Human Rights Issues and the Kurds of Turkey

Note: This paper was originally submitted on 09 Jun 1998 in partial fulfillment of the requirements for IR 432 at the Middle East Technical University.

The question of Kurdish identity in Turkey is one of the most vexing issues facing the young republic. The rise in radical Kurdish nationalism in recent decades is due in large part to the denial of basic Kurdish ethnic identity by the Turkish state since the inception of the regime. The Turkish state’s longstanding policy of denying Kurdish identity has led to a variety of human rights violations throughout the years, including dubious legal measures, economic neglect, cultural oppression, and physical displacement (internal deportation). Although these categories inevitably overlap, I will focus on the legal, cultural and physical oppression that the Kurds of Turkey have suffered for the past 75 years. The institutionalized legal measures and precedents that have accumulated are the source and sustenance of the other forms of human rights violations. Therefore, it can be argued that no real solution to the Kurdish question in Turkey will be found until the legal machinery that has permitted denial of Kurdish identity throughout the years is dismantled and replaced with legislation that conforms to basic international norms regarding human rights.

What is Kurdish Ethnicity?

A variety of terms have been used to describe the Kurds of Turkey, particularly “nation”, “ethnic group”, and “minority”. Kirişci and Winrow have argued that the term “nation” is a politically loaded and extremely sensitive term and therefore should be used very carefully.1 Accordingly, in this essay I will distinguish between Kurdish “ethnic” identity and “nationalism”, and avoid altogether the use of the phrase “Kurdish nation”. However, the term “Kurdistan” will be used to refer in a geographical sense to the southeastern and eastern portions of Turkey where Kurds form the majority of the population. Although “Kurdistan” itself is a sensitive term, it has been a recognized geographical expression since the thirteenth century, generally denoting the France-sized area in southeastern Turkey, northeastern Syria, northern Iraq, and northwestern Iran where the Kurds have historically dwelt.2

What constitutes the ethnic identity of the Kurds? Kirişci and Winrow indicate that the most important attributes of ethnic groups are a common language, religion, and race, in addition to the self-awareness of being a distinct group on the grounds of ethnicity.3 Even this seemingly clearcut definition is problematic in the case of the Kurds due to the differing languages and religions that one finds among them. Furthermore, Martin van Bruinessen has pointed out that Kurdish ethnicity is a “fluid” and “voluntaristic” thing, meaning that many Kurds are able to call upon various identities based upon their specific language, tribe, race, religion, or national citizenship, depending on the situation at hand.4 He further points out that, unlike the relatively recent phenomenon of Kurdish nationalism, Kurdish ethnic identity has existed since the late sixteenth century, despite the perpetual tribal divisions.5 Despite the difficulty inherent in characterizing Kurdish ethnic identity, its existence per se cannot be disputed. Persistent attempts by the Turkish government to suppress Kurdish identity have betrayed its cognizance of that identity, despite the official policy of denial.

Acknowledging the presence of some form of Kurdish ethnic identity, the question remains as to what place that identity has within the modern state of Turkey. Since the republic was founded on the principle of Turkish nationalism, the logical place for the Kurds is as a minority ethnic group. In the practice of international law, the term “minority” has come to signify religious, ethnic, or linguistic groups that are numerically inferior and non-dominant in relation to the rest of the population of a given state.6 However, a formal, legal definition of the term “minority” has never been agreed upon. This ambiguity underlines the sensitivity of the issue in today’s state-centric international system.

Thornberry goes on to describe the major policies that states generally adopt toward minorities within their borders. Of these policies, assimilation (the attempt to achieve “homogeneity within the State by ensuring that groups discard their cultures in favour of the dominant culture; based on the idea that the dominant culture is superior)7 has been widely acknowledged as the goal of the Turkish state regarding its Kurdish population. This policy of assimilation, which at its most benign simply asserts that Kurds are really “mountain Turks” who have forgotten their Turkishness, and at its most malignant justifies large-scale village destructions and deportation or elimination of the inhabitants, has fueled the rise of radical Kurdish nationalism in recent years.

Gerard Chaliand lists the following ways in which minorities throughout the world are oppressed: discrimination, economic oppression, cultural oppression, physical oppression, and genocide.8 It can be argued that Ankara’s official policy of assimilation toward the Kurds has encompassed most, if not all, of these methods. In view of this, Chaliand reiterates the urgent need for international legal definition of a body of minimal rights for minorities, to include such rights as non-discrimination, inalienable cultural rights, the right to an equitable share of the country’s national wealth, and the right of extra-territorial minorities to preserve their identity.9

It is my contention that the legislative measures taken by the Turkish state, ostensibly in defense of the “unity” of the republic, have provided legal breeding ground for the human rights violations that have been observed over the past 75 years. In view of this, I will briefly survey the past 75 years in order to provide examples of the repression of the Kurds. The following survey is by no means comprehensive, and must be balanced by acknowledgment of the human rights violations also committed by Kurdish nationalists, particularly in recent years.

Assertions of Kurdish Identity in the Turkish Republic

Despite the previously-described problems inherent in defining a coherent, unified Kurdish ethnic identity, much less nationhood, the Allied authorities at the end of World War I were prepared to do just that for the Kurds. The Treaty of Sèvres (10 August 1920) provided as follows for local Kurdish autonomy within what is today the state of Turkey:10

A Commission…shall draft within six months from the coming into force of the present Treaty a scheme of local autonomy for the predominantly Kurdish areas lying east of the Euphrates, south of the southern boundary of Armenia as it may be hereafter determined, and north of the frontier of Turkey with Syria and Mesopotamia… (Article 62)

The Turkish Government hereby agrees to accept and execute the decisions of both the Commissions mentioned in Article 62 within three months from their communication to the said Government. (Article 63)

If within one year from the coming into force of the present Treaty the Kurdish peoples within the areas defined in Article 62 shall address themselves to the Council of the League of Nations in such a manner as to show that a majority of the population of these areas desires independence from Turkey, and if the Council then considers that these peoples are capable of such independence and recommends that it should be granted to them, Turkey hereby agrees to execute such a recommendation, and to renounce all rights and title over these areas… (Article 64)

The Treaty of Sèvres was the closest that the Kurds of Turkey have been to autonomy with possible future independence. However, the treaty was never implemented due to Mustafa Kemal’s war of liberation against the Greeks and Armenians and wresting of power away from occupied Istanbul to the new capital of Ankara. Just weeks before the Treaty of Sèvres was to be signed in Istanbul, Kemal’s new government declared to the world that it, as the only legitimate authority in Turkey, would not adhere to any treaty or agreement signed by the administration in Istanbul, which shortly thereafter fell from power.11

By the time 1923 rolled around and Mustafa Kemal was ready to ink the replacement Lausanne Treaty, the Kurds as a distinct ethnic identity had disappeared from the negotiating table, even though they had been instrumental in helping Kemal repel the Armenians and Greeks from Anatolia. The Kemalists argued that the Turks and Kurds really constituted one Muslim nation, even though they spoke different languages, and that therefore special considerations for the Kurds were unnecessary. The Lausanne Treaty, signed July 24, 1923 (still in effect today), thus contained no mention of the Kurds or provisions for their national rights. However, Articles 37-44 of Section III dealt with the “protection of minorities”:12

Turkey commits itself to recognize the stipulations contained in Articles 38-44 as fundamental laws and to ensure that no law, no regulation and no official action will stand in contradiction or opposition to these stipulations, and that no law, regulation or official action shall prevail against them. (Article 37)

There will be no official restriction on any Turkish citizen’s right to use any language he wishes, whether in private, in commercial dealings, in matters of religion, in print or at a public gathering. (Article 38)

Regardless of the existence of an official language, appropriate facilities will be provided for any non-Turkish-speaking citizen of Turkey to use his own language before the courts. (Article 39)

However, Articles 40-45 go on to specify that the minorities in question are “non-Muslim minorities” (Armenians, Greeks, etc.). Ankara argued that the Kurds governed Turkey as equal partners with the Turks, and therefore were excluded from the list of minorities protected by the Lausanne Treaty. This very narrow interpretation of what constitutes a “minority” has justified scores of Turkish laws and constitutional articles that otherwise would be in direct contravention of the Lausanne Treaty.

Following the exclusion of specific reference to Kurdish ethnic identity in the Lausanne Treaty, the Ankara authorities embarked on a clear plan to assimilate the Kurdish population in Turkey into the dominant Turkish ethnic core group. This goal of assimilation was approached through a variety of means, most notably legalization of denial of Kurdish culture and by forced deportation. These policies predictably provoked various Kurdish revolts during the first two decades of the republic.

On 4 March 1924 Mustafa Kemal abolished the caliphate and officially prohibited the use of Kurdish, including in the law courts and schools.13 The extinguishing of the caliphate removed the last ideological link between Turks and Kurds, and the language prohibition, along with closure of the religious schools, effectively excluded most Kurds from public education. By 1925 only 215 of Turkey’s 4875 schools were situated in Kurdistan, educating 8,400 students out of the total enrollment of 382,000 in Turkey.14

The first major Kurdish revolt was led by Shaykh Said of Palu in early 1925.15 Shaykh Said was one of the few remaining members of the failed Azadi (Freedom) movement who remained determined to restore the caliphate and Kurdish identity. As the revolt progressed, Said stated his intention of forming a Kurdish government, and even named one of the late Sultan Abd al Hamid’s sons as the King of Kurdistan. However, tribal rivalries weakened the ultimate power and scope of the revolt (only minority Zaza Sunni tribes joined en masse with just two tribes from the Kurmanji majority), and Shaykh Said was captured approximately two months after the revolt began. Despite Said’s capture, the revolt lasted into 1927. With the aid of the draconian twin “Tribunals of Independence” (one in the east and one in Ankara) that were then established by Ismet Inönü, the newly appointed prime minister, government retaliation was swift, severe, and wide-ranging. Multiple executions, mass deportations, razing of villages, and the massacre of innocents were introduced by the fledgling state.

The state’s suppression of the Shaykh Said revolt marked the beginning of what appeared at times to be genocidal tendencies of the Kemalists, particularly its ‘guardian’ army. A particularly ominous expression of this attitude came from none other than the Foreign Minister of Turkey, Tawfiq Rushdi, when he said:

in their [Kurdish] case, their cultural level is so low, their mentality so backward, that they cannot be simply in the general Turkish body politic…they will die out, economically unfitted for the struggle for life in competition with the more advanced and cultured Turks…as many as can will emigrate into Persia and Iraq, while the rest will simply undergo the elimination of the unfit.16

After the ruthless suppression of Kurdistan during 1925-27, a very short period of relative calm ensued during which “Turkification” of the Kurds continued to be pursued. In October 1927 Kurdish nationalists who had previously fled the country formed the Khoybun (Independence) party in Lebanon. During the summer of 1928, Ihsan Nuri, the operational commander of Khoybun’s liberation army, staged a revolt in the area of Mt. Ararat. By 1932, the revolt had been suppressed with the same kind of brutality that characterized the end of the Shaykh Said revolt.17

Law No. 1850 was passed in order to decriminalize the actions of those who had taken part in suppressing the Mt. Ararat rebellion, but actually extended this “decriminalization” of human rights violations beyond the bounds of the actual rebellion. Article 1 of the law stated that:

Murders and other actions committed individually or collectively, from June 20, 1930 to December 10, 1930, by the representatives of the state or the province, by the military or civil authorities, by the local authorities, by guards or militiamen, or by any civilian having helped the above or acted on their behalf, during the pursuit and extermination of the revolts which broke out in Erciþ, Zilan, Aðrý Daðý and the surrounding areas, including Pülümür in Erzincan province and the area of the First Inspectorate, will not be considered as crimes.18

What made this law especially sinister, beyond its obvious after-the-fact disregard for human rights and rule of law, was that the First Inspectorate consisted of the provinces of Diyarbakır, Elaziğ, Van, Bitlis, Hakkari, Mardin, and Siirt.19 These were the provinces of what was commonly called “Kurdistan”, but were not directly involved in the revolt. This law showed the extent to which Ankara wanted to “pacify” Kurdistan, in that the brutality and violence employed during suppression of the revolt was allowed to proliferate to uninvolved Kurdish regions under official sanction. Although this law was effective for less than six months, it is a particularly chilling example of the depths to which Kemalist ideology could lead regarding the Kurdish “problem”.

Law No. 1850 was surpassed, though, by the passage in 1932 of a new law (no. 2510) which divided Turkey into zones to facilitate the mass transfer and assimilation of the Kurds. This law stated in part that:

Four separate categories of inhabited zones will be recognized in Turkey, as will be indicated on a map established by the Minister of the Interior and approved by the other Ministers.

No. 1 zones will include all those areas in which it is deemed desirable to increase the density of the culturally Turkish population.

The No. 2 zones will include those areas in which it is deemed desirable to establish populations which must be assimilated into Turkish culture.

The No. 3 zones will be territories in which culturally Turkish immigrants will be allowed to establish themselves, freely but without the assistance of the authorities.

No. 4 zones will include all those territories which it has been decided should be evacuated and those which may be closed off for public health, material, cultural, political, strategic or security reasons.20

The state was given full powers to transfer individuals or groups as deemed necessary. It was intended that the Kurdish population would be dispersed such that it would constitute no more than 5% of any given region.21

With the passage of Law No. 2510, the state’s intention to deport and disperse the Kurds throughout Anatolia while partially repopulating parts of Kurdistan with persons possessing “Turkish culture” became explicitly “legal”. The very use of the words “culture” and “assimilation” within the text of the law is a striking testimony to the blatant, unswerving nature of the official ideology. Practical difficulties prevented the government from carrying out the plan to completion, although at least several hundred thousand Kurds were deported to western Turkey before the mass transfers stopped in 1935.22 McDowall points out that although such legislation seems horrifying today, it was enacted during a period in which similarly crude ideas of social engineering were being discussed not only in Nazi Germany but among European intellectuals in general.23

Armed with Law No. 2510, the government declared in 1935 that it was ready to deal in earnest with Dersim. Dersim had been the scene of numerous Kurdish revolts beginning in the 1800s and had remained defiant towards the new Turkish state. Most importantly, though, Dersim was conveniently classified as a “No. 4 zone”, which required it to be completely evacuated. Dersim (a Kurdish name) was replaced with the Turkish name “Tunceli” and the area was designated a vilayet. A state of siege was declared by the government in 1936. During 1937-38 destruction and brutality reigned as the military was forced to concentrate three army divisions and most of its air force in the small area to bring it “under control.”24 Some estimates indicated that up to 40,000 Kurds perished, and a further 3000 notables were deported.25 Towards the end of the operation a special emergency regime was instituted over Tunceli that was not lifted until 1946. The Dersim affair marked the end of the Kurdish “tribal” revolts against the fledgling Turkish state.

Although things appeared to calm down in Kurdistan during the next couple of decades, the sensitivity of Turkish establishment to the Kurdish question was undeniable. Estimates made by the Turkish Communist Party indicate that during the thirteen years of struggle and repression between 1925 and 1938 approximately one and a half million Kurds were deported and massacred.26 In fact, the events of the 1920s and ’30s were so shameful that the entire region east of the Euphrates River was declared off-limits to foreigners until 1965.27 An article in Son Posta (11 April 1946) during this time echoed what had seemed to become the Kemalist establishment policy of denial towards the Kurds, “In Turkey no Kurdish minority ever existed either nomadic or settled, with national consciousness or without it.”28

With the advent of multiparty politics in 1946, Kurdish identity began to be expressed more and more through participation in the political process. The Democratic Party, the first opposition party allowed to contest elections since the Republican People’s Party of Mustafa Kemal, formed in 1946 and quickly took advantage of the simmering Kurdish resentment.29 The ability of the Kurds to finally have a voice, albeit limited, in the political process also encouraged Kurdish intellectuals to express themselves in other ways.

In 1958 Musa Anter and others had begun publishing Ileri Yurt (Forward Country) in Diyarbakır. However, following Kurdish student protests the next year regarding events in the Kurdish town of Kirkuk, Iraq, 49 leading Kurdish intellectuals, including Musa Anter, were arrested and Ileri Yurt was closed down.30 Although President Bayar and Prime Minister Menderes advocated hanging the 49, they desisted in the face of likely international outrage.

Although in general the political atmosphere regarding the Kurdish question relaxed during the 1950s, this relaxation proved to be short-lived. The Democrat Party was widely blamed by the National Unity Committee (NUC) for allowing the Kurds to get out of control, and on 27 May 1960 the military and NUC, led by General Cemal Gursel, effected the first coup d’état in the republic’s short history.31 President Gursel, in the face of Iraqi Kurdish unrest near the Turkish border in late 1960, explicitly warned the Turkish Kurds not to imitate or support Mulla Mustafa’s uprisings, “The army will not hesitate to bombard towns and villages: there will be such a bloodbath that they [any rebels] will be swallowed up in their country.”32

The new military regime enacted several repressive measures against the Kurds before turning over power to an elected civilian government in 1961. A number of prominent Kurds were either jailed or internally exiled to western Turkey.33 Forced Turkification of Kurdish children (regional boarding schools) and Turkicization of Kurdish place names (Law No. 1587) also were undertaken.34 In addition, Gursel had just written a foreword to the second edition of M. Þerif Fýrat’s Doðu Ýlleri ve Varto Tarýhý (Ankara, 1948, 1961).35 Fýrat in this book argued that the Kurds were actually of Turkish origin and that, therefore, there was no such thing as a Kurdish nation or ethnicity. This thesis, though scientifically dubious and generally discredited, was convincing to most Turks at the time because of Fýrat’s own identity as a Kurd and the endorsement of the president. Predictably, Kurds protested vehemently a few days later on 8 May 1961 in Mardin, Diyarbakýr, Siverek, Bitlis, and Van. According to Kurdish sources, 315 of these protesters were killed and another 754 were wounded by security forces.36

In spite of this cultural repression, the political prospects of the Kurds improved dramatically later in the month when the National Unity Committee enacted the most liberal constitution in the history of the republic on 27 May 1961.37 This new constitution permitted a higher degree of freedom of thought, expression, association, and publication, and was immediately tested by Kurdish intellectuals. During 1962 and 1963 several new Kurdish journals were introduced, but publication was soon stopped by the authorities.

By the mid-1960s, politically minded Kurds had begun to move to the left as the general political atmosphere became more rightist in nature. The TWP (Turkish Workers’ Party), the first socialist party in Turkey, was allowed to form as a result of the new constitution. In the 1965 parliamentary elections 15 TWP candidates (four of whom were Kurds) won seats in the National Assembly. Kurds were particularly attracted to the TWP, and through their efforts the party gradually began to emphasize the importance of the Kurdish issue in Turkey. Remarkably, in 1970 at the Fourth Congress of the TWP the party issued a statement which read in part, “There is a Kurdish people in the East of Turkey…The fascist authorities representing the ruling classes have subjected the Kurdish people to a policy of assimilation and intimidation which has often become a bloody repression.”39 This revolutionary statement was the first public acknowledgment by a political party in Turkey of the persecution of the minority Kurds. However, it also led to the elimination of the party after the military coup d’état the following year.

During 1969 Kurdish intellectuals took advantage of the relative openness toward the Kurdish issue and organized a network of cultural clubs called the Revolutionary Eastern Cultural Hearths (DDKO) as the first legal Kurdish organization.40 DDKO clubs rapidly spread throughout Kurdistan, Istanbul, and Ankara. The DDKO publicized suppression of Kurdish dissent and the economic underdevelopment of Kurdistan, which generated much tension with the Kemalist establishment.

The relative openness in society toward the Kurdish question was doomed, though, by the army’s increasingly interventionist tendencies. In 1970 crackdowns in Kurdistan, marked by the same kind of brutality and torture of the 1920s and ’30s, were carried out against suspected separatists by special commando units.41 During October of the same year DDKO leaders, including Musa Anter and Ýsmail Beþikçi (a young Turkish sociologist), were arrested and trials were conducted in Istanbul and Diyarbakýr. The DDKO was then closed down. On 12 March 1971 the military intervened for the second time in the republic’s brief history.

The case of Ýsmail Beþikçi merits special attention due to the systematic persecution he has suffered and the international awareness of his struggle. Beþikçi is a Turkish sociologist whose research into the Kurdish question in Turkey has led to his repeated imprisonment and harassment (Chaliand, 1992, p. 33).42 Beþikçi, who is not even of Kurdish descent, has spent more than ten years in prison for his writings about the Kurds. After studying in the Faculty of Political Sciences at Ankara University, Ýsmail Beþikçi was posted to eastern Anatolia during his military service. He then decided to devote his doctoral dissertation to the Kurds. It was published in 1969 as The Socio-Economic and Ethnic Foundations of Eastern Anatolia. Although his work did not generate any serious scientific debate, he was removed from his teaching post at Erzurum University and imprisoned for spreading communist and Kurdish propaganda. His first period of imprisonment, from 1971 to 1974, ended with the general amnesty decreed by Bülent Ecevit, the new prime minister. Three more publications on the Kurds led him to prison from 1979 to 1981. Two months later he was arrested yet again for having sent a thank-you letter to the president of the Swiss Union of Writers in which he questioned the validity of the official ideology regarding the Kurdish question. He remained in prison until May 1987, but was rearrested in December 1988 for defending Kurdish ethnic rights in an interview.43 He was released shortly thereafter, but was returned to prison in February 1990 for writing a new book entitled Kurdistan: An Interstate Colony. Due to his statement to the Helsinki Watch in June 1987 that while incarcerated he underwent torture on several occasions, Ýsmail Beþikçi has been adopted as a Prisoner of Conscience by Amnesty International.44

The 1970s saw a considerable increase in leftist organizations and sentiment throughout Turkey with an associated emerging Kurdish national movement.45 Small underground Kurdish parties began to form. With the rise in leftist and Kurdish activity came inevitable conflict with extreme rightist groups. By the late 1970s urban and rural violence, particularly on university campuses, between rightists and leftists, Turks and Kurds, and Sunni and Alevi Muslims had created widespread societal unrest and instability. In 1978 the whole of Kurdistan was put under martial law. In April 1979, Þerafetti Elçi, a Kurd and Cabinet minister, stated publicly, “There are Kurds in Turkey. I too am a Kurd.”46 This statement, and the ensuing uproar, only added fuel to the fire that was spreading across Turkey.

Events finally came to a head in 1980 when several army generals, led by General Evren, suspended civil government and imposed direct rule for the third time in the republic’s history.47 It had been estimated that nearly 4000 people had died during the fighting between various groups in the previous nine months. This time the army remained in power for nearly three and one-half years before allowing a civilian government to take over in April 1983. During the military regime the constitution was revised. Most of the liberties added in the 1961 constitution were removed during the 1982 revision.48

The preamble to the 1982 Constitution reaffirmed the commitment of the generals to Kemalist ideology as it stated, “…the determination that no protection shall be afforded to thoughts or opinions contrary to Turkish national interests, the principle of the existence of Turkey as an indivisible entity with its state and territory, Turkish historical and moral values, or the nationalism, principles, reforms and modernism of Atatürk.”49

Articles 26 and 28 of the constitution prohibited the use of the Kurdish language without actually naming it:50

Everyone has the right to express and disseminate his thought and opinion by speech, in writing or in pictures or through other media, individually or collectively…No language prohibited by law shall be used in the expression and dissemination of thought. Any written or printed documents, phonograph records, magnetic or video tapes, and other means of expression used in contravention of this provision shall be seized… (Article 26)

The Press is free and shall not be censored. The establishment of a printing house shall not be subject to prior permission and to the deposit of a financial guarantee. Publication shall not be made in any language prohibited by law… (Article 28)

In addition, Article 14 further restricted individual and organizational freedoms and prohibited political struggle based on class, sect, language, or race.51

Article 81 of Law No. 2820 (published on 24 April 1983) forbid the formation of Kurdish political parties:

“Political parties: a) cannot affirm that there exists on Turkish soil any minority founded on national, cultural, religious, sectarian, racial or linguistic differences; b) cannot have as their aim the sapping of national unity by the creation of minorities on the territory of the Turkish Republic through the protection, development and diffusion of any language or culture other than the Turkish language and culture; c) cannot use any language other than Turkish in the drawing up and publication of their programme and statutes, congresses, meetings, public gatherings and propaganda; nor may they use or diffuse any banners, records, posters, recordings, films, brochures and tracts in a language other than Turkish; nor may they remain indifferent to actions of this kind committed by others. However, they may translate their statutes and programme into foreign languages other than those that are forbidden by law.”52

Furthermore, Article 2 of Law No. 2392 (published on 22 October 1983) stipulated that, “…it is forbidden to express, diffuse or publish opinions in any language other than the main official language of states recognized by the Turkish state…” This article was clearly aimed at the Kurdish language which had been recognized as the second official language of Iraq as of 11 March 1970.53

Article 3 of Law No. 2392 went even further:

“The mother tongue of Turkish citizens is Turkish. It is forbidden: a) to use as a mother tongue any language other than Turkish, and to engage in any activity aimed at the broadcasting of these languages; b) to carry, at public gatherings and assemblies, placards, banners, signs, boards, posters and the like, written in a language other than Turkish, even in those languages not forbidden by this law, and, unless authorisation has been obtained from the highest civil authority in the locality, to use discs, sound recordings, films and other mediums and means of expression and diffusion in these languages.”54

Along the same lines, a governmental decree published on 2 December 1983 (no. 83/7006) bans films “aiming to undermine national integrity and unity, by creating differences of language, race, religion or creed”.55

In addition to these constitutional and legislative measures, the Turkish penal code, originally formulated in 1938, was revised to criminalize expressions of Kurdish ethnic identity, including use of the term “Kurd” or “Kurdish”.56 These suppressions affected a wide segment of society. In a striking example, Şerafetti Elçi, who served as a Cabinet minister in Ecevit’s administration in 1978-79, was sentenced in March 1981 to two years and three months in prison for allegedly spreading Kurdish and secessionist propaganda.57 Overall, the military intervention of 1980 and subsequent suppression of Kurdish identity only served to further radicalize the Kurdish population, particularly hardline nationalists.

After the army returned the government to civilian rule, Turgut Özal and the Motherland Party (ANAP) were elected to power in November 1983. The following August (1984) marked the return to violent Kurdish struggle in Turkey with the now thoroughly radicalized PKK guerrillas.

The origin of the PKK (Partia Karkari Kurdistan – Kurdistan Workers’ Party) can be traced to 1974 when a small group of Kurdish students in Ankara organized the Ankara Democratic Patriotic Association of Higher Education.58 The original impetus behind this group was the struggle for official recognition of Kurdish language and cultural rights. The leader of the association was Abdullah (Apo) Öcalan, a former political science student at Ankara University. Apo, as well as the original founding members, were urban Kurds who spoke Turkish. This loss of the Kurdish language among the PKK’s original leaders only accentuated their resentment and the intensity of Kurdish national identity within the group.

The Apocular (followers of Apo), as the group was nicknamed in its early years, soon expanded their membership beyond university circles into other areas of Kurdish society. In 1977 the group met in Diyarbakır and issued a document reflecting its analysis of the Kurdish issue in Turkey. This document, titled The Path of the Kurdish Revolution, described Kurdistan as a classic colony, where Kurdish feudal landlords and bourgeoisie collaborated with the ruling classes to exploit the Kurdish peasantry and working class. The document was also highly critical of Kurdish intellectuals for becoming Turkified and forsaking their Kurdish cultural heritage.59 The document reflected the Marxist inclinations of the Apocular, and maintained that the only effective way to transform Kurdish society was through a class war whose final aim was creation of a classless society. Armed struggle was advocated as the only way to achieve this aim. The Path of the Kurdish Revolution provided the framework in which the Apocular have functioned since formation of the PKK as a Marxist-Leninist Kurdish party in 1979.

From the beginning the PKK used violence to achieve its stated aims, taking advantage initially of the general chaos of the late 1970s to establish a strong presence in southeastern Turkey. The first targets of the PKK were mainly Kurdish feudal landlords and other Kurds accused of collaborating with the state. After the military coup of 1980, the PKK leadership fled to Syria and Lebanon where they opened training camps. When PKK activity resumed in earnest in Turkey in 1984, the range of its targets had widened to include economic targets (power and communication lines, irrigation facilities, factories, petroleum installations, road construction and maintenance equipment, and tourism facilities and business) and military targets (usually remote gendarmerie stations and units on patrol), as well as civilians in villages that refused to cooperate with the PKK.60

Although the PKK has made some tactical adjustments over the years in the face of its extremely unpopular attacks on civilians, the death toll over the 14-year guerrilla war has been immense. The governor of the Emergency Rule Region, Aydın Arslan, recently reported that 25,654 PKK members, 4,268 civilians (including 508 women and 489 children), and 4,501 members of the security forces (including soldiers, policemen, and village guards) had lost their lives in the ongoing conflict.61 PKK activity was highest during the early 1990s, but even now there is a large operation, code-named “Murat”, being waged by security forces against some 400 guerrillas in the Bingöl-Lice-Kulp triangle.62 In recent months, the Turkish military has stepped up operations against the PKK in hopes that it will be able soon to crush the guerrilla group. The increased intensity has been fueled in part by the defection of Şemdin Sakık, a leading PKK chieftain, to Barzani’s forces in northern Iraq63, and his subsequent capture by Turkish commandos.

Recent Developments

Although the brutal violence of the PKK guerrilla war over the past 14 years has certainly complicated the entire Kurdish question in Turkey, the overall atmosphere seems to be an improvement from earlier decades. Although the vicious cycle of human rights violations by Turkish authorities reacting to PKK guerrillas and vice versa has taken its toll, the 1990s have witnessed an unprecedented freedom, though still limited, in terms of public discussion of Kurdish identity.

Nevertheless, discouraging evidence of human rights violations continue to mount. In one case, Sema Pişkinsüt, a Turkish parliamentarian heading a parliamentary commission on human rights, recently reported evidence of people being tortured while in police custody during an investigation conducted in southeastern Turkey.64 On the same day it was reported that a Turkish prosecutor has opened a new case against Akın Birdal, chairman of the IHD (Human Rights Association), for making a speech in Italy last year about the PKK conflict. He has been charged with “aiding an illegal organization”, and is also facing previous charges for publicly advocating a peaceful solution to the conflict and for spreading Kurdish rebel propaganda.65

The next week, though, the Turkish Probe reported that the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR), to which Turkey is voluntarily accountable, officially condemned Turkey on 24 April 1998 for the 1993 destruction of Kurdish homes by security forces during anti-terrorist operations in southeastern Turkey.66 The court ruled that the security forces were guilty of “inhumane treatment”, and more importantly, rejected Ankara’s argument that the plaintiffs should have exhausted all legal proceedings in Turkey before submitting their petition to the ECHR. The court said that after nothing had been done following a complaint to the district governor, “It was pointless for them to attempt to secure satisfaction through national legal channels.” Thus the ECHR itself has highlighted the deficiencies and injustices in Turkey’s current legal system and the need for legislative reform, and thus is the only real international recourse for victims of human rights violations in Turkey.

Finally, the 1990s story of Şerafetti Elçi gives much cause for hope, despite the inevitable setbacks.67 After being unfairly persecuted in the 1970s and 80s, Elçi created in 1992, with 92 other Kurdish intellectuals, the Kurdish Rights and Freedoms Foundation. After much struggle, the organization was finally registered by the state in 1995 as the Foundation for Research into Kurdish Culture. This marked the first time in the history of the republic that an institution with the name “Kurd” in it became official. Elçi then went on to pioneer the establishment of the Kurdish Democratic Platform with a group of friends. This group then established the Democratic Mass Party (DKP) with Elçi as chairman in January 1997. The DKP has positioned itself as a “moderate” party committed to seeing the Kurdish problem resolved in a peaceful, constructive way. Nevertheless, a court case for closure of the party was initiated on 16 June 1997 on the grounds of “violating the indivisible unity of the state”. The case is still pending.

Concluding Statements

It is clear from the previous brief, cursory, and arguably one-sided survey of the past 75 years of Turkish history that something is amiss regarding the Kurds of Turkey. Despite vigorous attempts by the establishment authorities to stifle, suppress, and eliminate Kurdish identity from the beginning, Kurdish nationalism has grown more and more radical and powerful. From the sampling of laws, constitutional articles, and interpretations thereof by the state that have been presented, the only conclusion that can be drawn is that a radical rethinking of the “problem” is in order. Only when Turkish leaders of sufficient courage take the step to begin reforming the existing constitution and system of laws will lasting progress be made. Obviously the state has a right to battle terrorism and secessionists, but Turkish leaders must take the lead in separating the question of Kurdish identity from that of terrorism. Once the legal justification for denying basic Kurdish identity is gone, the possibility of actually bettering Turkey’s human rights record exists. Until then, we are likely to continue observing impotently the cycle of violence and human rights violations perpetrated by the state and the PKK.

These fundamental problems within the Turkish establishment regarding the free expression of ideas, let alone identities, were eloquently expressed recently by Tayyip Erdoğan, the popular mayor of Istanbul. After being sentenced to ten months imprisonment for quoting a poem later deemed “separatist” in a speech in Siirt, Erdoğan said, “First the poets were arrested, then those who read the poems and in the future those who listen to the poems will be arrested.” In the same article, Erdoğan was later quoted as saying that in order to increase the common denominators among Turks, two things are absolutely essential: 1) increasing the legal status of Parliament, and 2) “achieving full freedom of thought.”68 Although Erdoğan’s struggle has been in the context of the increasing polarization between Islamists and secularists in Turkey, the foundational issues of denial of Islamic identity parallel in many ways the Kurdish human rights question, and both require and will benefit from the same changes at the conceptual and legal levels.

Finally, in his preliminary statement to the trial judges on 18 April 1990, Ismail Beşikçi summed up many of the modern criticisms leveled at Turkey for its denial of Kurdish identity:

The Turkish state and its official ideology denies the existence of the Kurdish nation and the Kurdish language. The Kurds are considered to be a Turkish tribe, the Kurdish language a dialect of Turkish. In this way, sociological realities are denied by means of official ideology. Official ideology is not just any ideology. Official ideology implies legal sanction. Those who stray outside the boundaries of official ideology are shown the way to prison. The constraints of official ideology obstruct the development of science [scientific analysis]. This pressure paralyses thought and cripples and blunts minds….I do not share the views expressed in [my] indictment, since these views are an expression of the official ideology and based on a lie and denial of truth. These things may exist in law but they are not legitimate. Whether it is five generals or 450 deputies that pass it makes no difference. Legislation denying the existence of the Kurdish nation, language and culture can have no legitimacy at all. In law, legitimacy is more important than legality (my emphasis).69

When Turkey’s leaders and lawmakers find the courage to rethink their approach to the Kurds and then correct the legislative system accordingly, the Kurdish “problem” may finally cease to be a source of human rights embarrassment for the country.


  1. K. Kirişci and G. Winrow, The Kurdish Question and Turkey: An Example of a Trans-state Ethnic Conflict (London: Frank Cass & Co. Ltd., 1997), p. 3.
  2. J. Randal, After Such Knowledge, What Forgiveness? My Encounters with Kurdistan (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1997), p. 15.
  3. K. Kirişci and G. Winrow, op. cit., p. 9.
  4. M. van Bruinessen, “Kurdish society, ethnicity, nationalism and refugee problems,” in The Kurds: A Contemporary Overview, ed. by P.G. Kreyenbroek and S. Sperl (London: Routledge, 1992), p. 47.
  5. Ibid., p. 48.
  6. P. Thornberry, Minorities and Human Rights Law (London: Minority Rights Group, 1991), pp. 6-7.
  7. Ibid., p. 8.
  8. G. Chaliand, “Introduction,” in A People Without a Country: The Kurds and Kurdistan (revised and updated edition, translated by M. Pallis), ed. by G. Chaliand (London: Zed Books Ltd., 1993), p. 2.
  9. Ibid., p. 2.
  10. Cited in D. McDowall, A Modern History of the Kurds (London: I.B. Tauris & Co. Ltd., 1997), pp. 459-460.
  11. Kendal [Nezan], “Kurdistan in Turkey,” in A People Without a Country: The Kurds and Kurdistan (revised and updated edition, translated by M. Pallis), ed. by G. Chaliand (London: Zed Books Ltd., 1993), p. 48.
  12. Cited in G. Chaliand, The Kurdish Tragedy (London: Zen Books Ltd., 1992), pp. 50-51.
  13. D. McDowall, op. cit., p. 192.
  14. Ibid.
  15. M. van Bruinessen, Agha, Shaikh and State: The Social and Political Structure of Kurdistan (London: Zen Books Ltd., 1992), pp. 281-305.
  16. FO 371/12255 Clerk to Chamberlain, Ankara, 4 January 1927, cited in D. McDowall, op. cit., p. 200.
  17. D. McDowall, op. cit., pp. 202-206.
  18. Kendal, op. cit., p. 56.
  19. Ibid.
  20. Ibid., p. 57.
  21. D. McDowall, op. cit., p. 207.
  22. Kendal, op. cit., p. 57.
  23. D. McDowall, op. cit., p. 207.
  24. Kendal, op. cit., p. 58.
  25. D. McDowall, op. cit., p. 210.
  26. Kendal, op. cit., p. 58.
  27. G. Chaliand, 1992, op. cit., p. 39.
  28. D. McDowall, op. cit., p. 395.
  29. Ibid., p. 396.
  30. D. McDowall, op. cit., p. 403.
  31. N. Entessar, Kurdish Ethnonationalism (Boulder: Lynne Rienner Publishers, 1992), p. 88.
  32. D. McDowall, op. cit., p. 404.
  33. N. Entessar, op. cit., p. 88.
  34. Ibid.
  35. D. McDowall, op. cit., p. 404.
  36. Ibid., p. 405.
  37. Ibid.
  38. Ibid., p. 407.
  39. N. Entessar, op. cit., pp. 89-90.
  40. D. McDowall, op. cit., p. 409.
  41. Ibid.
  42. Unless otherwise noted, the details regarding Ismail Beşikçi have been drawn from G. Chaliand, 1992, op. cit., p. 33.
  43. N. Entessar, op. cit., p. 104.
  44. M. Gunter, The Kurds of Turkey: A Political Dilemma (Westport: Greenwood Press, 1991), p. 49.
  45. D. McDowall, op. cit., p. 412.
  46. Ibid., p. 413.
  47. N. Entessar, op. cit., p. 95.
  48. D. McDowall, op. cit., p. 414.
  49. Cited in G. Chaliand, 1992, op. cit., p. 30.
  50. Cited in Ibid., p. 31.
  51. D. McDowall, op. cit., p. 414.
  52. Cited in G. Chaliand, 1992, op. cit., p. 32.
  53. Cited in Ibid.
  54. Cited in Ibid.
  55. Cited in Ibid., p. 33.
  56. N. Entessar, op. cit., p. 96.
  57. Ibid., p. 97.
  58. Unless otherwise noted, the following brief account of the PKK’s rise to power is drawn from D. McDowall, op. cit., pp. 418-442.
  59. N. Entessar, op. cit., p. 94.
  60. K. Kirişci and G. Winrow, op. cit., p. 127.
  61. Turkish Daily News, 8 May 1998.
  62. Ibid.
  63. Turkish Daily News, 22 March 1998.
  64. Turkish Probe, 19 April 1998.
  65. Ibid.
  66. Turkish Probe, 26 April 1998.
  67. The following account is drawn entirely from a published interview in the Turkish Daily News, 11 May 1998.
  68. Turkish Daily News, 7 May 1998.
  69. N. Entessar, op. cit., p. 105.

Leave a Comment

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.