Missing from Turkey’s peace process: memory, truth and justice

The resolution of the Kurdish question is closely linked to both truth and justice for past crimes, but also to ending ongoing state violence against Kurds.

Written by YESIM YAPRAK YILDIZ.  Published April 4, 2015 in OpenDemocracy.

Photo By James Gordon [CC-BY-2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

Photo By James Gordon [CC-BY-2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

“There is no such thing [as the Kurdish question].  Tell me my [Kurdish] friends what is it that you don’t have?” These were the words recently uttered by Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, who has been negotiating a peace deal with the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK – Partiya Karkerên Kurdistan) to bring about a peaceful solution to the country’s long running conflict.

“Our bones are missing; our graves, our lives are missing” was probably the best answer to Erdoğan, given by a member of Saturday Mothers, an initiative formed by the families of the disappeared during the last four decades of Kurdish conflict. “If the President has got any conscience, he would not ridicule us like this. For 20 years we have been gathering in Galatasaray Square for the bones of our children. We, the mothers are dying from longing for our children.”

Truth and justice for atrocities committed against Kurdish civilians during the 30 year-long conflict with the PKK is one of the most crucial things that is missing from the public debate and official discourse in Turkey. Throughout the state of emergency regime in the Kurdish region, gross human rights violations were committed against the Kurds by the security officers and the paramilitary groups. 30,000 – 40,000 people, predominantly Kurds were killed, over a million Kurdish people were forcibly displaced and thousands of them were subject to enforced disappearances and extrajudicial executions.

Despite the severe consequences of the conflict, the need for a truth and reconciliation mechanism has hardly been on the agenda of the government. The current peace negotiations between the government and the PKK will hopefully pave the way for an official reconciliation mechanism, as it is one of the demands of the Kurdish movement. PKK’s imprisoned leader Abdullah Öcalan in his recent statement to the Kurdish people that was read out during the 2015 Newroz celebrations in Diyarbakir reiterated his call for a Truth and Reconciliation Commission. Formation of such an official commission constitutes the second stage in the democratic solution plan, in Öcalan’s ‘The Road Map to Democratization of Turkey’. However, apart from the human rights groups, including Human Rights Association and Saturday Mothers, critical scholars and families and relatives of the victims, this has rarely been the subject of public debate in Turkey.

This comes at no surprise considering the human rights record of Turkey and the systematic oppression of the memories of the past atrocities. Modern Turkey has witnessed a number of violent events and gross human rights violations in the course of establishing a nation-state and a homogeneous national identity. The long list include the Dersim Massacre 1937 – 1938 during which around 40,000 Kurdish Alevis were killed by the Turkish army, three military interventions, the most consequential one being in 1980, and human rights violations against Kurdish civilians during the 1990s when the conflict with the Kurdish armed group PKK was at its peak.

The Armenian Genocide in 1915 and Greek-Turkish population exchange following the 1923 Lausanne Agreement could also be included in this list as they are among the main events extending from the late Ottoman Period to early modern Turkish Republic which formed the very foundations of the Turkish Republic. All these events in modern Turkish history continue to shape the political landscape of Turkey. However Turkey has yet to go through a process of accounting for the past atrocities, as many other countries have done in one way or another after similar events or military interventions.

As the atrocities pile up, the road to reconciliation gets more complicated and challenging. The Roboski Massacre in 2011, during which 34 Kurdish villagers were bombed by the warplanes on a smuggling route has been added to the long list, as yet another atrocity waiting to be brought to light. Continuing state violence and interconnectedness of these atrocities makes it increasingly difficult for Turkey to deal with its past fully and appropriately.

As a general tendency across the world, memories of the periods of repression and political violence emerge especially at times of political change and when there is widespread social pressure. Politics of the past has occupied a significant place in the discourse of the AK Party, as it has been one of the most convenient ways of separating itself from past regimes. While the Kemalist regime has been characterized as having a policy of forgetting, the AK Party government has managed to present itself as a new phase, untainted by the human rights violations in modern Turkish history. Although the government has taken several steps to come to terms with the past, such as the ‘apology’ for the Dersim Massacre and the court case against the generals of the 1980 coup, its limited and piecemeal reforms and continuing human right violations during its rule have shown that the memories of past atrocities have mainly functioned as a useful tool to reinforce its hegemony and to delegitimise the Kemalist regime.

Rather than democratizing the institutions embodying Kemalist – military tutelage and creating mechanisms to address the past crimes, the government uses these very institutions to its own benefit and develops similar control mechanisms.

Not wanting to know

Besides the lack of official appetite for accounting for past crimes, public pressure has also been lacking. The human rights movement and the Kurdish political movement in Turkey have been speaking out about the atrocities against Kurds in 1990s for decades. There are a number of court cases in which high ranking state officials are being prosecuted. There have also been several confessions by state officials assuming responsibility for these atrocities.

Besides this, there has been a rising interest in Turkey’s violent past in the 2000s. In particular the second generation who has gone through the consequences of the traumatic events of, for example, the 1980 coup and the Kurdish conflict, has started paying increasing attention to their personal and collective pasts.

However these developments have not translated into widespread public pressure on the government. This is partly related to the normalisation of state violence in Turkey and the political apathy and cynicism arising from the disbelief in the justice mechanism in Turkey. It is also the consequence of the strategies that the Turkish state has been using to repress the memories of the past, such as denial, criminalisation of the memories of state violence and the official discourse on national security and war on terror that have served to legitimise state violence.

“The past is in the past. Let us look ahead” has been the general official approach to the past in Turkey. And it is possible to see the tendency to suppress the wrongdoings committed against the Kurds even among certain ‘left wing’ groups. The accusations against the Kurdish political movement as being complicit with the government following the beginning of the peace negotiations is just one of the indications of how progressives fail to understand the severe toll that the conflict has taken, particularly on Kurds. Even during the Gezi Park protests in 2013, Kurds were accused of selfishly not taking part in the protests in order to avoid harming their own peace process. There are various reasons for the divide among the left in Turkey, which is beyond the scope of this article. However, such an approach shows very well how the urgent need for peace is being underestimated and jeopardised.

This inability and resistance to facing and accounting for past atrocities stand as the main obstacle to peace and democracy in Turkey. Mobilisation around memory, truth and justice should not be only the priority of the Kurds, Armenians or Alevis, but all political groups fighting for a democratic Turkey. Remembering and commemorating the past is not the solution though. Not all forms of remembering enable one to reconcile with the past. Likewise, there is no unique path to reconciliation in societies with a traumatic past. It can take various forms depending on the social, political and historical conditions. Compensation for past violations, truth and reconciliation commissions, amnesty for prisoners, commemorations, memorials are among different forms of dealing with the past that states can perform.

The best way to work through Turkey’s difficult past and to achieve truth and justice for Turkey’s Kurds will be determined throughout the peace process and with the direct involvement of the Kurds themselves. One of the points made in the concluding remarks of the Democracy and Peace Conference held in October 2014 in Ankara was the need for local committees for this aim: “Truth commissions will be established in local areas where local testimonies will be gathered and reconciliation examples will be discussed and steps will be taken to reveal the truth in different localities”. The formation of such committees could actively engage local people in the process and help to create appropriate mechanisms of reconciliation.

Official reconciliation

It must also be noted that official reconciliation does not always bring justice for the victims. Memory is a contesting scene between survivors of atrocities and the sovereign powers that they confront. While remembrance can take a form of resistance by disrupting the official narratives of the past that silences and represses the memories, if left to being performed by the state, it can also serve the status quo instead. As Jenny Edkins points out, states in their acts of remembrance, with the boundaries strictly defined by themselves, can normalize and discipline trauma and reinstate linear narratives. The AK Party government’s remembrance of the Dersim Massacre, aimed at challenging the main opposition party, has been a good example of official reconstruction of the past in the interests of the certain powers in the present. Such forms of remembering aim at closure of the past, rather than opening it up. That is, instead of questioning the system that gives birth to such state violence, it remembers the past in a way that conforms to the state narrative.

The way the past is remembered or forgotten is crucial and it determines the boundaries of politics and resistance. In post-conflict societies there is a need for “coming to terms with the past” as one cannot live under the shadow of the past. However on the other hand, as Adorno reminds us, there are attempts to write off the past because the past is “highly alive”. Adorno goes on to argue in Critical Models: Interventions and Catchwords, (New York: Columbia University Press), that the past must be remembered as a “constant warning”. For a country to fully reconcile with its violent past, there is a need to address the very political system that has brought about such violations.

That is to say, the resolution of the Kurdish question is closely linked to both truth and justice for past crimes, but also to ending ongoing state violence against Kurds. Such an approach does not deny the specific aspects of dealing with past atrocities, but rather aims to emphasize how the past is still alive in the present. Memory, truth and justice are intertwined, just as past and present are. The struggle is not just over the way the past is remembered and the truth about the past atrocities: it is also a struggle for justice in the present.

About the Author: Yesim Yaprak Yildiz is a doctoral student in the Department of Sociology at the University of Cambridge researching official memory politics in Turkey, especially with regards to the Kurdish question. Yesim also does freelance work as a human rights researcher for the European Roma Rights Centre. She previously worked for UN Women Turkey, Child Soldiers International and Amnesty International.

This article is published under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 3.0 licence.

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