Bans on Kurdish symbolism in Europe highlight Turkey’s influence abroad. The activists pushing back are standing up not only for free speech, but also for a change in how European states address the Turkish-Kurdish conflict altogether.
The red, gold and green flag of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) recently flew in front of government buildings in Gothenburg, Sweden’s second-largest city. The insignia’s brief appearance against the blue Swedish sky was no mere provocation. It was intended to highlight the extent to which Turkey can influence European Union (EU) and international security measures by demanding the criminalization of Kurdish political activism, symbolism and participation in public debate.
Swedish MPs were last year castigated for posing with the same flag. A spokesperson for the Kurdish Democratic Society Centre (NCDK) in neighboring Finland tells the Kurdish Peace Institute that harassment by Helsinki police has “increased significantly” in recent months. With Kurdish demonstrations, Newroz (Kurdish New Year) celebrations and organizations all facing unprecedented demands to remove flags from public display, Finland’s Kurdish community “have never experienced this kind of repression before.” In both countries, Turkey has issued a laundry-list of demands in exchange for withdrawing its veto over their accession to NATO, resulting in what security studies researcher Iida Käyhkö, of London’s Royal Holloway University, calls an “unevenly applied patchwork of criminalization moving in a more repressive direction.”
These issues are not limited to the Nordic countries. In the UK, two activists are currently awaiting trial under terror laws for holding the PKK flag at a demonstration. In Germany, even images of jailed Kurdish political leader Abdullah Öcalan and color schemes linked to the PKK have been outlawed. Kurdish journalists, activists, lawyers and political representatives (including some directly allied with the United States in Syria) all appeared on the FBI No-Fly List recently leaked online, suggesting national security decisions in the United States are also affected by Turkey’s anti-Kurdish agenda.
Turkey’s role as a would-be mediator between Russia and NATO, combined with what Käyhkö calls “increased internal tensions” in Turkey resulting in pressure to “achieve foreign policy wins” ahead of epochal elections that could see President Erdogan unseated, has led Turkey to increase pressure on European states to target Kurdish political expression. But lawyers, academics and progressive politicians across Europe have argued that rather than toeing Turkey’s aggressively anti-Kurdish line, the E.U. should be looking in the opposite direction to reduce criminalization of Kurdish expression and create the space for dialogue.
Bans on flags imperil the right to free expression: the NCDK are “now concerned for the ability of Kurdish people to exercise their civil rights in Finnish society.” Beritan, a British Kurdish woman, was arrested and subsequently charged under the UK’s Terror Act for picking up and displaying a PKK flag dropped by a group of Kurdish students during a protest over a Turkish airstrike which killed eight civilian holidaymakers in Iraqi Kurdistan. “Why should the British government be afraid of me, or of Kurds?” she asks. “We respect all other countries and laws, but we also have the right to our own flag, land, and national identity.
Of course, the flag in question belongs to the PKK, a group which has an armed wing and is listed as a terror organization by the U.S., the E.U. and the U.K. The affected activists therefore contest their arrests not only on the basis of the right to free expression, but also in the context of the Kurdish movement’s continued criminalization at Turkey’s behest. Mark Campbell, a photographer and long-term Kurdish rights campaigner, was arrested alongside Beritan for holding the PKK flag. “It was a spontaneous moment,” he says. “I was making a point – how can there be a political solution to the Kurdish issue if the freedom struggle is criminalized?”
These links have been made particularly clear in the course of Finland and Sweden’s NATO accession. The Nordic countries have historically been more tolerant of Kurdish political expression and organizations than other E.U. countries, but Turkey held out on their accession to the security alliance, issuing demands including the extradition of Kurdish exiles, journalists, and even an Iranian Kurdish member of the Swedish Parliament with no ties to Turkey whatsoever. This pressure has led directly to the current spike in repression of Kurdish symbolism. The activist group that raised the PKK flags in Gothenburg says they did so after “the authoritarian, right-wing Swedish government submitted a bill to the Riksdag that criminalizes participation in terrorist organizations.”
The NCDK concurred, adding: “It is clear to us that the aim of this repression is to provide evidence to the Turkish state that Finland is complying with their demands regarding the repression of Kurdish political activity.” Once Turkey’s attitude to Finland’s NATO application became more favorable, they continue, the spike in police repression started to subside, emphasizing the extent to which Turkey is able to call the shots. More broadly, Turkey’s ability to freeze the entire accession process in pursuit of an aggressively anti-Kurdish agenda has raised question marks over its suitability as a NATO partner, with Ankara reportedly bringing major geostrategic demands over upgrades to its fleet of F-16 fighter jets and a green light for a fresh assault on Kurdish-led North and East Syria to the negotiating table.
As Käyhkö points out, however, the crisis is not simply a question of would-be benevolent European states being held to ransom by a troublesome neighbor. Rather, “European states continue to sell arms to Turkey, to benefit from economic collaboration, and depend on the Turkish state to police the brutal borders of Fortress Europe.” At the far end of “Fortress Europe’, the U.K. is a case in point. The country’s first post-Brexit trade deal was inked with Ankara. London has repeatedly proven willing to facilitate Turkey’s extraterritorial targeting of the Kurdish diaspora.
“Three weeks before [then-Prime Minister] Theresa May inked a £100 million deal for Turkish fighter jets in Turkey, the British government raided a Kurdish family’s house, handcuffing them and terrorizing them, only for the case to be dropped,” Mark Campbell says, adding that Kurdish community centers in the UK have also been regularly targeted, as have foreign volunteers traveling to North and East Syria to assist in the fight against ISIS.
Cases against these individuals are almost always dropped due to the inconvenient fact the UK does not consider the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) terrorists, and is in fact allied with them in the fight against ISIS. One farcical case targeted a British man who faced life-altering terror charges after loaning his son, a volunteer who fought ISIS in Syria, £150 while he was holidaying in Barcelona.
Campbell says that in his experience, British intelligence personnel are personally sympathetic to the Kurdish cause, but face pressure from above to criminalize and persecute the Kurdish community: “The British government knows the PKK are not a terror organisation, it knows that Turkey is carrying out a genocidal war. These are political decisions.” The arrest of the British volunteer’s father and other family members was timed to coincide with President Erdogan’s December 2019 trip to London.
Rather than solely considering the flag bans through the prism of Kurdish freedom of expression, then, the extent of Turkish influence on Western security policy should be an issue of primary concern for E.U. governments.
The PKK was de facto included on U.K. and European terror lists following its inclusion on the U.S. list of proscribed organizations, with that listing coming under Turkish government pressure rather than in response to any particular action by the group. The PKK does not conduct attacks against civilians, nor any attacks on British, American or European soil. Lawyer Jan Fermon, who represented a client with alleged links to the PKK in a landmark case in Belgium, is clear that there are no logical grounds for the group to be considered a terror threat: “There is no doubt that PKK meets all the criteria that allow it to be considered as a political-military organization, which carries out an armed struggle against Turkish security services, army and authorities, towards the realization of the right to self-determination of the Kurdish people.”
The Belgian Court of Cassation agreed, ruling that the PKK should be considered a legitimate party to an armed, civil conflict with the Turkish state. Some of the crimes for which the PKK were held responsible in the evidence which Turkey submitted to the case were found to have been committed by Turkish forces themselves, reportedly leaving the Turkish lawyers shamefaced and the judge impressed by the Kurdish ‘freedom fighters’ he was supposed to be trying.
It should be noted that this landmark ruling has made little practical difference. The Belgian government simply chose to ignore its own court’s decision, revealing once again the extent to which Turkish demands determine questions of national security in Europe. Likewise, Käyhkö says, “A slow-moving process to review the listing of the PKK in the Court of Justice of the European Union has repeatedly noted that the Council of the European Union has not provided sufficient evidence for the PKK to be included on its list of terrorist organizations.”
Politicians from Germany to the U.K. to the European Parliament have lent their voice to calls for a rethink of the de facto terror listing of the PKK, and by extension its flags and insignia. The intention here is not merely to prevent miscarriages of justice against Kurdish activists, journalists and the Kurdish diaspora, but to pave the way toward a peaceful, stable political settlement in Turkey and the wider region.
The PKK are already signatories to the Geneva Conventions. Recognizing them as a legitimate armed group would enable all parties to be held responsible for any crimes committed during the ongoing conflict and leave the PKK subject to greater responsibilities under international law. It would prevent Turkey from constantly using alleged membership of or sympathy for the PKK as a pretext to liquidate the domestic political opposition, addressing the sense of disenfranchisement that fuels participation in armed conflict. It would also pressure Turkey to return to the negotiating table with the PKK to find a political solution to the conflict.
With the PKK currently observing a unilateral partial ceasefire in the context of Turkey’s upcoming presidential and parliamentary elections and a potential change in government in Turkey, and the NATO accession crisis spotlighting how Turkey’s fixation on the Kurds compromises regional security, the time is right for the West to rethink its automatic assumption of the Turkish position on these issues of critical importance. As Käyhkö points out, the Kurdish movement are currently “hailed as heroes” for their leading role as the West’s allies in the fight against ISIS while simultaneously “condemned as criminals” at Turkey’s behest.
Rethinking this approach would not only prevent abuses of Kurdish rights, but contribute to the pursuit of a broader political settlement with benefits for all Turkish and European citizens. As Beritan, the British Kurdish woman, asks: “Our flag is the symbol of a peaceful Kurdish nation, and a [political] program of education, equality and democracy for all. Is this a danger to Britain?”