Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe

Testimony :: Mr. Jonathan Sugden
Researcher, Europe and Central Asia Division - Human Rights Watch

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Thank you very much for inviting me here to speak on behalf of Human Rights Watch about the one million or more internally displaced in Turkey. I was very impressed to learn that the CSCE had taken the initiative to look into this problem that has received so little attention in the international media, and even less in the Turkish media. Many of the issues the Commission considers are recently emerged crises, or disasters waiting to happen. In this case, the disaster happened ten years ago, but the victims are still, quite unnecessarily, forced to live with its consequences. I say 'unnecessarily' because this is not a zero-sum calculation: the displaced, the Turkish government, and the Turkish people alike will all benefit if an effective plan for return can be drawn up and implemented. This is a practical, do-able project: it is a solution waiting to happen.

The displacements in Turkey began in the late 1980s when the conflict between government security forces and the armed illegal Kurdish Workers’ Party (PKK) was increasing in intensity. The Turkish authorities’ response to PKK attacks in this rugged but quite densely populated and productive region was to demand that each village put up a corps of “village guards.” In theory this was voluntary, but in practice, it was a loyalty test. If a community said yes, the men received arms and money. If they said no, then it was assumed that they were PKK supporters and told to evacuate their homes. This was not to be an orderly, documented process of evacuation. In fact, soldiers were careful to avoid leaving a paper trail that might subsequently lead to claims for compensation. If villagers did not move out by the appointed date, soldiers burned their houses and goods, slaughtered their livestock and burned their crops.

It was a punitive exercise. But many villagers who refused to serve as village guards had no sympathy for the PKK. They explain that if they had taken up arms as village guards, then they would have been attacked by the PKK, who at that time were killing village guards they captured, and in some cases their entire families along with them.

During the 1990s, Human Rights Watch documented the forced evacuation of the southeast and other violations of humanitarian law committed by both sides to the conflict. Once relative peace had returned to the region, we went to investigate the current plight of the displaced. The results of that research in 2001 and 2002 are contained in a report entitled “Displaced and Disregarded,” and I would like to ask the Commission to include at least the summary and recommendations of that report in the record of this hearing.

In the course of our research I talked to many displaced villagers in Turkey’s major cities where they had sought refuge. All described frankly miserable lives, and expressed a bitter sense of the injustice inflicted upon them. If you go to Turkey, you will not see big refugee camps. The displaced have made themselves invisible by crowding in with relatives and neighbors, finding work where they can. But they are farmers, not urban entrepreneurs. They are living in great poverty, in conditions prone to disease and social exclusion, and the overwhelming majority are longing to go home.

For some this is impossible because the local governor has forbidden their village to be reoccupied. Others are turned back by the gendarmerie. Even if both the local governor and gendarmes allow return, the displaced often face obstruction by village guards who have occupied the land in their absence. Again and again, village guards have barred returning villagers from their land, and in several recent cases, even killed them. In July 2002 Yusuf, Abdurrahim and Abdulsamet Ünal returned with their families to Nureddin village in Muº province to collect their hay crop. A truckload of village guards came to stop them gathering the hay, and began to beat the males. The relatives scattered, but heard gunshots shortly after. All three men had been shot dead.

When pressed, the Turkish government pumps out inflated return statistics, and periodically announces initiatives for return. But these schemes have consistently been under-funded and ill conceived, falling far short of established international standards. In fact, it is difficult to avoid the conclusion that the government’s main goal is to gain time and wear the villagers down to a state of resignation. The Village Return and Rehabilitation Project announced in March 1999, for example, has since yielded nothing more than an unpublished feasibility study for return to twelve model villages. A mere twelve, when even according to official statistics it is acknowledged that more than three thousand villages and hamlets were evacuated.

What is particularly frustrating is that because the government’s schemes do not meet international standards (in particular the U.N. Guiding Principles on Internal Displacement), no international organizations want to get involved with them. The World Bank, for example, looked into funding a return-related project but backed away once it determined that the Turkish government’s scheme would not fully respect returnee rights. Instead of helping villagers get international assistance, the government--with its flawed plans--is standing in their path.

Many intergovernmental organizations that have tackled displacement issues in other parts of the world are already working in Turkey, and would be able to contribute expertise and resources to a comprehensive return program. Indeed, potential donors have encouraged Turkey to develop appropriate projects for return. Irish parliamentarian John Connor examined the situation on behalf of the Council of Europe’s Parliamentary Assembly last year, and he recommended that the “Council of Europe Development Bank should consider positively the projects related to the returns of displaced persons in the south-eastern regions of Turkey.”[1] The Turkish government should have seized that invitation with both hands.

A fair and effective return program would also serve Turkey’s interest in accession to the European Union. The E.U. has identified the need for a “comprehensive approach to reduce regional disparities, and in particular to improve the situation in the South-East,”[2] as a short-term priority for Turkey on the road to E.U. membership. E.U. resources would very likely be made available to help Turkey meet this goal.

And finally, the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan pipeline deserves a mention here. This ambitious international investment rather accurately draws a line around the quarter of Turkey where the displacement occurred. The displaced are undeniably the most disadvantaged group in that most disadvantaged region of the country. There is considerable public debate about the pipeline--but it cannot be disputed that the project should help support return and reconstruction for these people who are otherwise unlikely to see much benefit from the civil engineering project itself, or the resources it is intended to carry.

In sum, an investment in return to Turkey’s southeast would help redress a long-standing violation of fundamental rights, and help ensure the future stability and prosperity of this strategically vital region. Donors certainly appreciate that, and only need the Turkish government to commit to a plan they can support.

So my appeal to you is for something rather straightforward and relatively inexpensive. Get the ball rolling. Use your influence to press the Turkish government, as a matter of urgent priority, to convene a planning forum, inviting representatives of interested governments, nongovernmental and intergovernmental organizations with relevant expertise, and representatives of the displaced, to develop a plan for safe return in conformity with international standards. Once these parties come together to meet and discuss, then the plight of Turkey’s displaced will finally be on the agendas and wall planners of the people and institutions that can make a difference.

Take as your starting point the recommendation of the U.N. Representative of the Secretary-General on internally displaced persons, Dr. Francis Deng, following his visit to Turkey last year: “The Government might consider convening a meeting with international agencies, including the World Bank, and representatives of the potential partners to explore ways in which the international community could assist the Government in responding to the needs of the displaced.”[3]




1. John Connor, Rapporteur, Committee on Migration, Refugees and Demography, Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe, Humanitarian situation of the displaced Kurdish population in Turkey, Doc 9391, March 22, 2002; para 12, i, n. iii.

2. Accession Partnership for Turkey, 4.1.

3. E/CN.4/2003/86/Add.2, paragraph 38.