In 2014 the UK trade union campaign movement were appalled at the manner in which the Turkish government prevented support for the Kurds crossing their borders during the battle for Kobani against the genocidal intent of ISIS.
The brave Kurdish fighters of the People’s protection units (YPG) and the Women’s protection units (YPJ) were an inspiration to all, especially those in the trade union movement.
Then in 2015 Erdogan failed to gain the absolute majority he wanted in the elections and proceeded to react in an aggressive manner and relaunched the brutal war against the Kurds.
In the aftermath of these events the trade union campaign – Freedom for Öcalan – was launched in 2016 in the UK parliament by UNITE and the GMB. Since then it has grown to have 14 major unions affiliated and is supported by the TUC.
The Turkish government is engaged in a campaign of ‘annihilation’ against the Kurdish opposition and submission of the general population. Towns like Cizre, Sur and Sirnak in the south-east of the country have been placed under a military curfew, civilian buildings shelled with heavy weapons, and hundreds of people indiscriminately killed including children and older people. Kurdish politicians, MPs and Mayors, have been arrested and charged with terrorism-related offences simply for speaking out against the violence of the state and calling for a negotiated peace. Women and trade union activists have been terrorised for defending basic human rights. NGOs including women’s’ groups and human rights organisations have been closed down by the authorities. Thousands of workers have been dismissed without recourse to appeal.
It is not only the Kurds who have been targeted by the Turkish government but it is they who have suffered most and their oppression has continued for most of the existence of the modern Turkish state.
For a peaceful democratic solution
Abdullah Öcalan is the recognised leader of the Kurdish movement in Turkey and beyond. He speaks for the Kurdish people’s aspirations for freedom from political and cultural oppression, for democracy and peace.
As the leader of the PKK (Kurdistan Workers’ Party), he was abducted and kidnapped on 15 February 1999 and taken to Turkey. There, he was initially sentenced to death, commuted to a life sentence. Since then he has been detained in mainly continuous solitary confinement on the island prison of Imrali.
From his prison cell, Öcalan has led a campaign for peace and a democratic solution. He has written books explaining his ideas on how democratic peace can be achieved through a process of negotiation. His ‘Road Map to Peace’ has inspired millions of Kurds, in Turkey and beyond, to seek the democratic path to freedom within the existing borders of the country. His call for the guerrillas to withdraw ended the armed conflict in 2013 and introduced a PKK ceasefire and initiated detailed peace negotiations with the state.
This created the space for the democratic progress of the Kurdish movement, including the electoral breakthrough of the People’s Democratic Party (HDP) in building alliances with forces on the Turkish left and civic movements and eventually succeeding in getting 13% of the national vote and 80 elected parliamentarians.
It was this surprise success, and equally the successes of the Kurds in Syria in defeating ISIS, that prompted the Turkish government of President Erdogan’s AKP to launch a violent campaign of intimidation against the PKK, and the Kurdish movement more generally. The Turkish state ignored the activities of ISIS who had carried out mass killings of young socialists in Suruc and trade unionists in Ankara, whilst launching hundreds of bombing raids on PKK bases in northern Iraq (south Kurdistan) and attacks on Kurdish towns in Turkey, arrested HDP activists and instigated the inhumane curfews on whole populations in several towns.
In this context of blatant state terror, the normal democratic processes have been totally set aside. Elected representatives have been denied access to their constituents, journalists have been arrested for doing their job reporting on the atrocities and trade unionists have been harassed and killed whilst communicating with their members.
Support the Kurds
Trade unions in the UK have a long honoured record of standing shoulder to shoulder with the oppressed across the world. From South Africa to Palestine, Nicaragua to Burma, the trade union movement has demonstrated its solidarity and spoke out whenever our own government has denounced freedom movements as terrorists, as it did with the ANC and Nelson Mandela.
Today we must speak out for the Kurds. We must support them in their ongoing struggle against ISIS in Iraq and Syria where the PKK and its allies have been the most successful in fighting them. We must also support the Kurds in Turkey. That means demanding an end to the state violence, for a restoration of peace negotiations, and championing the rights of trade union, civic society organisations, journalists and elected representatives. They must all be allowed to exercise their democratic rights.
It also means supporting the campaign to release Abdullah Öcalan from prison as millions of Kurds have called for. He is their leader, whom they look to for guidance and the person whom they expect to lead negotiations for a peaceful solution. Öcalan has argued not for “separatism” but for democratic reform within Turkey and the wider Middle East. He has long advocated the kind of democratic, secular and gender-equal society that his followers in Rojava/Northern Syria have actually implemented.