Kurdish economic, social and cultural rights in Turkey

On 20 May 2011, the Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights) adopted concluding observations following its review of Turkey’s initial report on the implementation of the rights enshrined in the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR). The process is designed to strengthen collaboration between State and civil society actors around human rights promotion and protection.

In advance of this review, Kurdish Human Rights Project (KHRP) had raised a number of concerns about Turkey’s compliance vis-à-vis the Kurds with its obligations under the Covenant by submitting a list of issues to the committee. KHRP also attended the Committee’s review of Turkey’s report, which took place in Geneva on 3 and 4 May 2011. This was a part of the Committee’s 46th Session.

For example, Article One of the Covenant states that ‘[a]ll peoples have the right of self-determination. By virtue of that right they freely determine their political status and freely pursue their economic, social and cultural development’ and that states ‘shall promote the realization of the right of self-determination, and shall respect that right…’

In the report submitted by Turkey, its initial report to the Committee during this session, it references Article One’s right to self-determination as follows:

The Turkish nation is composed of citizens equal before the law irrespective of their origins. In the context of the Turkish nation, common denominator is citizenship. Every citizen has the right and power to lead an honourable life and to enhance his/her material and spiritual well-being in national culture, civilization and law order, by benefiting fundamental rights and freedoms set forth in the Constitution, in line with the principle of equality and social justice. Every Turkish citizen has effective access to government to pursue their political, economic, cultural and social development.

KHRP’s ‘List of Issues’ report methodically examines the Turkish report, poses questions and concerns, and then offers extensive background information regarding each particular article of the ICESCR.

Regarding Article One, for example, KHRP asked for information on the steps the Turkish Government was taking to promote the right of Kurdish people to self-determination, details of any policies and measures being pursued by the Turkish Government to ensure that Kurdish people are proportionally represented in national and regional political parties, and details about the people arrested under laws prohibiting written Kurdish in election campaigns and the proportion of those who are Kurdish.

KHRP then offers this background material on issues raised in Article One:

1. The Turkish Constitution was designed, in 1982, in conformity with Turkey’s strict adherence to a single Turkish nationalism. By failing to recognise any other ethnic identity except Turkish, Turkey refuses to grant its ethnic minorities their right of self-determination.1 For the Kurds, who make up approximately 23 per cent of Turkey’s population, this refusal is felt through Turkey’s embargo of their cultural and political freedoms.

2. The boldest way by which the Turkish Government denies Kurdish people their right of self-determination is through the criminalisation of political organisations and civil society institutions which advocate Kurdish rights and freedoms. By aligning political sympathies for the Kurdish people with a separatist threat, the Turkish Government has been able to use anti-terror laws to outlaw pro-Kurdish parties, expunge their members from parliament and authorise their subsequent arrest. Since the early 1970s the Turkish Government has instigated a policy of systematically banning peaceful and legitimate Kurdish political parties. This long-standing policy has had a constraining effect upon the ability of Kurdish parties to participate in the Turkish political system.

3. A second exclusionary device takes the form of prohibitions on written Kurdish languages in election campaigns. Laws which formerly prohibited spoken Kurdish have, in the past, justified the imprisonment of members of Kurdish political parties. The number of Kurdish people arrested under the present prohibition on written Kurdish is unknown. A corollary effect of this language restriction is the preclusion of Kurdish citizens from participating in the election process, many of whom cannot read Turkish.

4. Without democratic decentralisation in the Kurdish regions, the ability of Kurdish people to contribute to the formulation of national policies is extremely limited. The establishment of a properly representative decentralised body or bodies in the Kurdish region is essential for the realisation of Article 1 of the ICESCR by Kurdish Turks.

In each successive article, KHRP cites extensive research and legal casework to demonstrate significant areas where the Turkish Government has failed sufficiently to meet its obligations under the ICESCR, in spite of statements that it makes in its initial report submitted in June 2008.

To fully appreciate the failings of the Turkish Government to ensure economic, social and cultural rights of the Kurds in Turkey, it is essential to read the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, then the report submitted by Turkey, followed by the KHRP ‘List of Issues’ report.

The ICESCR can be downloaded here (.pdf).

Turkey’s report to the Committee (June 2008) can be downloaded here (158-page Word document).

The Committee’s questions/issues (June 2010) for the Turkish delegation can be downloaded here (5-page Word document).

The KHRP ‘List of Issues’ report (May 2010) can be downloaded from the KHRP website here.

In the concluding observations, the Committee noted principal subjects of concern and provided recommendations for Turkey. KHRP welcomed, in particular, the comment that in light of the fact that Turkey ‘recognizes only Greeks, Jews and Armenians as minorities, the Committee expresses concern about the absence of a broad legislative framework for the recognition of all minorities…including the Kurds, the Roma and the Arameans.’ KHRP joined the Committee in urging Turkey to recognise all the minorities in its territory and to provide them the full opportunities to enjoy their economic, social and cultural rights and to adopt the necessary plans of action for this purpose. The full report on the Committee’s concluding observations can be downloaded at the 46th Session Website.

Below are a few excerpts from the KHRP report and their corresponding articles:

Article Two: Non-Discrimination

10. There is no comprehensive law on non-discrimination in Turkey. The existing legal framework is fragmented and refrains from incorporating sound and effective measures aimed at eradicating discrimination against the Kurds. A first step towards this goal requires that statistical information about Turkey’s ethnic or linguistic groups is obtained. As yet the Turkish authorities have failed to conduct any such census or other comprehensive survey along these lines.

12. The only legislative provision outlined in Turkey’s report which has as its specific rationale the elimination of discrimination is Article 216 of the Penal Code, which is concerned with the incitement of racial hatred. However, this provision has not been applied to oral, written or other expressions which target the Kurdish population. Further, the European Commission has criticised its discriminatory application by certain public prosecutors in order to prosecute personalities expressing “pro-Kurdish views”, rather than to punish racist remarks.

Exclusion of Kurds from definition of “minority”

13. Turkish official policy on minorities is based on the Lausanne Treaty signed on 24 July 1923, which provides protection only for non-Muslim minorities. Since the majority of Kurds follow Sunni Islam, they are excluded from minority protection. In contra-distinction to religious minorities, such as Greek-Orthodox, Armenian and Jewish peoples, the Kurdish identity is not recognised by the Turkish legal framework. As a result, Turkey’s most significant minority population are denied the rights available to non-Muslim minorities.

15. The Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe in its Recommendation 1201 (1993) proposes the following definition: “… the expression “national minority” refers to a group of persons in a State who: a) reside in the territory of that State and are citizens thereof, b) maintain long-standing, firm and lasting ties with that state, c) display distinctive ethnic, cultural, religious or linguistic characteristics, d) are sufficiently representative, although smaller in number than the rest of the population of the State or of a region of that State, and e) are motivated by a concern to preserve together that which constitutes their common identity, including their culture, their traditions, their religion or their language.” Turkey should adopt this definition in order to give effect to Article 2 of the ICESCR. In May 2003, the European Parliamentary Commission on Foreign Affairs, Human Rights, Common Security and Defence Policy condemned Turkey’s refusal to accommodate the linguistic and cultural rights of the Kurds and stressed the need for Constitutional reform. This sentiment has since been echoed by other European bodies.

Article Three: Gender Discrimination

27. The discrimination faced by Kurdish women with regard to access to education stems from Article 42 of Turkey’s Constitution, which provides that only Turkish may be taught as the mother tongue in Turkish educational institutions. A study in Turkey examining the influence of speaking Turkish on socio-economic indicators found that 90 per cent of women in the eastern and southern Turkish regions who do not speak Turkish did not finish primary school, are illiterate and are employed either as agricultural or unpaid family workers. This study further concluded that since Kurdish women and girls speak Kurdish at home, any restriction on educational opportunities will subsequently restrict any opportunities to learn Turkish and integrate into mainstream society. Although the KHRP recognises that this information precedes Turkey’s ratification of the Convention, there is a dearth of more up-to-date information about the impact of speaking Turkish on socio-economic indicators in relation to Kurdish people.

Article Eight: Right to Trade Unions

54. Restriction of trade union activities and labour rights by the Turkish authorities has a particularly negative impact on the country’s Kurdish population. Kurdish trade unionists have been subjected to allegations of involvement in terrorism, as is the case with many Kurdish politicians, socialists, lawyers and anyone else who argues for rights for the Kurds or working people. Furthermore, union activities must be carried out in Turkish, weakening the ability of Kurds to organise on their own terms. Eğitim-Sen was forced to remove a clause in its constitution supporting the right to education in one’s mother tongue. Kurds are also particularly vulnerable to the practice of ‘internal exile’ of activists, the compulsory transfer of an employee to a part of the country far from home, without the possibility of being accompanied by spouse or family. An unspoken but well understood element of this practice is that it involves uprooting a person generally of Kurdish origin, ethnicity and language group and transferring him to a Turkish-speaking area where they will be more or less isolated.

Article Fifteen: Cultural Rights

Freedom of expression is not applied in the same manner to the Kurdish language as it is to the Turkish language. Furthermore, the Turkish Government links Kurdish associations to terror groups.

116. Such discrimination is also found in the area of expression of Kurdish culture. Celebrations such as Newroz, the Kurdish new-year celebration, are limited and overseen by the authorities. The Government’s refusal to support such cultural issues results in violence and arbitrary detention.

117. Kurdish culture is also found in the Kurdish alphabet which is different to the Turkish alphabet. The Kurdish alphabet has the additional letters of “Q, W, X”, which are prohibited in Turkey. Although such letters can be used in Kurdish names people will be unable to register them for official use. The recent case of Kemal Taşkin and Others v Turkey highlights these issues the Kurdish people struggle with.

Self-congratulatory end note: In its report to the 46th Session Committee in Geneva, KHRP (in Article 13: Right to Education) cited Kurdistan Commentary’s report on Mother-tongue education in Kurdish (06 Dec 2009). Kurdistan Commentary is proud to be a contributing part of this process.


Spanish campaign raises awareness of Kurdish political prisoners in Syria

In late January of this year a letter addressed to the President of the Government of Spain, José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero, was registered at the Moncloa Palace, the official seat of the Ministry of the Presidency. The letter outlined the plight of Kurdish political prisoners in Syria and asked for Spain’s assistance.

…we respectfully request your intervention with the Syrian government, with whom the Spanish government has excellent political relations, to recognise the state in which political prisoners in Syrian jails find themselves, and to request the release of all prisoners of conscience, seeking especially to investigate reports of torture and ill-treatment and, in its relations with the Syrian authorities, demand that international norms are respected in the treatment of prisoners.

We also ask that you investigate the mysterious deaths of some 34 Syrian soldiers of Kurdish origin (since 2004) while doing their military service.

The letter was sent by Zinar Ala on behalf of 1,075 Spanish citizens and Kurdish residents of Spain who signed it.  There are approximately 1,500 Kurds living in Spain, half of whom come from Syria. Those who signed the document were politicians, journalists, teachers, academics, students, doctors and activists in NGOs, as well as ordinary citizens.  Zinar, a Kurd from Efrîn, is a Spanish resident, dedicated  human rights activist, blogger, and energetic campaigner against the regime in Damascus.

In October and November of 2009 Kurdish prisoners in Adra Prison near Damascus went on a hunger strike to protest the inhumane conditions of the prison.  Protests and sympathy strikes were held across Europe.  Says Zinar, ‘I wanted to echo these strikes in Spain.  And taking advantage of the fact that Spain is currently Chair of the Presidency of the European Union, I thought I could do something for the political prisoners in Syria.’

The Kurdish minority in Syria, some 10% of the population, faces severe restrictions on cultural and linguistic expression, and systematic and pervasive human rights abuses by the Ba’athist regime. A state of emergency has been in force since 1963, giving the security agencies virtually unlimited authority to arrest suspects and hold them incommunicado for prolonged periods without charge (Freedom House, Freedom in the World 2010 Report).

Despite documented evidence to the contrary, Syria is under the illusion that is has realised great progress in promoting human rights and fundamental freedoms in the past decade. As proof of Syria’s renewed and strengthened commitment to human rights, they say, was the recent agreement reached with the European Union, which ‘would not have been possible if not for the European Union’s admiration and firm belief that the level of human rights in Syria was satisfactory,’ said Faysal Khabbaz Hamoui, Permanent Representative of Syria to the United Nations Office at Geneva.

Early in May, Zinar and the other signatories to the letter received a response from the chief of staff of the Presidency of the Government of Spain, José Enrique Serrano Martínez, in which he states that Zapatero is concerned about the situation of prisoners in Syria.

[A]s you know, the promotion and protection of human rights is among the priorities of our government’s foreign policy. In fact, this priority is integrated across the board in all our policies and relations with other states.

In this context, Syria is, as you mention, a close country and friend. Thus, Spain takes advantage of the opportunities available to bring up to local authorities the cases of human rights of most concern to our government and our citizenry.

Martínez  added that Spain ‘has raised on numerous occasions its interest in the situation of several human rights defenders, as well as other prisoners of conscience’ and that ‘many of these efforts have resulted in satisfactory results.’

He closes saying that he can assure those who wrote the letter ‘that the Spanish government will continue to monitor all cases of concern for human rights in Syria.’

click photo to open .pdf from Rudaw

While Zinar Ala is not overly optimistic that the Spanish Government will be able to sway Syrian authorities, or even attempt to, he says that at least actions like this one have made it into the Kurdish press.  This is important as it gives hope to those Kurds living in Syria, knowing that someone on the outside is fighting for their rights and freedom.

Said Zinar,  ‘If the Spanish government had warned the Syrian authorities to respect human rights, perhaps we would not have had two casualties and many wounded in the last Newroz festival in al-Raqqa.’

Spanish Foreign Minister Miguel Moratinos was in Syria last month holding talks with Bashar al-Assad, but it is doubtful he referred to the situation of human rights in Syria.  However, Spanish Ambassador to Turkey, Joan Clos, on the other hand, is pressing for reform and a resolution to Kurdish issues in that country.

sources and related articles

Another Kurdish Soldier Dead in Syrian Army. Firat News Agency, 03 June 2010

Committee Against Torture Begins Examination of Report of Syria. The United Nations Office at Geneva, 03 May 2010.

Mil firmas piden a Zapatero ayuda para los presos políticos de Siria. Cuartopoder, 10 March 2010.

Serokwezîrê Spanya Ji Ber Rewşa Girtiyan Li Suriyê Xembar e. Rudaw, 24 May 2010.

If you cry tomorrow, it will be in vain

The United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC) went into force in September of 1990.  Only two countries in the world have not ratified this convention: the US and Somalia.  Turkey ratified the CRC on 04 May 1995.

The CRC applies to everyone equally, with special protections for particularly vulnerable groups, such as ethnic minority children.  [1]

Here are summaries of a couple of the CRC articles: [2]

Article 30 (Children of minorities/indigenous groups): Minority or indigenous children have the right to learn about and practice their own culture, language and religion.  The right to practice one’s own culture, language and religion applies to everyone; the Convention here highlights this right in instances where the practices are not shared by the majority of people in the country.

Article 37 (Detention and punishment): No one is allowed to punish children in a cruel or harmful way. Children who break the law should not be treated cruelly. They should not be put in prison with adults, should be able to keep in contact with their families, and should not be sentenced to death or life imprisonment without possibility of release.

Governments of countries that have ratified the Convention are required to report to, and appear before, the United Nations Committee on the Rights of the Child periodically to be examined on their progress with regards to the advancement of the implementation of the Convention and the status of child rights in their country.

Turkey routinely arrests, detains, tortures, and abuses its children.  They are subjected to horrific treatment at the hands of the state security and police.

A past example…in April 2006 Amnesty International reported that 57 of the 91 minors detained during the events in Diyarbakir (March 2006) remained in prison pending trial. Some of them alleged ill-treatment or torture in custody, and their lawyers suggest that they were also subjected to irregular detention procedures. Amnesty International noted that some of the minors could face charges under articles of the Turkish Penal Code which fall under the jurisdiction of the Anti-Terror Law, and that in the case of at least one possible charge the penalty is life imprisonment. [3]

Immediately after the March 2006 incidents in Diyarbakir, Turkish Prime Minister Erdoğan warned that ‘the security forces will act against women and children’ who he said were being used as the ‘pawns of terrorism.’  Addressing the parents of the region he added, ‘If you cry tomorrow, it will be in vain.’  [4]  Sadly, the state still acts against children, in blatant violation of the CRC.

Last December a Human Rights Watch report about Turkey stated that there are  “signs of continuing problems of police violence, and a reported rise in overall complaints of torture and police violence since the beginning of 2007.” [5]

Seyfi Turan (see video below)

Seyfi Turan (see video below)

A recent example…just two days ago in Hakkari, Turkish police brutally beat a 14-year old Kurdish boy, Seyfi Turan, with the butt of a rifle for participating in a demonstration (some media outlets report Turan’s age as 12).  The beating rendered the boy unconscious and the police left him at the scene of the beating, bleeding and with a fractured skull.  Other protesters came to the boy’s aid and took him to hospital where he is in critical condition.  [6]   He was in hospital in Hakkari and later transported to Van.  Another boy while running from the police, fell, sustained a severe head trauma and died on the scene.  And the irony of these incidents is that they took place on Children’s Day, ‘celebrated’ every 23rd April in Turkey since 1935.

The entire choatic incident was captured on video and posted widely on YouTube (blocked in Turkey) and other sites.  Subsequently, Turkish authorities had to recognise this for what it was: another case of human rights abuse against the Kurds (and their children) by the Turkish authorities.  Were it not for the filming of the incident and new social media networks, this would not have been such a high-profile incident and Turan’s case would have been just another statistic for Amnesty International or Human Rights Watch.  As I mentioned in a post just a week ago (The State of Kurdish Media) we need use these new media tools to speak out against repression, abuses of freedom of expression, and violence against children.

Let us not let Turan’s family cry in vain.


[1] UNICEF website

[2] UNICEF Website, Rights under the Convention on the Rights of the Child, http://www.unicef.org/crc/index_30177.html

[3] http://asiapacific.amnesty.org/library/Index/ENGEUR440052006?open&of=ENG-2U5

[4] http://www.ombudsnet.org/resources/infoDetail.asp?ID=7872&flag=news

[5] Closing Ranks Against Accountability: Barriers to Tackling Police Violence in Turkey.  Human Rights Watch, 05 December 2008.

[6] http://www.bianet.org/english/minorities/childrens-day-in-hakkari-one-dead-one-beaten-brutally

UN suggests power-sharing for Kirkuk

UN suggests power-sharing for Kirkuk
by Lara Jakes, AP

KIRKUK, Iraq (AP) – Seeking to head off an explosion of ethnic violence, the United Nations will call for a power-sharing system of government for Iraq’s deeply divided region of Kirkuk in the oil-rich north.

A draft U.N. plan, outlined to The Associated Press by two Western officials, aims to defuse dangerous tensions. Kurds, a majority in the region, have been trying to wrest control from Arabs, Turkomen and other rival ethnic groups. If open warfare

Market in central Kiruk (AP photo/Yahya Ahmed)

Market in central Kirkuk (AP photo/Yahya Ahmed)

breaks out, it could jeopardize the U.S. goal of stability across Iraq before elections at year’s end.

Peaceful elections are critical to reducing the U.S. presence in Iraq, promised by President Barack Obama.

The U.N. has played only a minor role in Iraq since 2003, when its Baghdad headquarters was destroyed by a truck bomb. Now, officials in Kirkuk say the U.N. efforts may be the last chance for a peaceful outcome.

Without a resolution, “I think Kirkuk will be like a TNT barrel and explode and burn everybody,” Iraqi parliament lawmaker Mohammed Mahdi Amin al-Bayati, a Turkoman, said in an interview this week.

Deputy Gov. Rakan Saeed al-Jubouri, a Sunni Arab, agreed.

“Violence is very easy to start in Iraq,” he said in a separate interview.

Slightly larger than Connecticut and dubbed by Saddam Hussein as Tamin province, Kirkuk is a land dotted with flaming smoke stacks on its oil fields and bustling markets. Its future hinges on whether its 1.3 million people will be run by Baghdad or by Irbil, the capital of the politically autonomous Kurdistan region in northern Iraq.

Kurds make up an estimated 52 percent of Kirkuk’s population. Arabs represent 35 percent. Turkomen, ethnic Turks with close ties to Turkey, make up about 12 percent. About 12,000 Christians live in Kirkuk.

Kurds want the province to be wrapped into Kurdistan. Arabs and Turkomen vehemently oppose this.

“You cannot give up the opinion of the majority and give a small group of people what they want just because they ask for it,” said Sarteep Mohammad Hussein Kakai, a Kurdish member of the Iraqi parliament.

Deep suspicions among ethnic groups in Kirkuk are partially rooted in its past under Saddam Hussein. Tens of thousands of Kurds were killed, and more than 1,100 of their villages razed, under his Arabization program.

Last December, a suicide bomber killed at least 55 people in a packed restaurant near Kirkuk where Kurdish and Arab leaders were trying to reconcile differences.

The long-awaited U.N. report on Kirkuk will outline options for compromise, but “we are not pushing them into any particular direction,” said spokeswoman Randa Jamal.

A draft of the U.N. plan, according to two Western officials who have read it, offers five options. The officials spoke on condition of anonymity because the report has not been finalized and they are not authorized to speak publicly about it.

Three of the options in the draft likely will be dismissed immediately as too extreme or unworkable, the officials said. The remaining two are:

_Making Kirkuk a “special status” province where both Iraq’s Shiite-led central government and the Kurdish government in Irbil could have power. Final decisions would be left to provincial officials. The special status would likely last between three and 10 years, giving officials more time to figure out Kirkuk’s final status.

None of Iraq’s 17 other provinces, including the three that make up Kurdistan, currently has such an agreement.

_Making Kirkuk politically autonomous but still somewhat reliant on Baghdad for funding. This plan, favored by the Turkomen with political ties to Turkey, also would allow Kirkuk to collect revenue from federally owned North Oil Corp. refineries in the province.

Details of the formulas are still being negotiated. Remaining sticking points include how jobs will be divided among each group, and when, and who can be counted as a legal resident among the 400,000 Kurds who moved to Kirkuk after Saddam’s ouster. Arabs and Turkomen call them illegal squatters.

“Ultimately, they need to come together to resolve this issue, because it’s not going to get any prettier with time,” said Howard Keegan, the State Department’s top envoy in Kirkuk.

Smoking Marlboros at his desk at the government building in downtown Kirkuk, Province Council chairman Rizgar Ali said he could accept a special status for Kirkuk – but still tied to Kurdistan. He accused Arabs and Turkomen of stalling on an agreement.

“You can’t go on like this,” Ali said. “This kind of thing killed Iraq.”

Saeed, the top-ranking Arab in Kirkuk, signaled he could support making Kirkuk autonomous. Anything connecting Kirkuk to Kurdistan would be rejected, however.

“We will resist that by all means, because this will erase our identity,” Saeed said.

Ultimately, the dispute may be solved only if Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki and Kurdistan President Massoud Barzani personally agree to compromise.

The U.S. has encouraged power-sharing in a country where Shiites dominate in the south, Sunnis in the west and Kurds in the far north. Bitter sectarian fighting and ethnic cleansing have deepened mistrust.

In recent weeks Barzani has alleged that al-Maliki is drifting toward authoritarian rule. Al-Maliki says Iraq’s central government is too weak, and that granting provinces too much power risks de-facto partition that would invite foreign meddling.

Gen. Ray Odierno, the top U.S. military leader in Iraq, said in a recent AP interview that “ultimately they have to solve this problem in Baghdad.” And in a January visit to Kirkuk, Vice President Joe Biden told local leaders they had a year to show significant success in settling the dispute – or potentially face it alone.

“The Americans should understand we cannot guarantee there will not be a civil war when they leave,” said Turkoman councilman Hassan Toran.