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Time for progress on the Kurdish Question

As the largest stateless ethnic group in the world, the Kurds deserve our support — that means opposing their persecution in Turkey and securing the release of PKK leader Abdullah Ocalan, writes BERT SCHOUWENBURG

BARELY a day goes by without the Morning Star running a story on the latest indignities and atrocities suffered by Kurdish people across the Middle East, particularly at the hands of the Turkish state and its authoritarian President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who recently announced that Turkey was withdrawing from the Council of Europe’s Istanbul Convention for preventing and combatting violence against women.

The move drew rare condemnation from the EU and even a mild rebuke from US President Joe Biden but Erodgan was unmoved, claiming that the convention had been hijacked by people trying to “normalise homosexuality” and was incompatible with “family values.”

The decision prompted widespread protest in a country where over 300 women were murdered last year and where there is little legal protection for female victims of domestic violence.

At least the withdrawal from the convention prompted some British press reaction. Here, the corporate and state media follow the hypocritical establishment line in treating China and Russia as enemies to be castigated at every opportunity for alleged human rights abuses whilst simultaneously ignoring well-documented crimes perpetrated by perceived allies like Turkey.

For example, the arrest of Russian politician Alexei Navalny was given widespread coverage and echoed demands by indignant Western leaders that he was the victim of a dictatorial Putin regime who should immediately be freed.

Unsurprisingly, his previous conviction for fraud and embezzlement and his anti-semitic views were hardly mentioned.

By way of contrast, there is zero press interest in the fate of Kurdish leader and founder of the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), Abdullah Ocalan, held in solitary confinement on Imrali Island since 1999 after being abducted in Kenya by Turkish agents with the assistance of the CIA.

Initially sentenced to death before having his sentence commuted, the “Kurdish Mandela” is routinely denied access to both his family and his lawyers, in breach of UN norms.

Erdogan’s antipathy towards the Kurds reflects his belief in “one nation, one flag, one homeland, one state” and his governing coalition includes an ultra-nationalist, Islamist alliance dedicated to the preservation of Turkey’s heritage by the elimination of what they consider disloyal forces.

There is resentment of the demarcations agreed by the 1923 Treaty of Lausanne that excluded what are now the Iraqi cities of Kirkuk and Mosul, at the birth of the new Republic of Turkey.

However, what Lausanne did do was remove a fledgling Kurdish state that had been drawn into the carve up of the old Ottoman empire by the notorious Anglo-French Sykes-Picot agreement of 1916, thus ensuring that the Kurds would be the world’s largest ethnic group without its own state.

Kurdish resentment of nationalist animosity towards them in Turkey led to a series of large scale revolts in 1925, 1930 and 1938 that were brutally repressed.

During that 13-year period, it is estimated that over a million Kurds were forcibly relocated. In 1980, following a military coup, Kurdish languages were banned and people were not even allowed to call themselves Kurds.

Since 1984 the PKK has fought a guerilla war against Turkish forces, a conflict that led to still more state violence directed against the Kurdish population and the subsequent depopulation of the countryside in the largely Kurdish south-east.

Abroad, Turkey has adopted an aggressive foreign policy. As well as intervening militarily in Libya and in defiance of UN resolutions, there have been attacks on Kurdish communities in Iraq and Syria where hundreds of thousands of civilians have been displaced.

There have been reports of widespread atrocities, many of them committed by jihadist mercenaries, as part of a campaign to terrorise the native population. Erdogan defends these actions by saying that he is merely attacking the bases of the PKK which the EU and US have designated a terrorist organisation. Back home, the onslaught against the Kurds continues apace.

Ten per cent of elected Kurdish mayors have been removed from their posts and replaced with government trustees.

Thousands of journalists, activists and politicians have been jailed, often on trumped-up charges of terrorism, the net result being that Turkey has one of the highest percentages of political prisoners in the world. Most recently, public prosecutors are asking that Turkey’s third largest political party, the pro-Kurdish HDP, be banned for undermining the integrity of the Turkish state and being involved in terrorist activities.

They are also asking for 687 individual party members to be prosecuted.

One can only imagine the response of the British press if these events had occurred in Hong Kong and the Chinese government were held responsible, but because it is Turkey, a Nato ally, there is little or no condemnation outside the pages of the Star.

As for the British government, it is openly supportive of Erdogan, regardless of what crimes have been committed in his name. Since 2013, it has approved £1.3 billion of arms sales to Turkey.

In 2017 Theresa May signed off a £100 million deal for BAE to support the design and construction of warplanes for the Turkish air force and there has been co-operation in the development of drones that have been deployed against the Kurds.

In 2019, a comprehensive free trade agreement was completed with Turkey, making a mockery of Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab’s Commons statement to the effect that,“a truly global Britain is about more than just international trade and investment … Global Britain is also about continuing to uphold our values of liberal democracy and our heartfelt commitment to the international rule of law.”

When Prime Minister Boris Johnson was asked about Turkey’s invasion of Syria, he merely said that they were entitled to “defend themselves.”

The sustained assault on the Kurdish people by the Erdogan regime cannot be allowed to continue. The Kurdish cause deserves the support of progressive organisations and the wider labour movement.

Recognising that Ocalan could be a key figure in bringing peace to the Middle East, the GMB and Unite unions founded the Freedom for Ocalan Campaign in 2016 which has gone from strength to strength and now includes most of the leading TUC affiliates as well as the GFTU.

There are various NGOs working for the Kurdish cause and any meetings convened in London or at trade union conferences are capable of attracting large audiences.

Nevertheless, if at all possible, we must do more to break the media silence on this issue and bring it to a wider public whilst maintaining the momentum already achieved by existing campaigns and the excellent work of the Morning Star.

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