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Transitional Justice and the Kurdish Question in Turkey

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Transitional Justice and the Kurdish Question in Turkey

Théotime Chabre


Théotime Chabre

French Researcher in Contemporary Turkish Studies

On 21st March 2015, Abdullah Öcalan, the historical figure of the Kurdish movement in Turkey, called on the PKK to consider permanently ending the armed struggle. This call confirmed the advancement of the peace process between the Turkish government and representatives of the Kurdish movement. As the years of civil war are gradually receding into the past, the outcome of the conflict is becoming clearer, leaving 45,000 dead and a country with gaping geographic, ethnic and social divides. Since the turn of year 2000, a galaxy of diverse players who had united to defend human rights through the 1980s and 1990s, noted the decreasing intensity of the conflict and started to organize a transition towards an appeased society. Initiating projects of memorialization and reconciliation, and drawing from international experience, they became precursors who introduced Turkey to transitional justice.


September 1980 and the birth of organizations promoting human rights in Turkey

The first organization defending human rights in Turkey appeared in response to the 12th September 1980 military coup, otherwise known as Darbe. Faced with the loss of basic liberties and the jailing of many of the country’s intellectuals, the Human Rights Association Insan Haklari Derneği, or IHD, was founded in 1986. New organizations rapidly followed suit and, in the early 1990s, around ten of them were in activity across the country. A human rights movement worthy of the name was taking shape in Turkey, made of independent entities which nevertheless collaborated and shared common ideals. Besides IHD, MAZLUMDER and Af Örgütü[1] tackle the whole spectrum of breaches of individual rights. Others specialize in a particular problem – such as the TIHV (Foundation for Human Rights in Turkey) which only deals with torture.

PKK guerrilla and the self-reliance of the Kurdish movement

In the course of the 1990s, the intensifying fight between the State and the independence movement formed around the PKK (« Partiya Karkerên Kurdistan » or Workers Party of Kurdistan) ushered the human rights movement into another era[2]. The abuses committed by the army against civil populations in regions placed in a state of emergency[3] were rapidly denounced by public campaigns. On Saturday 27th May 1995, in the spirit of the Argentine Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo, members of IDH and families of disappeared citizens gathered for the first time in front of the Galatasaray High School in Istanbul to denounce the fate of those “disappeared in custody” (gözaltinda kayiplari). These mostly Kurdish civilians were regularly vanishing after being kidnapped by State representatives of paramilitaries. The Saturday Mothers Rally was repeated week after week until it was suspended in 1999. Then it started again with renewed vigour in 2009 and still goes on today. Despite regular crackdowns by authorities, it remains a symbol of the activism that took place during the darkest hours of the civil war.

Later on, the Kurds created their own organizations dedicated to specific issues of the conflict. Founded in 1997, Göç-Der[4] brings support to the several hundred thousands victims of village destructions and banning policies forcing people to leave their lands for the suburbs of the country’s largest cities. Another example is Yakay-Der[5], created in 2001 in order to protect the memory of the disappeared and bolster the legal struggle against those responsible for the disappearances[6]. Thanks to relaying political figures close to the Kurdish movement, Kurdish activists maintained a special relationship with the more general human rights organisations within which they gained their initial experience and which kept an essential connection with a field they often found hard to access.

It was not an easy period for those involved in the defence of civil rights, that engagement being most often synonymous with brutal Army suppression. It was only at the end of the 1990s that the conflict somewhat abated, opening a détente period between the two main adversaries.

Beginning of negotiations between the government and the PKK

After Abdullah Öcalan’s capture in 1999, the conflict gradually lost intensity. In 2002, Öcalan escaped the firing squad thanks to the abolition of the death penalty pronounced by Turkey in a process of harmonization with European standards. The state of emergency was abolished in November of the same year. Gradually, the AKP government installed the rule of civil institutions over the army which was the backbone of the Republic and the staunchest opponent to the Kurdish cause. Meanwhile, the Kurdish movement gradually renounced its claims for independence, led by a still very influential Öcalan despite being locked in the Imrali jail, as well as DTP then BDP members, later joined by the HDP, which is viewed as the lawful window of the PKK. The new claims, centred on cultural autonomy, made the Kurdish project more acceptable to the civil authorities. A rapprochement started in 2005 and was confirmed on 28th December 2012 when the government acknowledged that negotiations had started again between Öcalan and members of the MIT, the Turkish secret services. Despite some ups and downs with occasional eruptions of fighting, a new ceasefire was declared by the PKK on 21st March 2013. That ceasefire has not been broken since, and the announcement on 28th February 2015 that direct negotiations were taking place between the government and the PKK seems to confirm the trend of a process which remains nevertheless very sensitive to the contingencies in the national and international political agenda of the country[7].

The Kurdish question has become less thorny and this appeasement has facilitated the work of human rights activists. Consequently, their objectives have been changing. In the 1990s, the ambitions of that informal movement made of general purpose organisation, local Kurdish associations and their political relays was to fight violations in a constant state of human rights emergency. From the years 2000 onwards, the movement turned towards handling the legacy of massive violence which divides the country. Several undertakings in the field of transitional justice appeared with the purpose of laying the ground for an appeased society.

PUNISH, FORGIVE AND REMEMBER: local initiatives of transitional justice

The mechanisms of transitional justice

South African sociologist Siphiwe Dube defined transitional justice as “a set of norms and practices which aim to enable the transition from a repressive regime to a democratic regime”. When a transition is happening in a given society, the democratization process may be blocked by the existence of massive violations still waiting for trial. Practically, transitional justice refers to a set of mechanisms implemented in an informal way to work around the inherent limitations of the legal system in place – which may be of a political, social or financial order – and enable a cathartic process to take place within that society. In the early 2000s in Turkey, the concept itself of transitional justice was not known, but many undertakings that were observed were transitional justice initiatives although not described as such by local players.

Fighting against impunity

A first step consists in helping the victims to obtain recognition and reparation in the face of the law. The efforts supported by human rights defenders to bring criminals to court have started to bear fruit. Since 2009, Officer Cemal Temizöz has been charged, along with six other suspects, for his involvement in crimes committed in the South-East provinces of Turkey during the state of emergency[8]. The Temizöz trial is viewed by many as the beginning of the end of the judicial omerta on crimes perpetrated by the army in the 1990s, even though the violations in question are but a small fraction of the crimes waiting for trial and that there is still a long way to go. As a possible reminder of that fact, the Saturday Mothers resumed their gatherings in the same year. On 25th October 2014, they demanded for the 500th time that truth and justice be obtained for those “disappeared in custody”.

The struggle against impunity also takes the form of memorial places. In the South-East, town authorities affiliated to the Kurdish movement have not waited for a national level policy to offer public recognition to the victims through memorialization initiatives such as parks in Lice and Van in the name of local children killed during the conflict[9]. Similarly, the media campaign trying to turn the infamous Diyarbakir prison into a “Museum of shame” shows a wish to preserve a heritage that testifies to the war atrocities.

Reconciliation: working through memories to build a common history

 Other initiatives are more centred on the need to work towards building a common memory by creating bridges between people in the Turkish and Republican West and Kurds of the Anatolian South-East. “In the word of the Young” (Gençler Anlatiyor), a project directed by sociologist Leyla Neyzi, has led around a hundred young students at Muğla University in the West and from Diyarbakir University in the South East to meet and work on their personal visions of the country’s recent history, and then to discuss the result in a workshop at Sabanci University in 2011. Similarly, the Istanbulite exhibition centre of the Anadolu Kültür association [editor’s note: a partner of the REPAIR platform], promoting intercultural dialogue at national and regional level, has hosted an exhibition entitled Two Faces of Suffering (Acinin Iki Yüzü / Du Rûyên Êşê) in which photographer Kamuran Erkaçmaz juxtaposed portraits of victims’ parents of both sides and tried to show the universality of the blind suffering that eats at the country[10].

These undertakings are necessary steps in a process of reconciliation: the right to justice, memorialization, building a common memory. However, they lack sufficient coordination and standardization to truly inspire a reconciliation policy at national level. Remarking on this, a new generation of organizations decided at the end of the 2000s, to renew the methods of human rights defenders by drawing from the processes of international reconciliation and their self-declared practice of transitional justice.


The international field of transitional justice

The main difference between the above-mentioned experiences and the international processes of national reconciliation is a practical one. These experiences are the outcome of sustained international exchanges since the 1980s and the implementation of the first independent committees in South America. The norms and tools attached to them now rely on the combined experience of over fifty national reconciliation processes[11] and are granted the support of the United Nations. Moreover, these processes rely on a standardized pattern of analysis enabling to make comparisons between them. By employing these principles to solve the abuses committed in Turkey, promoters of transitional justice seek to gain the expertise and international legitimacy that are attached to them.

And the new Turkish organizations claiming that same framework

Such organizations – the Center for Truth, Justice and Memory (Adalet Hakikat Hafiza Merkezi), HAHM), the TESEV think tank and the 78’ liler Vakfi to name but a few – contribute to disseminating transitional justice in Turkey thanks to the translation of international documents into Turkish, the organization of international conferences, and by adapting the standardized pattern of analysis to the Turkish issues. For instance, HAHM is currently building a database of all the “disappeared in custody” cases according to international standards, showing a rigour intended to facilitate comparisons lacking in similar projects carried out earlier by the IHC and Yakay-Der, in view of preparing a possible Truth and Reconciliation Commission[12]. International cooperation is visible throughout this project: the standards are drawn from the organizations International Center for Transitional Justice (ICTJ), the software is from the Swiss organization Huridocs, modelled on the lines of a Birman project upon the advice of Argentines from CELS and Memoria Abierta and the Humanitarian Law Center based in Serbia.

Moreover, the production of contents in English, as well as an internationally oriented advocacy policy, offer these new players a media resonance never known before by the older organisations, which were most often monolingual or sometimes bilingual in Turkish and Kurdish. This resonance and international legitimacy make it possible to attract foreign funds more easily, the organizations working within the international network of transitional justice being able to access a large panel of sponsors and funds.


Such initiatives for the defence of human rights contribute to the liveliness of the current peace process. But however essential they are, they remain confined locally and have limited media coverage in the mass media. Therefore the work on international standards of transitional justice developed by the new organizations can help improve the efficiency and coordination of the human right movement, although its resonance is still marginal in Turkey. The whole range of these endeavours can potentially have a much wider impact, but it needs political support at national level, which at this stage still consists of military negotiations between the State and the PKK.

In exchange for giving up the armed struggle, the government offers measures to guarantee the individual rights and cultural autonomy of the Kurds. These measures, in particular withdrawing all references of ethnic character from the country’s constitutional definition of citizenship, correspond to historic claims by the Kurdish people. However, they say nothing of how to heal the gaping wound the conflict has opened in the last thirty years. And they do not prevent the National Action Party (Milliyetçi Hareket Partisi or MHP), which denounces the talks in the name of Republican unity and the fight against terrorism, to regularly score third in the various elections. On the Kurdish side, although Öcalan remains the undisputed leader of the movement, his control is not total. Several independent groups with large support among Kurdish people have shown once again during the demonstration in support of Kobane, that they could resort to violence without referring to the central command when they consider that their interests are not respected.

Today, priority is given to ending the fight, which is understandable. However, for peace to be maintained in the long run, the current dialogue between the State and PKK must open to the civil society at large, and all the citizens be allowed to express themselves. Setting up an independent commission in charge of casting light on the crimes perpetrated by all the warring parties is necessary. Likewise, it must be granted recognition and support both by the State and by the armed forces of the Kurdish movement.

That commission could base itself on international models such as the Truth and Reconciliation Commissions, which have become full-fledged institutions within transitional justice processes throughout the world. This prospect has been extensively developed in the report published in November 2013 by the parliamentary commission created within the resolution process. As for the Kurdish movement, the implementation of a commission to study crimes perpetrated by all the warring parties is a recurring request. However, only a successful outcome to the negotiations would make it possible for political forces on both sides to confer enough legitimacy to an independent commission in order to launch an effort at reconciliation and reinvention of the society of the Turkish Republic.

[1] Insan Halklari ve Mazlumlar Için Dayanişma Derneği (MAZLUMDER, i.e. Association for the Rights of Man and Solidarity with the Oppressed) was founded in 1991 and positioned itself as a more conservative and religious organization than IHD. Af Örgütü is the local antenna of Amnesty International, entirely founded by Turkish activists.

[2] The Marxist guerrilla formed in 1984 and commanded by Abdullah Öcalan took up the fighting for independence in the South-East, mostly Kurdish regions of the country, an old struggle dating back to the birth of the Kemalist Republic in 1923. The PKK took to attacking the symbols of the State across these lands – to which the Army responded by a scorched earth policy which drove millions of people onto the roads and formed anti-guerrilla militias which contributed to solidly militarize the area.

[3] A Governorate known as OHAL (Olağanüstü Hal Bölge Valiliği) was a military-controlled administration of regions declared in a state of emergency, which included all the areas with PKK guerrilla activity. It was set up in 1987 and abolished on 20th November 2002.

[4] Association of Migrants for Social Aid and Culture

[5] Organisation for solidarity and support to the families of the disappeared

[6] Istanbul Göç Edenler Sosyal Yardimlaşma ve Kûltûr Derneği (Göç-Der) and Yakinlarini Kaybeden Ailelerle Yardimlaşma ve Dayanişma Derneği (YAKAY-DER).

[7] For a detailed explanation of the peace process since 2009, read Jean Marcou’s article published on 2nd March 2015 on the Ovipot (Observatory of Turkish political life) website : (in French)

[8] At the end of 2008 a prisoner accused several people, including an officer in the Turksih State police, Major Cemal Temizöz of causing the death of over twenty civilians in the Sirnak province between 1993 and 1995. Identified without a doubt by two witnesses, Temizöz has been prosecuted since September 2009.He is to this day the highest ranking officer in the Turkish army to answer for crimes committed in the South-East during the period of special military powers.

[9] In the course of year 2010, three districts inaugurated children’s playgrounds named Ceylan Önkol – after a little girl killed on 28th September 2009 in the Diyarbakir district, most probably by military fire – in order to honour all the children victims of the war.

[10] It was also exhibited at the Caferağa Dayanişmasi, one of the two cultural squats which appeared in Kadiköy after the Gezi demonstrations, and is set to travel throughout Turkey.

[11] See Ben-Josef Hirsh Michal, “Ideational Change and the Emergence of the International Norm of Truth and Reconciliations Commissions”, 2014, European Journal of International Relations, Vol.20, N°3, 810-833.

[12] The Zorla Kaybedilenler database (« Forced Disappearances ») is available in free access at


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