Turkey, Ph.D. Researcher, Transitional Justice Institute Ulster University, Belfast, UK 2019
Transitional Justice in an Ongoing Conflict: A victim-centered analysis of Transitional Justice mechanisms in the context of the Kurdish Conflict
This PhD project research aims to shed light on the needs of the victims of the Kurdish conflict with regards to Transitional Justice (TJ) and explore the prospects for TJ in ongoing conflicts. TJ refers to a set of mechanisms and processes that are designed to address the legacy of a violent past and to make sure that the violence will not repeat again. It might include a wide range of judicial and non-judicial mechanisms from trials, tribunals, truth commissions to amnesties, state apologies, commemorations. Although TJ was initially state-centric, the centrality of victims in TJ is now accepted by many scholars and practitioners. However, it does not always appear to be the case that the victim-centred approach is ensured in TJ practice. One of the key points of victims-centredness lies in the recognition of the agency of victims, which requires the inclusion of their experience, perspectives and needs into TJ discussions and practice. Several scholars argue that there is a need to go beyond the prescriptive approaches and focus more on particularities of different transitional contexts by conducting locally informed, context-specific empirical research which would ultimately allow us to understand the needs of victims. This research is also informed by the victim-centred approach which suggest that the goals of TJ should be identified by those most affected. TJ processes or mechanisms should be designed in a way that will provide responses to the “explicit needs of victims, as defined by victims themselves.” (Robins, 2012 p. 86)
TJ has been predominantly used in post-conflict settings during a regular transition. However, it has been increasingly argued that it can also be used when there is not a linear transition, or sometimes when there is no transition at all. As it was the case in Colombia, several authors claim that it can also be used during ongoing conflicts to facilitate the peaceful transformation of the conflict. In Turkey, although there has never been a fundamental political transformation, there have been various mechanisms that are considered as TJ mechanisms in the literature. TJ has been an under-researched topic with regards to the Kurdish conflict. From a context-specific, victim-centred approach, this project aims to develop a set of recommendations for a possible TJ process within the context of the Kurdish conflict, which might potentially contribute the peaceful resolution of the conflict.
The Kurdish conflict, rooted in the history and the formation of the Turkish Republic, has been one of the long-lasting conflicts in the Middle East. Until very recently, the Turkish government refused to recognize its Kurdish population as a distinct people and denied them the linguistic, ethnic, cultural, religious, economic and political rights that they have been seeking. This resulted in widespread assimilation and human rights violations (Gunes, 2013). The ban on the Kurdish language and the usage of the words “Kurds,” “Kurdistan,” and “Kurdish” have been the main tools of assimilation. Extensive restrictions on the Kurdish identity and the punitive approach towards their claims for rights led to the idea amongst some groups that the use of violence was the only means to achieve Kurdish liberation (Gunes, 2013). The conflict is explained as the manifestation of this “systematic denial and degradation of Kurds” (Jongerden, 2017: 3). The approach of the Turkish government towards the conflict, however, has been dominated by a security discourse accompanied by military interventions (Yildiz, 2012). Mainstream Turkish political parties treat the problem as terrorism and consider it as an existential threat to national security (Bozarslan, 2008).
The armed forces and state-led paramilitaries employed indiscriminate violence towards civilians in the Kurdish-populated regions which were under the state of emergency between 1987 and 2002. Forced disappearances, unsolved murders, forced displacement, village evacuations, torture, arbitrary detention, forced migration are among the widespread abuses that were dominant in the 1990s in Turkey’s Kurdistan. The 1990s was also notable because it marks the high levels of political mobilization among Kurds. Alongside the armed campaign by the PKK, many Kurds resisted the political violence using peaceful means such as mass rallies, school boycotts and shutdowns of shops. This period has been central to political empowerment of Kurds and they have become active political actors who demand justice and accountability for their suffering. The victims-survivors of the Kurdish conflict are highly politicised and view the harm they experienced through a political lens. Moreover, they are usually affiliated with a victim organisation and are active in Kurdish-movement related political networks.
Despite the long history of denial and silence over the human rights abuses regarding the Kurdish conflict, the social dynamics of forgetting started to change in favour of truth-seeking and remembrance within the period between 2000-2015 (Budak, 2015). While demands for TJ gained popularity among victims, survivors, lawyers and activists; the EU and the ECHR were the main international actors who put pressure on the government to respond to those demands (Budak, 2015: 231). Although the demands for truth-recovery have never been met, limited efforts for prosecutions and reparations were put in place by the state. The most concrete tool was the Compensation Law which was enacted in 2004 to compensate for material damages. Moreover, the 1980 military coup plotters were put in trial and some investigations were conducted with regards to forced disappearances. Alongside the judicial processes, victim-survivor groups and activists used various unofficial TJ mechanisms to deal with the past. For instance, The Truth and Justice Commission for the Diyarbakir Prison was formed in 2007 as an unofficial commission by a group of activists with the aim of collecting testimonies from ex-inmates. It was, therefore, a period when both state and civil society actors employed individual, isolated TJ attempts without an overarching agenda.