Where will you be when Turkey murders democracy? – a letter to all democrats

With democracy under attack across the globe, the long brutal asphyxiation of the only party that opposes Turkish ethnic nationalism can slip under the political radar. But it is of vital importance to over eighty million people who live in the country, to the future of the wider middle east, and to democracy itself. Every unopposed attack on democracy in one part of the world provides succor to its attackers elsewhere. This letter is a call to all politicians who claim to care about democracy. It asks them give their support to the Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) in what is becoming an increasingly desperate struggle to salvage any remnant of democratic process in Turkey and any hope of a peaceful solution to the Kurdish Question.

If you live in Turkey, or are a Kurd, every day is bringing bitter news, but yesterday was especially harsh. Yesterday’s attack began when the Turkish Parliament agreed to remove HDP MP Ömer Faruk Gergerlioğlu from his elected position and allow him to be imprisoned. His official ‘crime’ consisted of sharing a tweet calling for peace, but, as a dedicated campaigner for human rights, he has long been in the government’s sights (see here). Then, not long afterwards, as Gergerlioğlu and fellow HDP MPs began a sit-in protest in the Parliament to resist his imprisonment, news came that the Chief Public Prosecutor of the Court of Cassation has filed a lawsuit with the Constitutional Court to ban the HDP altogether, and to prevent 687 HDP members from taking part in political activity for five years. As there is no longer any meaningful separation between the government and the judiciary, prospects are not good.

While the banning of pro-Kurdish parties has a long history in Turkey, this should have been a sensitive issue for the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) as they faced an attempted closure case themselves in 2008, but an HDP ban has long been a demand of their ultra-right allies in the Nationalist Movement Party (MHP). The virulence of the attack on the HDP is a product not of government strength, but of weakness. In the last local elections, the AKP lost control of the major cities, and economic difficulties (predating but boosted by the pandemic) have created uncertainty and high inflation and lost them popular support. Simply, they cannot count on winning elections by fair democratic means, and so are resorting to foul.

A total ban would be the culmination of years of increasingly oppressive attacks on the HDP, especially since they broke the 10% election threshold to deny the AKP a majority in the June 2015 General Election.  Today, thousands of HDP members are behind bars, including MPs, mayors and the former co-chairs, Selahattin Demirtaş and Figen Yüksekdağ. When Demirtaş’s case was looked at by the European Court of Human Rights in December they ruled for his immediate release, but Turkey, though bound to obey the court as a member of the Council of Europe, refused to comply. Demirtaş and Yüksekdağ, along with 106 other leading members of the HDP, are facing court cases for calling people to protest against the ISIS siege of Kobanê in 2014 and against the Turkish government’s refusal to act against ISIS or allow Kurds to cross the border into Syria to support the defence. The demonstrations were brutally attacked by Turkish state security forces leaving tens of people dead, and, in the twisted logic of Turkey’s politicised ‘justice’ system, some of these HDP leaders are also being accused of their murder, as well as the usual charges of attacking the state and terrorism, and could be looking at a life sentence without parole. President Erdoğan’s recent announcement of a Human Rights Action Plan insults the intelligence of anyone he hopes to persuade.

The HDP are the conscience of Turkey. Their elected members represent millions of voters. They have provided the only parliamentary opposition to Turkey’s wars of aggression, and they carry the hopes of all those oppressed by the current system, especially women and ethnic minorities. Notably, they also carry the hopes for a peaceful solution to the Kurdish Question. The Turkish government refuses to draw a distinction between the HDP, which acts within the norms of parliamentary democracy, and the PKK guerillas, who they regard as a mortal enemy, but in closing off all possibility for the Kurds to achieve their rights through democratic and peaceful means they are effectively acting as recruiters for the PKK.  Although the PKK themselves have repeatedly shown their willingness to work out a peaceful solution, this requires a corresponding willingness to negotiate on the government’s side, and this government only understands the language of war.

The Turkish government has been able to act so brazenly because up until now it has suffered very few consequences for its breaches of internationally accepted norms, but they are not invulnerable. Erdoğan has toned down his anti-European rhetoric and made announcements about human rights because international relations can make a real difference to him, especially relations with Turkey’s major trading partners, and especially now that Turkey’s economy is distinctly wobbly. While some European politicians seem to be waking up to what is happening, and the US government has declared that they are ‘monitoring’ Turkey’s actions, we are still a long way from the anger and action that these events deserve.

The HDP have called for international support, and everyone who speaks out can help build the momentum needed to turn words into action, and to make it that much harder for governments such as Boris Johnson’s Tories to disregard Turkish politics when pursuing trade or other deals.

An attack on democracy somewhere is an attack on democracy everywhere.


The picture shows Ömer Faruk Gergerlioğlu (centre) and fellow HDP MPs protesting his exclusion from parliament (Mezopotamya News Agency)


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Comments (19)

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  1. Tom Ultuous says:

    Thanks for that Sarah. It was sick the way the US used the Kurds against ISIS only to abandon them at the first convenient moment. John Hume once said of Thatcher “she was the best recruiting sergeant the IRA ever had”. Erdogan sounds as if he’s made from the same mould.

  2. John Learmonth says:

    So when inevitably Turkey becomes an Islamic republic what exactly should the democracies (i.e the West) do about it and is it any of our business?
    Military action at one extreme or writing letters to The Guardian at the other.
    Tragic from a democrats perspective but the majority of the Turkish people take their guidance from God/Allah and whatever God/Allah may be, one things for sure He’s no democrat.
    The problems of Turkey are for the peoples of Turkey to sort out, its none of our business.
    If only the Byzantines had managed to drive back the forces of Islam…….

    1. Sarah Glynn says:

      Turkey is very much other nations ‘business’ because they rely on trade with other nations. In fact they have a preferential trading agreement with the UK, and the UK also sells Turkey arms. They are a member of the Council of Europe, which primarily exists to promote human rights and democracy, and they get millions of Euros from them to strengthen democratic structures(!) while they are refusing to abide by the rulings of the International Court of Human Rights. So there are plenty of things that can be done without going down the route of military intervention, which I am NOT calling for. Would you also have advised it was pointless to campaign against apartheid? Here are some ideas I gave in the second article I link to in my article above:

      Politicians won’t act unless they feel pressure from below – from the people whose support they need to stay in power. But what should “we the people” be demanding that they do?

      The most obvious demand must be a block on all arms sales to Turkey, including on replacement parts for servicing earlier purchases. A country that sells weapons to a known aggressor is morally responsible for how those weapons are used.

      It should also be obvious that governments need to reject Turkish demands for extradition, that they should take seriously applications for refugee status by people from Turkey seeking political asylum, and that they should not succumb to pressure to restrict protest against the Turkish government.

      Then there are economic measures. Sanctions can be a blunt weapon that governments can deflect onto their most vulnerable citizens, but they can also be targeted to hit political leaders and companies complicit in human rights abuses. In addition, European countries are important trading partners for Turkey, which gives them leverage if they choose to use it. That Turkey continues to be given preferential trade deals runs counter to any hopes for a more ethical foreign policy. They have preferential arrangements with the EU, and the UK government has not only matched these, but also allowed scope for further concessions. The British Trade Union Congress has called for this last deal to be put on hold (specifically with reference to workers’ rights), but their call needs wider political support.

      When it comes to international diplomacy, our politicians should not allow Turkey to exclude the Kurds from determining their own future – as in the unproductive Geneva talks on a future constitution for Syria, or the agreement on the future of Șengal (Sinjar), made over the heads of the Yazidis who live there.

      And, if our politicians really want to see a peaceful future in the Middle East, they should support the demand for Turkey to negotiate with imprisoned Kurdish leader, Abdullah Öcalan, and ask themselves why they have allowed the Turkish government to decide who they treat as terrorists. A leaked Dutch counter-terrorism report recently expressed concern that the Turkish government was encouraging the growth of an ultra-conservative and sometimes violent Islamism among the Turkish diaspora. Meanwhile, Ocalan and the PKK have repeatedly called for the resumption of peace negotiations. Yet, in deference to Turkey, it is the PKK that is on the terrorist lists. Of course, if peace talks were resumed the Kurds would have to be confident that, this time, the Turkish Government was acting in good faith; and if the HDP again helped to facilitate discussions, as they did in 2013-2015, that should not, as now, be used as evidence against them. Today, few international politicians like to talk about their past criminalisation of Nelson Mandela. Those of us who are looking for a road to peace in the Middle East imagine that one day the same will be true for Öcalan.

      1. Pub Bore says:

        I think what John’s asking (rhetorically) is why should we in Scotland care. Why should what’s going on in Turkey and its sphere of influence prick our consciences?

        It’s the observe side of Independence. What right or obligation do we interfere in other peoples affairs? Is that interference not just another instance of Western imperialism, colonising another culture with our own values? How would we like it if those others came and told us how we should run our affairs?

        1. Sarah Glynn says:

          It’s called international solidarity, which is all that the people being oppressed are asking for. Also, as I’ve explained above, the UK is already complicit in what is happening in Turkey. There is all the difference in the world between the sort of solidarity shown in the anti-apartheid movement and colonial intervention. The Kurds are also demonstrating through the practical application of grassroots democracy that another sort of world is possible and providing real inspiration to people everywhere – solidarity is a two way street

          1. John Learmonth says:

            The apartheid regime was overthrown by the people of South Africa not by the western ‘anti apartheid’movement.
            Erdogan (i’m no fan) is a democratically elected politician with majority support in Turkey and if ‘we’ i.e the west decide to undermine his regime he will quite rightly cry ‘western imperialism’.
            I don’t believe anybody has the right to interfere with the internal affairs of other countries, its up to the people of those countries to sort out their own problems as foreign intervention even from the best of motives invariably makes things worse.
            How would we react if the Turkish govt decided to get involved in Scottish Independence?
            They wouldn’t as its nothing to do with them, so why are you so bothered about Turkey?
            I hope the people of the region can sort out their own problems and I wish them well but the role of the West as the worlds policeman sorting out the ‘natives’ is over for better of for worse.

          2. Pub Bore says:

            “I don’t believe anybody has the right to interfere with the internal affairs of other countries, its up to the people of those countries to sort out their own problems as foreign intervention even from the best of motives invariably makes things worse.”

            Then perhaps this principle you espouse could be the basis for some modest support for the Kurds, who are being denied the opportunity to sort out their own problems by Turkish interference in the governance of their public affairs; even if it’s just to question the right of the Turks to so interfere.

        2. John Learmonth says:

          The oppressed Kurds?
          Are these the same Kurds who were willing participants in the genocide of the Armenians and the ‘indigenous Greeks’ who long predate both the Turks and Kurds in living in the country known today as Turkey?

          1. Rich says:

            I really wish John would get his history in perspective and get away from the anti-Islamic thing . Erdogan is in power because the ever-cheated rural population , representing more recent urban influx , have partaken in elections and gone out and voted for the party that directly offered them any hope of improvement of conditions. Of course , they have been a while in realising that Erdogan has had to rely on a new set of robber-politicians and that they are back at square one – thus his wavering support after so many years of failure .
            The Kurdish ‘problem’ was one set for Turkey , Iran , Iraq and Syria by the British in the wake of WW1 , most especially it was a problem for the Kurds who , despite being a nation unto themselves , were deemed by the British to be that potentially powerful that they had to be emasculated by being split into four adjoining ‘national’ administrations . Anyone with an eye and an ear has seen the way the Kurdish populations in Turkey , Iraq and Syria have been ‘used and abused’ , the news of their treatment in Iran has yet to reach our very selective MSM .
            The comments by John and Pub remind me very much of Chamberlain’s weasel-words regarding Checko-Slovakia as Hitler was signalling is intentions – forgive me if I am not word-pefect but it went with the idea of Britain standing on the touchlines because it was “a farwaway country of which we knew little and cared less”. But we live in a very interconnected world and Turkey is very much part of the European economy and as dependent on it as it is on Turkey .
            Turkey has historically depended on ‘strong leadership’ not dissimilar to many other Middle Eastern countries whose history has been threatened and destabilised by ‘The West’ . Perhaps if Europe had accepted Turkey into its feeding trough earlier then the present scenario would be very different – prosperity breed democracy (let’s not mention Russia here – hey ?) . Europe has a duty to the aspiring humanity on its borders , we are all stronger and better-off together rather than split off and governed by tyrants and state police – but it’s maybe too late now for Turkey (and Russia) .
            Turkey has for many years been duplicitous about harbouring , aiding and abetting the extremist islamic anti-Assad armies in Syria (on behalf of ‘the West , Israel , Gulf anti-Iranian States ..read Sunni/Salafi..)- all this border zone , enclaves , anti-Kurd , ‘no-fly’ stuff , supposedly facing off to the Russians but not . They are now very busy (as the Russians are) fuelling the war in the recently de-stabilised Lybia on behalf of one side of the phoney Gulf States divide (supplying mercenaries and equipment . intelligence and deniability) . Turkey is also weaponising Cyprus and original indigenous population (now augmented by significant mainland plantation) in the disputation of the oil exploration/rights in the eastern Med in which Israel is courting Greece and the post ‘Arab Spring ‘ Egyptian military coup junta .
            Ethnic Turks range from the Caucasus to the Altai , they are the Uighurs , Georgians and Abkhazians , Chechens , Uzbeks . Turkey is next o Europe and might have been part of it a long time ago . At one point Europe might have been Turkish ! It’s not too long a long way from Poitiers to Salzburg in the greater gist of history .
            So please don’t indulge in the wishful thinking that this is a million miles away – your washing machines and freezers come from there , Turkey makes Transit vans as well – but they also make the cheap drones they road-tested to great effect in Azerbaijan/Armenia (think here of Guernica) which the British have now decided to emulate . Turkey is expanding its influence by being the hidden hand of any international masters who allow them to entrench their power not just internationally but , by default . domestically as well .
            The original article is spot on but has too narrow a focus -Turkey is not democratic , probably has never been . A rent-a-mob lynched the first liberal Prime Minister more than half a century ago . Politicians enrich themselves – it has ever been the history – saints get crucified and the real business of power is handled by a balance of public figures , criminals , shadowy figures and deniable ones . Elections only legitimise the process and decide who will be the more enriched.
            Quite honestly this has to be the way most state business gets done – even in the UK . Look at the self-enrichment available to the political coterie afforded by an emergency public purse and the Covid bug . Try to challenge oppression and meet Pritti Patel , look for answers and ask Boris , look for coherent opposition .
            Look for independence and meet the dirty tricks brigade . Are we as a population really that much better off ? Are we the ones to pronounce ? Maybe as individuals we can state a wish-list , but please don’t expect much from our politicians , wherever they are , because they are all pretty well complicit in their own flavour of shit .

          2. Tom Ultuous says:

            Great comment Rich.

          3. Well said Rich – Sarah has first hand experience of the regime and its great to have foriegn correspondents for Bella. The repression of the Kurdish people is a travesty, about which we will have a lot more in the coming weeks.

          4. Pub Bore says:

            I don’t disagree with any of this, Rich. But the question John raises remains: by what right may one nation interfere in the affairs of another sovereign nation; that is, in another’s independence. Sarah believes this right is given as a moral obligation to relieve the oppression of that nation’s minority communities; Sleeping Dog believes it’s given as a legal obligation by membership of the UN’s Security Council; John himself clearly believes no nation has any such right.

            My questions are (boringly) evaluative: what’s the justification for each of those beliefs, and which of these arguments is the most coherent.

          5. John Learmonth says:

            You correctly point out that a lot of the problems of the region are due to western interference……..and your solution?
            More Western interference.
            The road to hell is paved with good intentions.

  3. SleepingDog says:

    Plus, of course, the UK keeps a permanent seat on the United Nations Security Council. This imposes a special duty on the UK to protect human rights, to uphold international law, to intervene to reduce human suffering, to defend human dignity and so on worldwide.
    If the UK is not interested in doing so, it should resign its seat.

    Although interestingly the UN Democracy Day link directs today to a blank page.

    1. Pub Bore says:

      That’s one hell of an imposition!

      Perhaps it’s only aspirational on the part of the UN, which – surely – was founded on hope rather than expectation.

      1. Pub Bore says:

        Mind you, in Chapter 5 of the UN Charter, which sets out the function of the Security Council, no reference is made to protecting human rights, upholding international law, intervening to reduce human suffering, defending human dignity, and so on, worldwide, but limits it solely to promoting ‘the establishment and maintenance of international peace and security with the least diversion for armaments of the world’s human and economic resources’. (https://www.un.org/en/about-us/un-charter/chapter-5)

        The role of the UK as a member of the Security Council is to help resolve disputes between UN members; our membership does not give us leave to intervene in another country’s internal affairs, which would be an attack on the sovereignty of that other country and, as such, a threat to the peace and security between nations we’re charged with upholding.

        1. Rich says:

          (After finishing) I must apologise here – same as last time , I meant to be more succinct but these things have a life of their own once they are teased out.
          Without having been given a chance to respond to questioning after my comments above , I will take this slot to deal with the issue of what gives anybody a right to interfere in the ‘national destiny’ (for want of a better phrase) of supposed ‘others’ . We are all one – we feel for others or we are not human .
          I think it is a bit rich for ‘us’ in the present UK to be discussing this . The UK has taken it on itself for many years past to impose its will on countless human beings all over this planet – wasn’t 1/4 of humanity coloured pink on the globe at some point ?
          Historical apologists have proposed we were ‘advancing civilisation’ or ‘spreading the Word’ two centuries ago , that we were stopping worse happening one century ago , and more recently the excuses have gotten more fraught as Britain’s power has been overtaken .
          Power gives the opportunity but not the right . By the nature of the language in which it is couched nobody has the right to ‘interfere’ with anything anywhere .But also into this has to be brought the consideration of the question of quite which global police does one call on to deal with the equivalent of domestic abuse (yes please – read violence against the weaker) . We ourselves as individuals acknowledge and feel for those who are wronged . I often wish that the UN would send troops anywhere that shooting started to literally ‘die for peace’ – it brings to mind the four Irish soldiers on the Lebanese border blown to bits for observing and reporting on too much of a tank barrage . But I’d like to think of the UN forces as the massive and pro-active and indiscriminate force they could be – there to enforce non-violence by violent means – almost like the nicest and biggest bully on the playground (wishful thinking , Rich ? But this is what I personally might hope for . What was that old hippy thing… Fighting for peace is like fucking for virginity) .
          The century-old wrong against the Kurds in particular was a boat pushed out by the British in the wake of victory and the subjugation of the Turkish/Ottoman Empire post 1923 . It would be vainglorious folly to assume there was any right for ‘us’ to call it back to review now . Would ‘we’ do the same for the decisions regarding Palestine (or should I say Israel ?) ? Or perhaps the Partition of what was once the Empire of India ? Or indeed the population exchanges of the eastern Mediterranean after WW1 ? Or the ‘settlement’ for Ireland ?
          There is a desperate tension between the hubristic conceit that power gave Britain pre-WW2 and the excuses it now finds to interfere in the rest of the humanity’s various destinies . Why suppress and then yield to claims for independence in so many colonial wars (unless purposely to hand over to puppets or monsters) , slaughter freedom fighters in Malaya/Kenya , suppress the Carribean while allowing robber corporations the old pirate enclaves so as to enrich coffers in London , try to bomb Egyptians back into being dispossessed , cause coups in Saudi Arabia and what was once Persia and then set Iraq onto Iran as punishment for overthrowing their puppet , allow Smith White Rule in what was once Rhodesia , murder David Kelly , why bomb Syria from a Cypriot base , why supply bombs to kill and starve Yemenis (chastise themselves and yet continue despite that) , bomb and then allow the destabilisation of Libya , not interfere in the Yugoslav civil war , invade and then purposely not impose order in Iraq ? And so much more besides .
          The temerity of any British citizen to ask the question of what allows ‘interference’ implies a huge blind-spot as to their national history and the nature of power . Power grows from the barrel of a gun – ask Chairman Mao . Now , when you try to challenge their imposition of power in Hong Kong (‘our’ old colony) , you can ask Mao’s successors for yourself , and I’m sure they will find as plausible an explanation as the British have ever allowed themselves in days gone by .

          1. Pub Bore says:

            [Disclaimer: PG – Paternal Guidance Suggested. The following might not be suitable for reading. This heteronymous post questions the assumptions that inform the above article and/or the comments that have been made by some of its other commentators; its poster has nothing substantive to say for her/himself. Readers are urged to seek paternal guidance as to its suitability for reading from one of the site’s self-appointed arbiters.]

            I don’t think it’s a bit rich for us to be discussing this in Britain. We, after all, have had extensive experience of colonising others. Who, then, is better placed than ourselves to explore that experience and facilitate the deconstruction of the narratives by which such colonisation; that is, to facilitate the decolonisation of others?

            Let’s begin with the universalism that ‘we are all one’; that we all share a common ‘human nature’ or identity which finds its highest expression in rich, white, heterosexual, able-bodied, educated males. This universalism is a product of European Enlightenment, which we then privileged over the products of other historical perspectives through the globalisation of Europe from the 18th century onwards.

            Decolonisation involves the recognition that we are not ‘one’ but are ‘many’, that humanity is plural rather than singular, and that our humanistic-cum-humanitarian values are not in any objective sense superior to those of any other historical ideology that emerged from, say, the pre-colonised peoples of Africa, America, Asia, or Australasia.

            Colonisation is colonisation, whether it’s ‘hard’ or ‘soft’, by conquest or by civilisation. It’s about shaping others in the image of ourselves, whether through force or through charity.

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