This edition of Medya News Podcast is the second of three interviews to mark the 23rd anniversary of the abduction and imprisonment of the Kurdish leader Abdullah Öcalan on 15 February 1999. The first interview was with Mahmoud Patel from the Kurdish Human Rights Action Group in South Africa and in this edition we will be speaking to Simon Dubbins, the International Director of the Unite Union.
The Kurdish issue in Turkey is one of denial of the identity of the Kurdish people. A denial of their identity, their history, their culture, their language and their right to decide their own future. Because they decided not to abandon their identity, the Kurds were criminalised and have been subjected, for almost one hundred years since the establishment of the modern Turkish state, to the most brutal and violent campaigns of repression, that have included widespread war crimes of ethnic cleansing, forced displacement and other crimes against humanity. Widespread crimes that the Kurds have suffered to the almost universal silence of the international community and global governments, who have supported the Turkish state’s brutal suppression of the Kurds with silence and complicity. Arms deals and economic interests have meant that governments have not questioned whether the Turkish state’s preferred framing of the Kurdish issue could be viewed in any other way than one of fighting terrorism.
In 2014 the UK trade union movement were appalled at the manner in which the Turkish government prevented support for Kurds crossing their borders during the battle for Kobani against the genocidal intent of ISIS. The brave Kurdish fighters of the People’s Protection Units (YPG) and the Women’s Protection Units (YPJ) were an inspiration to all, especially those in the trade union movement.
Then in 2015 Erdogan failed to gain the absolute majority he wanted in the elections and proceeded to react in an aggressive manner, relaunching the brutal war against the Kurds. In 2016, in the aftermath of these events, the trade union campaign – Freedom for Öcalan – was launched in the UK parliament by Unite and the GMB trade union. Since then it has grown to have more then 14 major unions affiliated to it and is supported by the Trades Union Congress, the TUC.
Abdullah Öcalan, the recognised leader of the Kurdish people’s freedom movement, whose ideas guide this progressive movement and the fighters of which played such a critical role both in saving Kobani and in the defeat of ISIS, was abducted on 15 February 1999 after being forced out of Syria and embarking on a journey to find a peaceful, political solution to the Kurdish issue.
After months of diplomatic efforts Öcalan was en route to South Africa to meet with members of Mandela’s government, who had assured him of political asylum there, when he was abducted from the Greek embassy in Nairobi by Turkish intelligence agents, flown back to Turkey and taken to a prison island called Imralı Island in the Sea of Marmara, where he has remained in almost total isolation since. This 15 February he will be beginning his 24th year of a life sentence which has been ruled illegal by many including the European Court of Human Rights.
Simon Dubbins, the Unite union International Director, said at the launch of the Freedom for Öcalan campaign in 2016:
“Öcalan is utterly dedicated to plurality, women’s rights and democracy, he has written extraordinary books whilst under extreme conditions of isolation in prison. He is a formidable intellect. It is an outrage that President Erdogan is being given a free hand to do as he likes with freedom of expression, attacks on Trade Unions and the outright war against the Kurds, it has to end. By launching this campaign today we have broken through the taboo which has surrounded Öcalan.”
I’m very pleased and honoured today to be joined today by Simon Dubbins, the International Director of one of the UK’s largest trade unions, Unite, to talk about the Freedom for Öcalan campaign and the latest Imralı Delegation initiative, that is being launched on the 23rd anniversary of Abdullah Öcalan’s imprisonment and isolation.
Simon began by giving some background as to how the Freedom for Öcalan campaign came about and the support that it has gained since its launch. He said that a lot of work had already been done in the British trade union movement to raise support for the Kurds. But after a trade union human rights delegation, of which he was part, to Turkey’s southeastern Kurdish city of Diyarbakir in 2015, where delegates witnessed with their own eyes the brutal attacks of the Turkish army against the city in the Sur district, and heard of the Turkish army’s attacks in other Kurdish cities. Simon said that he had a long experience of 25 years of international work and had travelled to places like Palestine and Columbia and other place but he said he was absolutely stunned at what he saw. So, when they returned they had long and detailed discussions on how best to provide solidarity and decided to formalise a campaign based around a demand for the release of the Kurdish leader, Abdullah Öcalan.
Simon explained how the campaign has received widespread support and is continuing to build at a rapid pace. He said that Öcalan was clearly the recognised leader of the Kurdish people’s struggle and in that way was very similar to Nelson Mandela. Simon explained that they knew that Öcalan in his political thoughts and political approach has developed very dynamically in taking the Kurdish movement in a new direction and so Simon says he and his collegues thought the best way to approach the solidarity was to establish the campaign and build support to demand his freedom. Because, he said, only Öcalan has the political authority to enter negotiations on behalf of Kurdish people not just for inside of Turkey but because of the demographics in region he is the key to be able to bring peace, democracy to the wider region of the Middle East he said.
He said he has been pleased at the speed at which the campaign has gained support, and described how all 600 delegates to the Trades Union Congress, the umbrella of the majority of trade unions in the UK, raised pictures of Abdullah Öcalan at their congress in 2019, and said that the same thing had happened at his own union Unite in October 2021, and that they were expecting it to happen again soon at more trade union meetings as more trade unions sign up to the campaign.
Simon also explained about the Imralı Delegation initiative. The Imralı Delegation has been an annual event for a number of years now, where delegates have travelled to Turkey and met with human rights groups, the Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) and lawyers for Abdullah Öcalan. The delegates have obviously wanted to travel to Imralı Island themselves to visit the Kurdish leader, but this has been obstructed by the authorities at every turn. Because of the Covid crisis this year it will be done online with meetings with political parties and different groups in Turkey from human rights groups, women’s groups and youth etc.
In summary, Simon spoke about how there are no efforts by governments to hold Turkey to account. He expained the urgent need to build international solidarity, and how it is in fact being built, despite the challenges of the covid-19 pandemic. He said he expects this to continue and that it has some way to go to be able to put pressure on the Turkish government.
But he also said that he is confident and pleased by the way the campaign has grown so quickly, that it will continue to grow and that they will not give up until Abdullah Öcalan is free and be able to begin negotiating a political settlement to the Kurdish question in Turkey and the wider region. He ended by saying that the Kurds have many more friends now than just the mountains, referring to the Kurdish saying, “Kurds have no friends but the mountains”.