HL Deb 29 November 1993 vol 550 cc435-41

3.24 p.m.

Lord Avebury rose to ask Her Majesty's Government what is their policy on the protection of the Kurdish minority in Turkey.

The noble Lord said: My Lords, perhaps I may first explain why this House and the Government have responsibility towards the minority of Kurds in Turkey. At the Moscow meeting of the Conference on the Human Dimension of the CSCE —the continuing dialogue on human rights between all the states of Europe, east and west—the participants including Turkey agreed unanimously that, They categorically and irrevocably declare that the commitments undertaken in the field of the human dimension of the CSCE are matters of direct and legitimate concern to all participating States and do not belong exclusively to the internal affairs of the State concerned". Therefore what happens to minorities anywhere in the CSCE region, and to the Kurds in Turkey in particular, is a matter for the UK Government. We have more of a locus to intervene on the plight of the Kurds in Europe than elsewhere in the region. At the CSCE's Warsaw meeting in September, the head of the human rights unit of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office expressed our anxiety about the persecution of the Kurds and the denial of their collective identity. I should like to thank the human rights section of the Foreign Office for the work that they are doing. I believe that it proves the wisdom of the change that was made not so long ago in setting up a separate human rights division to bring expertise to bear on the problems within the Foreign Office.

There are 14 million Kurds in Turkey, compared with 7 million in Iran, 4 million in Iraq, 1.5 million in Syria, 0.5 million in the former Soviet Union and no fewer than 1 million in exile, making a total of about 28 million. Your Lordships will understand that about half the Kurdish population of the world lives in Turkey, and of those, just under half—let us say 6 million—live in the south-east region of the country where they are in the majority of between 75 per cent. and 95 per cent. in the 13 provinces which are subject to emergency rule. The Kurds are the largest body of people in the world who do not have a country of their own.

Since 1984, the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) has been waging an armed struggle to liberate the Turkish Kurds from political control by Ankara. They want a Kurdish state, first in the Kurdish part of Turkey, but ultimately extending to the Kurdish areas of Iran, Iraq and Syria. That was promised to the Kurds by President Woodrow Wilson in 1918, and by the British and French Governments in a statement made on 7th November 1918, four days before the Armistice. It is of course the right of the Kurds to govern their own affairs, as declared by the United Nations in Article 1 of the International Covenants on Civil and Political, and on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights.

The United Nations General Assembly has recognised the legitimacy of the armed struggle of peoples under colonial and alien domination; for example, in Article 7 of Resolution 3314 (XXIX) of 14th December 1974. The General Assembly has further explicitly affirmed the distinction between international terrorism and the armed struggles against colonial and alien domination in Resolution 32/147 of 16th December 1977. Conflicts of this nature are also recognised in Article 1, paragraph 4, of Protocol 1 to the Geneva Conventions of 1949. It is therefore incorrect for the Foreign Office, and indeed the State Department in the United States, to regard the PKK as merely a terrorist organisation. In the absence of an internationally agreed definition of what constitutes a people within the meaning of the covenants, the claim by the Kurds to exercise the right of self-determination cannot be established legally. However, they possess all the attributes of a people—language, culture, history and institutions—and they clearly wish to be independent. The majority of the Kurds undoubtedly support the PKK, as the Parliamentary Human Rights Group found in three visits to the region over the past 18 months. That is not necessarily because people share the Marxist ideology of the PKK or look with favour on the attacks that it mounts on non-combatants. They see the PKK as the only means of achieving their liberation from Turkish oppression.

Britain's position is that self-determination, although a legal right under international law, is not governed by precise legal principles and we therefore apply state practice as the key issue—that is, the circumstances in which the right has been supported or denied by other states. In the cases of Bangladesh and Eritrea, the international community ultimately supported the people once they had achieved military victory against the dominating power. The policy that we have adopted therefore encourages peoples to use armed force, knowing that claims asserted by constitutional means will never be recognised. Would the Government be prepared to consider attempts to develop mechanisms for examining claims for self-determination within the UN system so that cases such as that of the Kurds might at least get a hearing? In the past, when this has been put to Ministers they have asked why states, which acceded to the UN Charter because of the provisions that it contained about territorial integrity, would agree to a proposal which threatened that principle. One answer could be that any hearing on a claim to self-determination might be conditional on a formal agreement to a cease-fire by the armed opposition group in question.

The Kurds resorted to armed struggle not only because of the attitude of the international community but also because they came up against the brick wall of the ideology of the Kemalist state. The constitution of Turkey declares the indivisible integrity of the Turkish state, its territory and nation. This is reflected in Article 125 of the penal code, which provides that any person who carries out any action intended to destroy the unity of the Turkish state suffers a mandatory death penalty. The anti-terror law, which is really an anti-freedom of speech law, prohibits any kind of action aimed at changing the characteristics of the republic, damaging the indivisible unity of the state, on penalty of five years' imprisonment.

Many cases are brought under these provisions against people engaged in what we would regard as perfectly normal political activity. Helsinki Watch, for instance, has documented the legal constraints on freedom of expression. It has also described the murders of journalists, frivolous arrests, harassment and assaults on people engaged in producing and disseminating Kurdish newspapers. Even the newsboys are not immune. One 12 year-old who sold the paper Özgur Gündem was killed by a gunman in the street outside his home as his mother looked on. During our last visit to the region in October, the honourable Member for Woolwich and I interviewed three other boys who had been very severely wounded when assailants, using meat cleavers, had chopped at their heads, shoulders, arms and backs.

The Members of Parliament who represent constituencies in the Kurdish region are under threat both legally and physically. Mehmet Sincar, MP, was shot dead in broad daylight on the street in Batman on 4th September, after 18 of the MPs had formally complained to the Inter-Parliamentary Union about death threats which had been made against them. In the same attack, Metin Özdemir, chairman of the Democracy Party in Batman, was also murdered and four other people were injured. When Leyla Zana, MP, went to pay her condolences to Mr. Sincar's family in Kiziltepe, she narrowly escaped death when she was in the house and a bomb was thrown at it and six people were injured. When we were in the region in October, the army burned down the house, in the village of Zengok, belonging. to Sirro Sakik, the Member of Parliament for Mus, with all its contents, and destroyed the harvest. His sister, brother and stepmother had fled into the forest and he had had no news of them for two days.

When Mrs. Ciller came into office as Prime Minister, she started with conciliatory words. On 30th June, in a speech which she made to the Turkish Parliament, she spoke of ending the state of emergency, ending the hated village guard system which forces Kurds to act as auxiliaries for the Turkish army, of the possibility of introducing Kurdish language radio and TV, of allowing Kurdish language mother tongue education—which does not exist in the region at the moment—and of producing an economic development plan for the region.

None of that has been done and no steps have been taken even towards producing legislation to implement those promises which she made. One has to conclude that. Mrs. Ciller is not really in charge. She heads a weak coalition, and she faces a possible challenge for the leadership of her party. But even if her position were far more secure in political terms, she would still not exercise control over the military in the Kurdish region. They are accountable to no civilian authority and the crimes that they commit against the people are not dealt with by any court of law. They enjoy absolute immunity for the crimes that are committed and no official or member of the armed forces is ever arrested or charged with the attacks on civilians.

The armed challenge by the PKK has been met by a vicious campaign of indiscriminate violence against the people of the region as a whole. Villages and towns are bombarded with heavy weaponry, including German "panzers" mounting 47 millimetre cannon and by helicopters supplied by the United States, using cannon and mortar bombs which rain destruction on the people in the villages. Hundreds of villages have been cleared of all their inhabitants and put to the torch, with all their property. Unarmed men, women and children have been killed on the streets and burned to death in their houses, and thousands more have been injured.

The village of Lice, for example, was bombarded on 22nd October, killing an estimated 15 people and causing enormous damage to civilian property. Exact figures are not available for casualties because the village was sealed off from the outside world for a week after the attack. Even now, we have not received any definitive report from the local people. Over the past weekend a trade union delegation which sought to visit another village and film the results of its bombardment was arrested and detained by the Turkish military. That was the village of Biriki, which was visited by some members of the delegation of April 1992, of which I was a member, including Michael Feeney, Cardinal Hume's adviser on refugee affairs. Mr. Feeney and others witnessed the disinterment of the severely mutilated bodies of three men who had been dumped in an unmarked grave by the security forces. It was alleged by the local people that the men had been extrajudicially killed by roping them to armoured vehicles and dragging them along the ground.

The PKK also kill unarmed civilians, though sometimes the Turkish propaganda machine attempts to portray attacks on the village guards—a quisling militia recruited by the army—as attacks on non-combatants. Some of the attacks on village guards have resulted in the deaths of innocent women and children belonging to their families, however, and it is necessary to consider what steps can be taken to ensure that both sides in this vicious conflict adhere to the laws of war.

Unfortunately, Turkey has not signed Protocols 1 and 2 of the Geneva Conventions, one of which has to apply to this conflict, and it should be pressed to do so. In the meanwhile, both sides should be reminded of their obligations under common Article 3 of the Geneva Conventions, which provides that: persons taking no active part in the hostilities … shall in all circumstances be treated humanely". In particular, the conventions prohibit: violence to life and person, in particular murder of all kinds, mutilation, cruel treatment and torture … taking of hostages … outrages upon personal dignity … executions without previous judgement". Article 3 does not expressly prohibit attacks on civilian populations in non-international armed conflicts, but customary law does. The UN General Assembly recognised the customary principle of civilian immunity, and the complementary principle that warring parties are required to distinguish civilians from combatants at all times in Resolution 2444 of December 1969. These principles are violated by the Turkish armed forces every day and by the PKK occasionally.

The Turkish authorities refer to individuals who are working for Kurdish rights as though they were equivalent to armed members of the PKK. It is clear from the Geneva Convention definitions that the term "civilians" includes all the peaceable population and even those who take part in hostilities without combatant status. An individual only forfeits his immunity from direct attack when he is actually taking part in hostilities. If he shares the views and objectives of the combatants, but does not himself bear arms, he is a civilian and there can be no valid excuse for imposing penalties on him without due process. In particular, the murders of MPs, journalists, local party officials and human rights activists, which are organised by the state, should be condemned. In the absence of domestic remedies for the families of the victims a thorough investigation of the killings should be made by the UN Rapporteur on Extrajudicial Executions, Mr. Bacre Waly Ndiaye. I ask the noble Baroness whether the Government will support a request to the Government of Turkey to allow him to visit the Kurdish region for that purpose.

The International Committee of the Red Cross may offer its services to the parties to any conflict, and I believe that it may have done so in this instance without success. Will the Government press the Government of Turkey and the PKK to accept the good offices of the Red Cross, not only to stop the escalating violence against civilians, but also to examine the urgent need for humanitarian relief to the tens of thousands of non-combatants who have been burnt out of their homes and in some cases have been left without shelter or food in sub-zero temperatures?

We have a special obligation towards the Kurds of Turkey, because of our predominant role in the region in the early 1920s and because we have pledged our faith to the self-determination of the Kurdish people. We have a general obligation to them as members of the CSCE and the Council of Europe. We have an interest in the promotion of democracy and good government in Turkey, as a role model for the region as well as for the republics of the former Soviet central Asia region. All those factors, and our concern for human rights, point decisively to the need for a peaceful settlement of the conflict between the Turkish state and the Kurdish people on lines that will be acceptable to the Kurdish people. If Israel and the Palestinians can reach agreement on the first steps towards solving their problems, then surely Turkey and the Kurds can do the same. But for a peace process to succeed in Kurdistan it will take as much international diplomatic effort as it took in Palestine. I hope that in that process Britain will take the lead.

3.41 p.m.

Viscount Brentford

My Lords, I express my appreciation to the noble Lord, Lord Avebury, for bringing forward this Question at this particularly topical moment for the Kurds in Turkey. The debate is, in effect, about the rights of ethnic and religious minorities. I shall not follow the line of the noble Lord, Lord Avebury, on the rights and wrongs of the struggle between the Turkish Government and the PKK. I am not competent to do so. I am concerned, particularly at this time, with the role of what the noble Lord rightly called the suffering of the non-combatants.

The Turkish Government have intimated that they intend to demolish some 900 Kurdish villages bordering the area of Iraq and Iran, which is the Kurdish area, with the main intention, presumably, of frustrating the efforts of the PKK itself. I shall give a couple of instances. On 10th November, 950 Kurds were forcibly evicted from the village of Kursunlu. As usual, there were widespread allegations of torture, and there was a great deal of intimidation and suffering. Just a week ago, over the two days of 20th and 21st November, more than 200 people were evicted by the Turkish army from the village of Hassana. If the government carry out evictions in what they consider to be a lawful struggle against the PKK, surely they should provide food, shelter, accommodation and support for those evicted. But I understand that that is not the case.

Certainly, the formal procedures of the Turkish Government include compensation and alternative settlement for those evicted. But that does not happen in practice. The noble Lord, Lord Avebury, spoke about the role of the army. That role is certainly reminiscent, in my experience, of the position in other countries. For instance, some years ago, when I talked to the previous ambassador from Peru in London, he gave me the very clear impression that the democratically elected government in Peru did not have full control over the army. From what the noble Lord says, that seems to be equally true in Turkey today. The forced eviction is brought about with the non-combatants suffering threats, intimidation, ill-treatment, destruction of their property and torture.

The income of the villagers of Hassana arises from weaving on large looms which are permanently fixed to the floors of their houses. Therefore, when they are evicted their means of livelihood are left behind. They are thrown on the mercy of other people since their government do not help them.

Two threads of justification are put forward by the Turkish Government for such actions: first, to leave the PKK area isolated and, secondly, to punish villagers for giving food to the PKK. I believe that no possible blame can be attached to villagers who at gunpoint, themselves being unarmed, give food to people who demand it. I would recommend that as a policy. If people came to my front door waving weapons and demanding food I would give it to them myself. The villagers of Hassana have said: "We have been unable to resist and the Government has not helped us". I believe that no blame should be attached to those villagers.

An added issue arises in a village such as Hassana, in that it is predominantly a Christian village. It has one Syrian Orthodox church, one Roman Catholic church and one Assyrian Evangelical church. Those people are predominantly Christian and the Church in that area is very poor, for reasons that will be obvious in a Moslem country with the views and the constitution that Turkey has. The Church has publicly stated that it does not have the resources to look after the 200 people who are thrown out into the cold by the Turkish army. There is nothing that it can do about it. There is clearly an element of religious persecution but it is primarily an ethnic one, against the Kurds.

I ask my noble friend Lady Chalker to consider two questions. First, will she endorse what the noble Lord, Lord Avebury, said about requesting the UN to send a rapporteur to investigate the torture, evictions, and all those problems, in the Kurdish region. I hope that the UN rapporteur will be permitted by the Turkish Government to visit. Obviously, the government do not want the UN to see what is going on there, but the best bet may be at least to press for that and then hope that the report will be published by the Secretary General after the visit. Secondly, will she agree to the Government pressing Turkey to put into practice the CSCE's Copenhagen Declaration, which Turkey has signed but is not fulfilling? That declaration confirms the rights of minorities, but Turkey does not permit the Kurds to exercise the rights to which it has agreed on paper. I believe that Her Majesty's Government should press the Turkish Government to implement that agreement in practice. Of course, we shall then need to check that that is being done.

Finally, perhaps I may add my support to the noble Lord, Lord Avebury, in asking the Government to do their utmost in providing humanitarian aid for those people who are left out in the cold without shelter or support and who are dependent on anything that they can get. Their means of livelihood has been removed and they are living in sub-zero temperatures, to which we can find at least some relationship at the present juncture in London.