The 6.5-million-strong Kurdish population of Iran is perceived by the state as a threat to unity and, as such, systematically targeted by the central authorities. Kurdish activism for social, cultural and political rights is generally treated as separatism, and political activity on the basis of Kurdish activity is banned. The situation of the Kurds in Iran is further complicated by the fact that most of them subscribe to Sunni Islam rather than the Shi’ism endorsed by the Islamic Republic. State motives for repression of Kurds are, however, often based on ‘security’ as much as other factors. With the world’s scrutiny of Iran focused on the nuclear issue, these security forces have stepped up attempts to ensure the ‘integrity of the republic’ by policing in an ever-harsher manner. At the end of 2009, there were a recorded 12 Kurdish political activists on death row for alleged membership of outlawed Kurdish organisations. The Iranian armed forces also continue the bombardments of northern Iraq in conjunction with the Turkish military, ostensibly targeting armed militants but with an appalling impact on the lives of Kurdish civilians.
The fall from power of Saddam Hussein in 2003 has presented a new opportunity for the 6.5-million Kurds of Iraq to tackle the discrimination they have faced in the past, although Saddam’s recent flawed trial and subsequent execution mean he will never face justice for the 182,000 Kurds killed in Anfal in 1988. Politically, the two main Kurdish parties have united to form the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) in northern Iraq, which represented a significant step towards stability and progress. However, persistent insurgency and violence continue to threaten this success, with particularly fierce disputes over the future status of Kirkuk prompting threats of military intervention from Turkey and Iran. Ultimately, such tension diverts attention and resources into security and away from civil issues. Serious ongoing human rights concerns have been noted, especially with respect to minority rights, widespread violence, discrimination against women, freedom of expression and internal displacement. Despite a real desire for the implementation of international human rights norms, the international community has invested shockingly little in support of training programmes, or the development of public administrative mechanisms, which would ensure proper respect for rights and meaningful recourse for survivors of abuse. Meanwhile, Turkish military operations on the Turkish-Iraqi border, carried out in conjunction with the Iranian forces, also continued throughout last year and into 2010. The operations, which began in 2007, consist of heavy shelling, air strikes and ground incursions, with devastating consequences for the civilian population of northern Iraq. By causing civilian deaths, displacement and the destruction of villagers’ livestock and property, both Turkey and Iran have failed to adhere to the jus in bello principles of necessity, distinction and proportionality.
Human rights abuses against Syria’s million-strong Kurdish population are dramatic and ongoing. The refusal of the State to restore citizenship to 360,000 Kurds who were stripped of it in 1962 is among the most pressing problems. The continuing state of emergency, now in place for 41 years, has also allowed the government to enforce a harsh security regime. Political activity outside the Ba’ath Party remains illegal and security forces continue to use their broad powers of arrest and detention against those expressing dissenting views, in particular the Kurdish minority. Articles in the Syrian Penal Code outlawing membership of political organisations without government permission are used to crack down on Kurdish political parties and leaders. In May 2009 the spokesperson of an unauthorised political party received a three-and-a-half year prison sentence for ‘weakening nationalist sentiment’ and ‘broadcasting false or exaggerated news’. As has been repeatedly highlighted, Syrian Kurds are also among those most at risk of torture and ill treatment. Yet since Syrian legislation fails to criminalise the offence of torture and given the failure of authorities to properly enforce legislation to prevent or punish its use, allegations of torture and efforts of Syrian Kurds to seek redress where torture is known to have occurred, amount to little.
Turkey continues to systematically abuse the human rights of its 20 million-strong Kurdish population. Violence and discrimination are regularly used against Kurds despite hopes of a peaceful resolution to the armed conflict vis-à-vis the EU accession process. Despite the government’s self-declared “zero tolerance” policy on torture, its practice persists, and unless this results in grave injury or death, there is often little, if any investigation into reported abuse. Yet a rare verdict was delivered in a KHRP observed-trial, when in June 2010, 19 members of the police and prison services were convicted after a political activist, Mr Engin Çeber, was tortured and beaten to death in custody. Freedom of expression and legitimate debate about minority issues also continues to be quashed as prosecutors use extremely wide provisions governing the offence of disseminating terrorist propaganda. In January 2009, former editor-in-chief of the Kurdish newspaper Azadiya Welat was arrested and put on trial for publishing items about the Kurdish question and armed opposition groups. Language rights are also restricted, with the introduction of technical requirements in the curriculum making the task of teaching in Kurdish more difficult in the private schools where it is allowed.
Meanwhile, despite welcome reforms governing the use of anti-terror legislation against children, the widespread criminalisation and detention of minors remains problematic, as do still broad-ranging anti-terror regulations that give the Turkish state wide scope to arrest, prosecute or shoot ‘undesirables’ and remain within the law. Combined with the desire of many EU officials to stress the potential benefits of Turkish membership to a sceptical public, this lack of focus on human rights in Turkey seriously diminishes the value of the EU accession process.
Meanwhile, the controversial Ilisu Dam project – a crucial part of Turkey’s colossal Southeast Anatolia Project (GAP) that includes a network of 22 dams and 19 power plants - threatens the devastation of the Tigris River’s richly diverse ecosystem and the staggering displacement of up to 55,000 people. Notwithstanding Turkey’s failure to meet World Bank standards on cultural and environmental preservation and the dam’s potential to exacerbate regional conflict by severely reducing water flow to the downstream states of Iraq and Syria, the government has remained adamant that it will complete the project.
The lives of the estimated 300,000 Kurds dwelling in the Caucasus are severely affected by the conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan over the disputed enclave of Nagorno-Karabakh. Armenia’s capital, Yerevan, has been considered for centuries a centre for Kurdish culture and arts, but the conflict has witnessed the expulsion of Muslim Kurds and abuses against the small indigenous Kurdish population caught up in the fighting. Internally displaced persons unable to own property and live as citizens of either country are also more susceptible to daily threats of state intimidation and continue to live their lives in limbo.
State repression in is rife. In Armenia, the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR) has repeatedly found the government guilty of violating opposition activist’s rights to free assembly, free speech and fair trial. In March 2008, prominent opposition activists and politicians were arbitrarily detained after claiming that the election of Serzh Sarkisian as President was rigged, sparking the worst political violence since independence and leading to a 20-day state of emergency. Meanwhile, in March 2009, representatives of the Baku-Ceyhan campaign (BCC) investigating reported human rights abuses and social and environmental problems associated with the BP-led oil pipeline through Azerbaijan, Georgia and Turkey were detained and intimidated by the police after visiting the village of Hajalli, Azerbaijan.
Maps designed by Mark Ellison Jr.