Turkey is bombing PKK camps in Northern-Iraq in retaliation for the killing of soldiers by the PKK. The first civilian deaths have been reported. The EU doesn’t protest the violence, because the PKK is on the EU list of terrorist organizations. But the label ‘terrorist’ contributes to maintaining the crux of the problem, which is the still unsolved Kurdish issue. It’s about time we stopped referring to PKK fighters as ‘terrorists’.
There is no generally accepted, international definition of the term ‘terrorism’. That has everything to do with the eagerness of several political players to use and misuse the term, and their willingness to take advantage of it for their own purposes. The question whether an organization is terrorist or not is thus a purely political one. Also the decision of the EU to put the PKK on the list of terrorist organizations was political. It was taken in 2002, under heavy pressure from both Turkey and the United States. The United States needed Turkey’s friendship in their war on terror after the attacks in New York, and the best way to buy Turkish friendship is to call the PKK terrorists. The EU couldn’t be left behind.
That’s almost ten years ago now. At the time, there was some hope that governing party AKP, which came to power for the first time in 2002, would work on finding a solution to the long-lasting Kurdish issue. Not only by military means, as before, but by carrying out democratic reforms and thus taking away the breeding ground for ‘terrorism’. The AKP indeed took democratization seriously on several issues, and in 2005 the access negotiations between Turkey and the EU were opened.
Education in mother tongue
But the AKP, which has been governing alone since 2002, has not delivered on solving the Kurdish issue through democratic means. In 2009 a ‘Kurdish opening’ was announced, but it never really lead anywhere. Even when the PKK repeatedly respected months of lasting cease-fires and thus gave the government the chance to reform without being accused of ‘bending before terrorists’, nothing happened.
The Kurdish demands though, are not unreasonable. When the PKK started its violent political activism, in August 1984, an independent country was the goal. Now the organization strives for autonomy in the south-east of the country, which is mainly inhabited by Kurds. Other Kurdish demands: education in their mother tongue, the abolishment of the election threshold of ten percent, the release of Kurdish political prisoners. Most demands are not negotiable for Turkey. They erode the unity of the country, one of the sacred doctrines the nation state is built on.
Not only did the AKP refrain from doing anything concrete to solve the Kurdish issue, but there was even a tactic added to the arsenal with which the Kurdish people are being suppressed. In the eighties and nineties PKK fighters, Kurdish activists, politicians and intellectuals were killed in their thousands, while nowadays they are being prosecuted en masse. There are for example hundreds of Kurdish mayors and officials on trial for using their right to freedom of expression, referred to by Turkey as ‘making propaganda for a terrorist organization’. Kurdish journalists are still being locked up when they report on the Kurdish issue from a Kurdish perspective, and democratically elected politicians are banned from taking their seats in parliament because of legalistic arguments.
A sentence that suits a state of law
By labelling the PKK as ‘terrorist’, its legitimate goals are being branded as irrelevant too. And at the same time the label is used to justify violent and legal reprisals against Kurds. Every bomb on Northern Iraq is self defence against terrorism, every court verdict against a Kurdish politician a sentence that suits a state of law. It stirs up anger and frustration among Kurds – no wonder the number of youths wanting to join the PKK is on the rise, as became known last week. Politically they see no possibilities whatsoever, so they see no other option than to ‘go to the mountains’, as it’s described in Turkey.
The PKK cease-fire is over. Soldiers die. Young men, often conscript soldiers and mostly inexperienced. Which leads to Erdogan’s decision to start air strikes on PKK camps in Northern Iraq, because, as he said, ‘our patience has come to an end.’ It can hardly get more cynical than that. The international recognition of the PKK as a terrorist organization has a disastrous effect on any chance for peace. It maintains a circle of oppression and violence. Time for a new political signal: strike the PKK off the list of terrorist organizations.