15 steps for Turkish-Kurdish peace

For a ‘one state solution’, and sustainable peace, political and constitutional changes need to be adopted, appreciated and practiced not only by the state, but across society.

Latif Tas
6 May 2016

Woman carries portrait of jailed Kurdish leader Abdullah Ocalan in Nowruz gathering in Diyarbakir, Turkey, March 21, 2016. Murat Bay / Press Association. All rights reserved.In 2002 when elected for the first time, Erdogan and his Justice and Development Party (AKP) made six important pledges. These were: to develop ‘a new pluralistic constitution which respected the ethnic and religious diversity of the country’; to establish a ‘strong democracy’; to strengthen the ‘rule of law’; to respect ‘freedom of speech’; ‘to have zero problems with neighbours’ and ‘to find a peaceful resolution with the Kurds’.

None of these pledges have been fulfilled. On the contrary: Turkey is in the fifteenth year of an Erdogan-led government, and all of these six areas are in a worse state than before. In the 2016 World Press Freedom Index, Turkey is ranking 151. This is lower than Russia, Pakistan, South Sudan, Zimbabwe, Afghanistan and almost the same level as the Democratic Republic of Congo. In this article, I want to focus primarily on the worsening of the Turkish-Kurdish conflict. Unless Turkish-Kurdish relations improve, I contend that it is not possible to resolve the other five pledges. The Erdogan-led regime has not only put Turkey into a rogue situation, but the state is now heading towards a civil war.

A thriving PKK and Kurdish diplomacy

Turkey, since its establishment as a Republic, has never achieved sustainable peace. Kurds still cannot freely learn and use their language in educational, legal, political and even social arenas. The PKK movement and the conflict between Turks and Kurds is one of the major reasons for this. The Turkish state has not tried to make peace in any real way, merely reiterated attempts at military ‘solutions’. These have not brought about any progress in the last hundred years, and are not moving anything forward now. Different Turkish governments have mouthed platitudes and postponed any real actions towards peace. There has never been any substantial move towards building trust and increasing tolerance between and within different ethnic groups. Successive Turkish governments did not show any understanding of the real sociological problems in Turkey.

Previous peace negotiations between Turks and Kurds have never been balanced. Messages from Ocalan about any negotiations are carried only by a few selected Kurdish political party members. Although any peace process must necessarily be limited initially to only a few actors, as we saw in Northern Ireland and South Africa, there seems to have been no substantive progress over the last three decades. Many important Kurdish and Turkish entities, including the diasporas and women organisations, have never been included in any substantive way.

Kurdish diaspora communities are the result of, and key actors in, the conflict. They have acted not only as an important driving engine for homeland politics, but also as a way forward to peace and to the development of future Kurdish institutions. Some elements in Kurdish diasporas have recently promoted a strong and even aggressive nationalism. These contradictions may be an important barrier for Kurdish leaders to overcome if there is ever going to be peace with Turkey and neighbouring states.

The PKK benefits from the pre-existing problems of the Kurds and does not find it difficult to recruit new members. Thousands of young people join the PKK voluntarily every year. This shows that as long as the current conflict continues, the PKK or similar organisations will not only exist but will thrive. New groups, such as the TAK or other Young Kurdish militias within towns and cities, are now more radical than the PKK.

Kurds in Syria and Turkey are slowly but surely developing their relations with the rest of the world. The French President Francois Hollande had a meeting with two senior PYD women, Asya Abdullah (the co-chair of the PYD) and Nesrin Abdullah (the commander of YPG’s female branch) on 8 February 2014. There are now YPG flags on the doors and walls of the European Parliament and Kurdish officials now have offices across Europe. Kurds are welcomed by the Russian government and opened an office in Moscow in the name of the Rojava administration. USA, French and Russia’s support of Kurds in Syria (YPG, the Kurdish People’s Protection Units) has increased Turkey’s aggression against the Kurds. The development of Kurdish autonomy in Syria and HDP’s success in Turkey have awakened Turkey’s historic fear of the state’s division and the unification of Kurdish lands with those in neighbouring countries. For this reason all Turkish political elements (secularist, Islamist and nationalist) have joined forces against the Kurds.

The authoritarian regime

Especially Erdogan has used this monopoly of power for his own use. Erdogan’s eagerness to stay in power has moved Turkey towards an authoritarian regime in which freedom of expression and rule of law have already deteriorated. The Erdogan-led regime seems to have a zero respect for the rule of law if its requests or orders are not supported. Erdogan even spoke about removing the constitutional court because that court wanted to release two journalists who were arrested on his orders. He has used the refugee card as a bargaining chip with the EU to promote his own power.

He has even expanded the meaning of terrorism and suggests removing citizenship from the so-called ’supporters’ of terrorism, including journalists or academics who signed the petition for peace between Turks and Kurds. He has undermined even the implementation of 1980s military made, monolithic and centralised constitution in many ways. It therefore seems very unlikely that any Erdogan-led government might develop a constitution which could move forward many of the issues plaguing Turkey, let alone the Turkish-Kurdish conflict.

Any critical media has been taken under state control. Even social media, like Facebook and Twitter, have been switched on and off at government will. Critical voices, especially pro-Kurdish journalists, have been arrested. As of April 2016, almost 40 journalists and tens of lawyers are in prison. Hundreds of academics who, in January 2016, signed a peace petition against state oppression and operations against the Kurds have faced disciplinary actions. Many of them have been put in pre-trial detention, and are facing several years in prison, on the personal orders of Erdogan. Erdogan has been eliminating all opposition ahead of his bid for an executive or Sultan style of presidency, and he regards the Kurds as the main barrier to achieving this.

What do the Kurds really want?

Many Kurds I have interviewed in Diyarbakir, Istanbul, Berlin and London are angry with both the Erdogan-led AKP goverment’s brutal response to Kurds and also with the PKK for taking the fight to the towns and cities and moving away from any peace talks.

The question of what the Kurds want has been asked by many politicians, international organisations, journalists and academics. First of all, it is important to acknowledge that Kurds, like many other communties and nations, do not speak with one voice. Even the PKK has diverse voices, including Kandil, Ocalan, the Young Kurds, or youth militia and diasporas. There is also a wide range of other Kurds, including Alevi Kurds, women’s rights organisations, HDP and youth organisations and conservative religious Kurds. All these sub groups may well contradict each other. Looking at the bigger picture, when south Kurdistan (Iraq), East Kurdistan (Iran), Rojava (Syria) and North Kurdistan (Turkey) are included, the diversity increases. As one of my interviewees commented: “Kurds do not need any more enemies, they have themselves. They are a nation with many armies and divisions.“

Many Turkish or western academics, journalists and diplomats use this heterogeneity and the lack of a single representative as an excuse not to negotiate with Kurds. They have suggested that Kurds cannot be a nation. But Turks, Britons and Germans are similarly heterogenous. Just like Turks, Britons, Germans and all other nations, Kurds have some common issues and wishes, and representatives who will argue for these. 

15 important steps towards sustainable peace:

This article has already discussed why the previous peace negotiations have failed. Looking forward towards possible solutions for a ‘one state solution’, I contend that there are 15 important steps which must be fulfilled for sustainable peace.

First, the Turkish state and the PKK should declare a ceasefire for at least one year. This would create the necessary conditions for peace talks to begin.

Second, international involvement and guarantees are essential. The European Union and United States must put pressure on the Turkish government to promote peace and also to equalise unequal conditions among stakeholders for the peace table. There is an international historical context, with effects on international stability and important human rights issues to consider. These all mean that there is a wide international responsibility to observe, oversee, and to take an active part in facilitating the peace process.

Third, the Kurdish leader in Turkey, Abdullah Ocalan should be released from prison. This is a necessary pre-condition before any real peace process can begin. Only free and equal people can talk and make peace.

Fourth, any peace talks should be inclusive and involve all key stakeholders. Not only the AKP and PKK, but other important Kurdish and Turkish stakeholders, especially women’s groups, should take part in the peace discussions. With Kurdish populations living in their historical regions in Syria, Iraq, Iran and Turkey, as well as in the diasporas, one cannot separate the Kurdish and Turkish ‘peace process’ from ongoing conflicts and wars in the neighbouring countries. Many of the Kurds I interviewed believe that for any successful and permanent peace, Kurds living in all of these places, including the diasporas, must be involved in the peace process.

Fifth, the objectives of the peace process should be clearly defined. Each step should be accepted, with time frames agreed by all sides.

Sixth, independent justice, the disarmament of Kurdish fighters, and a reconciliation process with amnesty for all political prisoners, must be implemented if any peace process and subsequent coexistence is to be successful in the long term.

Seventh, as in many other societies with a history of conflict, Turkey needs a new, more inclusive constitution if it is to move away from the existing problems. The country is still using the constitution created by the military after the 1980 coup. The new constitution and any amendments affecting its Basic Rights and Turkey’s ethnic communities cannot be approved without a qualified majority of two-thirds of votes, within which there must be a majority of votes from the Kurdish community. This should hopefully protect the constitution from any majoritarian or authoritarian ruler in the future.

Eighth, the existence and distinct identity of Turkey’s different ethnic and religious groups such as the Kurds should be recognised and protected in the new constitution’s basic rights. The concepts of one religion, one nation, or brotherhood cannot keep Turks, Kurds and any other groups together if there is no tolerance of differences. Without tolerance, the idea of one umbrella identity can only be a temporary solution, and will not resolve the Turkish-Kurdish problems that have been observed for a century. Pluralistic society is a fact and one person should not be forced to wear someone else’s hat. Any peaceful society requires tolerance and respect. As Adorno (1991) and also Laclau and Mouffe (1985) have emphasised, the appreciation of diversity means to be diverse without being frightened, and to respect and tolerate the value of others. 

Ninth, respect for the rule of law and democratic values, freedom of speech, freedom of the media, the promotion of gender, ethnic and religious equality at all levels, and decentralisation should be part of the basic rights included in any new constitution. The new constitution should also include a way for Kurds and other minority groups to be part of truly democratic politics. This means that the removal of the current 10 per cent parliamentary threshold is necessary.

Tenth, devolution or federalism can contribute to a resolution of almost one hundred years of the Turkish-Kurdish conflict, since the unitary and centralist system has been a significant contributor to the conflict. The new constitution should decentralise power down to elected co-mayors in the towns and cities, rather than to centrally-appointed governors. Kurds have already successfully introduced and practice a system of co-mayors and co-chairs that promotes gender equality. Political, administrative and fiscal decentralisation, with the creation of local police forces would contribute to a new, peaceful and pluralistic one-state solution for Turks and Kurds. Education, healthcare, economic development and sport activities should be decentralised. The constitution should also permit the use of Kurdish as a working language in areas where the Kurds form the majority. Such multilingual practices have already been practised successfully in South Tyrol (Italy), Catalan and Basque regions (Spain) and Quebec (Canada).

Eleventh, various consociational power-sharing principles advocated by Arend Lijphart should be reflected in the new constitution (Lijphart 1977 and 2008). Examples should include the future formation of coalition governments which represents all major segments of the divided society, including the Kurds; proportionality in legislative and executive bodies such as the the Constitutional Court, and within the public administration and allocation of public funds; minority veto rights on all essential decisions and the existence of arbitration mechanisms.

Twelfth, a new pluralistic and inclusive state should include full education in the Kurdish language. Primary through to university level education should be state funded, as it is in the Republic of Macedonia where education in the Albanian language is available at all levels (Lyon 2016). South Tyrol (Italy), Catalan and Basque regions (Spain) and Quebec (Canada) are just a few other important successful examples.

Thirteenth, use of community flags and symbols should be allowed in areas where minority groups form the majority. In the long term it may be necessary to create a new, inclusive state flag for all as was the case in South Africa.

Fourteenth, economic development in the Kurdish areas is one of the most important steps for ensuring sustainable peace. The long-term conflict has created social and economic inequalities, which fuel yet further conflict. There should be an aim to remove social and economic inequalities between different parts of Turkey. This might require, for a limited period of time, positive discrimination in Kurdish areas.

Fifteenth, the substantial post-conflict ecological and environmental damage in Kurdish areas should be repaired according to local historical and cultural values. The replacement of forests and sustainable local water resources is just as important as the renovation of historical monuments.

Political and constitutional changes need to be adopted, appreciated and practiced not only by the state, but across society. All these elements underline how peace could be managed in conflicted societies.

Especially during the past two decades, many of the nation states that rejected plurality have faced civil war and, usually, division. The former Yugoslavia, Iraq, Syria and Sudan are just a few examples. Many more accommodating countries have accepted, respected and made space for their ethnic diversity. As discussed in more detail in my book, Legal Pluralism in Action ( see reference below), with the help of the Millet Practice, the Ottoman Empire managed to keep together its very diverse society for more than five centuries. Switzerland has successfully managed its diversity under a confederal system since 1815. The Scots, Welsh and Northern Irish have their own devolved administrations in the UK. Germany has sixteen federal states. Spain is increasingly making space for Catalan and Basque power. Macedonia has avoided civil war by enshrining in its constitution a decentralised model of governance (Lyon 2016).

Kurds have already established some de facto political and legal institutions during the ongoing conflict, as part of their practical resistance against the Turkish state and institutions of the state. The current, centralistic, authoritarian state position of Turkey may not be able to persist for much longer. If the state breaks down any further, Turkey will be left in as brutal a situation as Yugoslavia, Iraq, Sudan and Syria. And Europe will have an even larger flood of incoming refugees.



Adorno, Theodor (1991) The Culture Industry. Selected Essays on Mass Culture. London: Routledge.

Laclau, Ernesto and Chantel Mouffe (2001) Hegemony and Socialist Strategy: Towards a Radical Democratic Politics. Second Edition, London and New York: Verso.

Lijphart, Arend (1977) Democracy in Plural Societies: A Comparative Exploration. London: Yale University Press.

Lijphart, Arend (2008) Thinking About Democracy: Power Sharing and Majority Rule in Theory and Practice. Abingdon: Routledge.

Lyon, Aisling (2016) Decentralisation and the Management of Ethnic Conflict: Lessons from the Rebublic of Macedonia. Abingdon: Routledge.

Tas, Latif (2014) Legal Pluralism in Action: Dispute Resolution and Kurdish Peace Committee. Farnham: Ashgate.

Tastekin, Fehim (2016) Syrian Kurds expand diplomatic in Europe. Al-Monitor [Online, 22 April 2016]. Available at: http://www.al-monitor.com/pulse/originals/2016/04/turkey-syria-rojava-kurds-expand-diplomatic-network-europe.html# [accessed: 24.04.2016].

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