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An international delegation comprised of 150 politicians, academics, activists and journalists from across Europe intended to travel to the Kurdistan Region of Iraq this week to document Turkey’s military incursion and contribute to dialogue between different Kurdish political actors. Instead, they have faced severe repression, both from the leading KDP party – which despite its official condemnation of Turkey’s breach of the region’s sovereignty, maintains strong economic ties with its northern neighbor – and from delegates’ home governments.
As described by a member of the delegation who wishes to remain anonymous: “We came here to break the international silence around Turkey’s ecocidal and genocidal invasion of the Kurdistan Region of Iraq.” Instead, around 40 of the delegates were detained or deported on arrival at the region’s Erbil International Airport, including prominent Dutch journalist Frederike Geerdink. A further 27 were prevented by the German government from departing Düsseldorf Airport, among them the co-chair of Die Linke and member of parliament in Hamburg, Cansu Özdemir.
Turkey’s ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) is already well-known for its repression of politicians, academics, activists, journalists and lawyers who dare to challenge it. Indeed, 108 members of the leftist Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) – the third largest party in Turkey, with its roots in the Kurdish movement – are currently on trial, facing life imprisonment for protesting about Turkey’s lack of action against Islamic State during the siege of Kobani. Many thousands of HDP members have been arrested over the past years, and the party is currently victim of attempts by the Turkish state to close it down entirely. But to see the AKP’s stifling of free speech extend into not only the Kurdistan Region of Iraq, but to cooperating European governments, is a worrying development.
This comes at the same time as the NATO Leaders Summit in Brussels, with US President Joe Biden holding a closed-door talk with President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan earlier this week. No official statement has yet been issued by NATO or any European government condemning Turkey’s violations of international law and human rights in the region.
Turkish aggression on the rise
The delegates that did make it to the region’s capital, Erbil, continued to be prevented from conducting their work. As described by the delegate, despite a meeting with the Kurdistan Regional Government’s foreign minister, Safeen Dizayee, about their plans to visit the UN headquarters “to read our formative declaration for the International Initiative to Defend Kurdistan,” they were subsequently blocked from leaving their hotel by at least 30 armed KDP security forces, some of whom remained stationed inside the hotel after the delegation moved to hold their press conference inside.
Many of the political or civil society actors the delegation had scheduled to meet have also been intimidated into withdrawing. The delegate expressed that “it was disappointing that the KDP saw fit to block our attempts. Instead of welcoming our support for the people currently under threat from Turkey, they tried to silence us.”
The delegation made the decision to leave Erbil for the opposition PUK-controlled city of Sulaymaniyah in the region’s east, where they have so far faced comparatively less repression. They remain committed to raising awareness regionally and back home, of Turkey’s long history of aggression against the Kurds and the international community’s long history of complicity.
In recent years the escalation of Turkey’s occupation of northern Syria following former US President Donald Trump’s decision to withdraw US troops in October 2019, made headlines around the world, but international condemnation was ultimately superficial. Under the guise of fighting YPG/YPJ militants who received support from the US in their fight against Islamic State Turkey has tightened its grip on the region. Human Rights Watch has voiced concerns of ethnic cleansing and has documented the abuse of civilians, with executions and disappeared aid workers characterizing the so-called “safe zone” that was established in the region by Turkey and Turkish-backed Islamist groups. Turkey also interrupted the supply of water to northern Syria, with half a million people already left without safe drinking water amid a global pandemic.
Since April 23, Turkish aggression across the border in the Kurdistan Region of Iraq has also escalated as part of its operations “Claw-Lightning” and “Claw-Thunderbolt.” The stated aim of these operations is to target the Kurdistan Worker’s Party (PKK) who have organized against the Turkish state and operate partly from the Kurdistan Region of Iraq. But as is too common in conflict, civilians are bearing the brunt of this incursion. With Turkey extending its reach in the region, the Kurds and other minorities at large could become increasingly subject to the same repression they already face in south-eastern Turkey and parts of northern Syria.
Recent acts include extensive logging to make way for Turkish checkpoints, with a Kurdish official claiming that some 5,000 acres of forest have already been burnt and the timber sold by Turkey for economic gain, devastating surrounding villages and farms. In the past week alone, Turkish airstrikes killed at least three people in Makhmour Refugee Camp, which is home to thousands of Kurdish refugees who fled Turkish oppression in the 1990s.
The delegation has also traveled to meet with the family members and community of four people killed in another Turkish airstrike earlier this week in the Sulaymaniyah village of Halsho. The delegate explained their intention is to “express our condolences to the community, and to amplify their voices.” The family member of one of those killed expressed that she “wants Kurdistan to be united” and is “begging Kurdish political parties to be united against the Turkish invasion.”
In the meeting, Azad Omer, co-chair of Tavgary Azadi (Movement for a Free Society) in the Sulaymaniyah province, expressed that Kurds in the area have “never occupied any land, we are just defending it.” He went on to say that “we are against any kind of bloodshed in the region. We just want peace.”
The delegate also confirms that the threat posed by Turkey is well-known to other political actors they have managed to meet thus far.
Breaking the silence
The international delegation, which stands firmly “against the colonization of Kurdistan by external states,” has called for “all international humanitarian organizations and political institutions to support a peaceful solution” and for the Turkish state military to withdraw.
This is in stark contrast to the silence of NATO members. There is no doubt that NATO relations require a delicate balancing act. Indeed, Erdoğan has previously threatened to “open the gate” to Europe for the millions of Syrian refugees Turkey hosts – something that the NATO summit communique made sure to thank Turkey for. But the silence of NATO in the face of blatant violations of international law and human rights exposes its priority of maintaining its military alliance over its purported goal of defending values of “individual liberty, democracy, human rights and the rule of law.” Critics of NATO also point to the role of the international arms trade in western governments’ complicity, with Turkey a major customer for both German and UK arms.
The delegate explains that in the days to come they hope to continue compensating for this silence and to “exchange experiences and share ideas of how to bring international pressure to stop the occupation,” and the work will no doubt continue once members return to their home countries. International silence on aggression against the Kurds has had devastating consequences in the past, and if we want to prevent history from repeating itself, we all have a part to play.