The Kurds constitute one of the world’s largest populations without a nation state of their own. This great injustice is the root cause of the abuses and discrimination to which Kurds are still subjected to at the present day. This occurs despite the fact that the Kurds are one of the oldest peoples of the Middle East and can trace their lineage back thousands of years; the first mention of the existence of Kurds is traced to reference to ‘Karduchoi’ made by the classical Greek historian Xenophon in The Expedition of Cyrus.
Today, the actual size of the Kurdish population is very hard to establish because of the difficult circumstances in which the Kurds find themselves, but the number is usually estimated at approximately 40 million. The majority of the communities of Kurds are distributed unevenly between the four states of Turkey, Iraq, Iran and Syria. The borders of these contemporary states only came into being following the First World War with the collapse of the Ottoman Empire and the reshaping of the region by the imperial powers. Britain, France and the US share much of the responsibility for the denial of social, cultural, political and citizenship rights to the Kurds and which is still the condition of existence for the majority of Kurds today.
Despite their common heritage, the historical paths of Kurds have diverged greatly in the 20th and 21st centuries; while, for example, the Kurdish region of Iraq has achieved a strong autonomy and a degree of international diplomatic recognition, the Kurds in Turkey, which is the country where about 20 million of them dwell, are still struggling for basic ‘human rights’ such as the rights to freely make use of their mother tongue in public venues such as education and in the court system; it was not too long ago that the Turkish state defined Kurds as ‘mountain Turks’ and denied their very existence. The national awareness of the Kurdish masses has been mobilised over the last few decades by the political struggle led by the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, PKK, which was founded by Abdullah Ocalan, and who, despite being jailed by Turkey for 14 years, has continued to be regarded as a national leader by millions of Kurds.
Under pressure from its need to appear as a modern democratic state and motivated by its aim to join the European Union, Turkey has gradually been making reforms but at a very hesitant pace and with many backward steps on the way. The legal and physical persecution of Kurdish organisations, including elected Kurdish politicians, academics, lawyers and people in the media, has gathered pace in recent months with the start of mass trials against Kurds who are accused of supporting terrorism simply by the act of campaigning legally for Kurdish rights. Recently, a mass hunger strike of Kurdish political prisoners demanding improved rights was abandoned after more than sixty days in response to the intervention of Abdullah Ocalan. This episode has taught an important political lesson. Abdullah Ocalan’s role was essential to avert a real crisis in the country; had the hunger strikers been left to die, then serious unrest could have followed. It appears that the Turkish state was left helpless, unable to end the hunger strike alone. This shows very clearly that Ocalan has a key role to play in any future talks towards a peace settlement as the leader and spokesman of the Kurds.
The fate of the Kurds in Turkey is presently closely intertwined with the fate of the Kurds across the border in Syria, where Kurds number about three million. With the onset of the uprising against President Assad’s regime, people in many Kurdish towns in Syria have secured a fragile autonomy and begun to rule their own localities themselves led by the Democratic Union Party, PYD.
These successes in the achievement of Kurdish rights in Syria alarmed Turkey which appears to be intent on covertly undermining the Kurdish gains by provoking conflict with Syrian opposition forces who are receiving material support from Ankara and many of which share the ruling AKP’s Islamist outlook. By contrast, the Kurdish movement remains a largely secular based political organisation. The struggle to achieve the legitimate national and democratic rights of the Kurdish people is therefore a kind of ‘work in progress’ which shows no immediate end in sight.
Ultimately the fortunes of the Kurds are going to be linked to those of the peoples of the Middle East as a whole among whom they share a common geography and related histories. Indeed, proposals have been made by Ocalan for a new Middle East to be reshaped by the principles of democratic autonomy encompassing all the peoples of the region. The preservation and extension of human rights, including cultural and language rights, ultimately depends not only on the fine words enshrined in international law. These rights can best be secured by granting a greater degree of local autonomy and self-governance to the people, including of course, the Kurdish people.