the Turkish government. Germany has an ethnic Kurdish population of almost 1 million people – more than any other European country.
In February, the South Schleswig Electoral Union (SSW) demanded in the Schleswig-Holstein State Assembly that the ban on the PKK – implemented by the German state since 1993 – be removed from the European Union’s list of ‘terrorist organizations’. The Law Commission of the State Assembly rejected the application without considering it. The application was rejected unanimously through a vote by the Christian Democratic Union of Germany (CDU), the Social Democratic Party of Germany (SPD), the Green Party and the Free Democratic Party (FDP) members of the commission.
Reacting to the decision, SSW Group President Lars Harms said: “It is understood from the unanimous decision that the PKK ban is not a legal decision based on concrete events, but an ideological and political decision”.
Lawyer Lukas Theune, Managing Director of the Republican Lawyers’ Association based in Berlin, in an interview stated that: “The Kurdish Freedom Movement has an anti-capitalist line and Germany, an important centre of capitalism, sees this as dangerous for itself. The PKK is being criminalized by the German state because it wants to create an alternative society”.
On 6 October 2020, there was a dispute about the PKK issue in the Swedish Parliament between independent deputy Amineh Kakabaveh and Sweden’s Foreign Minister Ann Linde. Amineh Kakabaveh made an appeal to remove the PKK from the list of terrorist organisations.
Kakabaveh claimed that they supported the struggle of the democratic forces and continued: “As long as the PKK remains on the list of terrorist organization, the Kurds will continue to be the target of Turkey’s attacks”. Kakabeveh has appealed to the government in Sweden to take an initiative to remove the PKK from its list of “terrorist” organizations in order to end the attacks on Kurds and democratic forces.
Sweden’s Foreign Minister Ann Linde, in response, stated that the European Union and Sweden have included the PKK on the list of terrorist organisations since 2002, and that Sweden will not take the PKK off the list.
Recently, a report on PKK judgments in Brussels and Luxembourg was published by the Legal Aid Fund AZADÎ and the Association for Democracy and International Law (MAF-DAD). It is entitled ‘The PKK is not a terrorist organization’ and it seeks to encourage discussions concerning the legal and political classification of the Kurdish Liberation Movement.
It is also worth noting that a campaign called ‘Freedom for Abdullah Öcalan’ was launched on 6 September 2012 in Brussels in Belgium. A member of the campaign team, Reimar Heider, told MedyaNews that: ”The arrests and investigations are technically and totally unrelated to the lists of terrorist organizations but they are politically linked”.
The lawyer involved in the case that was filed in the European Court of Justice to remove the PKK from the ‘terrorist organizations of the EU” list, Tamara Buruma, told MedyaNews that most countries use definitions that are based upon the EU Framework Decision of 2001. She stated that there have been cases where the distinction has not been made sufficiently, and where it was not understood sufficiently that the grassroots Kurdish social activism shares certain images and colours with the PKK, without being affiliated to it in any way. ”For example, showing a picture of Öcalan is sometimes incorrectly understood as meaning a direct connection with the PKK”, she said.