Cultural and Minority Rights

The Kurds have borne the brunt of Turkish attempts to impose ethnic
homogeneity in the country, subject particularly over the past 20
years to mass killings, torture, ill-treatment, forced displacement and
comprehensive attempts to destroy any sign of a distinct Kurdish
culture. Today, hurriedly ushered-in pro-EU reforms purportedly
address the situation of the Kurds, and Turkey is on her way towards
becoming a fully-fledged member of the EU. How far, though, has
Turkey really moved away from her customary perception of the
Kurds as a dangerous threat to national unity, to be subjugated
at all costs? It is true that the Kurds are broadly supportive of the
EU accession process, since it finally offers a way out of decades of
repression and violence. However, the projected benefits of accession
for the Kurds will be substantially diminished if, as is indicated by
recent EU decision-making, the Kurdish issue is sidelined from accession
negotiations.
Recent events in Iraq have brought the problems faced by the
Kurds in that country to the fore, and the world has watched with
approval the process of democratic renewal in Kurdistan, Iraq, as
Kurds are at last free from the brutal tyranny of the Ba’athist regime.
The then British Prime Minister, Tony Blair, made regular reference
to Saddam Hussein’s human rights record, particularly as it became
increasingly apparent that Iraq’s much-talked about weapons of
mass destruction were nowhere to be found, as a supplementary
justification for the invasion of Iraq, and in this context Mr Blair
condemned the ‘butchering’ of Kurds in Kurdistan.1 Britain has
vowed to build ‘an Iraq which respects fundamental human rights,
including freedom of thought, conscience and religion and the
dignity of family life, and whose people live free from repression
and the fear of arbitrary arrest’.2
At the same time, Turkey’s Kurds are substantially marginalized,
engaged in an armed conflict with the Turkish state and subject
to serious human rights abuses, while the West considers allowing
Turkey membership of the exclusive EU ‘club’ of civilized nations.

The Kurdish situation has remained largely beyond the public eye,
as the European debate on Turkish accession becomes tied up in
migration issues and the occasional reference to Kurdish cultural
rights. It remains to be seen whether the Kurdish situation in Turkey
will finally be placed on the world’s agenda.
A willingness to address the situation of the Kurds in the southeast
would be indicative of a sincere change in attitude by the Turkish
establishment. It is Turkey’s 15–20 million-strong Kurdish population,
their separate language and culture and their unwillingness to bow
to Turkish attempts at assimilation which have, over the years, posed
the greatest challenge to Atatürk’s ideal of a single, unified ethnic
identity in Turkey. Sustained efforts to respect Kurdish rights would
signify that Turkey was finally prepared to cast off her time-honoured
practice of repressing outward manifestations of Kurdish identity,
to tackle entrenched mentalities among public authorities and to
move towards democratic pluralism. The issue of minority rights in
Turkey, particularly in relation to the Kurds, is a difficult one, not least
because some Kurds oppose being classified as a ‘minority’ on the
basis that they seek recognition as a ‘constituent element’ of Turkey.3
This publication expresses no opinion on this issue, but considers that
the provisions mandating ethnic recognition, enhanced participatory
rights and cultural protection contained in international minority
rights instruments can contribute towards countering the chronic
subjugation endured by the Kurds. The idea of granting minority
rights to the Kurds fundamentally contradicts the very raison d’être
of the Turkish Republic. The reasons for this have already been
outlined in this publication: strict adherence to a single Turkish
nationalism, the perceived need to extinguish alternative ethnic
identities, and pronounced trepidation over the threat to national
unity posed by Kurdish separatism. These ideological principles
inspired efforts to ‘Turkify’ minority communities, penalize non-
Turkish cultural expression and violently disband Kurdish settlements
in the southeast. Turkey’s treatment of the Kurds has been the inverse
of what is mandated by international standards in this area.

Cultural and Minority Rights

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