On a key benchmark for European Union membership, the Turkish government has failed to honor pledges to help 378,000 displaced people, mainly Kurds, return home more than a decade after the army forced them from their villages in southeastern Turkey, Human Rights Watch said in a report released today.
On March 7-8, the European Union’s commissioner for enlargement, Olli Rehn, and a delegation of other high-level EU officials will visit Ankara to discuss Turkey’s membership. The EU officials should press Turkey to take effective steps to facilitate the return of the internally displaced persons (IDPs) to southeastern Turkey, where Turkish security forces expelled hundreds of thousands from their villages during an internal armed conflict that raged during the 1980s and 1990s.
The 37-page report, “Still Critical: Prospects in 2005 for Internally Displaced Kurds in Turkey,” details how the Turkish government has failed to implement measures for IDPs the United Nations recommended nearly three years ago. Since the European Union confirmed Turkey’s membership candidacy in December, the Turkish government appears to have shelved plans to enact those measures.
The report also details how Turkey has overstated its progress on internal displacement in reports to the European Commission. Before the European Union announced its decision to open membership talks, the Turkish government sent the European Commission statistics suggesting that the problem was well on its way to a solution—a requirement Turkey must fulfill for full membership. Turkey claimed that a third of the displaced had already returned, but Human Rights Watch revealed that permanent returns in some places were less than a fifth of the government’s estimate.
“When we checked Turkey’s figures on helping the displaced return home, the numbers proved unreliable,” said Rachel Denber, acting executive director of Human Rights Watch’s Europe and Central Asia Division. “Also, the bare figures don’t convey how, thanks to government inaction, villagers are returning to places that are practically uninhabitable.”
In southeastern Turkey, the government has failed to provide infrastructure such as electricity, telephone lines and schools to returning communities, and has not provided proper assistance with house reconstruction.
“What’s worse, the government’s paramilitary village guards are attacking and killing returnees in some parts of southeastern Turkey,” added Denber.
Numerous intergovernmental bodies, as well as Turkish parliamentary commissions, have condemned the village guard system, which was devised in the 1980s to combat the illegal armed Kurdish Workers’ Party (PKK, now known as Kongra Gel). More than 58,000 paramilitary village guards remain on the government payroll.
Human Rights Watch said that the government’s paramilitary guards have killed 11 returned villagers in southeastern Turkey in the past three years.
When the United Nations examined the plight of the displaced in Turkey in 2002, it recommended that the government establish a dedicated IDP unit, develop a partnership with the international community for the resolution of IDP problems, and provide compensation for the damages arising from the displacement. Nearly three years later, the Turkish government has established no joint projects with intergovernmental organizations, and there is still no central governmental office responsible for IDPs. Last year, the Turkish parliament passed a compensation law, but no payments have yet been made.
It is now 18 years since Human Rights Watch warned of the impending program of village destruction in a 1987 report during the conflict in southeastern Turkey. The Turkish army duly carried out its campaign with considerable violence, torturing, “disappearing” and extrajudicially executing villagers in the process. Human Rights Watch has since repeatedly criticized the Turkish government’s empty gestures in its return programs, issuing further reports in 1995 and 2002.
“The Turkish state tried to cover up what it did, and now it’s subjecting the displaced to years of delay,” said Denber. “When EU officials arrive in Ankara, they need to put the problem of the displaced at the top of their agenda.”
Human Rights Watch called on the European Union to press the Turkish government to move ahead by immediately approving an IDP project submitted last year by the United Nations Development Program. In addition, Ankara needs to establish an agency for IDPs that will take effective measures.
Since the European Union accepted Turkey’s membership candidacy in 1999, human rights reform has been a stop-start process in the country. Turkey still has much to do on the protection of freedom of expression, freedom of religion, language rights and protection against torture.
“The predicament of the displaced is the most pressing concern, but the Turkish government has lost focus on its reform task as a whole,” Denber noted. “Last week we had three delegates observing trials of Ragip Zarakolu and Fikret Baskaya, a publisher and a professor threatened with imprisonment for expressing their nonviolent opinions.”
Preventing torture is another area where the Turkish government seems to have run out of energy. Turkey has made substantial improvement in recent years, but in order to combat persistent incidents of torture and ill-treatment, the European Union recommended in October 2004 that the Turkish government establish independent monitoring of detention facilities. Five months later, Turkey has still not implemented independent monitoring, even though the necessary legal mechanisms are already in place.
In 2000, the European Union presented Turkey with a list of benchmarks—known as the Accession Partnership—that Turkey had to meet to become a full member. This was revised in 2003, and will be revised again later this year.