"The Continued Isolation of Abdullah Öcalan is a Shame"
Clare Baker, spokeswoman for the trade union movement Unite the Union in the United Kingdom, in an interview with the women's magazine Newaya Jin
The "Freedom for Öcalan" campaign, which you launched on behalf of "Unite the Union" in 2016, has now reached a wide audience. Can you give us some details about the campaign? What is your own assessment of the efforts and initiatives around the campaign?
The campaign was officially launched in 2016 in the British Parliament by the two unions "Unite the Union" ("Unite" for short) and "General, Municipal, Boilermakers and Allied Trade Union" (GMB). Since then fifteen national unions, the Trades Union Congress (TUC) and the trade union law firm Thompsons have joined the campaign. The co-chairs are Simon Dubbins, director of Unite, and the Labour politician Christine Blower.
The focus of the campaign is primarily the freedom of Abdullah Öcalan, but of course we are also campaigning for peace in the region and the release of all political prisoners in Turkey. Our work is also directed against the invasion of the free cantons of Rojava and North and East Syria and advocates for the withdrawal of Turkish jihadist occupation forces from Kurdish areas.
Several high-impact events have taken place as part of the campaign. In particular, the following four can be mentioned:
Our campaign was the international theme of the 2018 Durham Miners Gala and has been anchored there ever since. It is one of the oldest and largest working class events within the UK. As part of it, traditionally there is always a large demonstration through the city, with participants holding up the flags of their organizations and playing music from each branch. The march leads to a large square where a huge rally is held with speeches marked by political solidarity. Usually 150,000 to 200,000 people take part, which means they have also been informed about our campaign. Ibrahim Dogus1 last spoke at the demonstration on behalf of the campaign and many of the prominent speakers also spoke of the need for Mr. Öcalan's release and solidarity with Kurdish society.
In 2018, we also organized an event at London City Hall. At that time, the Turkish Embassy tried to prevent this by putting pressure on London Mayor Sadiq Khan and the general secretaries of the unions involved in the campaign. All the general secretaries then wrote a clear refusal to the embassy, but at the same time offered to facilitate a meeting where it could be calmly explained why the trade union movement demands the release of Mr. Öcalan. Unfortunately, the embassy has not responded to the offer to date.
At the second largest working class event in the UK, the Tolpuddle Martyrs Festival2, we also succeeded in making our campaign the international program item in 2019. Again, around 100,000 people took part. Just like in Durham before, we managed to introduce and expand the campaign and make Kurdish culture known.
In 2019, we then carried out an action at the TUC conference where all delegates present held up a picture of Abdullah Öcalan to express solidarity and support. While this may be a simple action, its importance should not be underestimated and especially the effect it has on the global trade union movement.
The pandemic obviously hit us just as it did many other campaigns, so we couldn't continue to grow as consistently as before. Nevertheless, we managed to organize an online event last year, with unions from South Africa, France, Spain and Iceland participating.
We have come a long way in a relatively short time and are proud of what we have achieved so far with our work. The attention we have been able to draw to the situation of Kurdish society, in relation to the social and political structure it has built, and that in the context of Mr. Öcalan, is very important. Nevertheless, of course, there is still a long way to go.
The central demand of the campaign is the freedom of Abdullah Öcalan, who has now been in prison for 22 years. The regime in Ankara has further tightened the conditions of isolation, there is no contact with Mr. Öcalan, he is completely cut off from the world. How do you view this policy of the Turkish state?
The policy of Turkish Prime Minister Erdoğan of isolating Mr. Öcalan is not only an attempt to isolate him as a person, but also an attempt to isolate his ideas and the people inspired by them. Kurds, women, trade unionists, teachers, journalists, opposition parties and peace itself are under constant attack by Ankara. The situation of oppression faced by each of of these aforementioned groups in Turkey and in the spheres of influence of the Turkish state is directly linked to the detention and isolation of Mr. Öcalan.
Mr. Öcalan's isolation and illegal conditions constitute a form of torture and violate human rights. Yet institutions such as the European Committee for the Prevention of Torture and Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment (CPT) have been consistently silent for 22 years. What is your take on this? Isn't silence a political statement?
There are numerous geopolitical interests that prevent the international community from holding the Turkish state accountable for its human, civil and labor rights violations. Part of this complex is that the Turkish state is blackmailing the EU with the tragic situation of the large number of refugees who have fled the war in Syria. The EU member states' fear of the so-called refugee crisis paralyzes them. If the country did not hold such a geopolitically important function for them, they would deal with the Turkish state differently. For example, the EU has not hesitated long to condemn the situation in Myanmar and Belarus.
By labeling the Kurdish Freedom Movement as a terrorist organization, the international community has made it possible for Erdoğan to continue the war against Kurds both inside and outside his own borders, in principle without any restrictions.This has enabled the Turkish state to continue to behave in ways that cause problems for the international community itself. As an example, we can mention its aggression in Libya, in the Azerbaijan-Armenia war, in North and East Syria, in Iraq, against Greece and against international conventions and treaties, as well as its use of former IS fighters. These are all problems for the EU, for NATO, for the US, and for the international community as a whole. It is a spiral that can only end if the Turkish state is held accountable and if there is a serious effort for peace, including the release of Mr. Öcalan. His isolation is a form of torture according to the standards set by the UN. The inactivity of the international community thus makes it complicit in this torture.
Could Abdullah Öcalan's new paradigm of " Democratic Modernity" - based on women`s liberation -, the alternative to Capitalist Modernity, which is based on the exploitation of women, individuals and labor, be a reason for this? I am referring to the coming together of states within the framework of the continuation of isolation and imprisonment.
Mr. Öcalan's writings on the liberation of women, which are the inspiration for the new model of society in Rojava, are in absolute contrast to the course taken by the government of the Turkish state. In Turkey, religious and conservative values are becoming more and more prominent. Women's rights in particular are being trampled on. Öcalan's proposed social model of women's liberation and Democratic Modernity is therefore a direct provocation to Erdoğan.
The very existence of Rojava beyond Turkey's state borders and the system of co-presidency in southeastern Turkey pose a threat to Ankara, to which Erdoğan is reacting aggressively. Thus, the Peoples' Democratic Party (HDP) is attacked and suppressed, and its elected co-chairs are arrested or exiled to be replaced by government-designated trustees. North and East Syria is invaded, occupied, and "ethnic cleansing" is taking place there.
But we are gradually hearing more and more critical voices voiced against the Turkish state. The European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) is demanding that the former co-chair of the HDP Selahattin Demirtaş be released from prison. The review court in Belgium has officially ruled that the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK) is not a "terrorist organization" but an armed party in a civil war-like conflict, which automatically means its recognition under the Geneva Convention. A few days ago, the European Parliament called on the Turkish state to leave North and East Syria. Erdoğan has responded to all this with aggression and the continuation of the criminalization of the Kurds and the war against them. He used the recent article in Bloomberg again to use the threat of refugee flows. In this way, he wanted to force the EU to equate the Kurds in Syria with the PKK and thus label them as terrorists, and at the same time get them to finance the annexation of the occupied territories by the Turkish state.
Let's go back to the imprisonment of Mr. Öcalan. The international community is allowing the Turkish state to violate international law by isolating Abdullah Öcalan, and at the same time criminalizing those who oppose Öcalan's proposals, and then also criminalizing all those who oppose the authoritarian tendency of the Turkish government. And so on, and so forth, without international reaction. As long as Öcalan's imprisonment remains and as long as no peace-oriented democratic solution to the Kurdish question is tackled, Turkey can continue like this.
You have pointed out in the form of advertisements in several national as well as international newspapers that the freedom of Mr. Abdullah Öcalan is the basis for "opening the doors of peace". Here you also call on "those who have the power and privilege to report the truth" to take responsibility. Who exactly was this particular call directed at?
We call on all governments to act. For far too long, there has been no international pressure on the Turkish government, despite Ankara's constant repressive actions against society and violation of international law. The CPT and ECtHR reports show this very clearly. We demand that the EU follow the reports of its own institutions and draw concrete consequences from them. One of them is to end the isolation of Mr. Öcalan.
We were pleased to see that the European Parliament has finally called on the Turkish state to leave North and East Syria. But it is important that this does not remain empty demands, but that consequences follow if Ankara does not do so.
The election of the new US President Joe Biden can also be a step in the right direction. Because although we are aware that U.S. policy is always shaped solely on the basis of its own interests, it is a relief to hear that this policy is no longer determined by the whims of one man via Twitter.
We would also like to reiterate why it is in the interest of women to participate in the campaign. Mr. Öcalan emphasizes that "the fundamental contradiction within the history of civilization is the conflict between the sexes"; thus he positions himself as a good friend of women. In view of this, in what way are women in particular participating in the campaign?
At the moment we are working to build the campaign explicitly in the women's structures of the trade union movement as well. We now have a lot of different unions on board, and we now have to deal with making sure that the members understand and support the demand for Abdullah Öcalan's freedom. They need to understand why it is important to all of them who live and work in Britain. Öcalan's writings about women's liberation and the women's revolution in Rojava are a good way to enable women in our movement in particular to understand this. We look at the Kurdish system of equality and know that we can learn from this system, it is one that we take as a model. Especially for women - who are primarily exposed to patriarchy - it is always a great inspiration.
What short-, medium- or long-term goals have you set for your campaign? What kind of strategy are you currently pursuing with the campaign? What power do this and similar campaigns have to change the current situation?
Of course, our central goal is to achieve Mr. Öcalan's freedom so that he can play his role in the peace negotiations. We will continue to campaign for the rights of Kurdish society and all those who embrace the values of equality, peace, social justice, democracy and ecology in the region. In the short and medium term, as we move beyond the pandemic, we will continue the campaign further in the British, European and global trade union movement. We also know that it is important to raise the Kurdish question in general. We will continue to raise Mr. Ocalan`s situation, the reality of Kurdish existence and Rojava with MPs, and we will campaign against the Turkey-UK trade agreement if action to tackle human, civil and workers` rights violations continues to be non-existent.
Is there anything else you would like to share at the end of our interview?
We are very concerned about the rumors about Mr. Öcalan's health that have been making the rounds recently. We join many others around the world in calling for his legal team to be granted access to the Imrali prison island. In particular, we call on the CPT and the Council of Europe to insist that the lawyers and his family be granted immediate access. The continued isolation is a disgrace to Turkey and all countries that allow it are complicit.
1 Ibrahim Dogus is the initiator of the Centre for Turkey Studies and the Centre for Kurdish Progress in the UK. He is a democratic activist in the Turkish and Kurdish community in London and throughout the UK. He is also involved with the Labour Party as a councillor for Lambeth.
2 Das Tolpuddle Martyrs’ Festival in Südengland wird alljährlich zu Ehren von sechs Landarbeitern veranstaltet, die 1834 wegen der Gründung einer Gewerkschaft in die Verbannung geschickt wurden.
This article was first published in the May/June 2021 edition of the Kurdistan Report.