HL Deb 03 December 1998 vol 595 cc598-601

3.17 p.m.

Lord Rea asked Her Majesty's Government:

Whether they will join the Italian Government in using the request of the PKK leader, Abdullah Ocalan, for political asylum as an opportunity, under United Nations or pan-European auspices, to start negotiating an end to the conflict in south eastern Turkey.

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean

My Lords, the Government support the Italian Government's determination to fully implement its laws and treaty obligations in the case of the leader of the PKK (Kurdistan Workers' Party), Abdullah Ocalan. The question of political asylum is a decision for the Italian Government. We have made clear that we regard the PKK as a terrorist organisation.

We are aware that, on 27th November, Chancellor Schröder and Prime Minister D'Alema discussed the possibility of an international conference on the Kurds. Mr. D'Alema also raised this issue with my right honourable friend the Prime Minister during their talks in London on 30th November. We do not judge that there is, at present, any scope for a multilateral negotiating process to address this issue.

Lord Rea

My Lords, I thank my noble friend for that Answer. It perhaps gives some hope that we may take a positive line on this. Is the Minister aware that Ocalan, like many others who have been branded terrorists, is now genuinely interested in open-ended talks aimed at ending the conflict in south east Turkey? That is a conflict which has been many times more destructive than that in Kosovo, and that conflict is one which interests both Europe and the United States.

Is she further aware—the Minister acknowledged it in her Answer—that several other countries in Europe feel that Ocalan's presence should be used to set up a procedure not only to examine any charges against him but also to examine critically the whole question of the origins of and possible solutions to the conflict in south east Turkey through, perhaps, the OSCE, the Council of Europe or even the United Nations?

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean

My Lords, I urge my noble friend Lord Rea to be cautious on this issue. Mr. Ocalan is the leader of a brutal terrorist group which was responsible for the death and injury of British citizens and for thousands of deaths within the Turkish and Kurdish communities in Turkey. My noble friend says that perhaps Mr. Ocalan has changed his mind about the use of violence. However, we are not convinced by the PKK's recent announcement of a cease-fire. There have been numerous such announcements in the past and none has been sustained.

We note that there was a suicide bombing incident in south east Turkey on 17th November in which a number of civilians were injured, and another suicide attack in Diyarbakir on 1st December. It is proper and right that I should draw your Lordships' attention to the claims of the PKK in the past few days that they shot down a Turkish military helicopter in south east Turkey. Neither the suicide bombings nor the shooting down of the helicopter seem consistent, in our view, with the claims that the PKK has renounced violence.

Lord Hylton

My Lords, does the noble Baroness agree that, three times over, the PKK has offered cease-fires which were rejected with scorn by the Turkish Government? Is it not true also that, instead of demanding a separate Kurdish state, it is now prepared to settle for autonomy? Is not that a great step forward and an indication that there are possibilities for a negotiated settlement?

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean

My Lords, it is important that those who say they renounce violence demonstrate that what they are saying can be relied upon. The incidents which I detailed to your Lordships, three of which have happened in the past two weeks, indicate that it is unlikely that the Turkish Government will want to have those sorts of discussions with the PKK.

Lord Alton of Liverpool

My Lords, does the noble Baroness agree that the conflict with the PKK has led to an overshadowing of the plight of other minorities in south east Turkey, such as the Chaldeans and the Syriacs? They have seen their numbers reduced from 30,000 to around 3,000 and their monasteries and villages systemically destroyed. Will the Minister undertake to instruct our officials in Turkey to continue to watch the violations of religious and political liberties that take place in Turkey and to raise those matters on a bilateral basis with the Turkish Government?

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean

My Lords, we already raise those issues with the Turkish Government on a frequent basis. I raised those issues when I was in Ankara a few months ago. The conflict with the PKK has a camouflaging effect on other difficult situations regarding minorities in Turkey. But I am happy to assure the noble Lord that I shall ask officials to continue to be as vigilant in the future as I know they have been in the past about violations of human rights.

Lord Wallace of Saltaire

My Lords, does the Minister accept that the presence of 3 million people of Turkish birth or descent within the European Union, a substantial minority of whom are Kurds, means that the European Union is necessarily involved in that internal conflict? Does she accept also that the presence of a Turkish minority in Britain, as well as a number of Kurds and the one Kurdish language television station currently broadcasting, means that the British Government must play some role in this delicate situation?

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean

My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Wallace of Saltaire, used the word "involved". We have a clear interest in what is happening in Turkey. It could not be said constitutionally that we are involved, but Her Majesty's Government have dealt with a number of these issues with our colleagues in Turkey and are also discussing the issue relating to MED TV, to which the noble Lord referred.

Lord Moynihan

My Lords, I thank the Minister warmly for the many answers she has given today. But perhaps she can help me with one final question. Following Italy's refusal to grant Turkey's request for the extradition of Abdullah Ocalan on the specific grounds that Italy's constitution does not allow extradition to countries with capital punishment, what is the Government's policy on such extradition?

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean

My Lords, I thank the noble Lord warmly for his questions and perhaps I may say how delightful it is to see him in his place. Each of these cases, as I am sure the noble Lord will appreciate, must be dealt with on its merits. Her Majesty's Government make their view on capital punishment clear to the countries with whom we are good friends as well as to countries where we perhaps have marginally less cordial relations. However, I urge the noble Lord to look at each case as it arises, as Her Majesty's Government will be doing.

Lord Kilbracken

My Lords, the noble Baroness twice described the PKK as a terrorist organisation. It cannot be denied that it has been guilty of terrorist acts, but do not those acts pale into insignificance compared to the terrorist acts committed by the Turkish army in south east Turkey, which included the destruction of 2,700 Kurdish villages?

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean

My Lords, I hope I made clear to your Lordships' House that Her Majesty's Government take a serious view about infringement of human rights in Turkey and that we raise those issues with the government of Turkey when we can. We are committed to trying to work with Turkey to overcome some of these problems. However, I ask the noble Lord not to allow himself to put on one side the dreadful crimes of which the PKK has undoubtedly been guilty, including kidnapping, murder, threats, intimidation, extortion and racketeering. The PKK has been guilty of raids on schools, and some of its activities have directly resulted in the deaths of British citizens. We should not allow ourselves to become blinded to that point.

Lord Rea

My Lords, perhaps I may ask my noble friend one final question. With regard to the breaking of the cease-fire, when one declares such a cease-fire but is then attacked by a helicopter gunship, what does one do?

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean

My Lords, the noble Lord's question begs the question of the exact circumstances in which that incident took place. But he must ask himself what an organisation is doing in declaring a cease-fire and then engaging in suicide bombings, two of which happened in the past week.