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A Turning Point in the Kurdish Question? Insights from the International Conference on the EU, Turkey and the Kurds

Von Martin Webeler

Hosted annually by the EU Turkey Civic Commission (EUTCC) on February 5 and 6, the conference on the EU, Turkey and the Kurds is an important and internationally recognized platform to discuss the Kurdish question and democratic processes in Turkey. This year’s conference took place under the heading “Turkey Towards 2023: Autocracy vs. Democracy—Challenges and Options” and provided insights from social organizations, academics, activists, and politicians, including the Vice President of the European Parliament, Dimitrios Papadimoulis.

Turkey’s fight against Kurdish Parties

With regards to the current situation, Papadimoulis painted a sobering picture right at the beginning: “Unfortunately the events in 2019 had a negative impact on democracy, on peace, and on human rights.”

But where do we stand? The Turkish government is continuously stepping up pressure on the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK). Subsequently, the conflict over autonomy of the Kurds within Turkey escalated to a war in 2018. With two major offensives, “Operation Claw” in northern Iraq and “Kiran” in Turkey’s south-eastern provinces, the government increased military actions in and outside its territory in order to fight the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK). In the last two years, hundreds of local officials were dismissed due to alleged links to the PKK, 2115 people were arrested for the same reason, and in 2019 alone at least 1280 people were killed in conflict.

In addition, the withdrawal of US forces in northern Syria in October 2019 changed the balance of power in the region. Turkey immediately started the fight on the Syrian Democratic Forces (SFD). The SFD is militarily led by the People’s Protection Units (YPG), who were US allies in the fight against ISIS. The YPG, on the other hand, is the military branch of the Democratic Union Party (PYD) in Syria, an offshoot of the PKK.

Against this backdrop, Karin Westerheim, chairwoman of the EUCCT, stated an urgent appeal to the audience: “We see surveillance, mass arrests, and killings: Turkey sets aside international law. The EUCCT demands an urgent change in European politics. We need suggestions for sustainable resolutions and to find new answers to old questions.”

Power of the Kurds crucial for peace in the region

The Kurds not only fight for recognition in Turkey, but in three other countries as well: Syria, Iraq, and Iran. Certainly one of their greatest successes could be achieved in northern Iraq, where the Kurds asserted themselves and gained extensive autonomy years ago. In east Syria however, the Kurds could strengthen their position during their fight against ISIS.

The demonstrative character of Kurdish controlled areas and their importance for the region was pointed out by European politicians like Andreas Schnieder: “Rojava [the Kurdish controlled area in Syria] is a success story. It brought stability to the region, not only limited to Kurdish, but for other groups as well.” His parliamentarian colleague Francois Alfonsi added: “In Kurdish controlled areas minorities are respected, women’s rights are respected. As such the geopolitical power of the Kurds is truly crucial for world peace, because in the Middle East the peace of the world is at stake.”

The EU: Hostage of its own policy

Despite these affirmations, critics on the EU’s political course regarding Turkey pervaded the statements of many speakers. The tenor: The EU condemns President Erdogan’s continuous undermining of democracy, the invasion of Syria, and the violation of human rights, but in fact, does little in terms of sustainable actions to improve the situation. An assessment just about everyone agreed on, even the European representatives. Özlem Alev Demir, left-wing EU parliamentarian, saw one of the main reasons for apathy in economic interests and referred to her home country Germany, which still delivers weapons to Turkey. An even bigger issue could be found in the refugee movement: “Obviously we can see an adherence to Erdogan and his AKP within the EU. Why is there a refugee deal with Turkey anyway? Especially when we know more and more people need to flee from Turkey itself.”

Demirs’ position was backed by Tineke Strik, a Dutch politician with years of expertise as a legal consultant and judicial secretary in the area of work with refugees: “The EU is externalizing the refugee question to other countries. That’s a fundamental problem.” According to the experts, the fear of migrants has become the very substance of the relations between EU and Turkey. As Cengiz Aktar, professor of political science at the University of Athens, emphasized: “Everything and anything stops when the talk comes on refugees. The EU has become a hostage.”

The right time to act?

How strong the dependence on Turkey really is, shows the absence of any sanctions the EU could initiate against a government which is continuously turning into an authoritarian state. The EU is one of the most important trading partners to Turkey with an economic trade volume ten times higher than the one with the US, as Alfonsi pointed out. Turkey still struggles with an economic crisis. In addition, Erdogan’s AKP is losing support as the prestigious elections in Istanbul have shown. Initiating sanctions now would most likely have a severe impact on Turkey.

Ironically, these signs of weakness seem to be the cause for the increased pressure on the Kurds, as Gülistan Kocyigit, member of the opposition Party Peoples Democratic Party (HDP), emphasized: “War has always been a popular tool to distract from domestic problems. Whenever there’s a problem, the AKP returns to this strategy.”

Verdict changes status of PKK

In addition to these tensions, a verdict made by the Belgian Supreme Court (the Court of Cassation) just days before the conference might bring a significant change to the situation of the Kurds. On January 28 the court confirmed a decision by the Brussels Court of Appeal that the PKK is not a terrorist organization. The EU includes the PKK in the list of terrorist organizations, as do many other countries and groups including the USA, Turkey, Iraq, Syria and NATO.

A key figure in this twelve-year-long process was Jan Fermon, Secretary General of the International Association of Democratic Lawyers (IADL). At the conference, he delivered insights into the decision-making process and cited the basis on which the PKK could be labelled as a terrorist organization in the first place. The foundations were laid as a result of loosened restrictions following 9/11: “When the War on Terror was launched, the distinction between a “criminal act against a state” and a “legitimate fight against the state” vanished.” The last category was implemented in the human rights of law to give government as well as non-government actors the possibility to protect human rights.

The Secretary General explained how to assign a conflict in one group or the other: The important indicator is the intensity of the conflict. If there are only a few individual armed assaults, it might be a criminal act against the state and therefore illegal. But if the geography as well as the time frame are big enough, the conflict falls into the second category. “If that’s the case, we assume there must be a broad support within the society, otherwise a long lasting and extensive armed confrontation of a party couldn’t be preserved”. According to Fermon and his legal team, the PKK actually belongs to the second category and thereby is not a terrorist organization at all.

A new perspective might lead to new answers

Not to rank PKK as a terrorist organization is far more than just a formal act. The status of the party changes the perspective on the conflict: “Terrorism must be combated, but conflicts must be solved,” says Fermon. Furthermore, the verdict gives freedom of speech back to the supporters of the PKK—at least in Belgium. Now, they can organize themselves and appeal for donations without any fear of repressions by the state.

However, even though the decision might be a landmark in the Belgian jurisdiction, it does not directly influence the EU’s list of terrorist organizations. That will be a political decision to make. Turkey has heavily criticized the verdict and even the Belgian Secretary of State, Philippe Goffin, refused the decision in a first statement. The upcoming months will show whether the verdict initiates a domino effect or will only be limited to one EU member state.

One thing is certain: The recognition of the PKK as a non-terrorist organization will likely put additional pressure on Erdogan. A war against a regular party would be harder to legitimize and most likely increase the international popularity of the Kurds, which is already growing due to their efforts against ISIS.

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