Life under Curfew: Challenging State Discourse on Human Rights Violations in the Southeast

Source: European Pressphoto Agency (EPA)

Source: European Pressphoto Agency (EPA)

We hear about the clashes and curfews in southeast Turkey, many of them, every day. We hear about them, but we do not often reflect on them. Mostly it is a discourse about the armed forces fighting terrorists. This discourse is well-informed, but anything other than subjective. A humanitarian crisis is unfolding in cities in southeastern Turkey, and representations of this humanitarian crisis and the facts surrounding it are not always in alignment. Eventually, the facts do make their way into the public consciousness, but progress can be slow. This may be due to ideology or privilege, which make us believe what we are taught to believe or simply disengage from other people’s distant suffering.

The Turkish authorities’ official statements about the clashes and curfews in southeastern cities hardly acknowledge that many unarmed civilians are among the dead. The civilian population in the southeast does not appear to be recognised either as an important victim of the conflict or as reliable reporter of the conditions under curfew. There are two general facts about the human rights implications of the curfews in the southeast that have not entered the public debate.

One: The operations do not protect the civilians

“A curfew is declared to neutralise separatist terror group members, remove explosives-laden barricades and ditches, and secure public order,” the Şırnak governor’s office said in an official statement. The governor’s statement is partly correct in that Turkish authorities have a duty to protect the population from violence by armed groups and may use reasonable force to deal with threats to the right to life. However, the official assertion that the curfews protect the population is partial and misleading. Almost unnoticed, Turkey’s obligations under international law require that the authorities must also ensure that their security operations, including curfews, respect the rights of civilians, are proportionate to the threat faced, and that people are able to access basic services including medical treatment and education. In other words, Turkey should have a concrete ‘curfew plan’ that ensures civilian protection and access to services.

In the southeast, no such plan exists. The curfews, strewn with deadly urban clashes, have led to an increasingly insecure environment for civilians, reported by witnesses and confirmed by NGO monitors. An important factor discrediting government claims of civilian protection is that unarmed civilians are being killed. According to the Human Rights Foundation of Turkey, 224 civilians were killed between August 16, 2015 and February 5, 2016—including 42 children, 31 women, and 30 citizens over the age of 60 years, in regions with curfews declared. Additionally, a 7-month-old stillbirth occurred when a pregnant woman was shot in the stomach, and 8 people in Sur, Nusaybin, and Silvan were killed during peaceful protests against the curfews during a period when curfews were not in place. An estimated 1.3 million citizens are at risk, and a total of 58 curfews have been imposed. Furthermore, in November 2015, human rights lawyer Tahir Elci, who had worked on cases of torture and forced disappearances during state security operations in the southeast in the 1990s, was shot and killed in Sur while calling for the end of this conflict.

The lack of civilian protection is paralleled by a lack of proportionality in the use of force. Witnesses interviewed by Human Rights Watch reported that security forces have repeatedly opened fire on anyone venturing onto the streets. In doing so, they failed to distinguish between people who were armed and those who were not, and made no assessment of the threat an individual posed or the necessity of lethal force. Underlying this criticism is certainly a very disconcerting tendency within the imposition of curfews: an unwillingness of the state to look beyond the idea of ‘restriction of movement’ towards actual protection.

In order to support civilian protection, the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) urged affected people to apply to Turkey’s Constitutional Court for interim protection measures; a request with which several people complied. Interim measures are urgent measures that apply only where there is an ‘imminent risk of irreparable harm’. So far, the Constitutional Court of Turkey has rejected the applicants’ requests. The ECHR has since pledged to prioritise and fast-track applications by civilians from Turkey if their requests for interim measures were rejected by the Constitutional Court, a rare measure for the Court indicative of the gravity of the current situation.

Two: Civilians do not have access to healthcare, nutrition, and education

Another story untold by Turkish authorities is that the right of the local population to immediate access to medical institutions, food provision, and schooling has been violated. Witnesses have reported that urgent medical care for the sick and injured is blocked by security forces; ambulances are unavailable, burial services have been suspended, water, electricity and phone networks are cut, delivery of food is inconsistent, rubbish is not collected, teachers have been recalled, and pupils do not go to school. Reports from residents in the area reveal the danger of accessing food and medical care while under siege.

The authorities allege that lack of access to basic services, particularly medical, is the result of damage to infrastructure inflicted by armed Kurdish groups associated with the PKK. Indeed, these groups have been reported digging trenches planted with explosives and erecting barricades to prevent state authorities from entering neighbourhoods, according to Human Rights Watch. The practice has had an adverse impact on the population, threatening the right to access healthcare and impeding the delivery of other emergency services. Nevertheless, the timing of these crises is related to the imposition of the curfews, as noted by Amnesty International. Furthermore, the Turkish authorities have a recent history of repressing the medical community according to their own aims. In January 2014, the Ministry of Health filed a lawsuit against the Turkish Medical Association, which had recruited and organised physicians to provide urgent emergency medical care to demonstrators injured during the Gezi Park protests of May 2013. This was swiftly followed by the introduction of new laws criminalizing emergency care in Turkey without official permission, as part of the AKP’s Security Reform Package.

Untold stories with regard to the human rights implications of the curfews can also be invoked for women’s rights too. Mobility restrictions and indiscriminate killings have directly caused the death of over 30 women from August 2015 onwards, including the death of an unborn child whose mother survived. Among women in the curfew cities, the issue of ante- and post-natal care and the psychological well-being of mothers constitutes a primary concern, yet services for affected women are largely non-existent. Fear of poverty, lack of security and anxiety about the future are prevalent because of the security situation. The problem of violence against women is one of the most controversial issues as it touches the core of what has been side-tracked for so long: individuals have special needs under a curfew, yet women’s needs have not received attention.

Children have a particular stake in lack of access to services. Although research on the implications of the curfews on the well-being of children is limited, one can draw indications from similar curfew situations. Save the Children has reported on the impact of prolonged curfews on children in Palestine. It is possible to infer from their report that children under curfew are affected in terms of protection, health, survival, behavioural/emotional development, and quality education. In Turkey, the Turkish Association of Psychologists (TPD) has stated that there are risks to children’s nutrition, safe water, and healthcare. In addition, children are exposed to prolonged violence, have lost close relatives and friends (44 children killed so far), cannot go to school, and cannot play safely outdoors; all while witnessing the disturbing reality that children in other parts of Turkey are leading protected lives while their own lives are ‘neglected or abused’ by state authorities. These traumatic effects may be compounded in children with disabilities and other health-related or social disadvantages.

The human rights implications of the curfews in Turkey’s southeastern cities are centred upon these untold stories of consent, risk, and justice. The local population was not included in the decision for mobility restrictions. The curfews have incurred particular risks to the right to life, security, and access to services. They also raise issues of justice, because the vulnerabilities they create inevitably intersect and overlap with the existing disparities between the southeastern regions and other regions of Turkey. The distribution of benefits and burdens among the Kurdish and non-Kurdish regions of Turkey has been thrown precariously out of balance. Turkish authorities barely acknowledge that many unarmed citizens are among the victims of the curfews, which gives little hope about the likelihood of investigations into the deaths, destruction of private property and possibility of compensations. Ignoring the effects of the curfews and clashes on the civilian population can only confirm the widely held belief in the southeast that when it comes to security operations, there are no limits, no accountability, and no protection.

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