Home > Magazine > Issues > Number 0/2015 > GIVE PEACE A CHANCE

A balance of where Kurds, Basques and Irish are, 5 years after the Venice International Peace Conference

In November 2009 Venice City Council hosted an international peace conference at the prestigious Marciana Library in the city’s world known St. Mark’s Square. The conference was the closing event of the Kurdistan Pavilion at the international Biennale Art Exhibition.

Among the speakers were (in video conference) Murat Karayilan (the President of the KCK executive council), the then DTP co-chair Emine Ayna (the DTP will be deemed illegal by Turkey’s Constitutional Court later that year, in December), Abertzale Left lawyer Jone Goirizelaia and South African lawyer and international mediator Brian Currin.

The conference was held as the year was drawing to an end (and yet in the month and a half left to say goodbye to 2009 many things were still to happen). It had been, as we will see later, a very hectic year, both in Turkey and in the Basque Country.

Yet, on 14 November[1] some of the most relevant players in the search for peace in both Turkey and the Basque country met in Venice to announce some important decision which will indeed shape the strategy of on the one hand the Kurdish liberation movement and on the other the Basque Abertzale movement in the years to come.

Jone Goirizelaia was given the task of announcing in Venice (while the same statement was being read at the same time in Alsasua, Basque country) the decision by the Abertzale left to declare without reservations its “support for a peaceful, political and democratic process in order to achieve an inclusive democracy, where the Basque people freely and without any intimidation of any kind will be able to decide their future”[2]. Likewise the Abertzale left committed itself to adhere to the Mitchell’s Principles[3] and stated that “the democratic process must be developed in an complete absence of violence and without interference, by the use of exclusively political and democratic means. We are convinced that this political strategy will make advances in the democratic process. South Africa and Ireland are good examples”.

In Venice were also Brian Currin (who had been involved as mediator in both the South African and Irish peace processes and was now working, as an independent facilitator, in the Basque country) and Raymond McCartney, Sinn Féin’s foreign affairs spokesperson.

Goirizelaia’s reading of such a paradigm-shifting declaration was echoed by Karayilan message. The PKK had been on an unilateral ceasefire (its 6th) since 13 April 2009. A month earlier in Turkey there had been local elections and the DTP won most of the cities in the Kurdish region, prompting an incredibly violent reaction from the AKP government which launched one of the heaviest police operations which led to the arrests of thousands of local administrators, human rights activists, unionists etc (between April 2009 and October 2010 some 1800 people were detained on charges of being members of the KCK). On the day Karayilan’s message was delivered in Venice, hundreds of local administrators were in prison. Nevertheless Karayilan spoke words of peace.

Indeed for the Venice conference it had been thought that Abdullah Öcalan’s road map would have been available. The Kurdish leader had announced back in March to have begun writing his Yol Haritasi (road map) for a peaceful solution to the Kurdish question. The document was supposed to reach Öcalan’s lawyers by September via the Turkish authorities to which Öcalan had sent the manuscript. This was not to be. Indeed the road map (which Öcalan finished writing on 15 August 2009) finally only reached the European Court of Human Rights in January 2011 (and was subsequently published in English in January 2012).

Despite the document not being available in its final form, Karayilan was able to talk about it because Öcalan, before writing the text, had asked all sections of the Kurdish movement both in Turkey and in the diaspora to send in suggestions, comments, indications, evaluations in order to prepare the proposal for a solution to the conflict. The result is some two hundred pages which are not just a proposal for a negotiation but indeed a proposal for a new organisation of the society in Turkey.

Throughout the road map Öcalan writes of the paramount need for creating an environment in which mutual trust could be build and established. This being the first step for any talk to start.

Somehow the journey of Basques and Kurds towards a peaceful solution of the conflicts they are involved in had a renewed moment of solidarity in Venice. Indeed both movements had been speaking to each other for years. Like Sinn Fein has been doing with the Basque and the Kurds from a later stage.

Liberation movements: sharing solidarity

The liberation movements of Ireland, Basque country and Kurdistan certainly have some shared views and ideas. Obviously each conflict and each country has its own peculiarity and it would be both unhealthy and useless to put everything in the same pot. But one thing that certainly the three liberation movements have in common is a genuine sense solidarity which has meant that the three often came (and come) together to share their experiences, progresses, ideas and indeed frustrations.

This is one thing the “other side” hasn’t got.

Governments, states engaging a war against a section of their own citizens, occupying other nations’ lands, imposing law and order and their will through military force, can share among themselves only the language of violence. So yes, plenty of agreements to fight one or the other liberation movement in other countries, plenty of alliances to “defeat terrorism”. But ultimately these governments, these states share repression and violence, they do not share ideas and projects for a future of peace and dialogue.

And this is one of their weak spots. They hate and fear the solidarity between nations because they know that it is this solidarity as well as the legitimate struggle of the people for self-determination and freedom that would ultimately make them to succumb.

Liberation movements have as their ultimate goal freedom and self-determination for each and everyone of the people who share the same lands, and they serve the people and their interests. Clearly, governments and states have other interests to serve. And indeed, generosity being their other characteristic, once some kind of solution has been set in march (see the Irish and the South African, to remain in the South-West of the world), the liberation movements, the driving force of change, do not consider their job over. Indeed they continue to share their experiences with other still struggling, never in a preaching or patronising position, but simply offering, to be used, whatever elements of their struggle might be useful for other movements.

Basques and Kurds had met in Venice in 2009 and formulated there their proposals, or put it in another way, they announced their next move. Indeed here a second crucial element, which can be considered a common element of the liberation movements, come into play. Dynamism, movement, brave gestures, bold decisions, willingness to dare, imagination, even a pinch of visionary folly, are all features governments and states involved in a conflict (and this apply not just to armed conflict, but to social conflict as well) can only dream about. Make no mistake about it: governments and states will not make the first move towards peace. Because this requires selflessness and altruism as well as a genuine interest in peace. And it requires a constant and direct involvement in the territory, at grassroots level, with the people. Because, and this is another common feature of the liberation movements, decision making and choices need to be made together with the communities they would affect. Ultimately the vanguard of the liberation movement acts as “spokesperson” of the will of the people and to them it has to return.

It seems a faded imagine, or a distant memory, but it is worth it to remind (just to underline once more their failure) that Western “democracies” started off – at least on paper – as “servant of the people”. A characteristic they soon throw in a corner, replacing it with a more practical (for the establishment) “democracy as I spell it”, i.e. freedoms (collective and individual) strictly “controlled” and that can be easily taken away (because the relation state-citizens is one of master-subjects, with blackmail and threat being the favourite tools of the master), and lack of transparency. The governments do not have to account to people (who, by the way, still elect them), indeed more and more often they made decision regardless or despite the will of the people indicates otherwise.

Liberation movements are constantly held accountable by the people who want to take part in the decision making process and not simply being informed. And this is something which ultimately keeps the liberation movement healthy and constantly under scrutiny and therefore careful not to indulge in some kind of “selfish” decisions.

Being the one who make the first move involves, undoubtedly, a good dose of courage and, as Sinn Fein’s president Gerry Adams often repeats, making peace requires “bold choices, creativity, vision”.

Daring to imagine a different shared future

George Bernard Shaw once said: “Some people see things as they are and ask why? I dream things that never were and ask why not?”. And perhaps this summarise best the most sentences the difference between the governments-states “philosophy” and the liberation movement approach to peace.

Indeed peace is not simply “absence of war”. Thinking about peace requires vision. Vision for the future, a shared future. Therefore it requires imagination and also, like Nelson Mandela said, putting yourself in the shoes of your opponent.

For the governments, the states this equals an anathema. For the liberation movements is one of the toughest challenges. Yet it has to be met in order to reformulate and reshape strategies with a better understanding of the enemy. And it is here perhaps where a process (often unilaterally) of inclusion starts.

It was the consciousness of the fact that the status quo was not an option that pushed both the Basques and the Kurds to take once again the initiative. It was the same (and still is, because peace has still to be reached) in Ireland before.

The Basque and Kurdish “processes” (if we could call them this way, given that they are unilateral so far, or at least heavily pending on the liberation movements side) proceed somehow in a parallel way.

They are both characterised by a “heavy” participation: meetings, discussions, debates at grassroots level take place on a regular basis.

This has brought about two other major shifts.

In the Basque country, following the Alsasua declaration, a new round of discussions was held around the Basque country, north and south of the “imaginary” and “imposed” border. The result of this debate was summed up in the document Zutik Euskal Herria![4] (Stand Up Euskal Herria!) published in February 2010. Reminding that the process was unilaterally initiated, the Abertzale left outlined three stages in the activated democratic process concerning the south of the Basque country (Spanish side). While in the north (French side) they said it would have been necessary to build up a new political balance towards Paris with the support of the society[5].

As said above Kurds and section of the Turkish society, as well as other nations living in Turkey and the diaspora had already engaged in a healthy process of debate about the road map. Just before the Venice conference a so called “peace group” (guerrillas and Kurds in exile) had returned, in mid October, to Turkey upon Öcalan’s request and in a way as a response to the government-sponsored Kurdish Opening[6]. The government “Initiative” was soon to fade away: the PKK militants were welcomed by hundreds of thousands in the Kurdish region and this shocked the government and the opposition which said the PKK had come to Turkey to “celebrate a victory”. Things deteriorated rapidly, many of the peace group were detained, the local administrators continued to be arrested in their hundreds and on 11 December 2009 the Constitutional Court banned the DTP saying it had become a “focal point of activities against the indivisible unity of the state, the country and the nation”.

The PKK finally called off its unilateral ceasefire on 1 June 2010, after thirteen months of inactivity. And things seemed once again back to square one.

In March 2010 the Basque country had seen a new initiative, the Brussels Declaration: a number of well known international figures had asked ETA to respond to the new commitment by the Abertzale left to exclusively pursue political ways to solve the Spanish-Basque conflict with a permanent and verifiable ceasefire. This, said the declaration, will be responded to by the Spanish government in the appropriate manner so to advance the search for a just a lasting peace.

ETA took, as it was natural, its time to consider the pro and cons of such a (unilateral) move in – it has to be said – virtually total absence of even the smallest sign of good intention (if not will) by the Spanish government which remained monolithically still in its refusal to even consider the possibility of negotiation.

The initiative firmly in the hands of the liberation movements

Both the Abertzale left and the PKK though could not respond with immobilism to immobilism. And indeed once again it was them which took the initiative.

The armed struggle came around because there was no alternative for those who would not bend the knee, or turn a blind eye to oppression. It was ultimately the people’s right to stand up against the oppression and the violence of the state. Now, both the Abertzale left and the Abdullah Öcalan, saw there was an alternative, although still “blurred”. On 13 August 2010 the PKK called a new unilateral ceasefire (then extended, originally until the general elections which would have take place on 6 June 2011. In reality the truce was cut off short, and suspended on 28 February 2011. It must be said that the Turkish army launched some of the heaviest operations in recent years against the guerrillas during the truce). The elections saw a dramatic victory of the independent candidates running for the Freedom, Democracy and Labour Block (the 10% threshold makes it impossible for Kurds, and not just them, to run as a party so they elect independent candidates). The government’s (the AKP won again with a wide majority) reaction was immediate: repression. In continuity with the operations against the DTP, thousands were arrested, among them, deputies, local administrators, journalists, academics, unionists, students, human rights activists, civil society organisations members etc.

Despite the repression 2010, 2011 and 2012 were characterised by “experimenting” the so called “democratic autonomy”. Because imagination and vision means practicing and not just theorising the new model of living together. An impulse to the model envisaged by Öcalan came out, of all places, from Syria, in 2012. Despite the war enraging and rapidly turning into a civil war, Syrian Kurds were able to liberate some of their cities and putting in place a self government which heavily draw on Öcalan’s proposal. This proved the “suggestive alternative” viable, live and kicking which boosted North Kurdistan (i.e. Turkey’s Kurdish area) expectations and determination.

The Turkish government watched in terror as Kurds in Syria showed a reality that could soon apply to other areas.

Back in the Basque country immobilism on the part of the Spanish (and French) government did not stop the Abertzale left to continue its work at grassroots level. Field work first, to create an environment which could lead to a declaration by ETA.

Brian Currin underlines that the civil society has been a “crucial partner” in the Basque process. “When I speak about civil society – he says – I am not just talking about civil society organisations such as trade unions, the church and others I am talking about the society in general, the Basque people. And in particular about the electorate of the Abertzale left. They were the ones asking for a new political project and what has happened has been the response, by the Abertzale left, to this request. They had to imagine a new strategy, a new political project a fresh leadership. Fortunately – he adds – the political leadership was mature and showed courage, they understood the challenges. Their challenges had to do with getting the whole of ETA on board this new enterprise”.

ETA did get on board, not without difficulties and doubts and after a lengthy and healthy process of debate. On 5 September 2010 the armed group called a new unilateral ceasefire[7]. The truce declaration though fell short of state what the signatories of the Brussels Declaration had asked. In the video calling the truce ETA said it was “prepared today as yesterday to agree to the minimum democratic conditions necessary to put in motion a democratic process, if the Spanish government is willing”. It was on 10 January 2011 that ETA released a new statement[8] saying it had decided to “declare a permanent and general ceasefire which will be verifiable by the international community. This is Eta’s firm commitment towards a process to achieve a lasting resolution and towards an end to the armed confrontation.”

Again the response by the Spanish and French government was a terrified silence. With arms de facto out of the political equation there was no obstacle to multiparty talks. Yet this was not to happen. The Spanish government was in turmoil because socialist Prime Minister Luis Zapatero was fighting for survival. Indeed in July he called early elections to be held on 20 November. Zapatero did not show the political opportunism (to some it was genuine policy making) former British prime minister Tony Blair had shown in Ireland and did not respond to the unilateral initiative of the Abertzale left and ETA. Zapatero lost – as predictable – the elections and conservative Mariano Rajoy was elected prime minister. The road to talks in the Basque country was even more uphill.

Prior to the Spanish general elections (where the Abertzale left made considerable gains, with the coalition Amaiur) there had been local elections in May: Bildu- legalised at the last minute – run the elections and won, giving the chance to the new proposals and projects by the Abertzale left to be put in practice, as it had happened in Turkey.

2011 was to end in the Basque country with yet another move by ETA: on 20 October the armed group announced a cessation of armed activity via a video[9] sent to the media following the Donostia International Peace Conference. The conference was attended by former UN Secretary General Kofi Annan, former Taoiseach of Ireland Bertie Ahern, president of Sinn Féin Gerry Adams, British diplomat Jonathan Powell among others. And the final declaration was supported by former UK prime minister Blair, former US president Jimmy Carter and former US senator, George Mitchell. The conference was not attended by Spanish or French government representatives.

In a piece he penned for the New York Times, the day after the ETA declaration, Tony Blair reiterated that “governments must firmly defend themselves, their principles and their people against terrorists” while recognising that “governments must also recognise the need to talk to their enemies”. He ended by writing: “I learned from our experience in Northern Ireland that ending violence and making peace irreversible requires patience, taking risks, suffering setbacks and a constant commitment. It also requires creativity, generosity and statesmanship”[10].

Does the language sound familiar? Blair even adopted the “enemy language”.

No turning back

As seen so far, the liberation movements, in all their components, never stop actively working to envisage a solution to the conflict while “trying” some of these ideas out.

The “vision” for the future Basque, Kurds, Irish talked about was something always well in mind. And 2012 was to provide room for new dramatic initiatives. This time it was in Turkey the major shifts occurred. Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdo?an, no doubt for selfish political interests, decided it was time to show some movements on the side of the government. After the failure of the so called Kurdish Opening, Erdo?an decided to change tactic and sent the head of the secret service (MIT) to talk to Öcalan, in his prison cell in Imrali island. The Kurdish leader sized this opportunity and led the dances.

That the road to peace is always uphill is no mystery to the liberation movements which are those often paying the higher price. This proved so in the most horrific way. Not in Turkey, but in a central busy road of Paris. On 9 January 2013 Sakine Cans?z, 55, one of the founder of the PKK (Kurdistan Workers’ Party), Fidan Do?an, 32, (Rojbin), representative of the Kurdistan National Congress (KNK) in Paris, and Leyla ?aylemez, 24, ( Ronahi), member of the Kurdish youth movement, were killed in the Kurdish Information Office in the French capital. Their bodies were discovered on 10 January. They had been executed. A brutal warning to the PKK: We can’t bear your idea of society, we can’t stand your proposal for a new relation among the people, all of the people, living in Turkey. We can’t even think of a society where women are not subaltern, never mind letting you trying to build it.

Sakine, Rojbin and Leyla were executed precisely because they represented the summa of what the PKK stands for: women liberation, youth liberation, peoples liberation, peace and dialogue. They were executed because they are women, Kurds and politically committed.

Firm nerves were required. And the Kurdish liberation movement once again proved to have them. Meetings between Öcalan and the head of MIT went on while at the same time a BDP delegation was allowed to meet with the Kurdish leader on a (almost) regular basis.

On the 21 of March, Newroz, the BDP deputies who had seen Öcalan a few days earlier read the Kurdish leader’s message to a crowd of over one and a half million people in Amed (Diyarbakir). Öcalan’s Newroz message could be summed up in this phrase: “It ‘s time to silence the weapons and time for ideas to speak”. Which could also be said in another way: What is happening is a change in strategy. The Kurdish liberation movement is moving from an armed campaign to a cultural campaign. In this sense, the “reassurance” Öcalan gave was very important, especially for the guerrillas: “This is not an end, but a new beginning. This is not abandoning the struggle – we are initiating a different struggle”, he said. The “reassurance” was needed because the Kurdish leader called on fighters not only to declare a truce but also to start moving outside the borders of the Turkish state. The message is clear and follows the proposals contained in the road map published in 2012. “The period of armed struggle is ending, and the door is opening to democratic politics” the letter reads and continues, “The time has come for dispute, conflict, and enmity to yield to alliance, unity, blessings, and a mutual embrace”.

As in the road map, in the Newroz message can be read the political and strategic journey Öcalan made. It’s a journey arrived at the point where the need for armed struggle is ending. The Kurdish leader focused on building a new society, a model for a new society organization that would lead to the democratization of the whole of Turkey. However, the construction of this new model walks alongside the creation of an environment favourable to peace. Hence the Newroz call to the guerrillas who have been asked to declare a truce (which they did on 23 March).

Nevertheless it is clear that the message Öcalan sent is not directed only to the PKK. Indeed it is directed to the Turkish government that must make some decisions about how to respond to, possibly, the highest of challenges: to start talking about peace. It was no coincidence, that just three days before Newroz, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdo?an had talked about the possibility of creating a commission of “wise people” to act as facilitators. In the Roadmap, Öcalan explains in detail what steps all parties involved in the Turkish-Kurdish conflict must do to create an environment favourable to dialogue.

As with all processes, the creation of an environment where trust can grow, is a sine qua non condition for dialogue to begin. In fact it means creating a context in which all parties have the same status and come to the table with equal rights. In this context it will be important to see what the Turkish government will decide to do and how quickly.

Certainly, as seen before, Öcalan has been able in those years to argue and explain his ideas for a new model of society, including new institutions necessary for this model to work. With originality, he has also begun writing a new vocabulary to define concepts and ideas that are still only partially being “defined” in other situations (in the Basque Country for example, bearing in mind that each process and each country has its own peculiarities). But above all, this has been – and remains so – a “journey”, a shared path, despite the long period of isolation to which Öcalan has been submitted to.

It was not easy to prepare the Kurdish movement, because what Öcalan has done is encourage a change of vision even of the conflict itself. A rupture that obviously the government and the intellectual and political circles in Turkey have not yet made. And that is perhaps the greatest risk: that a good part of society, and the political and intellectual class of Turkey, are not ready for such a shock. Because that’s the point. It is not “just” talking about peace in classical terms (i.e. calling a ceasefire) but it is indeed raising the level of discourse imagining a different way, inclosed an innovative way of talking about peace. It involves using a new vocabulary, which means daring to look at who so far has been considered “the other” as if looking at yourself. And therefore, it is to want for the “other” what you would want for yourself.

The Basques, and before them the Irish and South Africans know this subject well. For Turkey is still a new topic. The Kurds have demonstrated vision, creativity, courage and imagination. They have not removed the hand, on the contrary, they have put it out. Let’s see if the Turkish government and other actors in the political, intellectual and social life in Turkey will be brave enough to acknowledge this important gesture and shake that hand.

Non-conclusion

The second half of 2013 will be very important both in Turkey and the Basque country. Both liberation movements have shown to have it clear in their mind that the path taken towards peace is a one way path. There is no going back, there is no short cut. They proved to have imagination, creativity, vision. At times they have stretched people’s generosity and patience to the limit. And they have always got back to people. They are discussing with the people the choices to make and the steps that need taken. This is why debate is healthy within these two movements, which does not – and should not – mean consensus can be taken for granted. These are animated discussions, and owe to be so. What is being discussed is the future, the shared future, of relations among peoples, nations who must finally have equal status and ultimately the right to decide which future they want.

Despite decades of repression, murders, violence, disappearances, massacres the Kurds like the Basques are still here. Undefeated. Unbroken.

IRA hunger striker Bobby Sands[11] said in one of the darkest moments of the Irish republican’s struggle: “If they aren’t able to destroy the desire for freedom, they won’t break you”.

Notes

[1] The date was not a coincidence, it marked indeed the anniversary of the arrival, on 14 Nov. 1998, of Kurdish leader Abdullah Öcalan in Italy, a shameful page above all for the Italian left, unable – and to a certain extent unwilling – to side with Öcalan in his bold, imaginative and politically courageous act for peace
[2] A first step for the democratic process: Principles and will of the Abertzale left, http://info-nordirland.de/download/principlesandwill.pdf
[3] All involved in negotiations had to affirm their commitment to:
*To democratic and exclusively peaceful means of resolving political issues;
*To the total disarmament of all paramilitary organisations;
*To agree that such disarmament must be verifiable to the satisfaction of an independent commission;
*To renounce for themselves, and to oppose any effort by others, to use force, or threaten to use force, to influence the course or the outcome of all-party negotiations;
*To agree to abide by the terms of any agreement reached in all-party negotiations and to resort to democratic and exclusively peaceful methods in trying to alter any aspect of that outcome with which they may disagree; and,
*To urge that “punishment” killings and beatings stop and to take effective steps to prevent such actions.
[4] Zutik Euskal Herria! http://www.basquepeaceprocess.info/?page_id=50
[5] The three stages are:

  • Minimum democratic bases
    These are the democratic basics which will enable a development of the democratic process. Agreements and decisions concerning equal rights among the parties should be guaranteed and exceptional political measures ended.
  • Democratic agreement
    Agreement should be developed on the basis of the recent negotiation process. i.e.: recognition of the Basque nation, a guarantee that it is possible to realise all political projects and the definition of political/juridical ways to change the relation between the Basque territories – among them and with the state.
  • Democratic framework
    It should be based on the juridical and political implementation of the democratic agreement. It should be created by the willingness of the people and should guarantee the overcoming of the structural denial of the Basque Country. The efforts of the Abertzale Left to achieve the right to decide are based on the one hand on the ‘’Anaitasuna proposal’’ for autonomy for the four provinces in the South of the Basque Country, and on the other hand the ‘’Ustaritz proposal” towards the creation of autonomy for the three provinces in the North of the Basque Country.

[6] or Kurdish Initiative, a series of mostly “cosmetic” measures aimed to recognise Kurdish rights launched by the Erdo?an’s government in September 2009
[7] Ceasefire declaration, video, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=d2KqDGdGIDA
[8] http://www.rtve.es/alacarta/videos/alto-el-fuego-de-eta/eta-decreta-alto-fuego-permanente-verificable/983747/
[9] http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=J5sCf8HZBe
[10] A Basque Peace, by Tony Blair, http://www.nytimes.com/2011/10/22/opinion/22iht-edblair22,1.htm
[11] Bobby Sands, was an IRA member. He died on 5th May 1981 in the prison of Long Kesh after 66 days on hunger strike. The protest led to the death of 10 prisoners.

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