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Adjournment Speech: Kurdish Self Determination

Speeches in Parliament
Lee Rhiannon 17 Nov 2017

On Tuesday 14th of November, 2017, Lee gave the following speech in the Senate. 

The Kurds of the Middle East have common ethnicity, language and identity, but their land flows across four modern state boundaries—Turkey, Syria, Iraq and Iran. For centuries the Kurds have struggled for recognition and autonomy and repeatedly this has been denied in the wider geopolitical struggles in the region. Again and again the Kurds have assisted in the overthrow of oppressors, in defeating the Ottomans and most recently in defeating ISIS in Iraq and Syria. Despite promises of recognition, history is littered with broken promises to the Kurds; in fact, they continue to be oppressed by the nation states in which they are embedded, being denied citizens' rights. Considering the level of abuse, it is no wonder that the Kurds in Turkey at least have resorted to violent military action in defence of their rights. Their recognised leader, Ocalan, has been jailed for many years. Only mutual negotiation and recognition can solve this running sore.

Kurds, as we know, have no homeland state of their own. In each country they live in they form a sizeable minority and in each country except Iran they have struggled for autonomy for centuries. Such has been the fate of Kurdish people for millennia—constantly being attacked, massacred or deported. In each case the dominant rulers of the state have frequently refused to acknowledge the Kurds as citizens and denied them basic rights. In Turkey, Kurds account for 18 per cent or more of the population, mainly in the east and the south of the country. Following the 1923 Treaty of Lausanne, Turkey denied the very existence of Kurds and any expression of ethnic identity by the Kurds was harshly repressed. The use of Kurdish language was repressed, especially in state schools. Sadly, these practices continue across different countries where Kurdish people now live.

Human Rights Watch have documented many instances where the Turkish military forcibly destroyed houses and villages. Three thousand villages were virtually wiped off the map and it displaced more than 378,000 people. The struggle continues to this day, greatly increased since the failed coup and autocratic rule of Erdogan.

The PKK is a Kurdish militant organisation which has waged an arms struggle against the Turkish state for cultural and political rights and self-determination for the Kurds. The PKK has been labelled a terrorist organisation by Turkey's allies, including the US and the European Union, but, interestingly, not by the United Nations, Switzerland or Russia. To this day, the Kurds remain the largest group of stateless people on this planet. Many feel far more kinship with their fellow Kurds in Iran, Iraq and Syria than with their nominally country folk in Turkey.

In Iraq, Kurds make up around 17 per cent of the population and form the semi-autonomous state of Iraqi Kurdistan. Yet, between 1975 and 1978, 200,000 Kurds were deported to other parts of Iraq. During the Iran-Iraq War in the 1980s, Iraqi forces were responsible for the mass murder of hundreds of thousands of civilians and the destruction of 2,000 Kurdish villages. Most recently, the Iraqi Kurds held a referendum resulting in an overwhelming vote for autonomy. However, the Iraqi government quickly moved into Kirkuk, regaining political control and reclaiming the rich oil fields of Kirkuk. Many thousands of civilians fled towards the northern border with Turkey fearing further retribution.

In Syria, Kurds make up approximately 10 per cent of the population, living mainly in the north. In some areas, the Kurdish language is banned. As well, in some areas children cannot be registered with Kurdish names. Around 300,000 Kurds have been denied Syrian nationality and any social rights, yet Kurdish militias in Syria, in support of US forces, were the only ground forces that so far have managed to take on ISIS and win. The Americans supported the Kurds when it suited them, but then refused to support their bid for autonomy. The Turkish government has long feared Kurdish independence outside its borders lest it provoke similar aspirations inside Turkey. Thus, Turkey felt threatened when Iraqi Kurds held and won a referendum for independence and threatened potentially crippling restrictions on oil trading, and have even have threatened to invade Iraqi Kurdistan. In Syria, rather than supporting the Kurdish militias fighting ISIS, Turkey has actively attacked Kurdish regions in northern Syria.

For Turkish Kurds, the double standards are extreme and discriminatory—that's what they have to endure. Kurdish fighters were celebrated around the world in 2014-15 as they withstood a month-long siege by the Islamic State but were then ignored in their own struggle for human rights. Kurds quite rightly condemn as hypocrisy the US policy of supporting Kurds when fighting for their rights against ISIS but not when doing the same against Turkey.

Abdullah Ocalan has achieved a status among Kurds much like that of Nelson Mandela. He's also been jailed for a very long time. Ocalan is a political theorist who first pursued a Marxist national liberation struggle uniting the Kurds across four countries: Turkey, Syria, Iraq and Iran. He co-founded the PKK in 1978 and led the movement in a protracted guerrilla resistance in the 1980s and 1990s. He was captured in 1999. Ocalan has developed the theory of loosely federated Kurdish communities that would not necessarily cause the break-up of Turkey's national territory. I give emphasis to that because the Kurdish, in their negotiations and in their campaigns, are being very practical in terms of the current situation, where there are now four nation states, and are trying to work within that to advance their rights for some level of autonomy in that area. Ocalan has become a symbol of struggle that crosses many of the divides in Kurdish national politics. While there are large differences among Kurdish national movements, Ocalan is supported by many Kurdish groups. For the PKK, real negotiations can only begin when Ocalan is released from his island prison and leads the Kurds at the negotiating table for greater autonomy, peace and cultural rights. Thank you, Mr President.

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