The maintenance of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party on the Canadian government’s list of terrorist organizations is a bizarre classification given the recent nature of the group. The PKK in its current inception has very little to do with the terror tactics it occasionally employed in the 80s, 90s and early 00s. Correspondingly, the armed wing of the group is smaller than it has ever been, and with regards to Turkey is strictly engaged in insurrection towards military and police installations. If the PKK were today attacking civilians because it saw no other way to redress the grievances of Anatolia’s Kurdish population, then someone arguing for its blacklisting would have a ghost of a point. But this is simply no longer the case.
I proffer no defence of the PKK’s violent actions between 1984-2013, but I invite readers to remember the campaign of brutality and repression visited upon the Kurds in Turkey during those years. The history of Turkey’s “problem” minority is a tragic but resilient one. We are talking about the largest identifiable group of people in the world who don’t have a state of their own. A unique culture, with its own languages, traditions, heritage, and I argue, right to self-determination. But Ankara has always seen the Kurds as an impediment to Atatürk’s vision for an ethnically homogenous Turkey. And for decades the PKK has struggled against state repression in the southeastern quarter of the country.
It’s annoying that I have to waste ink clarifying the obvious, but I will do so anyways to avoid any charge of unfairness. The activity of the PKK in years past is disgraced by the harm that befell civilians. Killing non-combatants is never justified. That being said, I don’t think any thoughtful audience would consider Turkish soldiers complicit in the systematic destruction of an estimated 2,400 Kurdish villages to be pacific actors.
The chronological trend within the PKK has been concurrently towards a more tepid socialism and a deescalation of violent acts towards civilians and foreigners. In 2013 the group’s leader Abdullah Öcalan wrote a letter from the prison cell in which he is being held indefinitely, instructing PKK forces to withdraw across the mountains into Iraqi Kurdistan. This command was followed almost immediately and since 2013 the PKK has sought refuge in the Autonomous Region of northern Iraq. But this retreat has marginalized the PKK in terms of its ability to leverage in discussion of autonomy.
In blacklisting the PKK, Canada is echoing the Turkish government’s position that neither the organization nor its totally benign subsidiaries deserve a seat at the table. The fastest way to broker a peace in this conflict is to invite actual representatives of the Kurdish community to have a say in their own future. This necessarily means including the PKK.
The most compelling argument on this subject is related to the rise of ISIL in the neighbourhood. How can we label the PKK and her affiliates as terrorist groups and simultaneously depend on their bravery in the fight against ISIL? It seems self-evidently hypocritical to condemn the guerillas and then wager against the implosion of the region because of its actions. Remember, it was the PKK who shepherded the Yazidi Kurds to safety on Mount Sinjar. It was the PKK who shouldered rifles to restore Kobanî. And it is the PKK who settles down at night in the mountains of Northern Iraq and wait for the Turks to start shelling them from across the border.
And we repay our brothers and sisters in Kurdistan by taking Erdogan’s side. This great debt we owe tothe people struggling against ISIL on our behalf is reimbursed by freezing their assets, by pigeon- holing a vast umbrella organization for events that transpired decades ago. We recompense their bravery with our cowardice, with confused and dated classifications. As for solidarity, we have abandoned the principal.