Background Briefing

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Turkish state forces violently and illegally displaced upwards of 380,000 Kurdish villagers in the 1990s during a conflict with the Kurdish Workers Party (PKK) in southeast Turkey. Gendarmes and commandos burned villagers out of their homes and destroyed their crops and livestock. The operations were marked by torture, extrajudicial execution, and “disappearance.” Although the government claims that a quarter of the internally displaced have returned, these figures cannot be substantiated.

Turkey became a candidate for European Union (E.U.) membership in 1999. In order to begin negotiations for membership, Turkey must fulfil a set of human rights tasks set by the European Commission, which includes a requirement that “the return of internally displaced persons to their original settlements should be supported and speeded up.” It is vital to the welfare of this large group—the poorest of the poor from the poorest region of the country—that concrete progress is made on this requirement. The displaced have no real hope of achieving justice other than through the leverage provided by the accession process. However, the Turkish government has so far failed to take any significant action to address the dire situation of the displaced or facilitate their return to their former homes. It has not implemented recommendations from Turkish and international bodies that have investigated the problem, and it is resisting the involvement of the international community in this process, despite recommendations from the United Nations (U.N.) and Council of Europe.

On December 17, the European Council will decide whether Turkey has met the human rights conditions, and whether a date should be set for membership negotiations to begin. The next three months may provide the last chance for the E.U. to insist on a concrete plan of action that will guarantee that Turkey’s internally displaced Kurds can return to their homes in dignity and safety, with appropriate assistance and compensation. If the present Turkish government does not take concrete steps to begin a successful returns program during this period, it is unlikely that this injustice will ever be righted. Human Rights Watch therefore recommends that, at a minimum, the Turkish government agree to establish a partnership with the U.N. agencies already present in the country and the E.U. to plan a return program in conformity with the U.N. Guiding Principles on Internal Displacement, to arrange funding, and to ensure that the plan is implemented.

The Turkish people were shocked in June 2004 when Croatia moved ahead of Turkey to start E.U. accession negotiations. Croatia had only applied for full membership in 2003, while Turkey had applied already in 1987. However, in contrast to Turkey, Croatia had taken concrete steps to address problems of displacement of Croatian Serbs in neighboring countries by cooperating with intergovernmental agencies including the United Nations (U.N.) and the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE). Turkey should stop fending off the legitimate involvement of international agencies and make a formal declaration to integrate them in its return plans.

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