November 15, 1999
By Kani Xulam and Biseng Amed
Good Afternoon, Merhaba, Roj Bash!
By opening my remarks in three languages, I wanted to lend my voice to the voiceless in this country, with the hope that just as you are so graciously welcoming me here this afternoon, so you will welcome these millions of Kurdish brothers and sisters under your care as equal partners in your fledgling democracy.
Eight years ago this month, a newly elected Member of this Parliament, a young and courageous woman named Leyla Zana, stood before you and took her oath of office to serve the peoples that make up this country. With a few words, spoken in her own mother tongue of Kurdish, she tore down a wall of separation and fear: the language barrier. Speaking of brotherhood, and sisterhood, in a time of war and fear, she extended a bridge of peace.
It is time we all cross that bridge of peace together NOW.
It is indeed a bridge from war to peace, from terror to democracy, and also a bridge across the Bosporus and the Euphrates to make Turkey an integral part of both the European Union and a new Middle Eastern community of peoples founded on democracy and human rights. Thus may we fulfill the motto of the founder of your republic, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk: “Peace at home, peace in the world.” The time has come for this goal to become a reality in the homes and hearts of Kurds and Turks alike.
In crossing this bridge from war to peace, from terror to democracy, let us honor the many Turks and Kurds who have paved the way. In 1991, your sitting President, my good friend, Suleyman Demirel, boldly declared, “From now on, Turkey recognizes the Kurdish reality.” In 1993, President Turgut Ozal was laying a foundation for peace and Kurdish-Turkish cooperation, a labor interrupted by his untimely death. In this Parliament and in prison, Leyla Zana has courageously maintained both her hope for peace and her resolve that democracy in Turkey can and must prevail.
In crossing this bridge, let us remember that democracy itself is not a fixed destination but an open road, as the American people have learned. In 1787, the United States Constitution was adopted “in order to form a more perfect union.” In choosing these words, the Founders well knew that absolute perfection in human affairs is impossible; but striving for such perfection is the noble quest of a free people.
Democracy is not a perfect system of government, but a perpetual and peaceful struggle for greater justice. Such a civilized struggle, while arduous, is better than a perpetual and bloody warfare between oppressor and oppressed.
Walking together on this open road to peace, our nations must chart their futures by the compass points of truth and reconciliation. Truth is the first casualty of war, a proverb tells us, but it can also be the first harbinger of peace.
For the sake of a true brotherhood and sisterhood between the Turkish and Kurdish and American peoples, I must speak some honest truths about my own country.
As is well known, while the American Constitution of 1787 and the Bill of Rights added in 1791 provided a basis for democracy, it did not immediately bring the reality of democracy for the majority of our people. Despite the service of women such as Abigail Adams and Mercy Otis Warren in our Revolution — like Leyla Zana and Nadire Mater in your continuing struggle for democracy — this half of our population remained disenfranchised. In those parts of our Nation where African-Americans were fortunate enough to escape the chains of slavery, they yet often wore the badge of slavery by also being denied the vote and other basic civil rights because of their race.
Happily, the growth of democracy in America has usually been by peaceful means, as with our Women’s Rights Movement and African-American Civil Rights movement, which have served as models for nonviolent People Power throughout the world. The American people warmly embrace leaders of the Kurdish and Turkish peoples such as Leyla Zana, Hatip Dicle, and Akin Birdal who rekindle the world’s passion for freedom.
Yet in sharing with you the truth about America, I must speak also of deeper wounds of history, wounds which must be cleansed in order that they may heal.
Ever since the arrival in America of Columbus in 1492, and the founding of the first permanent English colony in Virginia in 1607, our nation has been built on the foundation of genocide against the Indigenous Nations of our continent, the First Nations and rightful leaders of the land. Millions of Native people have been murdered outright, or killed by disease and starvation and despair brought about by the theft of their lands and the denial of their very cultures and identities.
Also, within a generation of the coming of Columbus, and as early as 1619 in the English colonies which became the basis for the United States, the genocidal commerce of African slavery had poisoned the land, launching a horror that would bring centuries of death and oppression, and whose mark remains in our cities and towns and in the soul of our nation.
The American people, however much pride we rightfully take in our democratic institutions, are not exempt from history’s law of repentance and responsibility.
It is with this humble realization that I speak of the tragedies of Turkish history also, of the Armenian Genocide initiated in 1915 which involved the murder of 1,500,000 people, and of the cultural genocide against the Kurdish people which followed, producing a deadly cycle of rebellion and repression.
Just as our history of racial injustice and even genocide in America has left deep wounds on our democracy, so the oppression of the Armenians and Kurds has wounded the soul of Turkish democracy.
Just this September, Chief Justice Sami Selcuk of the Turkish Court of Appeals courageously declared that the military coup of 12 September 1980 had produced a Constitution with “almost zero legitimacy.” The American and Turkish Republics alike must repent of a history filled with terror and mass murder while celebrating a rededication to democracy which only the truth can bring.
In that spirit, today, I would like especially to apologize to this Parliament for the role the United States has played in training and arming torturers and agents of repression against the Kurdish and Turkish friends of democracy alike. A report issued by the World Policy Institute notes that on my watch alone the United States has trained 976 military personal, some of whom have flown helicopters over the devastated lands of the Kurds. I deeply regret the pain we have caused you.
It has been said that the best revenge is living well, and today the best apology of all for my country is to pledge to you our friendship and assistance in the reconstruction of Turkey, and especially of Turkish Kurdistan, after the upheavals of two deadly earthquakes and a yet deadlier civil war. We regard this partnership for economic renewal, and for the yet more vital spiritual renewal of true democracy throughout the region, as a paramount necessity for the security of Europe, the Middle East, and the entire world.
In recognizing a Kurdish reality, we speak not only of Kurds but also of Kurdistan, a land spanning the present borders not only of Turkey but also of Iran, Iraq, Syria, and the former Soviet Union. For Turkey and the entire Middle East, the path to peace and democracy lies through Kurdistan.
Ultimately the Kurdish Question can be solved only through full self-determination for the Kurdish people in deciding their own national destiny. As a first and imperative step, the people of Turkish Kurdistan must be guaranteed full cultural and language rights, and granted a political space in which to develop Kurdish institutions and build a friendship with their Turkish sisters and brothers based on equality and trust.
Above all, the Kurdish Question must be resolved by peaceful and democratic means, whatever forms the partnership of the Turkish and Kurdish peoples may eventually take. In the words of your own internationally acclaimed Member Leyla Zana, winner of the Sakharov Prize of the European Parliament:
“If Turkey, despite all its attempts … has been unable to resolve the Kurdish question by force of arms, it will not be able to stifle the claims to an identity and the democratic aspirations of its fifteen million Kurds by war and massacre. By the same token, it is impossible for the Kurds to win anything by violence and force of arms.”
By opening a political and cultural space for the people of Turkish Kurdistan, Turkey will also be opening the door not only to peace at home but to full membership in what the great Russian leader Mikhail Gorbachev called “a common European home.”
After a century when, I regret to say, American governments and others have been willing to tear both Turkey and Kurdistan apart for their own colonial enrichment or political convenience, the fears of the Kurdish and Turkish peoples are understandable. Yet moving beyond fear let our keynote today be a vision of both peoples reintegrated into a larger community of nations encompassing Anatolia, Mesopotamia, and the entire Middle East.
The Kurdish Question, of course, is larger than Turkey and Turkish Kurdistan alone. I would like to speak first to this larger question, and then to some historic steps which this Parliament may take in partnership with the American people and the European Community for the good of all.
Ten years ago this month, when the Berlin Wall fell, a chain of events was set in motion which led within a year to the reunification of Germany. In the case of Kurdistan, the complex national issues will not be resolved so quickly, but the hour has indeed arrived for the Berlin Walls of oppression and terror to come down. Kurdish people must be free to join hands in cultural and economic ties across borders, and to reason together about their political future.
Today I carry a message of freedom for all Kurdish people. The United States regards the denial of basic cultural, language, and political rights to the Kurds in any portion of Kurdistan as a threat to the stability of the region and to the peace of the world.
Let the critical opening decade of the 21st century be heralded as the Decade of Kurdistan, a decade of liberation for the Kurdish people of Iraq, Iran, and Turkey also.
In that spirit, I propose the creation of a Kurdistan Customs Union to include both Turkish or Northern Kurdistan and the portion of Southern or Iraqi Kurdistan under the jurisdiction of the Kurdish Regional Government. An open border with duty-free trade would reunite families, encourage economic development, and promote democracy not only for the Kurds but for their Turkish and Iraqi sisters and brothers.
Further, it is the policy of the United States to assist the people of Southern Kurdistan in gaining a viable economic basis for shaping their own future. We are ready to negotiate with Iraq for an end to sanctions on nonmilitary trade in return for recognition of Southern Kurdistan’s sovereign right to self-determination, and the inclusion of the former Vilayet of Mosul within the territory of the Kurdish Regional Government.
In coming weeks we will also extend new initiatives for peace to Iran, a land where Kurds and Farsi-speaking peoples alike have often suffered from American policies placing Cold War politics or amoral posturing before democracy and human rights. In Iran, as in Turkey, those who oppress the Kurds oppress themselves, and those who respect the freedom of the Kurds gain their own freedom.
In Syria, also, the Kurdish identity and culture must receive full recognition. While the problems of borders and political structures will remain for the logic of life itself to resolve over the next decade, the right of the people of Kurdistan to enjoy full human rights and build social and cultural institutions across borders will set the stage for a just solution.
Having looked at the Kurdish Question in a larger regional setting, I would like to join with this great Assembly in celebrating Turkey’s opportunity for immediate and decisive action.
In negotiating a prompt settlement of the 15-year civil war, both the Kurdish and Turkish people have an invaluable bridge of understanding: the People’s Democracy Party, HADEP. As Members of this Turkish Grand National Assembly, and as Kurdish Prisoners of Conscience, Leyla Zana, Hatip Dicle, Orhan Dogan, and Selim Sadak are ready to serve as mediators of truth and reconciliation.
While according a special role of leadership to those who have met violence with nonviolence, Turkey must also address the needs of those who were caught up in the deadly logic of war, whether as members of the Turkish military or as fighters of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party. A general amnesty for these warriors of both sides, and a Commission of Truth and Reconciliation so that Turks and Kurds alike may understand history rather than repeat it, would help break the cycle of violence and revenge.
Abdulah Ocalan, imprisoned leader of the PKK, has expressed the commitment of his party to seek a peaceful role in the politics of Turkey and the region. Urging that this Parliament take every measure to encourage such a future for the PKK, I would like on behalf of the American people to invite Abdullah Ocalan to visit the United States and see our system of democracy at work. We would also invite veterans of the Turkish armed forces and the PKK alike to share experiences with our own veterans of Vietnam in order to promote healing and understanding.
The passing of appropriate legislation to ensure full representation for HADEP and other political parties speaking for the Kurdish people, and to end prosecutions and persecutions for nonviolent dissent, will help make the word Cumhuriyet, “Republic,” a synonym for democracy and pride not only in Turkey but in America and around the world.
Let me solemnly promise this Assembly that the United States is committed to the human and cultural rights not only of Kosovar Albanians and of Kurds in Turkey, but also of Turkish people and communities throughout the world.
This brings me to the next point on freedom’s agenda: the immediate recognition of the Kurdish language, and indeed its encouragement, in education and broadcasting. Here we can learn a lesson of freedom and pluralism from the courageous Turkish community of Bulgaria.
Between 1984 and 1989, the Bulgarian regime launched a campaign of ethnic cleansing and repression against the Turkish culture and language, seeking to change village names and to rob your Turkish sisters and brothers of their very identity. These brave Turks resisted, and you rightly supported them in their struggle to preserve their heritage and yours.
Fortunately, over the last ten years, the Bulgarian Government has moved in the direction of pluralism and tolerance, and this year has recognized the right of the Turkish population both to Turkish language broadcasts and to an education including lessons in Turkish. Very wisely, the Bulgarian authorities have also given Bulgarian students an option to study Turkish so they may become ambassadors of understanding.
For the Kurds of Turkey, as for the Turks of Bulgaria, repression breeds resistance while freedom of culture and language promotes peace and democracy, whatever specific political arrangements may evolve.
On the critical matter of language, I can speak as an American from our own very painful national experience. For many decades, children from our Indigenous Nations were sent off to Indian Boarding Schools where they were abused and beaten for speaking their own mother tongues, and trained to despise their own cultures. Children ran away and died of hunger or exposure rather than endure such psychological and at times physical torture. This was cultural genocide, from which the American people have finally begun to move away. Our Congress has sought to redeem this policy of shame by enacting legislation to encourage the use of indigenous languages and their transmission from generation to generation.
Similarly, generations of children in the boarding schools of Turkish Kurdistan, and in other schools where speaking their mother tongue is not only prohibited but punished by beatings or other abuse, have suffered from a policy to be condemned for its futility as well as cruelty. Happily, both the Kurdish people and the Kurdish language have survived, and their recognition can liberate Kurd and Turk alike.
Education can replace mutual fear with mutual curiosity. Whatever shape the political forms may take, Kurds and Turks will remain neighbors and partners in trade and development. Educational policies respecting the right of Kurdish communities to education in Kurdish, while encouraging children throughout Turkey to master both languages, will promote cultural understanding and economic opportunity for all.
Today I would like to emphasize the power of what we call in America “grass-roots democracy” at the local level to ease the tension between Kurds and Turks and promote the freedom of both peoples. As the great Ataturk declared in 1923, in a democratic Republic of Turkey, “a kind of local autonomy” would in any case form in areas with Kurdish majorities. Today the local administrations of the HADEP mayors provide one vital model for self-government, a model which should flourish in a Turkish Kurdistan immediately set free from the shackles of emergency military rule.
With an end to military operations by the PKK resistance forces, and their desire to enter peaceful Turkish politics, the state of emergency can be only an obstruction to democracy and thus a threat to the true security of the Cumhuriyet or Republic. By restoring the normal politics of peace, the Turkish Government can win the applause of the world.
In Turkish Kurdistan today, as in the African-American communities of the American southeast 40 years ago, the people hunger for food, for economic opportunity, and for a better standard of living — but above all, they hunger for freedom and human dignity. Economic development and Kurdish self-determination must go hand in hand, along with full recognition of the rights of labor.
The rebuilding of the 3400 Kurdish villages destroyed in the war, and the repatriation of the 3 million or more refugees, is an imperative of justice and social peace for which the United States is ready to supply massive assistance. Having contributed to this disaster by our policy of indiscriminate arms transfers, we now seek to made good our apology by sharing the tools of peace and development with Turkish Kurdistan and Turkey as a whole.
In the process of economic and political development, the women of Turkey and Kurdistan have a special role to play in building bridges both to Europe and to a democratic union of Middle Eastern nations. I have people like Leyla Zana and Nadire Mater in mind, the accomplished daughters of your peoples who strive to make this community of peoples a better place for all.
I end the way I began in English, Turkish and Kurdish. Thank you. Tesekkur Ederim and Zor Spas. May God bless the fraternity of the Turkish and Kurdish peoples.