WKI Kurdish Conflict Resolution Forum

July 29, 1998 - Panel: Conflict Resolution Approaches

Remarks by: Kendal Nezan:   President, Kurdish Institute of Paris   
I would like to make a few introductory remarks to the discussion.

1) There is now a consensus, at least in Europe, that there cannot be peace, security or stability in the Near East without an equitable solution to the Kurdish Question.

The recognition of this fact has been forcibly set out by a "Resolution on the Rights of the Kurdish People" passed almost unanimously on the 12 th June 1992 by the European Parliament, which is the elected and representative institution of the States of the European Union.

In a solemn declaration published on July 3rd 1998 at the end of a conference held in Vienna on "the future of the Kurdish Question for Turkey and its neighbours", representatives of the European Socialist Parties of the member states of the European Union in turn maintained this point of view in stating, I quote "Lasting peace in the Middle Eastern region cannot be established without the Kurdish Question being taken into account". This option is all the more significant to the extent that the Socialists are in office in 11 of the 15 countries of the European Union.

2) What, then, is the nature of this Kurdish Question? What, basically, do the Kurds want? How can this Question be settled? The Kurdish Question is, basically, a question of self determination. The right of peoples to self determination is recognised by the United Nations Charter. This right has been clearly recognised for other populations that are numerically much smaller and having less cultural cohesion or historical antiquity.

The Kurds, in their overwhelming majority, have aspired, at least since the 19th Century, to their own State. And the legitimacy of this aspiration was recognised back in 1918 by the great American President, Woodrow Wilson. In 1920, the Treaty of Sevres gave official international recognition to this legitimacy by proposing the creation of a Kurdish and an Armenian State in the Eastern Provinces of the Beaten Ottoman Empire. As you all know, this Treaty remained a dead letter and was replaced, in 1923, by the Lausanne treaty that formalised the partition of Kurdistan and the creation of Turkey. In 1925, a commission of enquiry of the league of Nations, forerunner of the present United Nations, noted that 7/8 of the inhabitants of the former vilayet of Mossul, which is the present Iraqi Kurdistan, declared themselves in favour of a Kurdish State and rejected their annexation by Iraq. But the British Empire, a colonial power, nevertheless annexed the Kurdish territory to Iraq because, according to London, the Iraqi State it had artificially created would not be viable "without the agricultural and oil resources" of Kurdistan.

Even if all this is past history, it is always useful to recall to underscore the historically and legally well founded basis of Kurdish aspirations. We are talking of a region steeped in history - it is impossible to address, much less to solve, this major political problem without taking the historical dimension into account.

3) The Kurds dream of being independent. The States that administer them dream of assimilating them and making them disappear, as a distinct people, with its own identity and culture. The Kurdish dream is legitimate. An independent Kurdistan, with a vast territory whose area is as great as that of France, endowed with great riches of agriculture, oil and potential for tourism attractions, watered by the tow greatest rivers of Western Asia, the Tigris and the Euphrates, would not only be viable but, in time, very prosperous - a sort of Near Eastern Switzerland. Such a State, with a population of 25 to 30 million would have a greater population than two thirds of the member states of the United Nations. If we were living in an ideal world of Law and Justice, the United Nations Organisation, taking into account the aspirations and sufferings of the Kurdish people, would have organised a referendum in the territories inhabited by the Kurds to allow them freely to determine their own destiny. The Kurdish problem would then have found a just solution which respected Law and Democracy.

Let's stop dreaming and come back to our real, present-day world which, despite some progress in international law, still remains mainly dominated by the law that might is right and where the right of peoples to control their own lives has, in practice, become the right of States to control their people, in the name of the UNO principle on non-intervention in the internal affairs of member states.

A world where populations of a few hundred thousand, endowed with a state of their own, like Malta or Iceland or the Emirates, have their Voice in the concert of Nations while 25 to 30 million Kurds in the Near East, despite their history and their more than a thousand year old culture have no existence or place in international institutions because they don't have a state of their own.

A world which, for example, tolerates the fact that, for the last 24 years, Turkey has been occupying by force a third of Cyprus' territory on the plea of protecting a few tens of thousand Turks and claiming the right to a bi-communal state for them without ever asking Ankara why it doesn't recognise a similar status for its own 15 million Kurds.

A world which, for commercial reasons, has supported one of the worst dictatorships of this century, Saddam Hussein's, while knowing that it was waging a genocidal campaign against the Kurdish population of Iraq.

It is the abysmal gap between the dream of a possible future of independence, peace and prosperity and the present reality of oppression, humiliation and miserable poverty, of being uprooted and deculturised that is at the root of the Kurdish revolts - of all the Kurdish revolts, both armed, spiritual and civil and which explains the extraordinary vitality of Kurdish nationalism throughout this century. Any attempt to find a solution should, in my opinion, take this resilience of the Kurdish spirit into account.

4) The history of the last seven decades teaches us that the Kurdish dream of independence and the program of the States to make the Kurdish disappear as a people are both unrealistic in the present world. The States concerned, despite their use of a vast panoply of military and ideological measures, despite and intensive policy of assimilation and dispersion of the Kurds, of the systematic destruction of Kurdish elites have been unable to eradicate the Kurdish problem - which remains more burning than ever.

In today's world of instant communication, a "global village" where everything is rapidly known everywhere, States cannot envisage carrying through to the end a policy of physical genocide of the Kurds. For their part the Kurds, despite attempts at revolts or bloody armed insurrections have been unable to turn the situation in their favour, and have little likelihood of achieving this in the foreseeable future.

It is essential that, on one side as on the other, they accept this fact, which the Socialist International has summarised in the following terms: "A stable and just solution to the Kurdish question can never be achieved by, military or violent means but only through a political process of dialogue between Kurdish representatives and government authorities as well as between Kurdish organisations".

The European Parliament, in its resolution of June 1992 states firstly that "the doctrine of self determination cannot be applied to the Kurds" because it would require that "the Turkish, Iranian and Iraqi governments, and even those of Syria and Russia, renounce their sovereignty over vast regions (...) with a high proportion of Kurdish inhabitants having strategic importance and, moreover, resources of water and oil that countries of the Middle East are struggling to control". It then added, and I quote : "knowing that it is impossible to comply with Kurdish demands for independence, it would be completely irresponsible of the Community and its member states to encourage such claims. It would, in fact, condemn the Kurds to fresh acts of repression and to an often violent and bloody struggle that they would not be able to win, due to their relatively small numbers, their geographic isolation their cultural, social and political disunity as well as their poverty. Added to this, support for the Kurds arouses the irritation of certain countries with which a great part of the world wishes to maintain good relations because they possess oil deposits as well as critical geopolitical position. The conjunction of all these circumstances thus restrict those who sympathise with the Kurds and all those who are revolted by the perspective of fresh massacres to encourage compromises, however difficult they may be to achieve".(....)

5) Is the only gateway to salvation thus the search for compromises however difficult they may be? But how can we find compromises in the cultures concerned, most of which don't even have a word for compromise? Looking at the Kurdish question as a whole, I would propose, for my part, an approach that, essentially, is the same as that of the European Parliament, of the Socialist International and almost all the states of the European Union namely : "recognition and guarantee of the civil, political and cultural rights of the Kurds within the borders of the existing states through a political process of dialogue between democratically elected Kurdish representatives and government authorities".

In my opinion : Such recognition should include the right for the Kurds to have their own democratic institutions such as regional government and parliament, political parties, trade-unions, schools, universities as well as radio and TV broadcasting, newspapers and publications in Kurdish. I note that because Catalan and Basque peoples in Spain Flemish in Belgium enjoy fully these rights that the risk of separatism is very low in these countries.

In this approach, even if we can hope for some advances in Iraq, the key country, in my view, is Turkey. Firstly because it contains about half of the Kurdish population in the region, because it is a member of a number of Western institutions like NATO and the Council of Europe which are supposed to embody the defense of democratic values and thus, theoretically, is more likely to evolve towards democracy.

Secondly because, as the Iraqi Kurdish experiment shows, Turkey continues to be main politico-diplomatic obstacle to any settlement of the Kurdish problem in neighbouring countries for fear of the impact of that example on its own Kurds. This militantly anti-Kurdish policy has led Ankara to carry out many different forms of co-operation with the dictators of neighbouring countries.

In Turkey itself, apart from an ideologically brainwashed nationalist minority that controls the army, the security forces and a major part of the political caste and the media, that is opposed, ideologically and by loyalty to Attaturk's chauvinistic heritage, to any recognition of Kurdish identity, the vast majority of the Turkish population could, at the end of a serious democratic debate, accept the idea of a wide degree of autonomy for the Kurds. In fact, the principal obstacle to a settlement of the Kurdish problem is the Army which has made the defense of "the unity of the State with its nation and its indivisible territory " its raison d'etre and, may I say, its basic business interest. By constantly agitating the separatist spectre, the Army justifies at once its enormous manpower, its gigantic rearmament program of $150 billion, its tight hold over the political and economic life of the country.

One could, euphemistically, say that there is a dual power system in Turkey : an elected civilian power, responsible for economic management and a military power taking over the internal and external security policies of the country. However, in reality, Turkey is the only soviet-type State in Europe, with an official ideology written into the Constitution, Kemalism, and a National Security Council, dominated by the Armed Forces, which fulfills the function of the Politburo in the former Soviet system. The civilian Prime Minister has no more real power than had Kossigin under Brezhnev.

I have met many Turkish members of parliament, ministers and journalists close to the civil government. In private, they recognise the absurdity of the present policy of refusing to recognise the Kurds, which is ruining the country's economy, cohesion and stability as well as its image abroad. They all say : "we can't do anything, because the army is opposed to any political solution". One day a businessman very close to president Ozal said this to me in confidence : "The President often said to me " I know that to live with the times and become a regional power Turkey must solve the Kurdish question. I would so much love to render this service to my country, but I fear for my head - the Generals have totally closed minds on this subject".

Many people in Turkey are convinced that Mr. Ozal was eliminated because he sought a political settlement of the Kurdish Question.

Among many other cases, a recent example of the military domination was demonstrated in May 1997 when a Kurdo-Turkish peace conference convened in Ankara by local and international NGOs. Al through backed by dozens of Members of Turkish Parliament and by eleven ministers this conference was banned by the office of governor at the request of the Turkish generals. I think this gives an accurate image of the balance of power between military and civilian powers in Turkey.

6) In this context, any meeting organised between representatives of Kurdish and Turkish civil societyies would certainly be useful in putting forward ideas, but the key to the problem lies in the Army's hands. We must look for the ways of engaging the military to convince them that Turkey could be stronger and more respected if it succeeded in finding an answer to the aspirations of the Kurdish part of its population and followed the example post-Franco Spain which granted a wide degree of autonomy to the Catalans and the Basques.

One could also bring out the fact that during the nine centuries of Turco-Kurdish relations the only periods of peace were those when the great Turkish sovereigns gave a great degree of autonomy to the Kurds. in the 12th Century the Seljuk Turkish Sultan, Sanjar had created a vassal province of Kurdistan which included the majority of the Kurds. Similarly Sultan Selim I, after his victory over the Shiite Persians in 1514 signed a pact with his Kurdish allies recognising the sovereignty of about fifteen Kurdish principalities. This pact ensured three centuries of peace between the Kurds and the Turks. Since its abrogation in the 19th Century Kurdo-Turkish relations have been in constant conflict.

7) The only outside power capable of urging to Turks to accept a compromise on the Kurdish Question is the USA. Washington supplies 85% of the arms and equipment of the Turkish Army and is Ankara's politico-diplomatic advocate. Undoubtedly Turkey, because of its geo-political position is an important ally for American policy in Western Asia. In a recent book, Zibigniew Brezinski, former American national security adviser, considered Turkey as "one of the five most important geo-political actors in Eurasia". Even if we admit this postulate, we must not forget that it is the Kurds who inhabit the Eastern regions which give Turkey all its strategic importance, that even the pipe-line linking the Caspian to the Mediterranean must past through Kurdish territory and that Turkey can only realise its potential as a regional power and reliable ally for Washington if it is at peace with its Kurdish, population, if it enjoys a degree of stability and internal cohesion and a genuine democracy. The example of the Shah's Iran, which had the 5th largest Army in the world but was in conflict with a large part of its own population, is still fresh in all our minds. Washington cannot fail to see that the Kurdish conflict has led Turkey to the greatest diplomatic isolation in its history. An isolation which was seen both at the Islamic conference in Teeran and at the European Summit in Luxembourg last December where, despite all the pressure exerted by the Americans, the European Union refused to include Turkey on the list of candidates for admission. We cannot accept at our table a State of torturers, declared the European Union President in office, while the British and German Foreign Ministers called on Ankara to first do its "homework" to democratise its regime and recognise the rights of its Kurdish minority.

To finance "its unwinnable Kurdish war" Turkey is sinking deeper and deeper into a narco-economy which is arousing greater and greater alarm in the European countries and degrades the Turkish regime's image outside. We can and must all consider this question: for how much longer can the Turkish regime survive by banking only on its alliance with the United States and Israel?

In conclusion, I would say that the Kurdish question can only be resolved by a dialogue between elected representatives of the Kurdish people and their neighbours. Nevertheless the friends and allies of these peoples can greatly contribute to this by multiplying the forms of dialogue and by exerting serious pressure on those who stubbornly persist in war and violence by, for example, depriving them of arms liable to be used against civilian populations. Much ground has been covered in this direction in Europe. It is now up to the Americans to persuade their Congress and Government to act seriously in favour of a compromise to settle the Kurdish problem by calling a regional or international conference on this question.