Turkey’s Kurdish question, while not having entered a negotiation stage, falls within the post-violence, de-escalation phase of conflict (Cizre 2001; Dorin 2005; Ergil 2000; Ferhad & GÏŒlistan 2000; Gunter 2000; Kirisci & Winrow 1997). It raises different yet comparable questions with regards to both human rights and civil society. In the pre-conflict phase, Turkey’s Kurdish question emerged as a result of the definition and subsequent application of Turkish nationalism. In principle, the Turkish Kemalist Republic adopted a civic interpretation of the nation, refusing to recognise any national minorities (other than those whose minority status had been agreed upon in prior international treaties). Yet in practice and over time, specific ethnic undertones began permeating the application of national policies, including the prioritisation of ethnic, cultural and linguistic Turkish features, as well as of Sunni Islam. The application of Turkish nationalism and industrialisation also led to the state’s neglect for the traditional and agricultural Kurdish south-eastern regions. The ensuing result was the violation of fundamental, cultural as well as socio-economic rights of various segments of the population, including the Kurds. The emergence of a trans-national Kurdish identity in the 1960s-70s appears to have emerged in direct conjunction with the human rights abuses directed or perceived as being directed against the Kurdish collectivity.

During the climax of the conflict, namely during the war between the separatist PKK and the Turkish armed forced (1984-1999), human rights abuses led to a vicious circle entrenching and deepening the conflict. On the one hand, the violations perpetrated by the Turkish state against its Kurdish citizens reinforced the Kurdish belief that their security, rights, identity and prosperity could not be guaranteed by the Turkish establishment. This mobilised support for the search for alternative solutions (including secession) as well as for violent means to achieve their ends. On the other hand, the human rights abuses perpetrated by Kurdish militants added to the securitisation of the Kurdish question in Turkey, vindicating the stance of the most nationalist factions and preventing the ensuing de-escalation of the conflict.

Yet, the military ‘victory’ of the Turkish armed forces culminating with the capture of the PKK leader Ocalan in 1999 and the concomitant initiation of Turkey’s EU accession course opened the way for the de-escalation of the conflict. This led both to the strengthening of human rights, the gradual extension of cultural rights and to the first steps towards a political and socio-economic normalisation in the region. However, an additional political factor recently emerged could impact on this state of affairs. The current Iraqi situation, where a strong Kurdish compoment is present, could influence the Kurdish situation also in Turkey.

The human rights dimension of this case study generates two sets of interlinked questions. First and as opposed to Cyprus, the formation of separate identities in the case of Turkey’s Kurds appears to have emerged together with the state’s violations of human rights. This in turn did not lead to the emergence of a conflict between two communities (i.e., Turks and Kurds). It rather triggered a conflict between one community (the Kurds) and the state; whose policies, based on a specific reading of the nationalist agenda, were perceived as excluding or being directed against it. What does the Kurdish question tell us about the complex relationship between the violation of rights, identity-formation and the emergence of conflict? Second, in its period of escalation, the Kurdish question appears to vindicate the hypothesis that violence contributed to the securitisation of the question, triggering a vicious circle of violence and counter-violence and the ensuing inflexibility of demanded solutions. In turn, it was only when violence subsumed that a new rights-based discourse came to the fore. This raises the controversial question of whether an end of violence, achieved through military victory and grave human rights abuses, could set a solid basis for genuine pacification of the conflict. Hence, what are the causal links between human rights abuses and the securitisation of conflicts and what were the necessary preconditions for the initiation of de-escalation in Turkey’s south-east?

The civil society dimension in Turkey’s Kurdish question offers important insights due to its subtle relationship with the human rights dimension. Individual human rights include the freedoms of expression and association, i.e., necessary conditions for a flourishing civil society. Yet not least due to the escalation of Turkey’s Kurdish question, these freedoms have been seriously curtailed in the country particularly since the 1980s, first and foremost in the Kurdish south-east. This has led to a relatively low presence of civil society actors operating on the Kurdish question. In fact, until the mid-1990s most civil society actors of any political complexion were regarded with suspicion in Turkey, so civil society culture was generally weak. In fact, until the mid-1990s most civil society actors of any political complexion were regarded with suspicion in Turkey so civil society culture was generally weak. Local Kurdish of Turkish groups have been frequently hindered, and international NGOs have frequently been denied the right to operate in the country. In addition, the hosting of Kurdish NGOs in (European) third countries exacerbated inter-governmental diplomatic tensions with the Turkish state. With the growing political liberalisation in the country, local civil society actors have become freer to act (this has been truer for Turkish rather than Kurdish associations) and international NGOs are now more present on the ground.

This raises two sets of key questions relevant to this project. The first concerns the inverse relationship between human rights and civil society. To what extent is the respect for human rights a necessary condition for an effective civil society? The second concerns the effects of curtailing rights and freedoms on the nature
of civil society. It may be argued that not least due to restricted political and civil space in Turkey’s south-east, civil society action has taken place largely outside the country, namely in third states which have hosted large Kurdish communities (who had in turn emigrated due to the poverty and violence in the region). Yet often, these groups have represented the most extreme voices in the conflict, acting as lobbying groups for the militant forces in battle in the country. What has been the effect of human rights violations on the nature of civil society and thus its potential contribution to (or hindering effect on) conflict resolution?