Westminster to debate Turkey's crackdown on pro-Kurd groups

turkey hdp
8 min read
01 November, 2021
In-depth: Prompted by the release of a report by a group of British MPs, the debate comes as the crackdown on activists and politicians intensifies in the run-up to Turkey's next elections.

The UK Parliament will on Tuesday debate Turkey’s treatment of pro-Kurdish activists and civil and political organisations after a report by a group of MPs found Ankara is conducting a sustained crackdown on them.

The report, titled ‘Kurdish Political Representation and Equality in Turkey’, was published in June 2021. It was written by the UK Parliament’s All Party Parliamentary Group on Kurdistan in Syria and Turkey, a group of Labour, Conservative and SNP MPs supportive of improved rights for Turkey's largest ethnic minority.

It is not just pro-Kurdish groups who are being targeted, the report said - journalists who have written in criticism of government policy have been detained at alarming rates, as human rights organisations have documented.

Lloyd Russell Moyle, Labour/Co-op MP for Kemptown & Peacehaven, was the APPG report lead and applied for debate on the findings of the report to take place.

The British government needs "to be tapping the Turkish government on the shoulder, we need to be saying you need to be justifying yourself a bit more, you need to be evidencing that you're not just repressing a group for no reason," Russell-Moyle told The New Arab.

Westminster to debate Turkey's crackdown on pro-Kurd groups
The Peoples' Democratic Party (HDP), the largest pro-Kurdish party in Turkey, has suffered a years-long crackdown at the hands of Ankara. [Getty]

Though long targeted by Ankara, pro-Kurdish groups have seen a sustained crackdown since 2015, the year a peace process between the Turkish state and the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK), an armed rebel group seeking greater autonomy for Kurds in Turkey, broke down.

The two sides have fought an on-off war for almost forty years now, with thousands of Kurdish and Turkish fighters and civilians killed as a result. Clashes are currently concentrated in southeastern Turkey and across the eastern border, in Iraqi Kurdistan, where Turkey conducts air and ground operations.

Instrumental in the formation of that peace process, which began in 2012, was the Peoples' Democratic Party (HDP), a leftist, mostly Kurdish party founded a year earlier. Since the process broke down, the party has found itself at the sharp end of Erdogan's dagger.

A 2016 coup attempt saw Erdogan face his biggest political scare. His party blamed the coup on loyalists to Fethullah Gulen, a former Erdogan ally, but he used it as an excuse to crack down on opposition groups. Both of the HDP's co-chairs, Selahattin Demirtas and Figen Yuksekdag, were arrested that year and are in detention today.

The HDP performed well in the 2019 local elections, and they were punished for it. Just six of 65 elected mayors from the HDP have been allowed to hold office up until today; the rest, including the mayors of some of the biggest Kurdish cities in the country, have been removed and replaced with trustees from Erdogan's Justice and Development Party (AKP). MPs have also been stripped of their parliamentary immunity. Some have been arrested and detained on terror-related charges - namely, providing financial assistance to the PKK.

What is new about the chronic crackdown is that its net is growing ever wider, with new methods being employed and even MPs from the centrist CHP stripped of immunity and arrested on terror charges.

The timing is no surprise. Turkey is preparing for elections in 2023, the centenary of the foundation of the modern Turkish state, sure to feature lots of pomp and ceremony. Erdogan has pushed back against calls that the elections be held earlier.

"The HDP proved to be a kingmaker in both the local and general elections. That is why President Erdogan and his allies want to somehow neutralise and terrorise the HDP before the next general elections... we are kind of the determining factor in the Kurdish vote," Hişyar Özsoy, the HDP's spokesperson, told The New Arab.

With the Turkish economy in dire straits, Erdogan’s popularity hit an all-time low a few months ago. He is facing opposition from an ever wider group of parties, who accuse him of using operations against Kurdish groups in Syria as a way of recharging popular support.

He has warned on multiple occasions in recent weeks that Turkey will conduct new military action in northeast Syria to get rid of what he has called "terrorist" groups. Turkey considers the People's Protection Units (YPG), the Kurdish contingent of the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) that control northeast Syria, to be an offshoot of the PKK.

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'We need action'

Relations between the UK and Turkey appear to be flourishing in the post-Brexit era, with the two countries having signed a comprehensive Free Trade agreement in February 2021. The UK is also a consistent seller of arms to Turkey, despite a brief pause during Ankara's invasion of northeast Syria in October 2019.

"Government wise, it seems that the UK does not really care at all about what is happening to the democratic opposition and the HDP," Özsoy said. "We hope that this report will somehow help to raise a little bit of awareness at the state and government level in the UK."

While some governments, political parties and European Union bodies have formally condemned Turkey for its crackdown, not enough action is being taken to stop it from happening, Özsoy said.

"It is mostly words. We also need some action in a substantial way."

Earlier this year, Ankara filed to have the HDP shut down altogether. Özsoy said his party is doing its best to push through the obstacles and prepare for the elections. The branding of the HDP and its members as supporters of terrorism is a tactic to suppress dissent, according to the HDP spokesperson.

"Mainly, the government is using that discourse to criminalise and terrorise people who just think and act differently," said Özsoy, who is himself facing a number of terror-related charges.

The New Arab contacted the Turkish embassy in London and the AKP’s EU representation in Brussels by phone and by email for comment on the report and on news of the upcoming parliamentary debate, but did not receive any responses.

Delist the PKK?

Both the APPG report and Özsoy say that the PKK has shown clear efforts to make progress on peace and greater Kurdish autonomy in a non-violent manner, warranting a review of its position on terror lists in the UK and in Turkey.

"If Turkey is serious about any peaceable settlement of the conflict, they should negotiate... delisting the PKK from the terror list may help to promote some kind of dialogue between Turkey and the PKK," Özsoy said.

"Now, if you were to send Turkey to negotiate the PKK, they would say 'no, we don't negotiate with the terrorists'... that is their justification."

Delisting the rebel group "may help the PKK to redefine itself", Özsoy added.

The APPG pointed at precedent for rethinking the PKK terror designation - a 2020 Belgian supreme court case in which it ruled that the PKK is a party active in a war against the Turkish government, so does not meet the criteria to be listed internationally as a terrorist organisation. 

The New Arab contacted the Home Office for comment on the grounds for the PKK listing and whether it is subject to change.

“Investigations into the activities of proscribed organisations, or individuals who may be members or supporters of proscribed organisations, are an operational matter for the police and intelligence agencies,” they said.

The Home Office said it does not speculate on removal from the proscribed list.

The UK government calls the PKK terrorists in its current Turkey travel advice - though it says that foreigners are not at particularly great risk.

“Terrorists are very likely to try to carry out attacks in Turkey. Terrorist groups, including PKK, Daesh (formerly referred to as ISIL) and far left organisations, continue to plan and carry out attacks,” the advice reads.

Westminster to debate Turkey's crackdown on pro-Kurd groups
Turkey has pursued the PKK in Iraqi Kurdistan in large-scale air and ground operations. [Mustafa Ozer/AFP via Getty Images]

The use of a terror label for the PKK and other organisations is a helpful tool for Turkey in explaining its crackdown to the international community.

"The framing of it (the PKK) as a terrorist threat is particularly useful, because it makes questioning Turkey's operations much more difficult when you - as in the West, Western interlocutors, Western leaders - happen to be fighting 'terrorism' as well," Alexandre Christoyannopoulos, Senior Lecturer in Politics and International Relations at Loughborough University, told The New Arab.

Christoyannopoulos said that in Turkey and elsewhere, terror acts are not common enough to justify such crackdowns.

"The responses we end up authorising on the part of governments - the suspensions of civil liberties,  the policing powers, the surveillance powers, and so on - will affect many, many more people than such acts of terrorism," he said.

"The liberties we cherish or that we say we cherish... they are the things that get threatened far more than there is an actual risk of terrorism."

The Turkish ambassador in London submitted a response to the APPG and its report, saying: "Certain circles are also always quick to brand Turkey's struggle against terror as oppression of Kurds. I hope that you (the APPG) will not also fall into that trap and make the distinction between Kurdish people and the PKK/PYD-YPG terrorist organisation.” 

'No-brainer'

Russell-Moyle told The New Arab that he was hopeful that the debate would mean at least some of the report's recommendations would be taken on at a policy level.

“I would hope that some of them are no brainers - issues around gender equality and elected politicians… those things should be simple for them to accept, or at least say that we are doing something around this,” Russell-Moyle said.

"Some of the stuff around the PKK, some of the stuff around self-autonomy - whether that’s something that Britain wants to get involved in... But the other stuff should be no-brainers.”

Shahla Omar is a staff journalist at The New Arab.

Follow her on Twitter: @shahlasomar