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Letter to Prime Minister Erdogan Regarding Possible Turkish Invasion of Northern Iraq

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21 March 2003

Mr Recep Tayyip Erdogan
Prime Minister
06573 Ankara, Turkey
Via Facsimile: +90 312 417 0476

Dear Prime Minister,

We are writing to express our concerns relating to possible Turkish military action in Northern Iraq. Human Rights Watch takes no position on the legal justifiability of war, including Turkish or U.S./U.K military action in Iraq. Our work on Iraq focuses on continuing human rights abuses and, if there is a war, the compliance by all parties with international humanitarian law. In that vein, we would like to offer our recommendations for ways in which your government can prevent violations of human rights and international humanitarian law and respond appropriately to a possible humanitarian crisis on Turkey's border.

Turkish government statements have made it clear that Turkish forces may be sent into Northern Iraq during the course of any conflict there, in order to ensure that the northern cities of Mosul and Kirkuk remain part of the state of Iraq, to protect the Turkomen population in Kirkuk, and to prevent an influx of refugees into Turkey.

News reports indicate that there are contingency plans to send 60,000 to 80,000 Turkish troops up to 170 miles into Northern Iraq. If such a deployment of Turkish troops were to provoke armed resistance from the Democratic Party of Kurdistan (KDP) and Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) forces, this could result in prolonged fighting over rugged mountains.

During the conflict between Turkish security forces and the Kurdish Workers' Party (PKK) from 1984 to 1999 in southeastern Turkey, Human Rights Watch documented gross human rights violations committed by both sides against civilians and prisoners. State security forces detained thousands of citizens for interrogation under torture. Between 1980 and 2000, more than 400 prisoners died, apparently as a result of torture, at the hands of Turkish police or gendarmes. Security forces emptied large areas of the countryside in the southeast by bombing and burning unarmed peasant settlements. Hundreds of thousands are still displaced. In the early 1990s, the Turkish security forces are believed to have sponsored networks of killers to eliminate hundreds of suspected enemies of the state by gunning them down in the street or making them "disappear."

Human Rights Watch is concerned about the potential risks to human rights if very large numbers of Turkish armed forces enter Northern Iraq, and we would urge you to take the steps outlined below to ensure that any Turkish operations in Iraq comport with international human rights and humanitarian law.

Exclude perpetrators of human right violations

Human Rights Watch urges that in the event of an expanded Turkish military presence in Northern Iraq, the Turkish authorities deploy no security force units with a history of committing grave human rights violations and no individual members of security forces implicated in human rights violations.

  • Given the strong evidence linking the Bolu Commando Brigade with grave abuses in circumstances similar to those that may arise in Northern Iraq and the lack of any efforts to date to hold members of the Brigade accountable, the Bolu Commando Brigade should not be sent for service in Northern Iraq. The same should apply for other units linked to past gross violations of human rights or humanitarian law, unless those specifically responsible for violations have been held accountable and removed from service in the security forces.

  • Members of the security forces who have a past conviction for ill-treatment or torture (including those whose sentences were amnestied), extrajudicial execution or "disappearance," or who are under investigation or on trial for such offences should not be sent for duty in Northern Iraq. Similarly, no members of the security forces should be armed and on duty in Northern Iraq if they are implicated in any of the 157 cases subject to judgments against Turkey at the European Court of Human Rights. (There are currently more than 1,000 additional cases against Turkey pending before the European Court of Human Rights).

  • Village guards should not be used for any armed activities in Northern Iraq and especially not for the management of large-scale refugee movements. Village guards have been implicated in extrajudicial executions and "disappearances." U.N. and Council of Europe expert bodies, as well as the Turkish Parliamentary Commission on Political Killings, recommended abolition of the village guard system.

Avoid methods that violate human rights or international humanitarian law

During the course of the conflict in mainly rural southeastern Turkey, security forces resorted to what amounted to a scorched earth strategy - forcibly evacuating and burning any settlements that were not prepared to put up a corps of village guards. Where there are pressing reasons of security, governments do have the right to move populations. However, what happened in southeastern Turkey was neither an orderly nor lawful resettlement program but an arbitrary and violent campaign marked by hundreds of "disappearances" and summary executions.

Echoing the Fourth Geneva Convention, the U.N. Guiding Principles on Internal Displacement prohibit the use of displacement in armed conflict unless the security of the civilians involved or imperative military reasons so demand. In such cases, the authorities must conduct the process in a lawful and ordered manner, providing alternative accommodation that meets the population's nutritional, health, and hygiene needs. The U.N. Guiding Principles impose upon states a particular obligation to protect from displacement indigenous peoples, minorities, peasants, pastoralists, and other groups with a special dependency on and attachment to their lands. The Guiding Principles also specify that displacement should not be carried out in a manner that violates the rights to life, dignity, liberty, and security of those affected.

  • Human Rights Watch recommends that the government of Turkey should commit itself to avoid the war crime of forcible displacement in the event of any war in Iraq, and renounce the "scorched earth" tactics previously employed in southeastern Turkey.

  • All members of the security forces on duty in Iraq should be properly instructed on their responsibilities under international humanitarian law, including the prohibition on torture. They should be provided with suitable information materials, such as the Rules for Behaviour in Combat, published by the International Committee of Red Cross/Red Crescent

Establish mechanisms for independent monitoring and supervision

The patterns of violations in southeast Turkey were exacerbated by the lack of independent oversight of security forces' activities. In Northern Iraq there would be even less administrative, judicial and civil society scrutiny to restrain possible violations. We therefore urge that mechanisms to ensure such scrutiny be established before fighting starts, rather than after reports of violations begin to emerge.

  • The Turkish government should provide broad access to the region for Turkish parliamentary representatives, journalists, and Turkish and international non-governmental organizations to enable them to scrutinize Turkey's present and future military activities in Northern Iraq, particularly the management of prisoners and fleeing civilian populations. Access to particular locations and sites of alleged abuses should only be restricted as strictly required by the needs of safety.

  • The Turkish armed forces should provide the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) access to any prisoners it may take within Northern Iraq.
In the absence of all other forms of supervision, a system of end-use monitoring of weapons and ammunition would at least provide some opportunity to corroborate or discount allegations of security force violations. Foreign states that supplied or authorized the supply of weapons and assistance to Turkey may also require information about how equipment is used. The Turkish armed forces should ensure that they can promptly provide full details to such states.
  • The Turkish government should ensure that the armed forces establish such methods of accounting and ensure that as far as possible, information is made available to parliamentary, intergovernmental and civil society organizations, and supplier governments interested in ensuring that security forces abide by international humanitarian law.

  • The Turkish government and armed forces should ensure accountability for any misuse of this weaponry and other military assistance.

Protect asylum-seekers and refugees

Human Rights Watch is concerned that preparations made by Turkish authorities to meet possible large-scale refugee movements within Northern Iraq may not afford refugees proper protection.

We recognize that Turkey has repeatedly had to shoulder a heavy financial burden to meet refugee crises arising from events in neighboring states, and we are urging governments of states outside the Iraq region to provide international assistance to neighboring countries, including Turkey, to help cope with the potential outflow of refugees from Iraq. (See Human Rights Watch Briefing Paper Iraq: Prepare for Humanitarian Crisis, February 13, 2003;

However, for the following reasons, the Turkish government's stated plan to restrict refugees to a series of camps within the fifteen-kilometer Turkish-occupied strip in Northern Iraq is not a satisfactory response to the current threat of humanitarian crisis:

The numbers of civilians fleeing the conflict may far exceed the predicted capacity of the camps. In December, the Turkish Red Crescent stated that the camps would be able to accommodate 80,000-100,000 people, but the U.N. has predicted that up to a million and a half civilians may try to leave Iraq in the event of war. During the 1991 war approximately 450,000 Iraqi Kurds tried to flee toward Turkey.

The military-occupied zone is a rugged area with difficult communications. In the event that very large numbers begin to flee northward, there is a risk that it would become difficult to supply the camps with food, water, fuel, and medicine in the enormous volumes that would be required. Difficulty of access contributed to the high mortality rate among refugees in the border area in 1991.

Placing the camps in the military-occupied zone may make them a target of attack rather than a "safe area." In the event of an unexpected military reverse, a "safe area" can become a dangerous area. The Srebrenica massacre, the biggest atrocity of the war in Bosnia, was a direct result of an attempt and eventual failure to maintain a "safe area" arrangement. Asylum seekers and refugees have a right to seek refuge in a place they consider that they will be safe. Turkey cannot justify keeping its borders closed to refugees on the ground that it has set up "safe areas" in Northern Iraq. Turkey, a member of UNHCR's ruling Executive Committee, should adhere to Executive Committee conclusions that in such mass refugee influx situations, states should "always admit [asylum seekers] at least on a temporary basis and provide them with protection. . .without any discrimination." ("Protection of Asylum-Seekers in Situations of Large Scale Influx," ExCom Conclusion No. 22, 1981, para. IIA(1) and IV(1). See also "Temporary Refuge," ExCom Conclusion No. 19, 1980, para. (b)(i).)

Kurdish refugees from Turkey now sheltering in Northern Iraq may be at particular risk. The largest group is living in precarious circumstances at the Makhmur refugee camp below the 36th parallel. If this group of refugees were forced to move northward toward the militarised zone, there is a risk that they would be subjected to human rights violations at the hands of Kurdish Democratic Party (KDP) or Turkish forces. Much the same risks probably face the rest of the estimated 13,000 (mainly Kurdish) refugees from Turkey currently sheltering in Northern Iraq.

Human Rights Watch advances the following recommendations relating to the humanitarian crisis Turkey may face:

  • The Turkish government should open its borders to those fleeing from Northern Iraq in the event of a conflict there. Protection afforded to refugees and asylum seekers should not be lifted until it is absolutely safe to do so.

  • Under no circumstances should armed paramilitary village guards be given any responsibility for managing refugee flows in Northern Iraq. If the regular armed forces want to use village guards because they speak Kurdish, then the armed forces should employ the guards as unarmed interpreters.

  • The government of Turkey should guarantee that the refugee population in the Makhmur camp will remain under the custody of UNHCR and receive effective protection from any form of reprisal, punishment, or discrimination. Other refugees from Turkey in Northern Iraq should receive similar protection, including resettlement to a third country where necessary and practical.

Human Rights Watch already has staff in Iran and Northern Iraq observing developments arising from the conflict in Northern Iraq. If the need arises, we may send delegates to Turkey in the forthcoming days and weeks. We would be grateful for any assistance we might receive from the Turkish authorities, including the provision of information about military and humanitarian preparations, and assurances that our delegate will be granted access to the border areas.

Thank you for your attention to our concerns. Please do not hesitate to contact us should you have any questions.


Elizabeth Andersen
Executive Director
Europe and Central Asia Division