Silencing the Guns
“Times for guns to go silent” was the written declaration of Abdullah Öcalan, jailed leader of the Kurdish Workers’ Party (PKK). The declaration made on 21 March 2013, auspiciously also Newroz (the Kurdish New Year), marked the start of what was hoped to be a permanent truce between the PKK and Turkish Government. This stepping stone is not an automatic end to the Kurdish struggle in Turkey. The discrimination against and oppression of Kurds within Turkey is too deeply rooted within State policy. Instead it marked the PKK’s movement from armed resistance back to its roots of democratic political struggle. This is not the first time for such a change in strategy. The PKK declared a short-lived ceasefire in March 1993 and a more substantial end to violence between August 1999 and June 2004 which also involved the withdrawal of PKK troops from Turkey. However, each time these ceasefires were brought to an end as a result of the PKK’s frustrations at what it portrayed to be a lack of commitment from the Turkish State. It was felt that the Turkish State was more interested in dissolving the PKK than resolving the Kurdish issue. This is something which has to be addressed if this new ceasefire is to hold.
Furthermore, the partnering talks also require commitment. Fruitless talks have sporadically taken place between the PKK and Turkish State since 1993, the most recent being the Oslo Talks (2008- 2011). These talks often took place in secret and were interpreted as one-sided. In contrast, it has been publically accepted by the Turkish State and the PKK that this most recent ceasefire, which has been in the making since December 2012, marks the beginning of serious negotiations. Nevertheless, analysts have queried whether Turkey’s public willingness towards these talks is a gimmick to ensure current Turkish Prime Minister Erodogan’s election as the new Turkish President in 2014. Or is an attempt to temporarily placate Turkish Kurds while the Syrian Civil War plays out.
These new negotiations involve the ruling Turkish Justice and Development Party (AKP), the only Kurdish party within Turkish Parliament – the Peace and Democracy Party (BDP) – and Öcalan, as the representative of the PKK. They are based on three steps. The ceasefire, combined with the withdrawal of PKK forces from Turkey, is the first step. The second step places the ball in the State’s court asking for constitutional and legal amendments to Turkish laws and policies in the form of recognising Kurd’s civil, political, socio-economic and cultural rights. The third step involves the laying down of arms; effectively the permanent disbandment of the PKK’s military wing.
With a clear strategy in place and public commitment from both sides, for even the greatest cynic there was some hope that this may see the beginning of the end of the 30 year conflict in which 40,000 Kurds have been killed, 3 million have been displaced and over 3,000 villages have been destroyed in the Kurdish region of Turkey. A significant, but undefined number, have also disappeared, presumed dead. Yet, the negotiations appear to be heading towards a fatal stalemate. The PKK is largely adhering to its promise regarding step one. The PKK maintained five months of an unbroken ceasefire, though this is slowly starting to unravel, arguably as a result of State inaction. Furthermore, beginning on 8 May 2013 PKK fighters began to gradually withdraw from Turkish territory into Iraqi Kurdistan. The second step has seen next to no progress. The response from the Turkish Government when pressed on the issue is that the reforms are being worked on: a vague and non-committal response that Kurdish representatives are growing tired of.
Both sides are blaming the other for the delay. The AKP is unhappy with the pace of the PKK’s military withdrawal, though this is potentially on the basis of misinformation. The AKP claim 15% of PKK troops have withdrawn, while the BDP claim it to be 80%. The AKP are also angered by the re-emergence of PKK violence, albeit on a relatively small scale. The Kurds are unhappy that their proposed democratisation package has not yet been submitted to the Turkish Parliament. They are aware that once submitted a lengthy debate will ensue and thus time is of the essence. The package, sponsored by the BDP, demands a change to 100 legal articles. The demands deal mainly with political participation and due process. They leave out more contentious issues such as education in the Kurdish language and constitutional citizenship. These issues are not forgotten, it is more of a tactical move to encourage some form of reform. However, initial responses from the AKP indicate that the reforms that have been proposed are to be met only with limited concession. Furthermore, Kurds are angry at the killing of 18 year old Medeni Yildirim and the injuring of ten others during a demonstration in Diyarbakir in June 2013. This event, as well as the excessive force used during the Gezi Park protests and BDP rallies against lack of reform, indicates business as usual regarding the Turkish State’s response to opposition.
Viability of the Truce
As a result of these growing frustrations and increasing delays, the present truce is on the brink of failure. The BDP have called for the AKP to take some form of action, be it to end the peace process or take the necessary steps to advance it. Öcalan has threatened to quit the peace process. The PKK military wing has issued an ultimatum that if the Turkish State does not start making solid reforms the ceasefire will be brought to an end on 15 October 2013.
The frustrations felt by the Kurds regarding the Turkish State’s inaction, and by the Turkish State regarding the PKK’s slow action is not the only challenge to the longevity of this truce. Concerns have also been raised regarding the negotiations themselves. ‘The Kurdish Question in Turkey Conference’ which took place at Queen’s University Belfast in April 2013 touched upon the fact that the Kurdish negotiators are being limited to a political party and a political prisoner. There has been no obvious effort to include members of civil society. The BDP, under Öcalan’s direction, has requested that a Joint Commission is set up to monitor progress. It has been suggested that the proposed Commission would include the AKP formed Wise Persons’ Commission and other figures who have been involved in the process. However, the details are vague as to who the ‘other’ figures would be. Judging by comments from the Deputy Leader of the BDP, Nazmi Gur, there are no plans to directly involve civil society in the negotiations. He stated that “the peace process must be thrashed out by the political parties”. Yet he did confirm that he believed civil society had a supportive role to play in achieving peace.
A further concern is the reliance on Öcalan, a political prisoner who has been effectively living in solitary confinement for 14 years. The first thing that springs to mind is his mental health. The second is whether he is out of touch. His writings from within prison, which portray an intelligent historian, philosopher, pragmatist and human rights advocate who is not opposed to contemporary progressions, debunk these concerns. So does the resounding support that Öcalan enjoys from within the PKK and Kurds more generally. At the end of the day it is the Kurdish people who should make the decision as to who they wish to represent them; outside thoughts are analytically interesting, but irrelevant.
The viability of the present Turkish-Kurdish truce is on tender hooks. Both sides appear to have little patience left for the softly, softly approach. This truce was never going to be a solution to the Turkish-Kurdish conflict, but it is an important stepping stone. It obviously offers some form of self-benefit for all parties, but it also appears to demonstrate a genuine want for an end to the conflict on both sides; something that seemed to be lacking before. Whether these benefits and desires can transform into lasting peace is questionable. It is true that here in Northern Ireland there were many failed attempts before an agreement was reached. However, from a purely human rights perspective this truce needs to work. The south-east of Turkey, which has faced the greatest hardship during the conflict, has reported the most peaceful period in years. Kurds are now contemplating a fairer and brighter future that seemed only a dream before. However, given the present status quo, need and politics are not working hand-in-hand to deliver that future. That said there is still time for compromise and some courageous political moves. If this time is put to good use, all is not yet lost.