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I beg to move,
That this House
has considered Kurdish political representation and equality in Turkey.
Thank you, Dame Angela. I thank the Backbench Business Committee for granting this debate, the title of which mirrors exactly that of the report of the all-party parliamentary group for Kurdistan in Turkey and Syria, which I chair. There are a number of members of the APPG here today. I look forward to discussing the report and to receiving some concrete responses from the Minister to the questions that the APPG has provided. I have sent most, if not all, of my questions to the Minister’s team in advance, because I recognise that this is not the Minister’s area. I hope that we will receive some concrete replies to those questions, and that other questions may be responded to through correspondence.
I will start by quickly giving some background about why the APPG settled on this topic, before I move on to the substantive issue. When I was elected in 2017, I was asked to go on a parliamentary mission to north- east Syria to meet our allies, the Kurds, and to see the state that they were building. I was the first British parliamentarian to visit Syria since the start of the civil war in 2011. I went back a year later with the hon. Members for Reigate (Crispin Blunt) and for Gravesham (Adam Holloway) to see the activities there. We found that, out of the ashes of a brutal civil war and then a conflict with ISIS, the Kurdish people and the people of the surrounding areas had built a democratic, feminist, multi-ethnic, secular confederalist society that aspired to educate its people. It was pro-LGBT rights and pro-disabled people’s rights. The Kurds were not only fighting ISIS with guns but fighting the ideology at its very core—standing against ISIS’s ideas.
Is everything perfect in north-east Syria? No. In conflict, people have to do difficult things. We must ally with those who have the best intentions and motives. We have seen in other conflicts that if we fund our enemy’s enemy, just for the sake of it, we sometimes get an even worse outcome. In the Kurds in Syria, we have not just a military ally but an alliance of minds and a modern, democratic, secular idealism.
After my two trips to Syria, we produced reports and had debates in Parliament. However, as hon. Members will know, geopolitics cannot be isolated to one country. The middle east is a tapestry of cultures, languages and identities, but years ago colonial powers divided the region, as they did much of the world, into modern nation states without a proper regard for all the people who lived there. The Kurdish people are one of the largest ethnic groups in the world without a homeland. Geographically, they are split between Iran, Iraq, Syria and Turkey. They have different challenges in each of those countries, and the scale of oppression has varied throughout history. We all know, of course, that Saddam Hussein murdered over 100,000 Kurds in Iraq in the 1990s, one of the darkest chapters of Kurdish history. However, today Kurds in Iraq have a relatively stable, successful regional Government, with autonomy from the Iraqi central Government, although that is not also without its challenges.
What I saw in Syria, however, was that, alongside the existential threat of Assad, Turkey had ended up taking a hostile approach to the Kurds in north-east Syria and at times was even resorting to pushing and helping jihadis along that border. To understand the motivations of Turkey—a supposed ally of ours—and why it was so hostile to a group of people who had helped to bring down ISIS, the APPG decided that it was important to return our focus to Turkey. Following a number of reports by previous Select Committees on Foreign Affairs and a parliamentary delegation observing political trials of Kurds in Turkey four years ago, it was felt that it was time to bring the focus back to the internal politics of Turkey and to see what had happened in the intervening period.
We therefore launched the inquiry almost a year ago, on
Those terms of reference were translated into Turkish and Kurdish, distributed widely in the UK and Turkey, and as chair of the APPG I and a number of others did interviews on Kurdish and Turkish television stations to promote the inquiry. We wrote directly to the ambassador to get his input. Although his response was short, I appreciate that he responded to our request.
As well as a call for written evidence, we held a number of oral sessions, which were roughly themed into the following categories: political representation, civil society, press, gender issues and, finally, the issue of the PKK, the currently banned Kurdistan Workers Party, which is the militant arm of the Kurdish struggle. Those are the themes around which I will structure today’s discussion, and they are also the themes on which our report, which Members will have received electronically, was structured.
The first session focused on elected officials, with MPs sitting in the Turkish Parliament giving evidence to us. One was from the HDP, the People’s Democratic Party, the majority Kurdish and progressive political party, and the other was from the CHP, the Republican People’s Party, the main opposition party in Turkey, but widely regarded as modern Turkey’s founding party.
I would like to read some of the testimony from the HDP witness. Hişyar told us:
“Over the last three weeks, I received four different, what they call, summary of proceedings”— most of them were unfounded—which
“demanded to lift my parliamentary immunity so that I can be prosecuted. When my parliamentary mandate ends, all of those summaries will turn into court cases and I will be sentenced, or I will have to leave the country.”
There is a great deal of precedent for targeting MPs. In the past six years, the former HDP chairs were arrested for alleged connections to the PKK. Part of the Government’s case was that they had used the words “Kurds” and “Kurdistan” in public speeches in 2012. The other citation in the case was that they had been involved in the creation of the PKK. The PKK was created in 1978, when both the co-chairs were five years old. We can clearly see that this does not seem to stand up to fair and due process.
I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this debate and on his work in keeping a light shining on this sometimes forgotten struggle. Is not the important thing here that the HDP and other groups that may just disagree with the current regime are being denied their democratic rights and are being attacked? While we should have no truck with terrorism, should not NATO, and Britain through NATO, put pressure on the regime, as a member of NATO, to hold to democratic values? After all, that is what NATO was founded on.
I totally agree. NATO and the Council of Europe, both of which we and Turkey are members of, need to be holding Turkey to greater account. I also totally agree with my right hon. Friend that we should have no truck with terrorism. But an expansive approach including anyone who just shares the ideals of self-determination is not helpful in the fight against terrorism, because it makes a mockery of the whole system. I will come on to that in the final part of my speech.
In December 2020, the European Court of Human Rights ordered the immediate release of the chairs and other Members of Parliament and a suspension of their trials, saying that they was politically motivated. That ruling is now wilfully ignored by Turkey. In addition, the European Parliament passed, by 590 votes to 16, a motion saying that they should be released.
The testimony is supported by the “World Report 2020”, published by Human Rights Watch, which states:
“Cases against HDP politicians provide the starkest evidence that authorities bring criminal prosecution and use detention in bad faith and for political purposes.”
The 2020 Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe resolution dealt with the political crackdown on political opposition, highlighting how immunity for politicians had been stripped away from 2016 onwards.
We have debated this issue previously in this place, and I commend my hon. Friend Feryal Clark for securing a previous debate about political representation in Turkey and the fate of some of the HDP politicians. It is clear that this is an organised targeting of opposition MPs just for calling for autonomy or self-determination for majority Kurdish areas. Previously it had been an attack on HDP MPs, but recently and worryingly it has been extended to CHP Members of Parliament. The CHP is no Kurdish-flag-waving party. Many Kurds will say that the CHP is part of a state that helped to lay some of the foundations of difficulties. But many CHP members now choose to speak out on the moral and correct thing, which is the ability of people to partake in democratic life. And the idea of supporting Kurdish autonomy and self-determination seems to be all that is now required to trigger an accusation of terrorism or subversion. That is a dangerous precedent.
We not only heard from MPs in Turkey; we also took evidence from municipal leaders, one of whom was elected a mayor but is now in exile in Greece. The APPG heard that since the last local elections in 2019, 59 of the 65 elected municipal leaders have been replaced by Government-appointed trustees. A human rights report quoted in our report says:
“Regardless of which party or candidate they voted for, the will of…more than 4 million…voters living within the boundaries of 48 municipalities” has been
“seized through the appointment of trustees.”
Our inquiry also took evidence on the closure of the Democratic Society Congress—the DTK—an organisation bringing together politicians and civil society that advocates not separation but confederalisation in Turkey, and that is its crime. Actions taken have included the arrest of its leaders, as well as the targeting of the Kurdish political youth organisations. One refugee is in my constituency because of the persecution he faced.
On Kurdish political representation, the APPG made nine findings. I will not read them all out, but I will mention a few. We found that trials have been increasingly conducted in closed central courts in Ankara and not the open divisional courts in the home provinces, making a defence harder for a Member of Parliament. The APPG also found that there have been routine cases against 154 MPs—154 MPs have received indictments; this is not just a few people who have done objectionable things —and that the legal proceedings are being used to tackle political disagreements, which in turn disproportionately affects Members of Parliament from Kurdish backgrounds. We also found that the human rights of municipal leaders are violated routinely by detaining them pending trial or sentencing them to prison on trumped-up charges.
Our report was 56 pages in total, with 32 recommendations for the UK Government. We received comments based on the first-hand experience of MPs, mayors, civil society and women’s organisations, and I sent the report to the Minister in July. I received a one-and-a-quarter-page reply, the substantive part of which said:
Is a tweet really the maximum amount of our diplomatic effort? It would be nice to know more about what the Government have been doing. Over hundreds of hours, we collected work on the report and made concrete recommendations. I would like the Government to give some concrete responses.
Will the Minister and the Government demand the release of the HDP co-leaders, in accordance with the decision by the European Court of Human Rights in December 2020? Will she condemn the closure of the DTK and remind the Turkish Government of their previous commitment to find a peaceful solution to the ongoing conflict? Will the Government push the Turkish Government to accept the revised European charter on the participation of young people in local and regional life, which is a Council of Europe charter for young people, so that it applies to young people in Turkey? Finally, what will the Government do to press the Turkish Government to uphold the rule of law and democratic principles in Turkey?
I now turn to the issue of discrimination through language and culture. Having gone through the first section of my speech, I will now try to rattle through the other sections. The inquiry received evidence from the Education and Science Workers’ Union in Turkey, which had conducted its own report. It stated that 200,000 children in Diyarbakır alone and 6 million children in south-east Turkey were being denied an education entirely or being forced to learn exclusively in Turkish and not their mother language. This is, of course, a denial of human rights, and it also makes it impossible for children to be helped in their studies by their parents or caregivers, which puts them at an immediate disadvantage as they grow up.
The inquiry also received a report from the Kurdish Language and Culture Network, which suggests that there had been enforced and targeted discrimination against the Kurdish community, particularly where they had expressed their culture in language and other traditional practices. We found that in the last five years 57 Kurdish cultural institutions and organisations had been closed down, including theatres, just for staging plays in the Kurdish language.
Will the Government condemn the Turkish Government’s decision to close multiple institutions that uphold Kurdish cultural life? Furthermore, what steps will the Minister take to raise this issue with her Turkish counterparts? Will she discuss the support that the British Council could offer in Kurdish-English work and co-operation?
I turn now to gender-based oppression in Turkey. Historically, Turkey has retained a low representation of women in its Parliament. In 2020 the World Bank calculated that 17% of seats were held by women, which is below the global average of 25%. The HDP operates a co-chair system, whereby a man and a woman co-chair the party and many municipalities. The HDP maintains a quota of 50% female candidates and, I think almost uniquely for any political party in the world, 10% of Members must come from the LGBT+ community. That means that repression of Kurdish and Kurdish-supporting MPs has ended up disproportionately affecting women and LGBT+ people, because they are disproportionately represented—not disproportionately according to the population, but in the Turkish Parliament.
The practice of having co-chairs has even been cited by the Turkish Government as evidence of links to the PKK, which was the first to use the co-chair system. That is further evidence that the expansive practice of just sharing any similar idea or practice with the PKK will mean that an organisation is branded as terrorists. It is clearly ridiculous.
It is not just the HDP that has been targeted in a gendered way. The Free Women’s Congress and 49 other women’s organisations were closed down in the state of emergency that was declared in 2016. As a result of that declaration, the bank accounts of many of these women’s organisations were closed, making it impossible for them to continue to operate.
In the evidence submitted by the TJA—the Free Women’s Movement—the Kurdish women’s organisation, it stated that in 2020, 2,520 women reported to non-governmental organisations cases of physical and gendered violence, 775 women applied for shelter, and 113 women reported cases of sexual assault. In the 18 years that the AKP has been in power, femicide in Turkey overall has increased by 1,400%. That is a shocking amount.
I thank my hon. Friend for securing this debate and making an excellent speech. The issues he is raising are really important, and are ones that the Prime Minister has spoken about in a UK context. However, there is no evidence that the Prime Minister, when he met the President of Turkey at the NATO summit or, more recently, the G20—I do not know whether he had a bilateral at this weekend’s G20—discussed any of these issues. The main issues on the agenda seemed to be tourism and vaccines, but nothing about Kurdish rights or the rights of women in Turkey.
It is very worrying. During our report, the Turkish Government withdrew from the Istanbul convention—it is slightly ironically named now—which is about the prevention and combating of violence against women and domestic violence. The convention had only come into force in Turkey in 2014, and we are yet to see any strong diplomatic effort from the British Government to really condemn that.
The evidence that the APPG took shows that the situation is becoming dire for women, so may I ask the Minister what support the Government will give to international organisations aiding women in vulnerable situations in Turkey? What steps is she taking to ensure that the UK Government aid is directed to women-led organisations in Turkey, and that that aid reaches majority Kurdish areas? Will her Government call in the strongest terms for Turkey to rejoin the Istanbul convention and fully implement it?
Turning to freedom of the press, the APPG heard from a journalists association, and those who gave evidence said that it becomes harder to work every day with the intimidation that they face. In October 2020, five journalists were arrested for publishing a news article about two tortured civilians from the city of Van. They were flown in a helicopter and then thrown out—one of them to their death, the other very seriously injured. The governor of Van said that the people who threw them out were acting for the PKK. That is disputed, but either way, the reporting of the action should not see a journalist arrested. Some of these journalists have now been released, but still have international travel bans imposed against them, and others remain in jail awaiting trial.
There are attacks not just on individual journalists, but on publications and radio stations in Turkey. The APPG received evidence that “following the state of emergency” 62 newspapers, 24 radio stations, 19 magazines and 29 publishing houses had been shut down. In total, 177 media organisations were shut down, and 2,500 journalists were repressed, restricted or out of a job.
According to Amnesty International, one third of all the world’s jailed journalists are imprisoned in Turkey. That is a disgraceful statistic, so may I ask the Minister: will the Government condemn the measures to restrict freedom of speech implemented in Turkey and remind the Turkish Government that criticism of the Government —criticism of any Government—is a fundamental aspect of the public’s right to participation? What will the Government give to support journalists so that they are able to uphold their freedom of speech?
Finally, I will turn to the PKK, but before I do, please may I ask this? I know that in much of the correspondence Ministers are focused on the PKK element, but the other elements are really important for me and I really want a strong focus on them. That was one of the reasons why I was initially nervous about raising the PKK issue at all. I thought that maybe we should just ignore it. The problem is that, as we heard evidence, it became clearer and clearer that we cannot delink these issues, because of the Turkish Government’s expansive view of what supporting the PKK is. As I have mentioned, journalists, politicians and other civil society actors are routinely accused of terrorism if they support the wider beliefs of the PKK.
Without getting into a debate on the nature of terrorism, it is clear that terrorism that has the aim of national sovereignty is a slightly different beast from terrorism that aims to impose fundamentalist ideology on a reluctant people, but the age-old debate about whether someone is a terrorist or a freedom fighter has been debated over decades in this place. However, there is a set of international definitions of what it means to be a terrorist and the legal consequences of acting in a terrorist manner. Those that do so should be prosecuted and proscribed, but the UK Government already make a distinction for Turkey. They recognise that the YPJ and YPG—the Kurdish units in the Syrian defence forces—are not terrorists but are anti-terrorist in their nature. Although the Government call on them to distance themselves from the PKK, they recognise that, in reality, many of their views, and some of their activities and training, are shared. That has been recognised in the British courts, and the Government have rightly diverged from the Turkish Government, who still regard the YPG and YPJ as terrorist organisations. The Turkish Government are so obsessed with the YPG and YPJ but they have supported jihadis who are often proscribed in the UK.
I have mentioned the Turkish Government’s expansive definition of terrorism: anyone who supports Kurdish political leaders or even just gender equality. It becomes an extremely slippery slope. Therefore, will the Minister make it clear that supporting Kurdish aspirations for some form of autonomy, supporting Kurdish political leaders, or even supporting those who have renounced violence and who call for dialogue should never be a reason for someone to be fearful of an accusation of terrorism? I do not ask the Minister that for an academic purpose; I do it because recent cases in Belgium, and potential cases in other European countries, show that the Turkish Government are increasingly and proactively trying to persuade their so-called NATO allies to prosecute those who support the Kurds. That is producing a chilling effect in Kurdish communities in this country and around Europe. Any listing must be based on evidence of indiscriminate violence, a determination to undermine and destroy democracy, and an intolerance of other people’s views.
The second line of defence in the Belgian court case, where the Supreme Court failed to convict the defendants for running a Kurdish newspaper and radio station, was that they were simply not terrorist acts, and that the listing of the PKK was based on information that had been discredited. I have a list here but will not go through it, because I know my time should have been up already. Here is the list of the pieces of evidence that were given to the European Union in the listing of the PKK. One can go through each one of them and show that they are not acts of the PKK. A number of them have been acts of the Turkish police force or Turkish army, and Turkish courts have prosecuted Turkish authorities for such acts, but they are still listed as PKK acts, even though Turkey and its courts recognise that they are not. There needs to be a review of this situation, as the Turkish courts have shown.
More interestingly, the Belgian court case and the APPG heard from the lead defence lawyer. The court upheld their defence on the first point: that the PKK are a national movement of self-determination in a legal civil war. The treaties on definitions of terrorism that Belgium has signed up to are the same treaties as Britain has signed up to. All bar one explicitly say that if civil war actors are covered by the laws of war, they cannot be regarded as terrorists, and the one that does not mention that is just silent about all definitions. That is of course quite right; it is to stop anyone just labelling their opponents as terrorists when there is a legitimate internal conflict taking place. Under the Geneva and Hague conventions, the laws of war outline the requirements to be classed as an actor. One of the things is a command structure, and another might be an identifiable uniform. Suffice it to say that the Belgian Supreme Court found on all counts that the PKK fulfilled those requirements. Therefore, it could not be classed as a terrorist organisation. In finding that the PKK was involved in a belligerent and internal conflict, the court struck down the terrorist listing.
The same process also happened in the European Court of Justice, where a Europe-wide listing was struck down, and the justices found that the PKK had not met the European or international listing definitions. Although we are not a member of the European Union, the laws of war that interpret treaties are now directly part of our domestic laws and we are signatories to the international treaties that they interpret.
A quirk of terrorism law is that organisations are proscribed at the European and international level annually, so although they have been struck down from previous listings they are currently listed, and the courts are now going through a process of striking down their current listings, adding them again after the case, but of course no new evidence has been provided as to why they should be re-listed. That makes a mockery of the proscribing process, with people being arrested and prosecuted for being part of a proscribed organisation, only to find midway through their trial that the organisation is no longer proscribed.
The British Government need to re-look at the case for the proscription of the PKK and take into account the latest evidence from the Turkish courts and the terrorist acts that were not committed by the PKK but by others. The Belgian and European courts have said that they should be classed as internal belligerents, not terrorists.
A strong fight against terrorism can be achieved only if the listings that the Government maintain are accurate and not liable to change. Will the Minister commit to conduct an immediate review with her Home Office counterparts and report back to this House? To those who say that designating the PKK as a belligerent might give credence to those that target civilians, I say that the crime of targeting civilians in war under the Geneva and Hague conventions is a more serious crime with a higher prosecutable level in international courts and a higher punishment than the crime of terrorism, so de-listing and classing them as belligerents provides less incentive for civilian attacks.
If we are to seek peace in Turkey, we must see how organisations can go from being classed as terrorist to seeking political solutions through political aims. The UK’s role in Colombia, although not perfect, and incomplete, shows how the FARC could be brought into a mainstream political discussion. If we look at our history in Northern Ireland and the African National Congress in South Africa, each is different and unique, but each had a process that has ended politically and not violently, and that is what we all want to see in Turkey.
Finally, what serious discussions have the Government had with Turkey about restarting the peace negotiations? What practical support have the Government given for domestic and international channels for the discussions? What role do the Government see in third pillar negotiations between civil society actors, trade unions and women’s organisations to ensure a peaceful settlement of the conflict? Although the death toll might not be large, the APPG found that political representation was high and increasing. It found that the basic principles of democratic freedom were being undermined, and terrorism laws were being misused to shut democratic spaces rather than keep them open. The APPG and I are sure that Members here today would like to work co-operatively with the Government. I hope that we might be able to get fuller responses to the APPG in time.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairship, Dame Angela. I thank my hon. Friend Lloyd Russell-Moyle for securing this important debate, and I welcome the APPG report on Kurdish political representation and democracy in Turkey. I want to start by sending my solidarity to the Kurdish people, who have shown such strength and resilience in their resistance and struggle for liberation, autonomy and democracy.
The recent escalation of human rights abuses and anti-democratic manoeuvring by the Turkish Government against Kurdish communities and elected representatives is highly concerning. Hundreds of Kurdish activists, journalists, MPs and mayors have been arrested by the Turkish Government. Turkey’s increasingly oppressive regime has jailed more journalists than any other country in the world. More than a third of journalists jailed globally are held in Turkey. Arbitrary detentions, torture and abuse against journalists have become an everyday practice in Turkey, and press freedom is virtually non-existent, with media ownership concentrated in the hands of Erdoğan and his supporters. A Media Monitoring report last year showed that one in six journalists in Turkey have an ongoing case against them. Only six of 65 democratically elected HDP mayors remain in office. There have been high-profile arrests, such as that of Leyla Güven, who was sentenced a year ago to 22 years on terror charges, and this summer had her visitation and telephone privileges revoked for singing Kurdish songs in prison.
The fact that Abdullah Öcalan is still imprisoned on Imrali island, without fundamental rights being met, is nothing short of an outrage. The escalation by Erdoğan and the Turkish state, particularly since the attempted coup in 2016, with the arrests of hundreds of activists, journalists, mayors and MPs, is morally contemptible and undermines any attempts to broker a just and sustainable peace process.
Britain has a powerful role in holding Turkey to account on human rights and its violation of international law and the European convention on human rights. We must be bold in our demands to put an end to these injustices, to protect political representation and inalienable human rights and to ensure peace and stability for all communities living in Turkey.
I want to focus in particular on the report’s recommendations to revisit the automatic listing of the PKK as a terrorist organisation, especially considering the outcome of the case in the Belgian Supreme Court, which found that the PKK was a legitimate combatant in a civil war, rather than a terror organisation. That historic ruling must have significant ramifications for our Government’s position. I call on the Government to take up the report’s recommendations to review the listing of the PKK as a terror organisation in the light of that evidence. Britain has a significant amount of power to progress the conditions for a return to peace talks, both as a unilateral actor and through European institutions.
I am proud that the UK Labour movement stands resolutely with the Kurdish people. I welcome the work by the all-party parliamentary group for Kurdistan in Turkey and Syria on the report, which contains a number of important recommendations. I call on the Government to do everything in their power to adopt the recommendations, hold Turkey to account as our ally and take urgent steps to secure progress towards resuming peace talks.
I thank my hon. Friend Lloyd Russell-Moyle for securing this important debate. I will focus my comments on the role of the Turkish Government towards the Kurdish community.
Sadly, the issue of representation and equality for Kurds in Turkey is not new. The systemic abuse of the Kurdish community has continued unchecked for far too long. My parents were forced to flee Turkey in the 1980s, due to the systemic abuse faced by the Kurdish community. When I was growing up it was illegal to learn or speak Kurdish. That was changed in early 2000, as Turkey was going through accession discussions with the European Union, but the Government still use various spurious means to prevent the Kurdish community from being able to speak or learn Kurdish.
It is a shameful mark of the lack of progress that Kurds have continued to feel the need to leave their homes, and that the attitude of President Erdoğan’s regime shows no sign of changing. The discriminatory attitude of the Turkish Government is entrenched by President Erdoğan’s persistent interference in the courts, creating a judicial system that has become institutionally prejudiced against Kurds and other minorities in Turkey.
That executive interference in the judiciary has been reflected in the systemic practice of detaining, prosecuting and convicting on bogus charges individuals that the Erdoğan Government regard as critics or political opponents. Terrorism charges continue to be widely misused to restrict the rights to free expression and association. Defence lawyers in such cases have faced arrest and prosecution on the same charges as their clients. Among those targeted, as has been said, are journalists, Opposition politicians and activists, in particular members of the pro-Kurdish People’s Democratic party, the HDP.
Selahattin Demirtaş, the former co-chair of the HDP, has been held in prison in Turkey since 2016 and the European Court of Human Rights has called for his immediate release, but no action has been taken by the Turkish Government. Further, I remain deeply concerned about the rise in allegations of torture, as well as cruel and inhumane treatment, especially of female detainees in police and military custody and prison over the past four years. Prosecutors do not conduct meaningful investigations into such allegations and there is a pervasive culture of impunity among members of the security forces and the political officials implicated.
Erdoğan’s regime refuses to distinguish between the PKK and the democratically elected HDP, which won 11.7% of the national vote in the 2018 parliamentary elections and 65 local municipalities in the 2019 local elections. Since August 2019 the Interior Ministry has removed 48 elected HDP mayors, on the basis that they face criminal investigation and prosecutions for links to the PKK. Repeating the approach taken in 2016-17, the Government have replaced mayors in the south-east with Ankara-appointed provincial governors and deputy governors as trustees.
In sharp contrast, the HDP’s pluralist and inclusive platform has resulted in its popularity among diverse groups in Turkey. The inclusion of minority groups, including Kurds, as well as Alevis, Armenians, the LGBT community, women’s rights organisations, secularists and other ethnic minorities such as Yazidis and Assyrians, has been key to expanding the HDP’s appeal. The success of the parties pursuing that agenda shows that there is real appetite on the ground in Turkey for a movement away from the regressive attitude pursued by Erdoğan’s regime.
While movement towards those positions by parties such as the HDP is crucial, it is key that, in addition to efforts made from within Turkey, the international community also uses its influence to support people on the ground. I welcome the work of the European Court of Human Rights and the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights in recent years to highlight the persistent erosion of Kurdish rights in Turkey, and call on the UK Government, alongside international partners, to continue to put pressure on their Turkish counterparts. I am sure the Minister will set out the UK Government’s fantastic relationship with Turkey and the significant role that Turkey plays within NATO—it has been repeated before.
However, I have asked before and I ask again: as allies, surely we should be calling on Turkey to stop the abuse and persecution of Kurds and Kurdish politicians. If we cannot ask our friends to stop this, how do we deal with the less friendly nations? How much longer will the UK Government stand by and let this disregard for human rights continue? The rights of Kurds and other minorities in Turkey have been at best ignored and at worst abused, for far too long. It is time for change. I urge the Minister to take note of the 32 recommendations set out in the APPG’s report and call on Turkey to stop the persecution of Kurds and come to the table to negotiate for a peaceful solution to the Kurdish question.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Dame Angela, and to follow the comprehensive introduction to the all-party group’s report from its chair, Lloyd Russell-Moyle, with whom I enjoyed—and “enjoy” is the right word—an interesting visit to north-east Syria, seeing the Kurdish statelet there at the time. It is incredibly instructive to be on the ground and to see the effects of the attempt to put a new philosophy—the Öcalan philosophy—into action in the most difficult and challenging of circumstances.
I do not intend to speak for long, Dame Angela, because it is important to hear from the Minister. If we really wanted to torture the Minister, the rest of us here would give her longer to respond on the exquisite issue of British-Turkish relations and exactly what balances the United Kingdom needs to strike, which are matters of enormous difficulty. She will probably get just her 10 minutes and will not have to twist on the spit of having to represent her colleague, the Under-Secretary of State for Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Affairs, my hon. Friend Wendy Morton, within whose brief this issue formally sits. I do recognise her difficulties.
We are at the stage of trying to establish the values of global Britain. What does this nation stand for now we have left the European Union? It is a moment to define the values we will stand up for. That is why we ought to carefully review relations with Turkey and examine what message we will send, so we do not get ourselves into a place where we are too contradicted in what we are trying to say and in the differentiation of the messages we are trying to send.
Plainly, the relationship with Turkey is critical and central for the United Kingdom going forward, as we are both major powers on the periphery of Europe. However, we cannot ignore the fact that that nation has locked up more journalists than any other nation, nor its conduct and policy towards the Kurdish minority. That was examined to a degree in the report by the Foreign Affairs Committee when I was Chair, it has been looked at again in the report by the all-party parliamentary group for Kurdistan in Turkey and Syria, and it was the subject of a letter to the Foreign Secretary that I co-wrote with Hilary Benn, which was signed by 64 colleagues. That letter raised our concerns about Turkey’s conduct in respect of human and political rights—an area where I do not believe Turkey to be acting in her own interest.
The Foreign Affairs Committee report that was published in 2017 identified that as a central challenge for the President of Turkey. In what direction was he going to take Turkey? He had an opportunity then, and he has an opportunity now with Abdullah Öcalan as his prisoner, who has ceased to have any aspirations for Kurdish independence. If one looks at the Kurdish minorities in the other main countries where they appear—Syria, Iraq and Iran—it is plain that any aspiration for a greater Kurdistan is, frankly, for the birds at the minute. It is not even an aspiration that is front and centre of most Kurdish discussions. The referendum in Iraq was a total disaster for the Kurds and now seems a profound mistake. Even the Kurdish Syrians we went to see in north-east Syria had to take Syrian protection, in effect, in the face of the threat that came from Turkey in the north.
I look forward to the reply from my right hon. Friend the Minister and to hearing if some of the balances expressed by her predecessors, in answer to such debates, have begun to shift and if we are now beginning to say something more robust about what global Britain stands for, or if we cannot say anything about our relationship with Turkey and the pretty dreadful things going on in regard to the values we ought to share with the Turkish Government, who have plainly gone very badly wrong and are not seeking the opportunity to find a route to peace in the PKK-inspired civil war.
I concur with the points that have been expressed about closely questioning the PKK’s terrorist designation. It is designated a terrorist organisation because Turkey has asked us to do that. Frankly, that is not adequate and needs proper examination, if possible in our courts, to see if they would come to the same conclusion as the courts of Belgium. I look forward to the Minister’s contribution to see if matters are now moving in a more satisfactory direction in respect of the values we seek to stand for.
It is a great pleasure to follow such a thoughtful contribution from Crispin Blunt, and I associate myself with his questions. I also warmly praise Lloyd Russell-Moyle for an excellent report and contribution to this debate. I am very pleased to see so much consensus across the Chamber on this really important issue. I give the apologies of my great colleague, my hon. Friend Chris Stephens, who has been detained on other business, but who is also an active member of the all-party parliamentary group on the Kurdistan region in Iraq and is deeply concerned with Kurdish affairs. His colleague, Roza Salih, is a representative of the Kurdish community in Scotland, and has been very active on these issues.
I was struck by the point about global Britain needing to work out what it stands for. I am in the fortunate position that I know very well what the SNP stands for: we are a democratic party; we believe in the rule of law and democracy; we support the right to self-determination; and maybe we are more relaxed about constitutional change than other parties—if we look at the broad sweep of history, constitutional change happens. As long as that constitutional change is done democratically and peacefully, with the full engagement of the communities within those territories, it is not something to be feared. We believe that the people choose their Governments, and that the people should define their states. We also deal with the world as it is. Repression of those demands can only lead to a bad place. This is what we see in the middle east. Everything is an accident of empire: if we look at the lines on the map across the entire middle east, it was somebody’s empire and somebody’s mistake that led to this.
To my mind, the lack of an independent Kurdistan is also an accident of history. The fact that the Kurdish people are spread across Turkey, Syria, Iraq and Iran leads to a very unstable situation. As President Barzani of the Kurdistan Regional Government said when I last met him in Irbil, it is a tough neighbourhood. As outsiders who are friendly to all parties within the region, it is incumbent on us to look at the widest perspective possible and to stick to values rather than interests of the state, which may change over time.
Regarding Turkey in particular, we have to be blunt. Turkey is an important ally, but the actions of the Turkish state vis-à-vis the Kurds fall well below the standards we should expect of a Council of Europe member, a NATO ally and a friend of Scotland and the United Kingdom. A state can be judged by the way that it treats minorities. As I have said, Turkey is an important ally and a member of NATO; it deserves great praise for the safe haven that it has given to millions of refugees from the conflict in Syria and Iraq, with European and UK support. It is an ancient culture and a wonderful place to visit. It is a fantastic place that is presently being governed badly. It is also illegally occupying part of an EU member state in Cyprus. It is increasingly autocratic; it jails journalists. As we have heard, a third of the journalists jailed worldwide are in Turkey. In its treatment of the Kurds, it has embarked on a decades long campaign of oppression.
Closing down democratic dialogue can never work. Closing down democratic dialogue with aspirations of self-determination can only lead to a bad place. In March this year, as we have heard, the Turkish state banned the People’s Democratic party, the HDP. I remember expressing concern in the European Parliament in 2009, when the Democratic Society party—the HDP’s predecessor—was similarly shut down. This is a long-standing campaign from the Turkish state to shut down the legitimate aspirations of the Kurdish people, and to shut down debate. This is a deliberate pattern. The most recent ruling banned 600 HDP party members from participating in politics for five years, and the HDP co-chairs, Selahattin Demirtaş and Figen Yüksekdağ, have been jailed. I was lucky enough to meet Ms Yüksekdağ in Edinburgh a few years ago; the idea that she is involved in terrorism is, flatly, risible. She is a political prisoner.
I am conscious that the Minister is sitting in for other Ministers, and I am also realistic about the leverage that the UK has over the Turkish state—that needs to be said. I feel for the Minister and view her as a colleague in this discussion. However, I do have some questions. I would be grateful for an update on what the UK Government have done to press for the release of political prisoners, like the two HDP co-chairs, but there are plenty of others. On arms export licenses, the UK has sent £212 million-worth of materiel to Turkey. What human rights assessment has been made of those arms exports, and what reassurance can we hear that those arms have not been used in the oppression of the Kurdish people? I am happy to have the answer in writing, if not today.
More widely, and this is an honest offer as much as it is a question, what efforts have been made by the UK Government to promote dialogue between the Kurds and the Turkish state? I would say that Scotland offers a model, in that we have a devolved system of government within these islands. Obviously, Scotland’s history is completely different from that of the Kurds. We were an independent state for far longer than we have been part of Great Britain. We have a different political culture here and in Scotland. However, there is a need for an honest outside broker in this discussion. There is a need for outside scrutiny. This is not just an internal matter for the Turks to rule on for themselves.
If the Minister is looking for resources, we have plenty in Scotland. We have excellent NGOs, like Beyond Borders Scotland, that are well used to facilitating dialogue and have previously been active in Kurdistan. We have a civil society and a political culture that would be ready and quick to help.
Speaking frankly, there is always a degree of hypocrisy in international relations. The question for the UK Government is: are we on the right side of the line? We must be much more vocal about the deficiencies of the Turkish state, the oppression of the Kurdish people and the right of the Kurdish people to more international support than they have had. If the Minister agrees, she will have the total support of the SNP.
I am pleased to speak in this debate under your chairship, Dame Angela. Like everyone else in the Chamber, I look forward to hearing the Minister’s response. I also put on record my thanks for the moving speech from my hon. Friend Feryal Clark, who is of course the first Turkish woman to be elected to the House of Commons. The fact that she grew up in Turkey as a Kurd adds a special poignancy to today’s discussion.
I also put on record my thanks to my hon. Friend Lloyd Russell-Moyle. The topic of today’s debate is his expertise—his special subject. He is a continuing and passionate campaigner for the Kurdish people. The rights of minority groups across the globe are not debated in this House often enough, but it was due to the diligence of his inquiry and the hard work of all the members of the all-party group that he gave such a detailed speech on the findings of his report. It was excellent.
The debate today could not come at a better time. Only yesterday, I received a copy of a letter sent to the Foreign Secretary by the UK Civil Society Women’s Alliance international working group, which outlines their serious concerns about the ongoing pattern of detention and the unfair trials of activists, particularly those from the Kurdish minority, and includes specific examples of those who have been detained.
We know from the contribution of my hon. Friend Alex Sobel about the 1,400% increase in femicide in Turkey, on which the report of the APPG chaired by my hon. Friend the Member for Brighton, Kemptown commented. That level of abuse against women must be taken seriously. I am very keen to hear the Minister’s thoughts and what action the Government are taking in relation to the Istanbul convention. Dame Angela, you will remember the intense discussions that we had in the House about the convention. In fact, it was the subject of an Opposition day debate. We all came in and made speeches. Every hon. Member was concerned, of course, that our own Government should ratify the Istanbul convention, but crucially it was women from the region we are discussing who raised this very concern. I hope that we will hear some encouraging news on that point from the Minister.
As we have heard from hon. Members across the Chamber today, this is not a new issue. Many right hon. and hon. Members have asked questions in the House about Kurdish people in Turkey, and specifically about the discrimination and repression that they face and have historically faced, not least in the form of military action and the curtailing of their cultural freedoms. Crispin Blunt talked about a robust definition of global Britain; that must surely include an answer to the question of what our role is. Personally, I found it a little troubling that, following the Brexit vote, the first excursion that Mrs May, the then Prime Minister, made was to Turkey to shake hands with the President and to sell more weapons.
As the SNP spokesperson, Alyn Smith, said, we need assurances that our own manufactured weapons are not being used for internal repression. I know that that is an element of the way that our procedures work, and that my hon. Friend the Member for Brighton, Kemptown has expertise in this area. However, we seek assurances that those weapons are not being used for any violence against Kurdish people in Turkey.
Obviously, the Kurdish communities in Turkey are not a single homogeneous bloc. Some Kurds have even served as senior Government Ministers in the AKP Government. That said, the Kurdish minority as a whole, and particularly those who support the Opposition in Turkey, experience appalling levels of discrimination, which have no place in a democratic society. We have heard of the detention and removal of dozens of Kurdish and Kurdish-supporting regional mayors—48 regional mayors have been arrested—and of the removal of 154 lawmakers in Ankara. Imagine if 154 MPs were locked up here—imagine the outcry! The political voice of pro-Kurdish political parties is being eroded by the current Government and, with it, the democratic wishes of the Kurdish people are being ignored and attacked.
We heard about Mr Demirtaş, and his ongoing imprisonment, from my hon. Friend the Member for Enfield North. What specific representations has the Minister made to President Erdoğan in relation to Mr Demirtaş, and can we expect his release any time soon? What representations have been made about the abuse of courts by the Executive over what should be a legal matter, rather than something where the Executive are overruling the courts?
The greatest example of the ongoing attack against the Kurdish people is the attempt by Turkish authorities to outright ban the HDP itself. The HDP has been a staunch supporter of Kurdish rights since its formation, and garners much of its support from Kurdish areas. In the years since it was founded, the Government have moved to stifle its progress. Since 2016, it has been estimated that more than 10,000 parliamentarians, elected officials and party members have been imprisoned. As we know, the Turkish authorities are attempting to ramp up the pressure and choke off the HDP, through shuttering it and denying representation to the millions who have freely cast their votes for that party. Such a move, against a political party that has been supported by many Kurds, is an affront to democracy.
I heard at first hand from HDP lawmakers earlier this year about their concerns for their position, and for Turkey’s democracy more generally. The attack on Kurdish rights, the rule of law and the fundamental freedoms of democracy is deeply concerning. We heard about the freedom of the press from my hon. Friend Kim Johnson, and in a very good speech from my hon. Friend the Member for Brighton, Kemptown, which went into the detail at length, so I will not repeat that now.
We urgently need the UK Government to take a more active role. We heard from my right hon. Friend John Spellar that, as Turkey is a major NATO ally and a friend of the UK, we cannot and should not sit by and allow this to happen. We should feel able to criticise our friends and allies when they are doing wrong and praise them when they are doing right—for example, on the refugee crisis, in which Turkey is making an enormous contribution, not just in numbers, but in education and health services. That is not lost on those of us who see that good work. However, equally, if we are friends and allies, we must be able to say when we are worried, and the treatment of the Kurdish minority worries us deeply.
In her summing up, I hope that the Minister will outline her response, or the Department’s assessment of the legal case in Belgium, because it would be good to have on the record in Hansard the FCDO’s assessment of the Belgian court finding that the PKK was not a terrorist organisation. My understanding is that the UK’s position is still that elements of the PKK are terrorists, but I would like to know whether officers within the FCDO have looked at the legalities of the Belgian case. The UK signs up to the same treaties as Belgium, and we have the same norms and values, so could she please outline where the Belgians might be taking a different view from any UK legal counsel?
Finally, I will conclude by thanking all Members for being here for today’s debate. Thank you, Dame Angela, for your excellent chairing of the debate, and I very much look forward to hearing from the Minister. Given that there is so much time left in the debate, I hope that she will accept some short interventions.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Dame Angela. I congratulate Lloyd Russell-Moyle on securing this debate through the Backbench Business Committee, and thank him and other hon. Members for their contributions today.
I know that the Under-Secretary of State for Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Affairs, my hon. Friend Wendy Morton, would have been delighted to respond today, but she is in Glasgow attending COP26. As such, Members will understand that this is not my brief, although it is my pleasure to respond on her behalf. I will do my best to cover as many of the points raised by the hon. Member for Brighton, Kemptown as possible—I am grateful to have had early sight of some of the questions—as well as other comments made during the course of the debate. I am more than happy to ensure that the Minister responds after today’s debate, and I am sure that we can arrange follow-up conversations.
I am aware of the correspondence between the Minister and the hon. Member for Brighton, Kemptown relating to the APPG report. We are grateful for the work that the APPG has done to create this report. The Government take these matters very seriously, as with all matters relating to democracy, security and human rights, and although the APPG report is wide-reaching, today we are focusing on Turkey.
“We recommend that the FCO designate Turkey as a Human Rights Priority Country in its next Human Rights and Democracy Report.”
Matters have hardly improved over the past four years. What consideration is now being given to so designate Turkey?
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his intervention. I would like to mark and commend his work as Chair of the Foreign Affairs Committee. Everyone thought very highly of him in terms of his chairmanship, and now his ability to pull out a report today. I will talk about our relationship with Turkey and a number of the issues that have been raised, including my hon. Friend’s own contribution and our role as global Britain. As NATO allies and G20 economies, the UK and Turkey continue to work closely together. We have seen Turkey’s participation in the G20 and COP26 over the weekend as testament to this.
Turkey sits on the frontline of some of the most difficult challenges we face, and our shared interests cover security, defence, trade, the covid pandemic and climate change, which is very topical this week. Turkey hosts more refugees than any other country, including around 3.6 million Syrians, at a considerable cost and more than many other countries. We also have a shared interest in pursuing regional stability with Turkey, including in Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan, and the eastern Mediterranean.
It is worth saying at the outset that we should not generalise when we talk about the Kurds, in Turkey or elsewhere. There are 15 million to 18 million Kurds in Turkey alone, who form a diverse section of society with different political affiliations and outlooks. I note the concerns expressed in this debate about political representation in Turkey, specifically the pressure on Turkey’s third largest party, the People’s Democratic Party, or HDP. The party’s supporters tend to be drawn from the Kurdish community.
We note, as does the APPG report, that a number of MPs and officials from the HDP have been arrested for alleged links with the proscribed terrorist organisation the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, the PKK. A number of colleagues mentioned the PKK. We are closely monitoring the progress of the case to close down the HDP for terrorist links, which the Turkish chief public prosecutor is pursuing through the Turkish constitutional court. We also know that the Turkish Government have replaced elected HDP mayors with Government-appointed officials. It is well known that the UK has proscribed the PKK as a terrorist group, as have many of our international partners. We do not share the view of the APPG and some Members today that there are grounds to justify unproscribing the PKK while it continues with terrorist activities. According to the International Crisis Group, the conflict has caused nearly 5,700 deaths since the latest peace process broke down in July 2015. We urge the HDP to distance itself from the PKK and its ongoing terrorist activity.
I am keen for the Minister to elaborate here—or in writing, I suspect—what activities she refers to. To some extent, that will also help us to make sure that we negotiate with the PKK to move away from those activities she alleges, and help us to scrutinise them. In the listing in Belgium and in the European Union, almost all the cases that were claimed to be terrorist can be examined and, in fact, they were not the responsibility of the PKK or were the responsibility of other organisations with different proscriptions. That would be really useful for us. Will the Minister do that?
More broadly, an active and engaged opposition, and freedom of expression and assembly, are essential to an effective functioning of any democracy. Respect for local-level democracy helps to strengthen national-level democratic traditions. We encourage Turkey to ensure that all its opposition parties are able to conduct their legitimate political business freely, in accordance with Turkish laws, without intimidation and irrespective of which section of society they are drawn from.
The Turkish constitution provides for all Turks to be treated equally, irrespective of ethnicity, gender and sexual orientation, and for freedom of religion or belief. We encourage Turkey to uphold those principles. We regret Turkey’s withdrawal from the Istanbul convention early this year, but we nevertheless continue to encourage Turkey to do its utmost to protect women and girls from violence through strengthening its legislation in that critical area. Turkey has a rich and diverse history, and we encourage it to protect its religious diversity.
The Minister said that she regrets this, but could she at least push a bit further on the Istanbul convention to say that our Government call on Turkey to re-sign it? She did not seem to be able to say those words and I think that is deeply disappointing.
As I say, we do regret this, but I will come on to some of the actions that the UK Government are taking on a number of the different issues we have discussed today, if I could possibly continue.
As I said, Turkey has a rich and diverse history, and we encourage it to protect its religious diversity. We support freedom of religion or belief for all minority faith groups in Turkey, including the Alevi community, Jews and Christians. We have urged the Turkish authorities to safeguard their welfare and respect their human rights, in line with provisions in the Turkish constitution to protect the rights of all religious minorities. Our missions in Turkey regularly engage with minority religious groups and discuss their concerns.
On our engagement with Turkey, the UK has concerns about the human rights situation in Turkey, which we regularly raise with Turkish authorities. The former Foreign Secretary, my right hon. Friend Dominic Raab, did so during his tenure, as did the Under-Secretary of State for Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Affairs, my hon. Friend the Member for Aldridge-Brownhills, when she visited Turkey in June and during subsequent conversations with her Turkish counterpart.
We have also registered our concern with the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe and the Council of Europe over the large numbers of HDP members who have been detained. Our embassy in Ankara regularly engages with the HDP and other opposition parties. The HDP raises concerns, including the ongoing and lengthy detention without trial of former HDP co-leader, Mr Demirtaş. We will continue to engage with a wide range of legitimate political groups in Turkey, as hon. Members would expect of Her Majesty’s Government officials overseas. We are concerned by Turkey’s delayed implementation of the European Court of Human Rights judgments on the imprisonment of Mr Demirtaş and Osman Kavala. Turkey is a founding member of the Council of Europe. We expect Turkey, as with all Council members, to adhere to the Court’s judgements, which take precedence over national laws, and to implement its decisions. We say that directly to the Turkish Government, and we participate regularly in Council of Europe discussions on both those cases.
We have also discussed with Turkey the development of its judicial reform proposals and its human rights action plan, launched in March. We welcome these discussions and encourage Turkey to implement those fully. Another issue raised by hon. Members is freedom of expression. We have long encouraged Turkey to work towards full protection of those fundamental rights. We will continue to engage with the Turkish Government on those issues and to urge respect for freedom of media. Several specific questions have been raised by hon. Members, including the SNP and Labour Front Benchers, which I will ask my hon. Friend the Minister to follow up on.
As a friend and ally of Turkey, we will continue to regularly raise human rights concerns and be clear in our expectation that Turkey upholds the important values in Turkish law, which we share. At the same time, it is right that we continue to strengthen our relationship with a vital UK partner.
I thank you for chairing the debate, Dame Angela, and I thank my right hon. Friend John Spellar, my hon. Friends the Members for Liverpool, Riverside (Kim Johnson), for Enfield North (Feryal Clark), for Leeds North West (Alex Sobel) and for Hornsey and Wood Green (Catherine West), and the hon. Members for Reigate (Crispin Blunt) and for Stirling (Alyn Smith). I forgot to thank in my speech the embassy in Ankara, which has always been supportive; when I have visited the HDP congress, and has always provided the political secretary to visit with me. I have no argument with what the embassy staff are doing on the ground. The issue is the political responses we are giving.
I must say that I am disappointed that we are not able to offer more than concern or regret about Turkey’s withdrawal from the Istanbul convention. The Minister used slightly stronger language, which was slightly more welcome, on the European Court of Human Rights’ judgment than on the Istanbul convention. I do not understand why we are not able to use stronger language on the Istanbul convention. It is worrying; the withdrawal predominantly affects Kurds, but it actually affects all women in Turkey. I just do not understand that.
I am disappointed that we did not get more concrete answers on the co-ordination of British aid and development in Turkey. I opposed the merger of the Foreign Office and the Department for International Development, but surely the rationale behind the merger was that we could use aid in those diplomatic efforts more effectively. We know that women’s organisations are being shut down in Turkey, that Kurdish women’s organisations are often deprived of money and that journalists are being locked up. We should put in aid and support to ensure that those organisations are able to work and are not repressed. It would be good if the Department could talk about how it is co-ordinating that work, because Turkey is a recipient of some aid and co-ordinates with the British Council, which the Minister also did not mention.
I understand that the Minister will get back to me on those points. I look forward to receiving those replies.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House
has considered Kurdish political representation and equality in Turkey.