Overview of Conflicts
The history of the Republic of Turkey, like so many nations who share an imperial past, has been afflicted by the massacres, rights violations and atrocities committed over the years in the name of nationalistic ideologies. Among those are the Armenian Genocide (1915), exchange of Greek populations (1923), the pogroms against Jewish, Greek and Armenian minorities, the single-party system era, the aftermath of the three military interventions (1960, 1971, 1980), especially the last one in 1980, and the violations of the rights of the Kurdish population since the establishment of the Republic and during the 30-year conflict (1984-…).
In all of these periods, from minorities to villagers in Kurdish villages, from academicians and writers to dissidents, to religious factions, a variety of groups of victims have suffered forced displacements, torture, unlawful killings and “disappearances”, mass killings and atrocities involving as perpetrators a variety of institutions and actors such as government bodies, gendarmerie, paramilitary forces, secret service and security forces.
As of today, the shared feeling of the victims of these violations and abuses is that there is an institutional and social oblivion to confront the past, hold the perpetrators accountable, and acknowledge the victims’ suffering and compensate their loss which leads to the continuation of the same kind of violations and abuses in different forms to this date. Turkey is known as a “country without memory” and those factions of the society asking for acknowledgement and social transformation are subject to further state violence and exclusion.
Upheavals in the Early Republican Years
The portrayal of Kurds as an ethnic group with the right to self-rule in the 1921 Constitution changed in 1924, when a new constitution replaced the 1921 Constitution just after the establishment of the new republic. While the 1924 Constitution still recognized the existence of various ethnic groups in Turkey, it also stated that no special rights of any kind would be granted to these communities. The policy of Turkification, especially in the first few decades of the Republic, was implemented mostly through means of compulsory assimilation like displacement and compulsory settlement, banning of speaking Kurdish in public and publishing in Kurdish, Turkification of surnames, the names of villages and the names of local places etc. In 14 years between the establishment of the Republic and the Dersim Rebellions in 1937, there were 21 Kurdish upheavals.
Until the 1980’s
Eastern and South-Eastern Anatolia – inhabited dominantly by the Kurdish population- were declared “prohibited zones” between 1925 and 1950 and were subject to martial law. In order to prevent the events from having a negative impact on Turkey’s international image and reputation, foreigners were not allowed to visit the entire area east of Euphrates until 1965 and the area remained under permanent military siege till 1950. All the official reports on Kurdish problem prepared at the time point out assimilation policies and military interventions as the solution. Assimilation policies reach its peak after the 1960 coup d’etat with its slogan “There are no Kurds, only Mountain Turks who think themselves as Kurds”. Kurdish nationalism began resurgence in the 1970s when Turkey was racked with left-right clashes and the PKK (Kurdistan Workers Party) was formed towards the beginning of 80’s. PKK declared its objective as the liberation of all parts of Kurdistan from colonial oppression and establishment of an independent, united, socialist Kurdish state.
The military coup in 1980 led to a period of severe repression and elimination of almost all Kurdish and leftist organizations. The PKK, however, managed to survive through taking its cadres outside Turkey and even grow in size after the coup. It initiated a guerrilla offensive with a series of attacks on Turkish military and police stations in 1984.
Armed conflict involving the PKK armed guerrilla had been among the oldest ongoing wars in the world. It has had a high human and social cost, including around 40,000 deaths, more than a million of internally displaced persons, specific gender impacts (e.g. sexual violence against women), high levels of trauma and significant economic costs (it is estimated that more than 300 billion USD have been spent until now).
Peace Process and the Current Momentum
On December 2012, the governing party, Justice and Development Party (hereafter AKP) and Abdullah Öcalan, the incarcerated leader of the Kurdish movement, declared publicly that they have initiated talks aimed at convincing the Kurdish movement to lay down its arms. This public declaration was crucial for the peaceful and democratic solution of the Kurdish issue and the establishment of a sustainable peace process. After the interruption of the Oslo peace negotiations, the re-opening of the talks, and this time with stronger emphasis on the political will of both parties, created reason for hope for the establishment of peace and democratization in the country after over 30 years of ongoing war. In addition, the letter drafted by Abdullah Öcalan and read on the Diyarbakır Newroz celebration on 21 March 2013 openly declared that the era of armed struggle is historically over and the Kurdish movement will deepen the path of democratic struggle. In the letter, Öcalan outlined his vision for the peace process which foresaw three phases; firstly withdrawal of armed units, secondly democratic reforms for the government (setting up of commissions), and thirdly, integration of the PKK into political and civilian life following disarmament. After the declaration of the cease fire, the withdrawal of PKK forces from Turkish territory to Iraq’s Qandil mountain region began in the summer of 2013. Two years after the commencement of talks, however, controversies still remain as to when each phase ends and what each phase exactly entails.
Two important tools of peace support infrastructure have been established during the last two years though. The first one is the Committee of Wise People, initiated in April, 2013. Intellectuals from various universities, journalists, human rights defenders, trade unionists, specialists from several CSOs and also prominent actors and musicians were appointed by the Prime Minister to these committees. 9 wise people from 7 geographical regions of Turkey, 63 people in total, were appointed. The committees were established as of April 2013 and their period of work was determined as 2 months. During these two months, each regional committee organized meetings, interviews, gatherings, panels and seminars in its own region and discussed the peace talks with the public. Although it’s been one of the most important tools for deepening the peace talks, the outcome of the deliberations did not create an immediate political impact. Despite the fact that all the committees drafted their reports including their suggestions, these reports never became accessible for a wider audience. The content of the reports, except for the report of the South Eastern Anatolian Region, was not disclosed. Some of the members of the commissions wrote the content of their report in their newspaper columns individually, however, officially these reports did not become public.
The second important peace infrastructure tool, the Commission of Resolution was established on 9 April 2013 with the participation of 10 parliamentarians from the AKP and 1 parliamentarian from the Peace and Democracy Party (hereafter BDP); People’s Republican Party and Nationalist Movement Party refused to participate. The commission held hearings with several academicians, politicians, ex-political prisoners, representatives from grassroots organizations of the victims of war and various CSOs (including a session with Hafıza Merkezi on enforced disappearances), peace initiatives, and women’s groups during the summer of 2013. The commission heard experiences and recommendations on forced migration, enforced disappearances, extrajudicial and arbitrary executions, and mechanisms of transitional justice, war crimes, affirmative action and the constitution making process. Although it is a very important step in order to develop how to harmonize the perspective of the government with the perspective of BDP in light of the hearings and suggestions made by various actors, the commission did not provide that result.
Most current development is the enactment of a law entitled Law on the Termination of Terror and Strengthening of Social Integration as of 16 July 2014. Accordingly, the government determines the political, legal, socio-economical, psychological, cultural, human rights, security areas, disarmament steps and steps which are related to these subjects and if necessary, it takes the decision to establish dialogue, to have contact, to organize meetings and make similar efforts with national and international actors, organizations and institutions. Furthermore, the law also designates people, institutions and organizations to perform these duties. Based on this law, creating the necessary legislative framework is also one of the main responsibilities of the government in relation to the resolution process. The government, equipped with this broad framework of duty, responsibility and authority, works in cooperation with The Public Order and Safety Undersecretary, which is the official Secretariat of the peace process.
The discussions on enforced disappearances specifically, and on how to reckon with past atrocities more generally, is not at the heart of the peace process unfortunately. The peace process is focused more on the immediate military and political issues, clearly crucial for peace and democratic resolution of the problem, (e.g. the disarmament, demobilization and rehabilitation of the PKK forces, the official recognition of the Kurdish language for educational purposes, immediate democratization demands, equal citizenship rights and decentralization of the state apparatus) , however, demands of dealing with the past issues including how to tackle the issues of the enforced disappearances seem to be at the margin of the discussion. Although BDP, as a party of the process, submitted several draft laws to the Parliament on the issues of dealing with the past, including the establishment of a Truth Commission, steps to end impunity through the annulment of the status of limitation for enforced disappearances and arbitrary and extra-judicial executions, these demands were not incorporated into the core of the peace process. Still, there is reason to believe – considering all the tools and developments discussed above – that the various actors supporting the peace process, including civil society, national and international actors, have the opportunity to increase the pressure to include these components at the heart of the process.
Turkey’s official position on the 1915 deportation and massacring of hundreds of thousands Armenians is denial and international campaigns against the recognition of the genocide. The ‘Great Catastrophe’ had been planned and realized by the government of the Committee of Union and Progress (İttihat ve Terakki Cemiyeti) in Ottoman Empire; after WWI, the Ottoman government was going to recognize because of the political pressure of the occupying countries, such as Britain and France. However, with the new republic, the denial policy has started. The Turkish governments have been wiping out the Armenian heritage in Anatolia, while they have been insisting on the denial policy abroad. The government of JDP (Justice and Development Party – AK Parti) took some steps to recover some Armenian landmarks, especially the renovation of Akhtamar Church was an important step. Akhtamar was opened in 2007 and hosted the first mass on September 19, 2010 with a temporary permission by the government.
As editor-in-chief of the bilingual Turkish-Armenian newspaper Agos, Dink was a prominent member of the Armenian minority in Turkey, best known for advocating Turkish-Armenian reconciliation, human and minority rights in Turkey. He was prosecuted several times for denigrating Turkishness, while receiving numerous death threats from Turkish nationalists. He was assassinated in Istanbul in January 2007, by a 17-year old Turkish nationalist. This was shortly after the premiere of the genocide documentary Screamers, in which he is interviewed about Turkish denial of the Armenian Genocide of 1915 and the case against him under article 301. At his funeral, two hundred thousand mourners marched in protest of the assassination, chanting “We are all Armenians” and “We are all Hrant Dink”. Both the apology campaign and 24 April Commemorations held in 2010 and 2011 in several cities are said to be influences of Hrant Dink’s murder.
Civil Society Efforts for Dealing with the Past in Turkey
In recent years, issues around confronting the past have become a matter of interest for the academia, civil society and the media, and -to a certain extent- the state. While in the past, in scope of the Westernization project, the “forget and move forward” tendency was prevalent, today, there has been a shift, largely due to the efforts of civil society.
The civil society movement active in the Kurdish movement working for building peace and consolidation of the Kurdish people’s rights have been vital in developing the field of dealing with the past efforts. Kurdish movement’s focus on mass atrocities perpetrated by the state, made issues of impunity and rule of law an indispensible part of dealing with the past in Turkey.
This collection of information on memorial projects in Turkey highlights positive examples of memorialization among the many groups and individuals that have suffered harm or grievance over the past 100 years in the late Ottoman Empire and the Republic of Turkey. This project is a collaboration between the World Policy Institute in New York, the Fetzer Institute in Kalamazoo, Michigan, and Hafıza Merkezi in Istanbul. It grew from the realization that Turkey shares many features with other societies moving from oppression and violence into a more peaceful, democratic future.
Conference: Ottoman Armenians During the Decline of the Empire
On September 24-25 2005, a conference entitled “Ottoman Armenians during the Decline of the Empire: Issues of Scientific Responsibility and Democracy” was held at Bilgi University in Istanbul after two previous attempts which were blocked by the Turkish government. The self-avowed goal of the conference was to call into question the official Turkish account of events. It was the first time this subject was ever discussed so openly in Turkey. Discussing the mass killings of Armenians has long been taboo in Turkey, and scholars who use the word genocide can be prosecuted under a clause in the Turkish penal code on insulting the national character.
“My conscience does not accept the insensitivity showed to and the denial of the Great Catastrophe that the Ottoman Armenians were subjected to in 1915. I reject this injustice and for my share, I empathize with the feelings and pain of my Armenian brothers and sisters. I apologize to them.”
The campaign, which was made public in December 2008, has been in principal the work of 361 writers/academicians/journalists who made a call for the campaign and over 30 thousand people signed it. The declaration is not an official or state-sanctioned apology; in fact, it has been roundly condemned by Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan and other officials. Some of the authors of the apology commented that the campaign aimed at generating discussion and in this respect, it has been successful. However, the wording of the apology has been criticized by several Armenian and Turkish intellectuals especially because it situates the matter in the realm of conscience and not in the realm of politics; not involves a call to action to the state and deliberately chooses not to use the word genocide.
Writer of Liberation daily Jean Kehayan wrote a letter to the initiators and attendees of apology campaign. Kehanyan called apologizers as his brothers and praised the apology campaign. Kehayan wrote, “Initiators and attenders of apology campaign, you should know that you are the brothers of the people who carry the hope of the future and historical truths. We, Armenian descent French people are in solidarity with you. We only claim historical truth, not lands nor returning of possession.” The letter was then signed by around 200 Armenian writers/academicians/artists from Europe and the USA. You can see a recent article by Talin Suciyan titled The Endlessness of Crime and Apology from the following link: http://goo.gl/vIFmX1
On May 27, 1995, families of the disappeared and human rights advocates came together in front of the Galatasaray High School on Istiklal Street a central boulevard in Istanbul, and turned the spot into a dynamic memorial site. They began a simple sit-in, like their Argentinian counterparts The Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo, as a simultaneous protest and commemoration that would be repeated every Saturday. Holding photographs of the disappeared, the protestors made two main demands. Their primary demand was concrete and reliable information on what had happened to their children or comrades. In other words, they were asking the Turkish state to release their bodies, while also trying to keep collective memory alive. Secondly, they demanded trials for unjust state practices, determination of the perpetrators of the disappearances and trials of those specifically responsible for their children’s disappearances, and an end to impunity for state officials. The sit in in front of Galatasaray High School continues as of today.
History Foundation is a non-governmental organisation founded in September 1991, by the joint initiative of a group of intellectuals of various backgrounds and professions, most of them being historians and social scientists. It is working in the public interest with the objective of developing and extending history-consciousness in Turkey. It aims at enriching and lending a new content to the way in which people regard history and at encouraging the conservation of the historical heritage with a deep-rooted sensitivity and active participation of wide sections of the population. It carries out its functions by means of all types of research and educational work, and by engaging in, organising or assisting in various types of activity such as publication of books and periodicals, production of documentary films and radio and television programs, electronic publishing, production of artistic and literary works in the field of history, museological and exhibition activities, scholarly meetings, library and archival services, cultural tourism, etc. The History Foundation’s publications and events highlight moments and histories of violence that are not acknowledged by official historical accounts in Turkey.
İHD was founded on 17 July 1986, by 98 people, comprising lawyers, journalists, intellectuals, but mainly relatives of political prisoners. The Human Rights Association works on all kind of human rights, but is mainly focused on abuses in Turkey. In 1992, the statute was changed to cover humanitarian aspects as laid out in the Geneva Conventions. Since then the HRA has also criticized human violations of armed groups. It has been the prominent NGO in supporting the relatives of the enforced disappeared and their legal struggle. Its commission against racism and discrimination prepared the first exhibition on 6-7 September 1955 pogrom against non-Muslims and published a book on Tuzla Armenian child camp, founded by Hrant Dink, and confiscated by the state. HRA has been active in organizing the commemorations of the Armenian Genocide.
Hrant Dink Foundation was established after the assassination of prominent Turkish-Armenian journalist and editor Hrant Dink, has also been very active in promoting democratic values, cultural and historical dialogue and cross-border cooperation between Turkey and Armenia. research, publication, organizing conferences (such as the and establishing mobility opportunities, among which, the recent Turkey-Armenia Fellowship Scheme and the Turkey-Armenia Travel Grant within the framework of the Support to the Armenia-Turkey Normalisation Process financed by the European Union.
TESEV is an independent non-governmental think-tank, analyzing social, political and economic policy issues facing Turkey. Based in Istanbul, TESEV was founded in 1994 to serve as a bridge between academic research and policy-making process in Turkey. The publications and activities of democratisation program of TESEV focusin on Kurdish issue, impunity and human rights violations make TESEV one of the prime references regarding issues of dealing with the past in Turkey.
Federation of Revolutionary 78ers
12th of September Museum of Shame and Diyarbakır Military Prison Project documented in Memorialize Turkey website are two important memorialization actions supported by Federation of Revolutionary 78ers, founded by the members of the revolutionary leftist youth movement of the 70s.