Turkey: Treatment of Kurds

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 11:14 am on 10th April 2019.

Alert me about debates like this

Photo of Mark Field Mark Field Minister of State 11:14 am, 10th April 2019

May I first say how grateful I am to Lloyd Russell-Moyle for securing the debate, and to other hon. Members for their contributions? The Minister for Europe and the Americas, my right hon. Friend Sir Alan Duncan, cannot be here today and sends his apologies. The fact that I am speaking about Turkey is not a further extension of my duties, but it is a great pleasure to respond on behalf of the Government. I will try to respond to all the points that have been raised; if I fail to do so, I hope that the hon. Member for Brighton, Kemptown will forgive me, and I will respond in writing afterwards.

We are obviously aware of Imam Sis’s hunger strike in protest at the conditions in which Abdullah Öcalan is being held and related issues. I will go into more detail about the hunger strike later, because it has been raised by a number of hon. Members.

The hon. Member for Brighton, Kemptown also mentioned election outcomes. We note the preliminary conclusions of the Congress of Local and Regional Authorities of the Council of Europe, which monitored Turkey’s local elections, including wins for the HDP in a number of major cities in the south-east. On the one hand, its conclusions welcome the impressive turnout of 84%, calling it a

“sign of healthy democratic interest and awareness.”

However, we also note the deep concerns that were raised about the fairness of the campaigning environment, particularly in relation to the media coverage. We will encourage the Turkish authorities to engage with the recommendations of the full report, which is due in July. As the hon. Gentleman will be aware, recounts are ongoing in Istanbul, and the governing AKP has appealed to the Supreme Electoral Council for a full recount. We must of course await the decision of that council, which may adjudicate on the matter as soon as 13 April. Meanwhile, the CHP candidate for Ankara received his certificate of election from the council on Monday.

I will say a bit more about broader relations with Turkey. It was fair of the hon. Gentleman to recognise in his contribution that Turkey is a vital partner for the UK. Turkey is a long-term member of NATO; it sits on NATO’s southern border, on the frontline of some of the most difficult challenges we face. We work together to counter terrorism, build our prosperity and pursue stability in our neighbourhood, recognising that a lot of these issues are now of global importance. We should also acknowledge that Turkey is hosting some 3.6 million Syrian refugees, at considerable cost.

Of the approximately 83 million Turkish citizens, some 15 million to 18 million are of Kurdish origin. They live in all parts of Turkey, from the traditional Kurdish heartlands of the south-east to the larger cities in the west, with perhaps 3 million in Istanbul alone. There are many Kurds in the Turkish diaspora, including here in the UK, where they make a positive contribution, not just to the UK economy but culturally. I know that Bambos Charalambous, who is no longer in his place, recognises the importance of the Turkish diaspora to that part of north London.

It is important not to generalise when we talk about “the Kurds” or their plight. They are a diverse section of society, with a range of political affiliations, lifestyles and outlooks. As Members will be aware, there are also large Kurdish populations in Iraq, Iran and Syria, countries that are all of great strategic importance to the UK. Our approach to the issue of the Kurds in Turkey needs to reflect aspects of that wider context.

We should also not generalise when we talk about the treatment of Kurdish people in Turkey. I absolutely note the concerns that have been expressed in this debate about the policies of the current Turkish Government towards Kurds, and I will try to address some of the issues that have been raised. It is worth remembering that a great many people of Kurdish origin have voted for, and continue to vote for, the AKP Government. Indeed, some have served in it—two of Turkey’s most recent Deputy Prime Ministers were of Kurdish origin. All Turks, regardless of their ethnicity or faith, enjoy the same rights under the Turkish constitution, and from 2003 onwards—especially following the 2009 Kurdish opening policy—the AKP did much to end the historical restrictions on the free expression of Kurdish identity in Turkey.

The Turkish Government have always said that their quarrel is not with the Kurds as a whole, but with the specific terrorist groups that threaten the Turkish state. I appreciate that this matter is open to some dispute, both within Turkey and among those in the UK who have an interest in Turkish issues. However, the Turkish state has been locked in a bitter conflict with the Kurdistan Workers’ Party—the PKK—since the 1980s. The PKK is a proscribed terrorist organisation in the UK and throughout much of the world.