Turkey Is Murdering Its Own Kurdish Civilians. Will America Speak Out?

For months Turkey’s government has laid siege to and massacred its Kurdish civilians. Americans are overlooking mass atrocities taking place at the hands of its own NATO ally.

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A family leaves the Sur district of Diyarbakir in southeast Turkey due to fighting between security forces and militants, February 3, 2016.
A family leaves the Sur district of Diyarbakir in southeast Turkey due to fighting between security forces and militants, February 3, 2016.Credit: AP

Americans frequently hear about Middle East violence; most recently, of course, in Syria. At some point, attention fatigue sets in. Perhaps this is why so many of us have overlooked a mass atrocity simultaneously underway in Turkey – our own NATO ally.

But the atrocity is worsening by the hour, and must be stopped. What it’s too late to stop, moreover – such as this month’s massacre in Cizre – must be properly documented and publicized. The international community didn’t do enough to prevent it; let us at least prevent those responsible for it from writing the history.

Since mid-August, the government of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has in effect been laying siege to multiple predominantly Kurdish enclaves in southeastern Anatolia. It has shelled civilian homes and apartment houses, and has prevented food, water – even emergency medical aid – from reaching civilian victims of these attacks.

Some of the worst violence recently occurred in the two cities of Diyarbakir and Cizre. (Nusaybin looks likely to be next.) Indeed, Cizre just witnessed what appears to have been a massacre of diabolical proportions: a massacre that continued for days on end – despite official, and widely circulated, claims to the effect that the “operation” in Cizre was complete.

Over the course of two weeks, large numbers of civilians – many of them wounded – found themselves trapped underground after government shelling. They were denied all assistance: ambulances were turned away, and family members detained, when they tried to reach the wounded. Some died of blood loss, some likely died of thirst, and many were ultimately burned alive last week, when the government forces launched attacks on the buildings where they were trapped. (All this despite desperate pleas for help up till the very last minute.) At the time of writing the confirmed death toll stands at 145, and the city is in ruins. Meanwhile, there is a concerted government effort under way – in keeping with previous such efforts – to ensure that the truth does not leak out.

Outraged by the Erdoğan government’s war on its own Kurdish citizens, we have written an open letter to President Obama, asking that he speak out. The letter was written before the last round of violence in Cizre – our request now is made all the more urgent by that. It goes to the White House this week.

President Erdoğan claims that his forces are merely responding to Kurdish separatist (PKK) fighters. He forcibly removes democratically elected politicians who are likely to disagree, and charges intellectuals who question him with ‘academic terrorism.’ But even were Erdoğan’s claim true – if previous evidence to the contrary wasn’t enough, the Cizre massacre surely disproves it – the collective punishment and indiscriminate murder of innocent civilians is not only barbarous: it is also illegal under both Turkish and international humanitarian law. (It is also becoming increasingly clear that Erdoğan is prepared to pursue his enemies beyond Turkey’s borders, disregarding the fact that this is highly likely to exacerbate the conflict in Syria.)

The exclusive targeting of members of the Kurdish minority population further suggests that what we are witnessing – and, through our silence, condoning – is a case of ethnic cleansing.

Robert Hockett is Edward Cornell Professor of Law at Cornell University; Anna-Sara Malmgren is Assistant Professor of Philosophy at Stanford University.

To sign the open letter to President Obama on behalf of Turkey’s Kurdish civilians: http://www.ipetitions.com/petition/petition-on-behalf-of-turkeys-kurds

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