Will Turkey Ever ‘Cross the Rubicon’? Lessons from South Africa for Peace and Reconciliation in Turkey

Source: Authors own

Source: Authors own

There is a civil war in Turkey and the majority of the country seems to have normalized what is going on. Just imagine; cities in Southeast Turkey are being emptied, people are being internally displaced, public school teachers receive text messages urging them to leave the provinces and doctors are told to be prepared for emergencies. It’s not rocket science to guess no good will come out of that. Many cities in Kurdish populated areas are under emergency law, there are curfews, and clashes with the police and army causes civilian casualties every day. Only a few months ago, we were talking about a peace process. Despite its shortcomings and the lack of obvious progress towards a resolution, there was at least a trace of hope. Now we are hopeless; just witnessing the extrajudicial killings piling up since the June elections.

During the peace process, many academics and journalists tried to find similarities with other cases in order to develop a comparative perspective towards conflict resolution. One of the most referred cases was South Africa and especially Nelson Mandela’s role in bringing about the peaceful settlement which had been yearned for for decades. For some in Turkey the South African peace process, and Mandela as a prominent figure, served as an inspiration yet for others it became a full time job to prove that South Africa was a completely different case than the Kurdish Question we have at home.

I have recently been to South Africa in order to investigate the similarities between the South African case and the Turkish-Kurdish Question. My intention was to have a deeper understanding of conflict resolution and transitional justice mechanisms in South Africa and to examine what lessons could be learned from their experiences.

Spending almost a month in Stellenbosch, I observed that even decades after the apartheid, rigid economic inequalities remain; many people complain about corruption and the current government despite the fact that they are hard-core supporters of the ANC (African National Congress). However, the most popular topic was the student protests which were far from simple complaints about increase in tuition fees. Students were protesting because of the entrenched economic inequalities between black and white students, arguing that increased tuition fees would only contribute to widening this gap by depriving young black people the opportunity to have a university education.

South Africa has been used as a role model for many peace negotiations across the world, yet it is also a good example that many conflict-related problems remain subtlety entrenched within society, demonstrating that the post-conflict reconstruction period brings about its own problems. Reading Justice Malala’s “We Have Now Begun Our Descent: How to Stop South Africa Losing Its Way” is a good start towards a deeper understanding of criticism within the ANC, hinting that a democratic struggle is never over.

Lessons to Learn from South Africa

While I was conducting my research in South Africa, hopes for restarting the peace process in Turkey were slowly fading. These processes are never easy and as with South Africa before, suffer many set-backs and road blocks. Just remember PW Botha’s Rubicon Speech in 1985 and the disappointment it brought with it. When the whole world was holding its breath waiting for the South African President to abolish the apartheid regime and free Nelson Mandela, the South African President disappointed everyone by stating that there would not be such reforms. However, hopes for peace and equality did not disappear on that day. This case shows us that what is needed even at the darkest times is continuous societal support and resilience from both sides. In order to understand how this is achieved, I decided to interview a prominent figure in South African politics: Essa Moosa, a distinguished and world renowned human rights activist, judge of the High Court of the Supreme Court and one of Nelson Mandela’s lawyers and friends. Perhaps more interestingly, Mossa is a strong supporter of the Kurdish movement in Turkey. Mr. Moosa was a member of the Constitutional Committee of the African National Congress and he is exceptionally knowledgeable about the particularities of peace negotiations and transitional justice mechanisms including the truth commissions. I was surely not the first person who knocked on his door to discuss this topic. He has been visited by academics, journalists and other experts from Turkey, including a small group consisting of the members of the Wise Men Commissions. He has also visited Turkey many times, making trips to Ankara and Diyarbakir on several occasions.

We met at a Kurdish restaurant called “Baran”, right in the middle of the Greenmarket Square in Cape Town. As a researcher who has been working on the mobilisation of the Kurdish diaspora for the last 8 years, I was still impressed to see how the diaspora was active even in South Africa and how they managed to enhance their solidarity networks with other oppressed groups such as Kashmiris, Tamils and Palestinians. Mr. Moosa said that he became familiar with the Kurdish movement back in the 1990s and since then he has been actively involved in transnational solidarity activities for the Kurds. Just last year, he presented the results of a fact finding mission in the Kurdish region at the European Parliament. He believes that there is a close comparison between the ANC and the PKK and the plight of the two oppressed groups show a lot of similarities. When I ask him, what can we learn from their experience, Moosa said: “We only succeeded because the majority of the people who lived in this country were the oppressed. This is not the case in Turkey.” This comment is quite revealing of the situation in Turkey, indicating that Kurdish struggle will require more effort and resilience because the rest of the country has the luxury to turn a blind eye to peoples’ suffering.

When we talked about the feasibility of peace agreements, he stated that they only managed to come to this point because they prioritized reconciliation over prosecution. If they required prosecution for each crime that had been committed against them, a peace process would not have been possible. This goes both ways I suppose. When it comes to that point, both sides need to prioritize reconciliation. However, does that mean we need to make a choice between justice and reconciliation? I asked Mr. Moosa about the truth commissions. I believe that this is an understudied topic in Turkey despite the fact that human rights and civil society organizations as well as pro-Kurdish or leftist groups constantly underline their will to form truth commissions in Turkey. Do we really know what they entail? Do we have enough information in terms of assessing their advantages and disadvantages in Turkey? Were truth commissions ever useful to recreate the social glue and to restore damaged relations between conflicting groups?

Moosa says, they wanted the truth to be told and that meant no prosecution. What’s more is that most of the records which resulted from the truth commissions have been destroyed therefore even if they want to open these cases again today, that would not be possible. Mr. Moosa said that some of the perpetrators never came forward to confess their crimes but he added that: “At least the victims know what happened to their loved ones.” In Turkey, there are prominent organizations such as the Center for Truth Justice Memory who are conducting rigorous comparative research using examples from all around the world and trying to inform society regarding what these processes involve. We may seem to be far from establishing truth commissions or other mechanisms necessary to come to terms with the past; however pressure from civil society and other political groups is needed more than ever at this stage where human rights violations are occurring on a regular basis in Turkey.

Looking at the collapse of the peace process in Turkey, Mr.Moosa says that what we need at this point is more international pressure. We discussed the importance of international support for a peaceful resolution in South Africa and how leaders who were not interested in peace could not hold on to power under such pressure. Similarly to Botha, South Africa’s first executive president, Turkey’s leading politicians are not also interested in a peaceful resolution. What has been created so far In Turkey is not a solid background towards a peace agreement but rather a façade of a peace process. Mr. Moosa defines it as temporal peace or a ceasefire that political parties in Turkey used to manipulate votes before and after elections. It was a “resemblance of democracy” which would not lead to major legislative changes that would guarantee minority rights. I reminded him of the European Union’s reluctance to criticize Turkey’s gradual shift to more authoritarian regime, highlighting the difference between the South African and Turkish cases.

Besides international pressure, what is needed is a solid democratization project which is strengthened with a new constitution that establishes a just and honourable peace for both groups. I asked Mr. Moosa, whether these problems were addressed now that decades have passed since the peace process. He said that “we need years, centuries… It will take two-three generations if not longer.” According to Moosa, the ANC was successful in bringing about political freedom to black people and establishing the denied rights that were solely granted to white people during the apartheid regime. However, it could not manage to bring economic freedom. Even after the peace process, the economic disadvantages of black people continued. Therefore, although it is difficult even to reach the point where political rights are being resettled, the negotiators need to address all aspects including deeply embedded social and economic inequality structures that the conflict has established. Herein lies the ongoing difficulty with both cases as despite some legislative changes, particularly during the early and optimistic years of the AKP, social and economic inequality endures without real commitment to addressing these issues.

Will Turkey Ever Reach to the Point of No Return?

Many criticized Turkey’s peace process. For some it was not heading towards peace, for others it was not even a process to begin with and for the rest it meant Turkey was compromising by negotiating with a terrorist group. No doubt, both sides were sceptical about what the process would bring. Many taboos have been confronted, many backlashes have been experienced and high expectations have remained. But was peace really thinkable until recently? “It was possible” he says, “The opportunity was knocking at Erdoğan’s door.” He reflects back to Botha’s speech in Durban and says “Everyone was waiting… Cross the Rubicon! Cross the Rubicon!” But he did not. And neither did Erdoğan. But leaders come and go and struggles resist. Mr. Moosa says he could not imagine that he would experience freedom during his lifetime. “But, I was wrong” he adds, there is always hope.

Will Turkey ever Cross the Rubicon? Will it hit the right road towards a just peace process from which there is no return? I believe that despite all odds, the groups who are struggling for social justice and peace in Turkey have made significant progress throughout the years. They will keep pushing the policy makers of Turkey towards a paradigm shift until they understand that a comprehensive strategy is needed to end this bloody civil war. This surely will not happen in the midst of violence where Kurdish communities are being internally displaced or forced to live under curfews. International pressure and commitment to peace is needed more than ever at the moment.

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