The Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) has been engaged in armed struggle since 1984 (initially seeking independence, later autonomy as well as greater political and cultural rights for Kurds) in the Republic of Turkey.
After the PKK began the armed struggle on 15 August 1984, the Kurdistan National Liberation Front (ERNK) declared its establishment on 21 March 1985. Through this action, the PKK opened its first wing that aimed to organize the mass movement as well as support the struggle. The PKK’s aim has been to involve all parts of Kurdistan’s society by making the “voice of resistance” heard all around the world, in all the continents, countries, cities and neighbourhoods where Kurds live.
Through the new NATO Strategic Concept that was aimed at combatting terrorism, in late 1984 and early 1985, the Turkish state – with US backing and with 300,000 soldiers at its disposal – conducted a cross-border military operation against 10,000 PKK guerrillas in Iraqi Kurdistan. NATO forces fought the PKK for the first time. “Gladio”, “Special warfare”, “counter-guerrilla”, “psychological war” would be the “key words” that have constantly come across in state operations in the region for almost 30 years.
A critically important country was Germany. Hundreds of thousands of people from Turkey had been accepted as ‘guest workers’ and victims and exiles of the 12 September coup also sought refuge in Germany. The 1980 military coup in Turkey proved to be a pivotal event for the Kurdish struggle/organization in Western Europe. Hundreds of thousands of Kurds entered Germany, France, the Netherlands and Belgium to escape political, religious and ethnic persecution. Europeans accepted Kurdish refugees who claimed cultural and political discrimination in their homeland. Whilst it is unknown how many ethnic Kurds entered Germany, some 350,000 citizens filed for asylum papers in Germany in the decade following the coup in Turkey. According to official statistics provided by the Statistisches Bundesamt / Federal Statistical Office (in ‘Acceptance of Foreign Refugees, Wiesbaden: Federal Statistical Office, 1980–1990’), around 300,000 Kurds lived in Germany by the mid-1980s.
Germany also had an important strategic partnership with NATO and the United States dating back to the ‘Cold War’ years. Moreover, Germany also had a history of friendship with Turkey. Beginning in 1983 and for 15 years, during the period of the Christian Democrats in power, Prime Minister Helmut Kohl would further strengthen the relationship with Turkey.
Germany bans the PKK
The German state decided to ban PKK activities on 26 November 1993. In 1993, the then Turkish Prime Minister Tansu Çiller, who received the support of the West, conducted anti-Kurdish diplomacy. Through Çiller, a new era ensured that the criminalisation of Kurdish politics in Europe, especially in Germany, took place.
Turkish Prime Minister Çiller’s first intention was to declare the PKK as a “terrorist” organisation and ban Kurdish associations in Germany. In those years, German Prime Minister Helmut Kohl said: “Germany is a federal system. Each state has separate laws. Therefore, it is not possible to ban the PKK’’. Foreign Minister Klaus Kinkel also said: “As a former Justice Minister, I will be cautious about calling the PKK a terrorist organisation”. However, this stance changed after Çiller’s visits to western countries.
After visiting Germany, Çiller flew to the United States on 12 October 1993 at the invitation of US President Clinton to gain international support and use diplomatic pressure against the Kurdish struggle. After her visits to Europe and America, Turkish state operations intensified in Lice, Diyarbakır (Amed) in Turkey. The operations led to significant protests by Kurds in Europe. Regarding these operations, protests took place in more than 30 cities in Germany on 4 November 1993. For several days, these operations became the main issue that the German media focused on. Der Spiegel used the phrase “Little Beirut” to describe the situation in Lice, and it published photographs of the destroyed and ruined houses.
Indeed, as reported by Turkish Daily News (TDN) on 3 January 1995, by the beginning of 1995, more than 2 million people in the southeast had been displaced due to village burnings and evacuation by Turkish armed forces. The Turkish Human Rights Association was quoted as stating that more than 1,360 Kurdish villages had been destroyed. By 1996, Amnesty International had reported that some 2,300 villages had been destroyed. After these incidents, German Foreign Minister Klaus Kinkel said: “The PKK must be banned immediately”. Kinkel was in contact with his Turkish counterpart Hikmet Çetin working on a joint struggle against the PKK.
During this time, international measures to be taken against the PKK were negotiated between Turkish Prime Minister Çiller, German Prime Minister Kohl and then US President Clinton. The Former German Federal Interior Minister Kanther presented a draft to ban the PKK. However, there were debates on the issue as the ministers of some states were resisting the central decision. The final decision was announced on 25 November 1993. “Kanther asked, we banned it”, said Schnoor, the Minister of the Interior.
German state administrators of the period implemented the policy of suppressing the Kurdish movement and this led to many Kurdish organizations and associations, publishing houses and agencies being banned. One of the largest raids took place on 26 November, with the participation of thousands of police officers. Many publications, news agencies and cultural associations were closed. The German press lashed out at the Kohl government. Frankfurter Rundschau newspaper stated: “The federal government supported the oppression of the Kurds. Bonn allies with Ankara against the Kurds’’.
Germany bans Kurdish organisations
German authorities shut down Kurdish information offices calling them a front for an outlawed separatist group and took similar actions against all its branches in five German states. Germany also banned the Kurdish Information Office (KIB) in Cologne and five similar organisations in Bavaria which it said were closely linked to the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK). Representatives from the Kurdish community in Germany, representing more than 400,000 Kurds, said bans on Kurdish organisations and Kanther’s refusal to exempt Kurds from deportation were leading to a “general branding of hundreds of thousands of Kurds and their democratic organisations in exile as criminal”. Bonn had close ties with the Turkish government and banned the PKK and dozens of associated groups in 1993 and conducted a series of raids against Kurdish associations across Germany.
The ‘War on Terror’
Following the 11 September 2001 attacks, the Washington administration under its ‘War on Terror’ put pressure on the European Union to “prevent international terrorism”. The PKK, indeed even before 2001, had been targeted: it has been designated as a Foreign Terrorist Organization by the US State Department since 1997. In December 2001, the EU released its list of “terrorist organizations”. In the first list announced on 28 December 2001, there were 12 organizations listed: ETA (Basque Homeland and Liberty) in Spain, the 17 November Organization in Greece, Hezbollah, Islamic Jihad and Hamas in Lebanon were included. However, the PKK was not included in the list until 6 months later. The European Commission announced that it included the PKK on the list as a result of pressure from Turkey in May 2002. The European Union as well as the following countries then also included PKK as a ‘terrorist organization’ in their lists : Australia, Austria, Azerbaijan, Britain, Canada, Czech Republic, France, Iran, Japan, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, United States, New Zealand, Turkey, Spain, Syria.
First designated as a terror organization by the European Union in 2002, the European Court of First Instance made an order for the PKK to be removed from the EU terror list on 3 April 2008. The EU in 2011 renewed its official listing of the PKK as group or entity subject to “specific measures to combat terrorism” under its Common Foreign and Security Policy.
France has also banned organizations connected to the PKK on terrorism-related charges, having listed the group as a terrorist organization since 1993. In 2018, the EU kept the PKK on the list as the ruling only concerned the years from 2014 until 2017. “The Luxembourg Court has ruled that the decisions between 2014-17 for the PKK to remain on the European Union’s terrorist organizations list are to be annulled”. But China, India, Egypt and Russia still do not call the PKK a “terrorist organization”.
In March 2020, the Belgian court ruled that the PKK is not to be seen as a terrorist organization. Following this, the Belgian Government announced that the ruling would not affect the current designation of the PKK as a terrorist organization. On 16 September 2017, a Belgium Judiciary decision stated that the “PKK is not a ‘terrorist organization’, it is a part of the war with Turkey”. However many western countries insist on maintaining the ban on the PKK.
As a result of the above criminalising actions, Kurdish communities have experienced some restrictions to their cultural and political activities since 1993. The German government enacted a ban on the PKK as an organization endangering the democratic foundations of the country. Since law enforcement towards Kurdish organizations and activist groups have been influenced by the bans, Kurdish communities have had to endure surveillance, suspicion, and questioning by authorities till today. Despite the PKK ban in Germany and France and other parts of Europe, Kurds have successfully organized themselves along political lines in Europe. The diaspora hosts a large number of exiled Kurdish intellectuals.