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Lawyers from Duncan Lewis Public Law Department attend tribunal on Turkey and the Kurds (12 April 2018)

Date: 12/04/2018
Duncan Lewis, Main Solicitors, Lawyers from Duncan Lewis Public Law Department attend tribunal on Turkey and the Kurds

A group of lawyers specialising in Public Law from Duncan Lewis Solicitors were invited to attend a session of the Permanent Peoples' Tribunal on 15 and 16 March. The tribunal looked into accusations that the Turkish state is guilty of war crimes and has engaged in state terrorism against the Kurdish people.

At the end of the tribunal, the judges announced that they had already heard enough from witnesses to be able to say that 'the Turkish state is accountable for war crimes not only in Turkey but also abroad.'

Permanent Peoples' Tribunal (PTT)

The PPT is a tribunal of opinion. As such, it does not derive its authority from any state or international convention. Nevertheless, its decisions carry significant moral and legal authority and the tribunal sessions bring crimes to attention which may otherwise go unnoticed.

The tribunal is a direct continuation of the Russell-Sartre Tribunals, set up by the philosophers bearing those names, to look into war crimes committed by United States forces in Vietnam and human rights abuses in South America.

The PPT only adjudicates on cases that no other legal body is competent to hear. In this case, Turkey is not a signatory of the Rome Statute, and so cannot be brought to the International Criminal Court. Nor is the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg able to bring justice to these issues. Due to the current state of the Turkish legal system, nationals of Turkey, including Kurds, are unable to exhaust domestic judicial remedies (which is a pre-requisite to bringing a claim to the Strasbourg court.)

Self-determination

The prosecution introduced the hearing with a potted history of Turkish-Kurdish relations. They stressed that at the route of the tensions is the failure of the Turkish state to recognise the right of the Kurdish people to self-determination:

All peoples have the right of self-determination. By virtue of that right they freely determine their political status and freely pursue their economic, social and cultural development.

(Article 1 of the 1976 international covenants on ‘Civil and Political Rights’ and on ‘Economic, Social and Cultural Rights’.)

Sheroy Zaq, a public law solicitor at Duncan Lewis, was invited to the tribunal due to his experience of litigation involving international war crimes.

"The PPT exposed in a particularly stark way that ethnic discrimination can cost lives’, Sheroy warned, ‘something all governments should bear in mind."

War crimes

The prosecution went on to argue that war crimes have been committed by the Turkish state against the Kurdish people.

Such accusations date back decades, especially since the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) began an insurgency against the Turkish state in 1984. The Turkish state has long been accused of failing to recognise the cultural, political, civil and economic rights of Kurds. Indeed, until 1991, Kurds in Turkey were officially referred to as 'Mountain Kurds'.

At this tribunal session however, the prosecution focused on war crimes allegedly carried out in the predominantly Kurdish south-east Turkey after peace-talks with the PKK collapsed in 2015.

Wilful killing

During the session, eye-witnesses spoke of the horrors they had experienced at the hand of Turkish forces. Witnesses told the tribunal how their towns had been put under curfew, with no access to healthcare, electricity, food or even water. 289 curfews were imposed, affecting nearly two million civilians. Under these curfews, hundreds of Kurdish civilians, many seeking refuge in basements in locations known to the Turkish authorities, were killed by heavy artillery from Turkish tanks.

The tribunal was shown graphic videos of wreckage and corpses. In one clip, a group of civilians carrying a white flag were shot at and killed while attempting to remove bodies from the street.

According to a UN report, between 335,000 and half a million Kurds were displaced, and 1,200 killed, in the 'security operations' in south-East Turkey between July 2015 and December 2016.

The prosecution also provided evidence of the large scale and systematic destruction of buildings of historical, religious and cultural importance in the 7,000 year old city of Diyarbakir. It was alleged that Turkey has appropriated 100% of the land inside the old city's walls (an area known as 'Sur'). The tribunal was shown photos indicating that half of Sur, which includes a UNESCO World Heritage Site, has been razed to the ground.

According to the prosecution, these actions amount to breaches of a number of Geneva Conventions including:


  1. Wilful killing;

  2. Torture or inhuman treatment;

  3. Wilfully causing great suffering;

  4. Extensive destruction and appropriation of property, not justified by military necessity and carried out unlawfully and wantonly.

(as defined by Article 8: War Crimes of the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court)

The tribunal was told that the destructive actions of the Turkish state in Diyarbakir are specifically defined as a war crime under the Rome Statute:

‘Intentionally directing attacks against buildings dedicated to religion, education, art, science or charitable purposes, historic monuments…’ (Article 8 2 b ix)

State terrorism

The prosecution also labelled the Turkish state a 'criminal organisation' which targets Kurdish civilians in Turkey and abroad 'in order to intimidate the Kurdish people'.

A witness for the prosecution, Professor Eric David, told the tribunal that a possible legal definition of a terrorist act may be found in the 1999 Terrorist Financing Convention:

[an] act intended to cause death or serious bodily injury to a civilian, or to any other person not taking an active part in the hostilities in a situation of armed conflict, when the purpose of such act, by its nature or context, is to intimidate a population, or to compel a government or an international organization to do or to abstain from doing any act. (Article 2 1 b)

The tribunal was then informed of the assassination in January 2013, in Paris, of three female Kurdish leaders: Sakine Cansiz, Fidan Dogan and Leyla Saylemez. The prosecution referred the judges to a French investigation which found that the assassin may have been an agent of the Turkish secret services (MIT). The tribunal was also directed towards a number of leaks of MIT documents and audio-records to the media which seem to corroborate this suspicion.

The tribunal then heard from David Phillips, a former senior adviser to the US State Department and the UN, who gave evidence which, he argued, inculpates the Turkish state for actively supporting terrorist groups such as Islamic State and An-Nusra. Phillips claimed that Turkey has supported such terrorist groups with finances, weapon transfers, medical assistance and military training.

The prosecution argued that the Turkish state should be held criminally accountable for this activity on the basis of the principles on Responsibility for States for Internationally Wrongful Acts.

Turkey found guilty

At the end of two day hearing, after finding the Turkish state guilty of war crimes, the president of the tribunal thanked the Kurdish people for their 'long history of resistance, courage, and struggle.'

Toufique Hossain, a director of public law at Duncan Lewis, was invited to tribunal on the basis of his broad experience of working in human rights:

"the prosecution was unflinching and methodical in providing evidence for their allegation that the Turkish state has committed human rights abuses and has systematically oppressed the Kurdish people. It was a privilege to attend the hearing and I hope the tribunal’s finding will compel the international community to listen.“

The full judgment will be announced at the end of May this year, at the European Parliament in Brussels.

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