Cllr Matt Nathan gave a Zoom presentation on 11 May 2020 on the Freedom for Öcalan campaign.
Thank you for this invitation. Usually, this would be the busiest time of the year for our campaign. The trade union movement in this country is vital for our work, and we usually would be speaking at TU conferences and events around the country. Of course, this is no longer possible due to the COVID crisis, so it’s valuable to be able to address comrades in this way and I’m personally very grateful for this opportunity.
In this presentation, I hope to be able to give you the necessary background to how and why the campaign began, the history of the Kurdish people and their struggles. Why it’s vital as trade unionists, socialists and internationalists we support them and their just aspirations for liberty. The Freedom for Öcalan campaign was launched in the UK parliament in 2016 by Unite and GMB, and is now supported by 15 national trade unions including the TUC and partner organisations.
Our campaign has two chairs, Unite’s head of international solidarity, Simon Dubbins, and the Labour Peer and former General Secretary of the NUT, Christine Blower. The reason we have two chairs, a man and a woman, is in deference and respect to the Kurdish people’s movement that has ensured that women are at the heart of political and social power by adopting a co-chair system.
The campaign found its genesis as we watched in disgust as ISIS lay siege to Kobane, the majority Kurdish Syrian town very near the Turkish border. Turkey did nothing, in fact worse than nothing: it actively stopped Kurds who were living in Turkey from making the short journey to aid friends, family and neighbours across the border. Later credible reports would suggest that Turkey had gone much farther than this and was actively supporting and arming the so-called Islamic State.
We were again horrified by Turkey’s later aggression against the canton of Afrin in Northern Syria. Sadly, just a precursor to the humanitarian crisis we’re now seeing unfold across the whole border region as a result of the invasion by Turkey, and its jihadist proxies into north and east Syria. As I hope to explain, this belligerence has deep roots in the Turkish political system and its founding doctrine.
The peoples currently threatened by Turkey’s war in Syria, and in Turkey itself, take as their inspiration the politics and writings of Abdullah Öcalan. Öcalan has been imprisoned in horrific conditions for 20 years by the Turkish State in an attempt to stifle aspirations for Kurdish liberation and identity. Öcalan and his freedom are fundamental requirements for a meaningful and democratic peace in the region. All the other issues flow from this one injustice.
The Freedom for Öcalan campaign is part of a long and proud Trade Union tradition of international solidarity. The Trade Union movement victoriously campaigned to free Nelson Mandela in South Africa, the Cuban “Miami 5” and, most recently, Lula in Brazil.
We believe that Öcalan’s release would be as transformative for the Middle East as Mandela’s freedom was for South Africa. It is because of this, our rallying cry has become “Yesterday Mandela today Öcalan”.
The Kurdish question
Before I explain the current circumstances in the region, it is essential first to understand the history of the Kurdish people in the last century.
The Kurdish people are the fourth-largest ethnicity in the Middle East and, arguably, one of the largest stateless populations in the world. There are roughly 40 million Kurds globally, with the majority living in south-eastern Turkey, west and northern Iran, northern Iraq and northern Syria. Their statelessness is often referred to as the “Kurdish question”.
To understand how the Kurds became stateless we have to acknowledge the redrawing of borders by the Western Allies after the collapse of the Ottoman Empire at the end of the First World War. Initially, a Kurdish state formed part of the 1920 Treaty of Sevres. Three years later, however, the Treaty of Lausanne set the boundaries of modern Turkey, leaving the Kurds with minority status in their respective countries, thereby paving the way for a century of persecution.
The Turkish republic’s founding principles were Ethno-nationalist. The very existence of Kurdish identity, culture and language has been brutally repressed by the Turkish State. The use of Kurdish language, dress, folklore and even names was banned, and Kurdish-inhabited areas lived under martial law until 1946. In an attempt to deny their very existence, the Turkish government categorised Kurds as “Mountain Turks” until the 1980s.
State-sanctioned and often perpetrated massacres punctuate Kurdish history in Turkey. One notable example was the Dersim massacre, which took place between 1937-38. The Republic’s army used aerial bombardment and poison gas to put down a rebellion. Thousands were killed and displaced. According to the Dersimi, tribesmen were shot dead after surrendering, and women and children were locked into hay sheds and burned alive.
Kurdish sources record the total killed in this one incident at 40,000.
More recently the Turkish State has used militarised police and collective punishment tactics against entire towns in the predominantly Kurdish Diyarbakir region. It is using a policy of cultural genocide systematically to destroy Kurdish archaeological and cultural sites, echoing ISIS and its vandalism of Syria and Iraq.
Given all this, it’s easy to understand why the Kurdish people have a well-used saying, “We have no friends but the Mountains”.
Oppression in modern-day Turkey
Modern-day Turkey is an increasingly oppressive regime. Since the attempted coup in 2016, “State of emergency” laws are frequently abused to persecute political opponents. Political activists, academics and trade unionists face repression and prison time. The head of the left-wing, pro-Kurdish People’s Democratic Party (HDP), Selahattin Demirtaş, has been imprisoned awaiting trial for spurious terrorism-related charges since 2016, which is typical of Turkey’s treatment of Kurdish politicians. Zehra Doğan, a Kurdish journalist and artist, was sentenced to nearly three years in a Turkish jail for painting a picture of the State’s violence against the aforementioned Diyarbakir region.
In 2018 Erdogan ordered militarised police to shoot tear gas, water cannons and plastic bullets at peaceful protesters in Istanbul, many of whom were women in their 80s, who were peacefully holding a vigil until the State would tell them what had happened to their disappeared children.
Turkey has the dubious honour of being one of the world’s “ten worst countries for workers”, putting it in the same category as Colombia and Guatemala:
- in September 2018 construction workers at the new Istanbul Grand Airport went on strike to protest against dangerous working conditions that had led to 42 deaths. Security forces cracked down on workers and arrested more than 400 and detained 25, including the President of DÍSK (Progressive Union of Construction Workers);
- just a few weeks later Abdullah Karacan, General President of the Rubber and Chemical Workers’ Union was assassinated while visiting union members at a Goodyear factory in the city of Adapazarı.
The Turkish State continues to oppress its Kurdish population, with militarised police using brutal tactics of collective punishment against entire towns in Kurdish regions. Once the Turkish State has perfected strategies to oppress the Kurds, it extends them to trade unionists, socialists, academics and human-rights activists.
The Mandela of The Middle East
Who is Abdullah Öcalan, and how does he fit into this history?
Öcalan is the recognised leader of the Kurdish People’s movement in Turkey and beyond. He has become a symbol for the Kurdish people’s aspirations for freedom from political and cultural oppression and the standard-bearer for democracy and peace.
In 1978, the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) was formed as a national liberation movement to resist the tyranny described above. Abdullah Öcalan quickly emerged as its ideological and political leader. By the 1980s, to most Kurds, Öcalan had become a symbolic figure for Kurdish resistance against the oppression of dictatorships and military regimes, annihilation and genocide. At his urging, women’s freedom became a significant issue within the organisation and also within Kurdish society. By the 1990s, the Kurdish people’s movement was focused not only on Kurdish identity but on gender equality and women’s freedom.
In 1998, while travelling to South Africa at the invitation of Nelson Mandela, a clandestine alliance of secret services, abducted Öcalan and handed him over to the Turkish State. He has subsequently been held in aggravated isolation on Imrali Island in the Sea of Marmara.
Turkish governments have frequently approached Öcalan and recognised his crucial role in the search for a peaceful solution. Even the current Erdoğan government maintained negotiations with him for two-and-a-half years. During that time, Öcalan proposed a step-by-step plan for achieving peace and a permanent political solution to the Kurdish question.
İmralı Island Prison
Since his capture, Öcalan has endured mostly solitary confinement on İmralı island in the Sea of Marmara. He was charged with treason and separatism on 29 June 1999, and sentenced to death by a State Security Court, which consisted of three military judges specially convened on the island to try him.
This arrangement and the subsequent treatment of Öcalan exist outside of Turkeys own legal framework and its international obligations.
The European Court of Human Rights has ruled that Turkey has violated articles 3, 5 and 6 of the European Convention of Human Rights, these are the articles that cover freedom from torture and inhuman or degrading treatment, the right to liberty and security and the right to a fair trial. His imprisonment and isolation also contravene the UN-mandated “Mandela Rules” for the ethical treatment of prisoners; in addition, The Council of Europe’s Committee for the Prevention of Torture has expressed serious concerns about his lack of contact with the outside world.
From July 2011 until December 2017 his lawyers filed more than 700 appeals for visits. Every request was either ignored or rejected, often on spurious grounds.
The confinement of Öcalan is as much about trying to isolate his ideas as it is about separating the man. It is an attempt to bury his ideology of peace, democracy and liberation.
The Women’s Revolution
The ideas of Öcalan, many of which he used to articulate and develop his written defence, are currently being put into practise in a bold, radical experiment in grassroots democracy in Northern Syria. In the wake of the Syrian Civil War, the Syrian authorities pulled out of the majority Kurdish North Eastern region in 2012, and this created a space for Ocalan’s idea to be implemented.
Into this vacuum, the Kurdish community and its allies have been able to put into practice the political philosophy of Abdullah Öcalan. They have built a functioning democratic, pluralist and feminist society in Rojava, the Kurdish name for Western Kurdistan. This vision of a better world, that they call Democratic Confederalism, is now threatened by the Turkish invasion and the machinations of Trump, Assad and Putin.
This progressive society built by the Kurds is unique in a region where the oppression of women has been rife for thousands of years. The Kurdish regional government, or Autonomous Area of North and East Syria(AANES), has more women participating in it as elected politicians, committee members, chairs and council members than either the US or the UK.
This high level of political emancipation and involvement, combined with the now-famous Women’s Protection Units (YPJ) who were on the frontlines defending Rojava against ISIS, has meant this flourishing democratic society has earned the title of the “Women’s Revolution”.
The military wing of this project, the Syrian Democratic Forces, has acted as the ground force in the fight against ISIS and has sacrificed more than anyone to defeat and contain them, losing 11,000 women and men in combat.
The fascism of Turkey, which regards this project as an existential threat, used Jihadi mercenaries to invade Afrin in 2016 and more recently, after being permitted by Donald Trump, hopes to complete the project by remaking the demographics of the region with a full invasion.
The first action of Turkey’s so-called “Operation Peace Spring” was to rescue ISIS fighters by bombing the prison camps, in which they had been contained in admirably humanitarian conditions by the SDF. The military actions of Turkey and its proxies resulted in a humanitarian catastrophe as hundreds of thousands of civilians attempted to flee the region.
Turkey has used banned white phosphorus bombs on civilians, causing horrific burns, its Jihadists have summarily executed countless civilians, including the Kurdish politician Hevrin Khalaf, and in this chaos we now face the resurgence of ISIS.
Finally, and just as Covid-19 began to affect the region, Turkey attacked the Allouk water station. Allouk supplies water and electricity to half a million people trying to cope with a global pandemic in a war zone. Using water supply as a weapon of war against civilians is a war crime.
Why Freedom for Öcalan?
Öcalan is the fulcrum around which politics in the region move.
If we want allies that believe in democracy, pluralism and the liberation of all people; if we want peace; if we want justice; then we have to work with the Kurdish people’s movement and their leader Abdullah Öcalan. The values of Öcalan and his followers are our values. They are the values of the trade union movement, and if an injury to one is an injury to all, his followers desperately need our support.
Öcalan has repeatedly and unilaterally called for peace in the region and has a detailed, practical, deliverable strategy to achieve this. It is a testament to his unique position and authority that the Turkish regime has secretly carried out negotiations with him based on this strategy. During the negotiations, our allies in the country told us calm and hope had returned to Turkey. Erdogan, however, abandoned this strategy of peace and returned to repression and State violence when he realised that this path was unpopular with his far-right racist base.
It is nothing short of remarkable that a functioning society, which is inclusive of all people and has the enfranchisement of women at its centre, exists in northern Syria. Without Öcalan, this couldn’t have happened.
We can allow dictatorship and division to swallow the region again or we can build on our legacy of solidarity with Columbia, Palestine and Mandela, and support a progressive, peaceful project in an area that has known only chaos, sectarianism and death.
This project benefits not only the Kurds but also Arabs, Turkmen, Chaldeans and countless others who have lived in the area. I believe that the strength and power of this pluralism are clear from the words of an Arab Tribal leader who lives this democracy. I can think of few individuals who benefit more from patriarchy. Asked by a French journalist if he could speak on behalf of Arabs on Rojava Öcalan said: “I cannot speak for all Arabs because I do not represent all Arabs, but I can speak for humanity. The Women’s Revolution must be defended.”
The importance of being a Trade Union campaign
The Labour movement has a great and proud tradition of international solidarity, and in educating and mobilising millions of workers.
It played a critical role in making the calls to release Nelson Mandela mainstream, and we need it now to gain justice for the Mandela of the Middle East.
What does your support mean?
Through the support of our Trade Union affiliates, we’ve been able to resist and counteract the lobbying of the Turkish embassy, which has tried to block us on multiple occasions, including a cultural event at City Hall London.
We’ve successfully lobbied governments, such as the Welsh assembly and Holyrood, as well as supported the activities of the Labour Party Chair of the All-party Parliamentary Group on North-East Syria, Lloyd Russell-Moyle. It’s given us the support we needed to get a motion calling for all trade unions to affiliate to, and support, our campaign passed unanimously at the 2017 TUC congress.
We’ve been able to send cross-party delegations to Turkey and Rojava to gain vital on-the-ground knowledge and understanding. We’ve had a significant presence at important Trade Union events, such as the Durham Miners’ Gala, which in 2018 gave us the honour of being the international solidarity theme. At last year’s Tolpuddle Martyrs’ festival we not only held a packed discussion, but had a main-stage speaker and the largest most well-organised block for the march itself. At the 2019 TUC Congress, we were able to organise an incredible solidarity action that moved the Kurdish community around the world.
Finally, the support of the Trade Union and Labour movements enables us to present at meetings across the country so that we can grow and build our campaign.
How can you help?
Encourage your unions to affiliate at a national, regional and branch level and, if you’re able to, affiliate yourself as an individual supporter.
Please, use your channels to promote your support for our campaign on Twitter: even a tweet that you tag us in goes a very long way in encouraging others to do the same.
Sign up to our newsletter so that we can send you monthly updates on campaign news and current events.
The Labour movement must speak out for the Kurds. We must support them in their ongoing struggle against ISIS in Iraq and Syria. 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 unions, civil society organisations, journalists and elected representatives. They must all be allowed to exercise their democratic rights.
If the Kurdish people believe that their only friends are the mountains then, comrades, it is our responsibility to be the mountains.