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Our aim is to get the citizen back to where he or she wants to live. We are a developing country and in addition to this we have just passed an unusual and extraordinary period. We cannot get past this in just a short time. For us these international standards are an aim, a goal. We may not have been able to meet these standards in the same way as a wealthier country would. But we are not going to ignore the standards of the international community. We intend to conform with those standards. These are definitely our aims. Irrespective of the village guard system, all these people are our citizens. We are leaving a period of our history behind and we embrace all our citizens without exception.
-Niyazi Tanılır, assistant governor of Van province, June 29, 2001.

As far as fostering return of displaced persons to their homes in the southeast is concerned, the Turkish government has all but wasted the years since the end of widespread armed violence in the southeast. Even if its own figures are to be believed, no more than one in ten of the internally displaced has been able to return. But if the government is prepared to bring its Village Return and Rehabilitation Project into line with the U.N. Guiding Principles and other international human rights and humanitarian standards relating to internally displaced people, it is not too late to make it into an enterprise in which international donors, government agencies, nongovernmental organizations, and the villagers themselves can believe and collaborate. This would not only go some way toward a remedy for the violations of past decades, but also contribute to the regeneration of the eastern provinces, an unfulfilled aim of every administration since the foundation of the republic. Such a project would be fully consistent with the European Union's requirement of Turkey, contained in the Accession Partnership, to "develop a comprehensive approach to reduce regional disparities, and in particular to improve the situation in the South-East, with a view to enhancing economic, social and cultural opportunities for all citizens,"216 a goal echoed by the Turkish government as a medium term objective in its National Program for E.U. accession.217

The government must remove the obstacles to return. It should direct governors and gendarmerie to permit all villagers to return to their homes and lands, including more remote villages and mezra. The only grounds for withholding such permission would be in a limited number of settlements where there is a genuine threat of attack by armed organizations or where it is believed that there are landmines. In such cases, villagers should be individually notified of the reasons why permission to return has been withheld, and they should receive an appropriate level of financial support, as well as full access to health, education, and employment or other basis for an adequate standard of living while they remain in alternative accommodation until their village is made ready for their return. Special provision should be made for the elderly, the young, and the disabled.218

The Turkish government should provide full restitution to internally displaced villagers. PKK and other illegal armed political groups cynically used peasant populations as cover in order to wage war against the state, but state forces equally cynically dispossessed those peasants and drove them off the land as a military counter-strategy. The current peace was achieved at the expense of the peasants of the southeast who are among the most underprivileged citizens of the Turkish republic. The government has a moral duty, but also a duty under Turkish and international law, to return those farmers and stockkeepers and their families at least to their situation prior to displacement. This must include reconstruction of homes and agricultural buildings, replacement of livestock and equipment destroyed during the displacement, and restoration of infrastructure. Where villagers supply the labor element of reconstruction, the government should provide insurance cover and payment.

The government should not attempt to characterize this restitution as aid. The majority of those who were displaced are not victims of some undefined natural disaster but of criminal acts committed by security forces. By treating internally displaced people as supplicants for state charity, the government is manufacturing a pretext to ignore their wishes and impose conditions on assistance, including obliging them to live other than where they would freely choose. Restitution is clearly going to be very expensive. The current government, plagued by financial difficulties, may not be able to meet all its commitments to the internally displaced in the short term, but it should not use this as an excuse to shake off its liability.

In its planning efforts, the government should take steps to ensure broad consultation with internally displaced communities, their representatives, relevant nongovernmental organizations (including, for example, Göç-Der, GİYAV, and the Human Rights Association), and intergovernmental organizations with expertise in the field, including UNHCR, UNDP, ICRC, and the OSCE. Such organizations should be given unfettered access to the region. The rapporteur of the Committee on Migration, Refugees and Demography has additionally recommended that local municipalities be included in the process and provided access.

Turkish civil society organizations are clearly ready to be partners in the return effort. For example, as mentioned above, Göç-Der, in collaboration with professional bodies in Diyarbakır and representatives of the Danish Helsinki Committee, is seeking international funding for a plan for the reconstruction of twenty model villages as a pattern for a more general program of return. The Turkish government should enlist such dynamic and committed organizations, rather than attempting to cut them out of the process by harassing them, denying them information, and refusing to listen to their advice.

The Turkish government should ensure that the planning process is fully transparent. A first step would be the creation of an agency with exclusive responsibility for supervising this very large project. (At the moment, it appears that an undersecretary at the Office of the Prime Minister is in charge of the return plans, but he also has a much wider brief, dealing mainly with public relations.) The government should provide the public (and the internally displaced in particular) with detailed information about the planning process itself, future plans for return, and the progress of returns. Where government officials provide statistics concerning return, they should give the names of those settlements to which the inhabitants have returned, the numbers of families concerned, the amount of government financial support provided, and the intended purpose of that support.

In his report on the situation of the internally displaced in Turkey, John Connor, rapporteur of the Committee on Migration, Refugees and Demography of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe, observed that increased transparency on the part of the government would increase the likelihood of attracting international funding. This in turn should assist the government in meeting the heavy cost of reconstruction. The rapporteur not only recommended that the Turkish government present return projects for funding by the Council of Europe Development Bank, but also called on donor organizations participating in GAP, including UNDP, UNICEF, the World Bank, the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), the U.N. International Labour Organization (ILO), the European Union and the International Water Organization to step up their contributions for the purpose of assisting returns. Clearly, the international community can help to shoulder the burden, but it is more likely to do so if the Turkish government can present plans fully consonant with the U.N. Guiding Principles that have the support of displaced people themselves.

The broader drive for improvement in human rights in Turkey is integral to the return process. The villagers interviewed by Human Rights Watch expressed profound fear of the gendarmerie. Many had at some point experienced incommunicado detention and torture; many had relatives or neighbors who had been "disappeared" or extra-judicially executed by government forces during the displacement. The return program is unlikely to be successful while gendarmes hold unsupervised sway over the countryside and are able to abuse villagers with impunity. Government efforts to combat torture and other abuses by police and gendarmerie have not eradicated the problem in western Turkey; they have been even less successful in the southeast. Human Rights Watch has long held that access to a lawyer from the first moments of detention is the key to ending torture in Turkey. Turkish law permits detainees to be held for two days without access to legal counsel. In the areas where villages were destroyed, it is almost unknown for the gendarmerie to give lawyers access to their clients in custody. A draft law prepared by the Minister of Justice in October would give all detainees access to a lawyer, but it needs to be adopted by parliament and rigorously implemented. The government and judiciary should also exercise much more energetic supervision of security forces during their operations in the countryside and in their places of interrogation.

The government should also abolish the village guard system. Sending peasants back into remote districts where their neighbors are heavily armed and invested with state authority is plainly a recipe for disaster, particularly in a context where bonds of tribal loyalty are strong, and where the blood-feud tradition is still a fact of daily life.

However, simply switching off the funds currently being piped into the village guard community is likely to have negative consequences. Village guards and their representatives are expressing unease at discussion of abolition of the village guard system. In January 2002, Professor Salih Yıldırım, vice-president of the Motherland party and parliamentary deputy for Şırnak, where many of his constituents rely on village guard salaries as their main income, called on the government to provide investment support to village guards in order to help them become a productive sector of society as a recognition of their sacrifices on the state's behalf.219 But any provision that is made to ease the transition for the village guard corps should be part of a broader strategy for economic improvement benefiting all the people of the region, and should not simply prolong a policy that discriminates between "loyal" and "disloyal" villagers.

After the traumatic events they experienced during the initial displacement, displaced communities are unlikely to move in large numbers until they are confident that the government wants them back in the countryside. Most of those displaced are Kurds. A striking number of those who talked to Human Rights Watch emphasized the importance of recognition of language rights as a critical indicator of political will. A displaced villager from Mardin working in Istanbul as a taxi driver said: "If the villagers go back now, what is the guarantee that they won't get turned out again in a year's time-and perhaps with violence. More than help in returning or permission to return, our villagers are looking for guarantees of safety." Asked what sort of guarantees would convince them, he replied: "A change in the view of Kurdish peasants, the granting of cultural rights, would show that they were no longer seen as an internal enemy ... it makes no sense for [Prime Minister] Bulent Ecevit to announce a return to villages and still deny the existence of Kurdish as a language."220 On August 2, 2002 the Turkish parliament passed a reform package that included recognition of the right to broadcast and run courses in minority languages.

As quoted above, assistant governor Tanılır has described an ideal relationship of trust between a post-conflict state and its most disadvantaged citizens. So far, practice has fallen far short of that ideal. Several villagers expressed to Human Rights Watch their concern that there is a hidden agenda; that the army, the final arbiter in the region, has decided that they should never return. The army has prepared its own Action Plan for the East and Southeast, approved by the National Security Council in May 2000 and signed by the Prime Minister,221 and indeed that plan is secret. There is a widespread fear among the displaced that the ultimate aim is to establish a network of strategic villages,222 centralized settlements with strong village guard membership and tight military control, while the rest of the countryside remains more or less vacant. In the short term, a depopulated countryside would be easier to police, and in the longer term, would be more convenient to develop if land were aggregated for larger-scale agriculture by those who participated in the village guard scheme and thereby avoided displacement. Displaced Kurds, Assyrians, and Yezidi continue to remain in the cities where they may ultimately lose their distinct identity and assimilate with the majority Turkish population.

If the Turkish government should decide to take a new and positive direction over the return process, it can give a clear signal now. In his public statement of June 5, 2002, the U.N. Special Representative of the Secretary General on Internally Displaced Persons, Dr. Francis Deng, urged the government to convene a joint meeting "in the near future" to formulate programs and strategies for cooperation with the international community. In calling for the meeting, Dr. Deng noted that "an open and constructive partnership involving the Government, civil society, and international agencies would serve to facilitate the timely and effective implementation of the Government's return policy." When the government is ready to share information and include the displaced, civil society, and expert intergovernmental bodies in reviewing its plans for return, then genuine progress will have begun. But it must happen soon: the situation is urgent, and three years of opportunity have already been wasted.

216 Accession Partnership, article 4.1.

217 National Program, article 1.2.10.

218 Guiding Principles, Principles 4 and 19.

219 Cumhur Kılıççıoğlu, "Silahları Çocuklarına Miras Kalmasın" (May their weapons not be their legacy), Bianet news agency, January 24, 2002.

220 Human Rights Watch interview, June 11, 2001.

221 Hasan Cemal, "Güneydoğu'ya 'ekonomi ordusu' ne zaman?" (When will the `economic army' come to the southeast?), Milliyet (Nationhood), June 12, 2001.

222 The practice of displacing populations and creating "strategic villages" has been observed in Kenya, Malaya, Vietnam, Mexico and East Timor. See, for example, Ben Valentino, Paul Huth and DylanBalch-Lindsay, "Draining the Sea: Mass Killing, Genocide, and Guerrilla [B: I can't get rid of the space but will keep working on it]
Warfare," paper and presentation delivered at the annual meeting of the American Political Science Association, San Francisco, California, August 31, 2001.

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