Westminster Hall: Turkey's Treatment of Kurds

Mark responded on behalf of the Government to a Westminster Hall debate called by Lloyd Russell-Moyle MP regarding Kurds in Turkey. Mark's response to the debate is pasted below and you can find the debate in its entirety here.

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The Minister for Asia and the Pacific (Mark Field)

May I first say how grateful I am to the hon. Member for Brighton, Kemptown (Lloyd Russell-Moyle) for securing the debate, and to other hon. Members for their contributions? The Minister for Europe and the Americas, my right hon. Friend the Member for Rutland and Melton (Sir Alan Duncan), cannot be here today and sends his apologies. The fact that I am speaking about Turkey is not a further extension of my duties, but it is a great pleasure to respond on behalf of the Government. I will try to respond to all the points that have been raised; if I fail to do so, I hope that the hon. Member for Brighton, Kemptown will forgive me, and I will respond in writing afterwards.​

We are obviously aware of Imam Sis’s hunger strike in protest at the conditions in which Abdullah Öcalan is being held and related issues. I will go into more detail about the hunger strike later, because it has been raised by a number of hon. Members.

The hon. Member for Brighton, Kemptown also mentioned election outcomes. We note the preliminary conclusions of the Congress of Local and Regional Authorities of the Council of Europe, which monitored Turkey’s local elections, including wins for the HDP in a number of major cities in the south-east. On the one hand, its conclusions welcome the impressive turnout of 84%, calling it a

“sign of healthy democratic interest and awareness.”

However, we also note the deep concerns that were raised about the fairness of the campaigning environment, particularly in relation to the media coverage. We will encourage the Turkish authorities to engage with the recommendations of the full report, which is due in July. As the hon. Gentleman will be aware, recounts are ongoing in Istanbul, and the governing AKP has appealed to the Supreme Electoral Council for a full recount. We must of course await the decision of that council, which may adjudicate on the matter as soon as 13 April. Meanwhile, the CHP candidate for Ankara received his certificate of election from the council on Monday.

I will say a bit more about broader relations with Turkey. It was fair of the hon. Gentleman to recognise in his contribution that Turkey is a vital partner for the UK. Turkey is a long-term member of NATO; it sits on NATO’s southern border, on the frontline of some of the most difficult challenges we face. We work together to counter terrorism, build our prosperity and pursue stability in our neighbourhood, recognising that a lot of these issues are now of global importance. We should also acknowledge that Turkey is hosting some 3.6 million Syrian refugees, at considerable cost.

Of the approximately 83 million Turkish citizens, some 15 million to 18 million are of Kurdish origin. They live in all parts of Turkey, from the traditional Kurdish heartlands of the south-east to the larger cities in the west, with perhaps 3 million in Istanbul alone. There are many Kurds in the Turkish diaspora, including here in the UK, where they make a positive contribution, not just to the UK economy but culturally. I know that the hon. Member for Enfield, Southgate (Bambos Charalambous), who is no longer in his place, recognises the importance of the Turkish diaspora to that part of north London.

It is important not to generalise when we talk about “the Kurds” or their plight. They are a diverse section of society, with a range of political affiliations, lifestyles and outlooks. As Members will be aware, there are also large Kurdish populations in Iraq, Iran and Syria, countries that are all of great strategic importance to the UK. Our approach to the issue of the Kurds in Turkey needs to reflect aspects of that wider context.

We should also not generalise when we talk about the treatment of Kurdish people in Turkey. I absolutely note the concerns that have been expressed in this debate about the policies of the current Turkish Government towards Kurds, and I will try to address some of the issues that have been raised. It is worth remembering that a great many people of Kurdish origin have voted for, and continue to vote for, the AKP Government. ​Indeed, some have served in it—two of Turkey’s most recent Deputy Prime Ministers were of Kurdish origin. All Turks, regardless of their ethnicity or faith, enjoy the same rights under the Turkish constitution, and from 2003 onwards—especially following the 2009 Kurdish opening policy—the AKP did much to end the historical restrictions on the free expression of Kurdish identity in Turkey.

The Turkish Government have always said that their quarrel is not with the Kurds as a whole, but with the specific terrorist groups that threaten the Turkish state. I appreciate that this matter is open to some dispute, both within Turkey and among those in the UK who have an interest in Turkish issues. However, the Turkish state has been locked in a bitter conflict with the Kurdistan Workers’ Party—the PKK—since the 1980s. The PKK is a proscribed terrorist organisation in the UK and throughout much of the world.

Lloyd Russell-Moyle (Brighton, Kemptown) (Lab/Co-op)

Does the Minister recognise that the latest court ruling in Belgium about the PKK’s proscribed status in European law at least opens up a discussion about whether it is still an active terrorist group or has transitioned to more peaceful means?

Mark Field

I understand that. It is worth pointing out that the proscription of organisations is always quite fluid and constantly under review—I see that in my day-to-day brief as Minister for Asia and the Pacific, as well as in the middle east and north Africa.

That tragic conflict has resulted in an estimated 40,000 deaths and the displacement of millions of people in south-east Turkey. An end to that conflict is possible. Between 2013 and 2015, the Turkish Government and the PKK engaged in fruitful negotiations to end it, and a ceasefire was in place for much of that time. Sadly, that ceasefire broke down in July 2015. Since then, according to the International Crisis Group, more than 4,000 people have been killed. That includes more than 400 civilians and more than 1,000 members of the Turkish security forces. I say to hon. Members who have a strong interest in this matter, not least because of the diaspora in their constituencies, that the UK very much hopes that those negotiations can reopen to bring an end to the conflict and prevent further deaths. For that to happen, the PKK must end its campaign of terror, and we urge it to do so.

I note that there are Members from across the House in the Chamber today. There are two Members from Plaid Cymru: the right hon. Member for Dwyfor Meirionnydd (Liz Saville Roberts) and the hon. Member for Ceredigion (Ben Lake)—I am sure I have mispronounced both constituencies.

Jim Shannon (Strangford) (DUP)

You have been practising.

Mark Field

In fact, there are no other English Members here at all. We have the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) from Northern Ireland and the hon. Member for Glasgow South West (Chris Stephens) for the Scottish National party. All have raised the serious situation of the imprisoned PKK leader, Abdullah Öcalan. Naturally, we condemn the PKK’s acts of violence, just as we condemn all forms of terrorism, but we also naturally expect Turkey to respect properly its international obligations regarding the treatments of all prisoners. We are aware that the Council of Europe’s Committee ​for the Prevention of Torture reported on Mr Öcalan’s prison conditions as recently as March 2018. In January, British embassy officials discussed his case, as well as that of hunger-striking prisoners, with Turkish officials.

Hon. Members have raised the issue of hunger strikes by prisoners, including by members of the HDP. Although it is of course distressing to witness any hunger strike—we see evidence of them closer to home, in Newport and elsewhere—the decision to embark on one is a matter for the individual concerned. As I said, we expect Turkey to respect its international obligations with regard to prison conditions, including by ensuring access to appropriate medical treatment.

A number of HDP MPs have been arrested on the basis of their alleged links to the PKK. If those links are proven to be accurate, we urge the HDP to distance itself entirely from the PKK and any terrorist activity. However, we have registered our concern with the Turkish authorities about the very large number of relatively recent detentions, including that of the HDP leader, Selahattin Demirtaş. Our embassy in Ankara, alongside other diplomatic missions, has attempted to observe Mr Demirtaş’s trial hearings. Unfortunately, we have sometimes been prevented from doing so. We urge the Turkish authorities to allow diplomatic missions to observe such trials so that we can understand the evidence on which the charges are based.

Hon. Members raised concerns about the replacement of large numbers of HDP mayors in the south-east of Turkey with state-appointed trustees. President Erdoğan has suggested that the same measures may be taken following last month’s local elections. That decision was taken on the basis that those mayors and their municipalities were allegedly channelling funding and political support to the PKK. Again, if that is the case, we should condemn it unreservedly, but we also expect the Turkish state to undertake any legal processes against locally elected representatives fairly, transparently and with full respect for international law and the rule of law. That is vital not just for the long-term health of Turkish democracy, but increasingly for Turkey’s international reputation.

As hon. Members will know, in 2016 there was an attempt to overthrow the Turkish Government by force. Obviously, we are thankful that the attempt failed, but many innocent civilians were killed. I am proud that the UK Government stood alongside our Turkish allies on that night. The Minister for Europe and the Americas travelled to Turkey as soon as he could to show solidarity. I also accept that aspects of the trauma have allowed more space for other activity. However, the trauma of the attempted coup is still fresh in the Turkish consciousness.

Liz Saville Roberts (Dwyfor Meirionnydd) (PC)

Does the Minister feel personally comfortable that the PKK is aligned with terrorist groups such as ISIS and al-Qaeda on the proscribed list?

Mark Field

As the right hon. Lady will be aware, obviously we have a proscription in place for good reason, but it is not a hit list of acceptability from one organisation to another. Until such time as the PKK denounces violence, it must recognise that it will be regarded as a proscribed organisation in many parts of the world. I would like to see those people who have been actively engaged denounce violence to ensure that they are no longer proscribed and can play a proper and full part in the democratic process. The list does not run ​from A to Z according to some level of acceptability; an organisation is either proscribed or it is not. One might objectively sit back and think, “Certain organisations are more dangerous to our interests than others.” None the less, it is right that rules for proscription are in place.

The Turkish Government have a right and a responsibility to act against the perpetrators of any coup attempt and all who have committed or are planning terrorist acts. However, it is also vital that any and all measures taken are proportionate and in line with Turkey’s democratic principles and freely given human rights obligations. We shall continue to express our concern to Turkey where we believe that is not the case. This includes a number of individual cases, including that of a former Amnesty director, Taner Kılıç, who was released on bail last year. We look forward to the judicial reforms that Turkey’s reform action group is considering and hope they will make a genuine difference to other cases of concern, including those of the civil society patron, Osman Kavala.

We remain concerned at the sheer scale of the response, including the number of civil servants who have been summarily dismissed from their jobs, and especially the number of journalists who have been detained. We believe that a free press is an essential component of a healthy democracy, and I know that the UK’s championing of that will have support across the House with our Defend Media Freedom campaign in 2019, which will culminate in a conference in London on 10 and 11 July with our friends from Canada. In raising these issues, we will never forget the trauma of the coup attempt and the extraordinary security threats that Turkey continues to face on a day-to-day basis. We can see that just by looking at a map of the region.

To conclude, we shall continue to engage with Turkey and other countries that have significant and sizable Kurdish populations on all the issues that have been raised in this important debate. We shall continue to press for lasting solutions that are proportionate, democratic and lawful.