A market is being held at the square in front of the Palais de Rumine in the heart of the city of Lausanne in Switzerland. A huge white plastic tent obscures the view of the stairs leading to the entrance of the building where in 1922 and 1923, representatives of eight nations were coming and going as they were negotiating the Lausanne Treaty. The treaty arranged peace between the remains of the Ottoman Empire and the victors of the First World War and shaped the Turkey we know today. A one day conference this weekend about the treaty and whom it served and whom it harmed, begged the question: How to get rid of a bad treaty?
At the table and behind the microphone during the conference last weekend were people belonging to groups who were not at the table during the negotiations a century ago: Armenians and Kurds. It was precisely this exclusion that the conference focussed on. It was organised by the Kurdish Institute of Paris, AFKIV (a Kurdish organisation in Switzerland) and the Switzerland-Armenia Association, in cooperation with the City of Lausanne. One of the most prominent speakers, former mayor of Diyarbakır and member of Turkish parliament for the HDP, Osman Baydemir, summed it up during his introduction: “If the status of the Kurds had been guaranteed at the time, there wouldn’t have been a tragedy.”
Sense of belonging
What he referred to as the tragedy, was the suppression, forced assimilation and mass murder of Kurds in the hundred years that have passed since the Lausanne Treaty was signed. And the status? That goes back to the treaty that preceded the Lausanne Treaty, which is the Treaty of Sèvres, signed between the Ottoman Empire and the allies of the First World War in 1920. It intended to break up the remains of the empire to, among others, establish an independent Kurdistan and designate parts of the east of Anatolia to Armenia. In the Lausanne Treaty, Kurds weren’t mentioned anymore, let alone Kurdistan. Kurds did not get any status at all: not as a country, not as a nation, not as a minority. It made the Kurds, as speaker Sibel Arslan, MP in Switzerland and a Kurd herself, described it, ‘the largest nation with the least sense of belonging’.
The Treaty of Lausanne is often referred to as the treaty that cut up Kurdistan into four parts (in Turkey, Syria, Iraq and Iran), but several speakers are nuanced about this. An independent Kurdistan wasn’t mentioned in all versions of the Treaty of Sèvres, the east of Kurdistan (in Iran) was never part of it, and the borders roughly proposed in Sèvres excluded lands that Kurds consider to be part of Kurdistan now but were to be part of Armenia according to ‘Sèvre’. In the Lausanne Treaty, other agreements are mentioned as definers of Turkey’s southern borders.
It was the partition of Ottoman lands that Sèvres arranged that lead to Turkey’s War of Independence, which started in 1919, lead by the most successful Ottoman commander of the First World War, Mustafa Kemal (later: Atatürk). The Turks and Kurds fought it together. In hindsight, it seems surprising that Kurds fought to get a treaty off the table that could have given them a country. One of the conference speakers, emeritus professor Baskin Oran, said: “Kurds hated the idea of a greater Armenia, which was their main reason to join the Turkish War of Independence.” After all, this greater Armenia would encompass lands they considered to be Kurdish.
Long story short: in the Treaty of Lausanne, there were articles to protect minorities, but these minorities were defined as ‘non-Muslim’. This excluded the islamic Kurds, to whom no rights were given as an ethnic minority, a concept the treaty didn’t recognise. The stipulations about the non-Muslim communities gave them the right to teach their children in their own language and to, amongst others, establish their own religious and social institutions. The new republic failed to really serve the needs of the Assyrian and Armenian communities though, as one other speaker, emeritus professor Raymond Kevorkian, explained in his contribution: “They were supposed to live again in their lands as if the genocides against them had never happened.”
Part of Kevorkian’s contribution about the aftermath of the Armenian genocide sounded awfully like the aftermath of the Yezidi genocide today. Part of the survivors were able to return to Anatolian land west of Ankara but found their houses, lands and even sometimes their wives and children stolen by the perpetrators of the genocide, some of whom had been their own neighbours. Armenian orphans from east and southeast Anatolia were ‘integrated’ into Kurdish society.
France and the UK – two of the allied powers that occupied large parts of what is now Turkey after the First World War – had paid lip service to justice for the genocide but didn’t do much in practice. Kevorkian described how some perpetrators were arrested and that Ottoman courts had been set up and some trials were organised. Kevorkian: “But it turned out almost impossible to gather enough evidence against individuals. Many were acquitted or got small sentences, and three underlings were executed. It wasn’t redemption, it was a way to soften the British and the French.”
It is not just Armenians and Kurds that are in general seen as the losers of Lausanne, the Anatolian Greeks also are. In January 1923, Greece and Turkey agreed on a convention about a forced population exchange between the Greek community in Turkey and the Turkish community in Greece – a euphemism for ethnic cleansing. This operation was not part of the Treaty but arranged in a separate convention, for which the other negotiators didn’t want to take any responsibility. Lord Curzon, the chief negotiator for the Allies and the UK Foreign Secretary, named it ‘thoroughly bad for a hundred years to come’, Prof. Smith said.
Not very confident
They did take responsibility for other ‘thoroughly bad’ ideas that made it to the treaty though, and yes, they were aware of how bad the stipulations about minorities could work out. Speaker Derya Bayir, Doctor of Law at Queen Mary University of London, pointed to a letter of Lord Curzon in which he said he hoped that the articles about minorities would apply for example to Kurds, Circassians and Arabs as well, but, Curzon wrote: “I do not feel very confident but hope for the best”.
Hans-Lukas Kieser, professor at Newcastle University in Australia, described the Lausanne Treaty as ‘an effort to forget’, and said: “It ended a decade of war and diplomatic collapse, but at what costs?” Leonard Smith, professor at Oberlin University in the US, concluded: “International law is produced by international relations, not necessarily based on what’s right and what’s wrong.”
As the Treaty was signed in July 1923 and Turkey is about to celebrate its first centennial on 29 October this year, speakers and participants also discussed what should be next. Even the thought of another century defined by the Treaty of Lausanne with immeasurable pain and injustice for those who were and remain excluded, is hard to digest. Osman Baydemir made the first necessary step explicit: “We have to accept that the Treaty of Lausanne did not bring peace and stability to the region.”
How to get rid of a bad treaty? Medya News asked this specific question to some of the speakers.
Lawyer Derya Bayir answered: “The only way to get rid of a treaty is a war. You can’t expect Turkey to renegotiate it.” Not that a war is her proposal, of course, but she said even after a century, Turkey isn’t willing to do more than the bare minimum to act in accordance with Lausanne. She wrote a book about the position of minorities in Turkish law and pointed to a law from 2013 that arranged the use of Kurdish in Turkish courts. Bayir: “This is in line with article 39 of the Lausanne Treaty [which states that ‘adequate facilities shall be given to Turkish nationals of non-Turkish speech for the oral use of their own language before the Courts’]. After that, the then prime minister Erdoğan claimed the Kurdish issue was solved.” Bayir draws some hope from it as well, as she said in her conference contribution: “Through this law in 2013, it was in fact acknowledged that Kurds did get rights in the Treaty of Lausanne.”
Hamit Bozarslan, professor at EHESS university in Paris, answered on if it is possible to get rid of the Treaty of Lausanne in the coming years. In a recent interview with Kurdish journalist Irfan Aktan, Bozarslan said that Turkey needed a revolution like the ones in Greece, Spain and Portugal in the 1970s, which ended dictatorial fascist regimes without war. Bozarslan: “Whether we can get rid of the Lausanne Treaty, depends on social dynamics in Turkey and Iran and to some extend in Russia. Therefore, we need civil society to somehow rise in Turkey.”
Re-negotiating a treaty is not realistic as it is the product of the geopolitical realities of those days and turning back time remains impossible, but if civil society rises and forces change, a new reality can emerge. Bozarslan mentions, like other speakers during the day, the need for local administration, and added: “What is also of crucial importance, is that borders are made fluid. Borders shouldn’t create prisons but transborder communities.”
Nazand Begikhani, visiting professor at Sciences-Po in Paris and poet, answered: “It’s not about getting rid of the treaty, it’s about the interpretation of it. You can re-interpret it and try to reconcile it with the spirit of our times. We can do that by imagination and with poetry. These are much more important than diplomacy.”
As the conference came to an end, several attendants made the walk up to the Palais de Rumine. It’s a museum and library now, with its doors wide open for everybody to walk in and out. Nothing much reminds visitors of the treaty that was negotiated and signed here in 1923. The room where the signing ceremony took place, is closed to the public.