The conflict between the Republic of Turkey and the Kurdish ethnic group in Turkey entered its third phase during the siege of Kobane in 2014. The Turkish government prevented the Kurds in Turkey from sending support to their militants who were fighting in Syria against ISIL at that time.
This move led to the breakdown of a two-and-a-half-year ceasefire between the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) and the Turkish government which aimed to resolve the ongoing armed conflict, leading to a rapid escalation of violence in 2016 throughout the south-eastern part of Turkey.
The groups that advocate policy changes in favour of equal rights for Kurds and Kurdish autonomy within Turkey are led by the PKK. The long-running conflict has never ended even though peace processes were initiated several times. But even during these peace talks, suppression and grave breaches of human rights have been consistently observed. Turkey ranks first among the number of countries convicted for human rights violations by the European Court of Human Rights between 1959-2011. The statistical data released by the Court reveals that 2,404 cases against Turkey have been finalized with at least one violation judgement.
In just one year, from 2016 to 2017, the clashes between the Turkish forces and the PKK militants have resulted in the displacement of up to 400,000 residents. Amidst heavy clashes, hundreds of residents, police, soldiers and PKK-linked militants died. In Cizre, security forces’ attacks killed and injured unarmed residents including children and destroyed civilian homes. Around 130 wounded militants and unarmed activists sheltering in three basements surrounded by the security forces were killed in circumstances which the state has neither explained nor effectively investigated. Blanket curfews continued for many months during security operations in Cizre and in other towns and neighbourhoods, impeding access for journalists and human rights investigators. Authorities demolished large areas of the majority Kurdish cities of Diyarbakır, Şırnak, Nusaybin, and Yüksekova.
Human Rights Violations
The escalation of violence in the last two years and the constitutional changes, including the concentration of power resulted from the failed coup, have worsened the situation in Turkey. The armed conflict has entered one of its deadliest chapters in more than three decades, resulting in grave violations of the rights of Turkey’s citizens. At present, according to Crisis Group’s open-source casualty tally, at least 2,982 people have been killed in clashes between security forces and the PKK since July 20th, 2015. Entire cities have been subject to months-long dusk-to-dawn curfews and even some 24-hour bans on movement.
A UN report details massive destruction and grave rights violations since July 2015 in south-east Turkey, including but not limited to accounts of torture, enforced disappearances, incitement to hatred, prevention of access to emergency medical care, food, water and livelihoods, and violence against Kurdish women. Furthermore, the Commissioner for Human Rights of the Council of Europe, in his Memorandum on human rights implications, has concluded that numerous human rights of a very large civilian population in southeast Turkey have been violated and addressed the matter to the Turkish authorities for consideration. The UN Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women has made many recommendations to the government to address gender inequality and remove obstacles for Kurdish women and girls to access education, employment, justice, and reproductive health.
Counter-Terrorism Measures versus Human Rights
The Turkish government has informed the international community that the ‘measures’ previously mentioned aim to counter terrorism and insurgency. But this assertion is paradoxical since the ‘measures’ worsen the situation. Some of these measures, ranging from the use of military force to discriminate profiling and targeting, are maliciously constructed to target political opponents, ethnic minorities (Kurds) or any form of dissent, under the slogan of countering terrorism. Not only do they put restrictions upon human rights since no proper assessment of the efficiency, necessity and proportionality of the potential measure is made, but they also violate these rights.
The failed coup in Turkey and the events that followed exacerbated the political sectarianism. The displacement of people, the ethnic affiliations, and the identity politics of the government resulted in the emergence of sectarian lines. Instead of concentrating on the elimination of differences and divisive issues and working for consolidation and unification of the different elements of the Turkish society, the Turkish government did not create a sense of community. On the contrary, it created a sense of separation between Turks, Kurds, Christians, and others. The government attached itself to the in-group (shared) identity claiming that it is the only power which can provide solutions. At the same time, the Kurds have been attached to the out-group identity (enemy) which caused the crisis.
This dangerous policy within the Turkish community (Us versus Others) and the insensitivity towards human rights in counter-terrorism have counter-productive ramifications which contribute to the root causes of terrorism (exclusion, grievances, resentment, and suppression) and its triggering factors, (i.e. the psychological factors that can trigger a grieving individual to resort to an act of terrorism). And bearing in mind that the counter-terrorism operations in southeast Turkey caused widespread human rights violations, which were not treated with the requisite seriousness, we can be certain of one thing – as long as there are human rights violations, political exclusion and as long as the rights of the minorities in Turkey are disregarded, the cycle of violence will never end.
Ensuring human rights is the fundamental basis of every counter-terrorism strategy. It should address the long term structural conditions which facilitate and contribute to the spread of terrorism which include the lack of rule of law and violations of human rights, ethnic, religious or national discrimination and political exclusion. Thus, the recognition and protection of human rights and the effective counter-terrorism measures are not conflicting, but complementary, necessarily and mutually reinforcing goals. Therefore, an end to the cycle of violence can only be achieved if human rights are recognized as a fundamental part of Turkey’s counterterrorism strategy. Furthermore, human rights should be recognized as a value and principle of the state, which would result in more freedoms for the Kurdish ethnic minority and respect for their demands.