Despite its compensation law, the Turkish government is failing to provide fair compensation for hundreds of thousands of mainly Kurdish villagers displaced by the military’s brutal counterinsurgency campaigns in the southeast, Human Rights Watch said in a briefing paper released today.
Although a compensation law aimed at providing fair and appropriate redress to the displaced was adopted by the Turkish parliament in 2004, provincial assessment commissions have arbitrarily and unjustly reduced compensation amounts or denied compensation altogether to those displaced during counterinsurgency operations in the 1980s and 1990s. Human Rights Watch urged the Turkish government to suspend the commissions until their operating methods can be revised.
“Turkey’s compensation law offered hope that the government would finally compensate hundreds of thousands of displaced people for their losses at the hands of the military,” said Holly Cartner, Europe and Central Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “Now these displaced villagers have been victimized yet again by the arbitrariness of a compensation process that was supposedly established to help them.”
The Law on Compensation for Damage Arising from Terror and Combating Terror (Compensation Law) of 2004 was intended to indemnify victims of the armed conflict between Turkish government forces and the Kurdish Workers’ Party (PKK), which took place in southeastern Turkey from 1984 onward. Clashes continued this year, but the level of violence has fallen recently, and the PKK declared a ceasefire in September. Victims of the longstanding conflict include the 378,335 villagers – mainly Kurdish farmers and their families – who were forcibly displaced from their homes and livelihoods in the 1990s.
Payments under the Compensation Law to this group were intended to cover losses arising from the original displacement, as well as those incurred during the decade or more that families were unable to return to their property. The Turkish government stated that the intent of the law was to “to deepen trust in the state, to strengthen the state-citizen relationship, to contribute to social peace and the fight against terrorism.” The government committed itself to ensuring that the law would be effectively implemented. Initially, the law held out the promise that families would get enough compensation to allow them to return to their former homes or make a new life in the cities where they had taken up residence after being displaced.
Two years later, that promise has not been fulfilled. Provincial assessment commissions travel to remote villages to evaluate families’ loss by examining the rubble of torched homes and scarce paperwork. The sums proposed by assessment commissions had never fully compensated displaced persons for the losses they had suffered. But until this year, the sums in some cases were comparable with compensation sums for displaced families ordered by the European Court for Human Rights. This all changed in January, when the court rejected the application of a Tunceli villager in Içyer v. Turkey on the grounds that the Compensation Law was an effective domestic remedy. Thereafter, the more than 1,500 cases pending before the court were dismissed on the grounds that the applicants had not exhausted the effective domestic remedy provided by the Compensation Law.
Since the European Court for Human Rights announced its decision in the İçyer case, there has been a noticeable deterioration in the implementation of the Compensation Law. Increasingly, damage assessment commissions appear to apply arbitrary and unjust criteria in calculating compensation, resulting in absurdly low compensation amounts in many cases. These calculations consistently seem to favor the government and appear to be biased against the victims of government abuse.
“A compensation process to benefit the displaced has now become a way to relieve the state of its liability,” said Cartner.” The derisory sums offered are not only unjust, but they also undermine any possibility for the villagers to rebuild their lives.”
In a briefing paper submitted to the Turkish government today, Human Rights Watch listed some of the methods used to drive down compensation payments: calculating house values on the basis of values for cowsheds; underestimating the extent of landholdings; and arbitrarily excluding any payments for livestock – in a region where animal husbandry was the main industry. The Compensation Law provides no viable opportunity to appeal assessments, and the mainly Kurdish peasants have no alternative but to accept whatever is offered.
Security forces in Turkey forcibly displaced rural communities during the 1980s and 1990s in order to combat the PKK insurgency, which recruited and extracted logistical support from these communities. Turkish security forces required villages to show their loyalty by forming platoons of “provisional village guards” that were armed, paid and supervised by the local gendarmerie post. Those who became village guards were attacked by the PKK. Villagers who refused were driven from their homes by security forces.
The army used helicopters, armored vehicles, troops and village guards to empty the villages. Troops burned crops, stored produce, agricultural equipment, orchards, forests, and livestock, and set fire to houses, often giving the inhabitants no opportunity to retrieve their possessions. Soldiers often abused and humiliated villagers, in some cases stole their property and cash, and ill-treated or tortured them before herding them out of the area. Scores of villagers “disappeared” or were extrajudicially executed during these counterinsurgency operations. More than 3,000 villages were virtually wiped off the map in the village destruction program.
Successive Turkish governments announced initiatives for the return of the displaced, but these were always poorly funded and lacked the political backbone necessary to inspire substantial numbers of permanent returns. Village guards are still roaming the countryside, and present a serious threat to the security of returnees. In the past three and a half years, village guards have killed at least 13 unarmed villagers, and attacked many others (see Human Rights Watch’s letter to Interior Minister Abdülkadir Aksu calling for the abolition of the village guard system).
The situation of displaced people in Turkey, and the Turkish government’s poor performance in caring for their interests, is monitored by intergovernmental bodies. The United Nations special representative on internal displacement visited Turkey in May 2002 and submitted a series of recommendations to the Turkish government. In June 2004, the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe recommended that the government “move from a dialogue to a formal partnership with UN agencies to work for a return in safety and dignity of those internally displaced by the conflict in the 1990s.” The 2005 European Commission Regular Report on Turkey’s progress observed that: “The situation of internally displaced persons (IDPs) remains critical, with many living in precarious conditions.”