Image Via War Resisters’ International

Stop the Cycle of Violence in Turkey is the title of a report by a seven-person delegation of the War Resisters’ International (WRI) visit to southeast Turkey, 26-29 April 2016. The delegation was led by Christine Schweitzer, Chair of WRI and included Andreas Speck who had long been active on conscientious objection in Turkey, as well as Michaela Soellinger of the Austrian FOR who had been part of the FOR Peace Presence in Colombia (1). There were also two Turkish activists who had been working on conscientious objection issues and who also provided the linguistic bridge for interviewing individuals from local organizations and people who had held municipal positions.

The delegation’s fact-finding focus was on two largely Kurdish areas of southeast Turkey, Diyarbakir (often considered as the Kurdish capitol) and Cizre, a relatively near-by city which had been subjected to round-the-clock curfews. The old part of Diyarbakir called Sur is on the UNESCO list of World Heritage sites. Sur has been damaged in fighting, and one hope was that UNESCO would take some measures to protect the site.

There had been armed conflict in the Kurdish areas of Turkey with a major offensive starting in 1984 led by the Kurdish Workers Party (PKK) led by Abdullah Ocalan. The fighting led to a large number of persons killed and many more displaced, especially as the Turkish military had a policy of destroying the mountain villages of the Kurds so that people would be forced to live in larger cities and so be more easily controlled.(2)

In 1999, Abdullah Ocala, who was directing the Kurdish insurgency from exile, most of the time from Syria, was arrested, falling into a kidnapping trap in Kenya set by US and Israeli security forces. Since then, Ocalan is held as the only prisoner in a cell on a small Turkish island. He has written his views, embedded in a rather long account of Kurdish history in a manuscript taken from prison as his written plea for the European Human Rights Court. (3) From prison, Ocalan has called for an end to armed violence and for reforms of Kurdish society.

In the early 2000s, there was a period of relative peace and a certain economic revival in the Kurdish areas of Turkey. However, the area was increasingly impacted by the Kurdish autonomous zone of Iraq and then from 2011 on by the Kurdish forces in Syria − most recently by Kurdish resistance to the Islamic State (ISIS) in Syria and Iraq.

During the years of relative calm, the Kurds were able to start to organize themselves politically. There was the creation of the People’s Democratic Party (HDP). The HDP does not call itself a “Kurdish party” since ethnic names are not allowed for political parties in Turkey, but the HDP is widely thought of as a “pro-Kurd” party. In the June 2015 elections, the HDP received ten percent of the vote and so had deputies in the Parliament, preventing an absolute majority for the party of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the AKP. The loss of an absolute majority prevents the President from changing the constitution from its current parliamentary form with limited powers for the president to a strong presidential form of government.

For reasons best known to him, but is seen by some annalists as a way to strengthen anti-Kurd feeling among Turkish nationalists, Erdogan broke the peace with the Kurds and started extensive military operations. Again, this has led to destruction, suffering and displacement. The deputies of the HDP in Parliament have had their parliamentary immunity revoked. Critical journalists have been arrested and newspapers shut down. Some Turkish academics who had called for peace negotiations have been arrested, and others lost their jobs.

Into this growing violence, refugees from Iraq and Syria have come in great number, probably over two million. Fighters from different militias, both Kurdish and ISIS, have also gone to Turkey for weapons, medical supplies and new recruits. There have been a number, at least 16, terror bomb attacks, the most recent at the airport of Istanbul.

Human rights and conflict-resolution NGOs, in particular Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch and the International Crisis Group, have issued reports on the situation, but for the mass media the armed conflicts in Syria and Iraq and the flow of refugees to Western Europe have overshadowed the conditions in Turkey.

Thus the WRI mission had three aims;

1) Fact-finding;

2) Informing as wide a public outside Turkey as possible of the situation so that creative action can be taken;

3) Indicating to Kurds and Turks the value of civil resistance − a term which seemed to them more appropriate in these conditions than nonviolence. However, civil resistance is largely another name for Gene Sharp’s ‘strategic nonviolence’. (4)

There are a good number of issues that need to be considered in the creation and processes of NGO fact-finding missions. These are well set out in Hans Thoolen and Berth Verstappen’s study of human rights missions. (5) The book is an analysis of 340 NGO mission reports, mostly those of NGOs which have fact-finding as an important part of their mandate. Although the book dates from 1986, the issues remain largely the same.

Part of the value of NGO fact-finding missions is to give encouragement to people and organizations who are in the middle of violence and destruction. Often such people feel ‘abandoned’, especially if there is little international media attention as in the Turkish Kurd situation or when information is given, it is often simplified. Another important aspect of act-finding missions is strategic follow up: to whom can one turn and why after months of war, have they not yet acted? Thus the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) which is a logical player has been largely silent. The Council of Europe has done little that is visible. UNESCO has not rushed to the defense of cultural heritage. NATO has not been critical of its member State. Most national governments have looked the other way.

It is important to know the rules of procedure of each intergovernmental organization. People in Turkey hoped that because there were obvious violations of the European Convention of Human Rights, the European Court of Human Rights would take up cases. However, the Court can act only when all the national courts have considered the case − a long and most unlikely process in the Turkish case.

At this stage, as the report points out, the conflict-resolution NGOs should call for a ceasefire, the creation of confidence-building measures, and the start of negotiations in good faith.



1) War Resisters’ International, 5 Caledonian Road, London N1 9 DK, England

2) Kemal Kirisci and Gareth Windrow. The Kurdish Question and Turkey (London: Frank Cass,1997)

3) Abdullah Ocalan. Prison Writings (London: Pluto Press, 2007)

4) see Erica Chenoweth and Maria Stephan Why Civil Resistance Works: The Strategic Logic of Nonviolent Conflict (Colombia University Press, 2011)

5) Hans Thoolen and Berth Verstappen. Human Rights Missions. A Study of the Fact-finding Practice of Non-governmental Organizations (Dordrecht, NL: Martinus Nijhoff Publishers, 1986)

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