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The Human Cost of the PKK Conflict in Turkey: The Case of Sur
The Human Cost of the PKK Conflict in Turkey: The Case of Sur
Table of Contents
  1. Overview
Helping Civilians in Ukraine’s Eastern Donbas Region
Helping Civilians in Ukraine’s Eastern Donbas Region
A woman walks inside a bullet-riddled house in Sur district of the Kurdish dominated southeastern city of Diyarbakir, Turkey, 30 October 2015. REUTERS/Sertac Kayar

The Human Cost of the PKK Conflict in Turkey: The Case of Sur

Around 900 people, including 350 members of the security forces, have been killed in fighting since peace talks broke down last July between the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) and Turkey. As insurgents mix with civilians and rights are violated, some of the worst affected are ordinary people like those in south-eastern Diyarbakır’s district of Sur.

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I. Overview

The breakdown of negotiations between the Turkish state and the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), reignition of hostilities in July 2015 and subsequent spiral of violence underscore the urgent need for a new peace process. Since December, however, confrontations between Turkish security forces and the PKK – listed internationally as a terrorist organisation – have entered an unprecedented stage. The state imposed urban curfews to “restore public order” in towns where PKK-backed youth militias were resorting to barricades and trenches to claim control. Those curfews, lasting for days or weeks at a time, have resulted in months-long battles in towns and city districts throughout the south east. More than 350,000 civilians are estimated to have been displaced and at least 250 killed as security forces deploy tanks and other heavy weaponry to urban centres and the PKK engages in asymmetric urban warfare to prevent the government from retaking full control.

Though some curfews have been lifted in the last few weeks, the human cost of conflict continues to rise sharply: of the 350 Turkish police and soldiers killed in eight months of fighting, 140 died in the first two months of 2016, according to Crisis Group’s open-source casualty tally. The conflict has also struck the capital, Ankara, twice in two months: on 17 February, a car bomb near the parliament killed 25 military personnel and four civilians, while on 13 March a suicide bomber at a bus stop during rush hour killed 37 civilians. Both attacks have been claimed by the Kurdistan Freedom Falcons (TAK), an offshoot of the PKK. Nationalist anger was heightened when the pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) decided not to sign the parliamentary condemnation of the first attack, arguing that Islamic State (IS) attacks in Suruç, Ankara and Sultanahmet and civilian losses during the curfews should be condemned in the same declaration. Three days later, an HDP member of parliament attended a condolence ceremony for the individual who exploded the bomb. While HDP condemned the second attack, it again did not join the statement issued by the other parliamentary parties. These developments fed the increasing public perception and the government’s steadfast conviction that the HDP, a legal political party, cannot distance itself sufficiently from the PKK.

Domestic political discourse is polarised and hardening, while the space for dissent on the Kurdish issue or other contentious ones such as democratic reform is shrinking, as Ankara adopts an increasingly defensive, often heavy-handed line. The effort of the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) to lift parliamentary immunity from five HDP deputies, including its co-chairs, for supporting terrorism threatens to dismantle a significant legal outlet for millions of predominately Kurdish voters. It also supports the PKK’s argument that “self-defence” is needed as political options for solving the conflict are narrowed by the rupture of talks with the PKK’s imprisoned leader, Abdullah Öcalan, and arrest of local HDP political representatives.

The densely-populated south-eastern cities and towns are set to remain on the front line, despite the drawdown of the last weeks. With winter’s end and emboldened by the role of its Kurdish affiliates in Syria, the PKK is readying for more pushback against the government, while the prospect of further attacks in the west of Turkey by radical Kurdish groups has risen significantly. Newroz – a festival traditionally celebrated by Kurds in Turkey around the March equinox – risks inflaming further unrest.

Ankara has promised to rebuild shattered towns and districts, but also to beef up the security forces with larger police stations and more checkpoints in the most restive communities. This is unlikely to remain unchallenged by the PKK and its sympathisers. Meanwhile, its plan to sideline the HDP will limit the potential of the government’s initiatives to be embraced by the HDP’s significant constituency in the region. And Ankara’s room for manoeuvre is limited until Kurdish movement representatives condemn violence and refrain from treating armed resistance as a legitimate form of dissent against the state.

The only way toward a durable solution is peace talks with the PKK accompanied, on a separate track, by ensuring further democratic rights for Turkey’s Kurdish population, including full mother tongue education, further decentralisation, a lower electoral threshold for parties to enter parliament and an ethnically neutral constitution. But the immediate priority is to manage the situation to prevent more casualties and displacement. In the short term, Ankara should create a solid legal basis for further curfews, focusing on practices that limit civilian casualties and human rights abuses, and holding security forces accountable for breaches. It must ensure that human rights violations are addressed by due process, reconstruction does not disenfranchise property owners and tenants displaced by fighting, and those who wish to can return to their homes.

Both Ankara and the PKK say the psychological fault lines of the conflict and the loyalties of the predominantly Kurdish citizens in the south east have shifted decisively in their favour. The state argues that the PKK’s shift to urban warfare has enraged once sympathetic residents. The PKK argues that the use of heavy weapons in towns and cities provokes a region-wide backlash against Ankara. Crisis Group research in Diyarbakır, the largest city in Turkey’s majority Kurdish heartland, shows, however, that neither side has markedly shifted civilian sentiments over the three-decade-old conflict. This briefing presents a snapshot of that research. Reflecting perspectives of officials, NGOs, municipality representatives, lawyers and displaced individuals, most of whom were not willing to be identified, it aims to draw attention to the increasing human costs of the confrontation by analysing recent conflict dynamics in the Sur district.

Diyarbakır/Istanbul/Brussels, 17 March 2016

Helping Civilians in Ukraine’s Eastern Donbas Region

While Ukraine’s territorial integrity remains compromised, every effort must be made to improve the plight of residents in the eastern Donbas region. In this excerpt from our Watch List 2018 annual early-warning update for European policy makers, Crisis Group advises the EU and its member states to provide these citizens with funds for compensation and encourage Kyiv to pass legislation that restores residents’ pension payments.  

This commentary is part of our Watch List 2018 – Third Update.

With presidential elections scheduled for March 2019 and parliamentary elections to follow later that year, Ukraine is entering a period of jockeying and recrimination among its political elite. Prospects for improving the plight of more than six million residents of the eastern Donbas region caught up in the war between Kyiv’s forces and Russia-backed separatists – requiring policies long stymied by Kyiv’s general reservations toward those citizens – appear gloomy. Yet Ukraine’s international partners should urge Kyiv not to view forthcoming elections as an excuse for inaction. The government should take long overdue steps to ease the suffering of the conflict’s victims, which are vital to the eventual reintegration of those areas into Ukraine. In this context, the European Union (EU) and its member states should:

  • Encourage the Ukrainian government to pass legislation that restores pension payments to residents of conflict-affected areas, irrespective of their status as internally displaced persons (IDPs). Currently only those registered as IDPs are entitled to such payments, and maintaining IDP status is burdensome or impossible for many pensioners.
     
  • Provide resources for a government fund to compensate citizens for property lost during fighting or expropriated by the Ukrainian military over the past few years.
     

Though Ukraine’s parliament has been considering draft legislation on these issues for months, officials warn that its passage is unlikely before elections. The current government sees little gain in prioritising the needs of citizens who in many cases cannot vote and are unlikely to vote for the ruling party if they could. Many staunch supporters of Ukraine’s fight with Russia, who can vote, question the loyalty of citizens in occupied areas to the state. But failing to address humanitarian issues carries significant risk. In a time-sensitive battle to win hearts and minds of conflict-affected citizens, inaction erodes Kyiv’s chances for eventually reintegrating peacefully areas currently outside its control. If Poroshenko does win re-election, he may find his 2014 pledge to end the war and bring Donbas back to Ukraine, which helped propel him to the presidency, increasingly out of reach.

The country’s Supreme Court ruled that the government’s practice since 2015 of withholding pensions for hundreds of thousands of Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs) was illegal.

The EU also has a crucial interest in ensuring that Kyiv tackle humanitarian challenges now. Many of the most vocal advocates for citizens who have borne the brunt of the Donbas conflict are Eurosceptic politicians and their parties, including Opposition Bloc and Za Zhyttya. In contrast, the Ukrainian leaders most dedicated to EU integration, including members of the ruling coalition and the Samopomich party, are more ambivalent and sometimes overtly hostile toward these citizens. This dynamic has contributed to a perception among some Ukrainians that EU integration is an elitist project, conceived without regard for society’s most vulnerable, including the disproportionately elderly and female population in conflict-affected areas. The EU should encourage Poroshenko and his ruling coalition to break the populist Eurosceptic monopoly on calling for policies that care for those citizens.

The EU and its member states also have an opening to press Kyiv on pension provision. In September, the country’s Supreme Court ruled that the government’s practice since 2015 of withholding pensions for hundreds of thousands of IDPs (on the grounds that they had either failed to register as such or because they had returned to their homes in occupied territory) was illegal. The decision compels Kyiv to enact legislation decoupling pension eligibility for citizens from areas outside government control from their IDP status. That step would allow all pension-age citizens from these areas to receive payments on government-controlled territory, or at their homes in uncontrolled areas with the help of aid workers.

Members of the ruling coalition resist such legislation, in violation of the Supreme Court verdict. This means those wishing to reinstate their pensions can only do so through the courts, although the verdict is expected to expedite their cases. Government sources attribute Kyiv’s resistance to a mix of budgetary shortfalls, reluctance to prioritise people living in occupied territory, and fear of politically or financially risky moves ahead of elections. While the EU and some member states have lobbied the government for better pension provision in the past, they now have Ukrainian law on their side. They should emphasise the long-term economic and political costs: according to legal experts, state inaction could result in challenges at the European Court of Human Rights where plaintiffs would win most cases and whose verdicts would likely award damages.

Providing compensation for property damaged in fighting or appropriated by the Ukrainian military is another area where the EU could have a positive impact. Over 40,000 private properties have been destroyed or damaged during the conflict, but the government has yet to establish a legal procedure for compensation, with officials pointing to lack of funds. Many argue that Kyiv will eventually seek to compel Russia to pay these costs by resorting to international courts. Yet that process would take years, if it happens at all, leaving thousands of citizens unable to start new lives in the meantime. As with the pension issue, victims of property loss could take cases to the European Court of Human Rights, which would cost Kyiv more in the long term.

The EU could consider providing funds to a state compensation pool on the condition that lawmakers pass pending legislation. This measure could help thousands of Ukrainians avoid poverty and aid dependency. It would also be a useful signal to Kyiv that its international backers are ready to help it govern all its citizens to the best of its ability, even while its territorial integrity remains compromised.