On May 27, Al-Monitor ran a vivid report about the massive destruction from Turkish security operations in the country’s mainly Kurdish southeast. The story described how people gathered on tall buildings in Diyarbakir’s ancient district of Sur, hoping to locate their homes intact in devastated neighborhoods that are still off-limits to residents, while others scrambled to recover usable belongings or the bodies of relatives. According to the Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP), at least 550 civilians have been killed and 350,000 people displaced since July 2015, when Ankara launched a massive crackdown to purge Kurdish militants entrenched in residential areas across the southeast.
While the people of Sur reeled from the shock of their unrecognizable streets, another Turkish city, Istanbul, hosted the first World Humanitarian Summit, which came as a bitter irony and sparked controversy and criticism. The May 23-24 event, organized by the United Nations, was meant to address the world’s growing refugee problem, yet the host government itself had caused the displacement of thousands of its citizens.
In a gesture of protest, renowned Turkish musician and writer Zulfu Livaneli resigned as goodwill ambassador to UNESCO, the UN’s cultural agency, slamming human rights abuses in the southeast and the destruction in Sur, which was only last year added to UNESCO’s World Heritage List. “As the demolition of history is taking place in Sur, hypocrisy dominated the World Humanitarian Summit,” he said. “To pontificate on peace while remaining silent against such violations is a contradiction of the fundamental ideals of UNESCO.”
In remarks to Al-Monitor, Livaneli expressed optimism that his resignation and warnings were bearing fruit, pointing to reports of UNESCO taking action on Sur. Yet the problem goes beyond the protection of historical heritage, with grave human rights violations reported on a daily basis from the southeast.
In a separate letter to UNESCO chief Irina Bokova, Livaneli drew a grim picture of human suffering in the region. “The Turkish state continuously bombs Kurdish cities in Turkey with heavy artillery. … Snipers kill innocent civilians in their homes. Curfew causes many problems, especially for the sick and the children,” Livaneli wrote in the letter, which he shared with Al-Monitor. “A young girl, Cemile, was shot by snipers at her home while having breakfast with her family. The family couldn’t take her to the hospital because of the curfew and because of the snipers waiting outside their home. Unfortunately, Cemile ended up dying at home. The family kept her body in the refrigerator for three days. This tragedy is just one example.”
He added, “Millions of progressive, moderate and ordinary people are suffering under [President Recep Tayyip] Erdogan’s oppressive regime, and they feel deeply wounded by the world’s efforts to legitimize this regime through holding a humanitarian summit in this highly undemocratic country where human rights are continuously being trampled on.”
The HDP conveyed a similar message to UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon. “We remain deeply concerned about the possibility that hosting such a critical meeting might serve the Erdogan regime to cover up the gross rights violations and crimes that it has been committing in Turkey with utter disregard of any humanitarian or legal accountability,” the letter said.
The secretary-general himself was a child caught up in war and destruction. In a recent video, he described how his village was burned during the Korean War and his family had to run to the mountains.
The Turkish government, however, only fueled concerns as it refused to sign a joint statement at the end of the summit, in which countries reaffirmed their commitment to international humanitarian law.
According to veteran journalist Celal Baslangic, Ankara’s refusal to sign the statement is an omen that human rights abuses in Turkey will continue, maybe even on a larger scale. “As a result of the whole process [in the southeast] and their misguided policies, Turkey’s leaders failed to sign the joint declaration of the first World Humanitarian Summit, which they hosted. This failure appears to stem not only from what has already happened, but also of the new calamities the government is planning to put us through,” he wrote.
Fatih Polat, the editor-in-chief of Evrensel daily, stressed that shortly before the summit, UN Human Rights Commissioner Zeid Raad Al Hussein spoke of numerous complaints of gross violations in the southeast, including a report that more than 100 people were burned to death while sheltering in basements in Cizre, and urged Turkey to grant the UN unimpeded access to the affected areas.
According to Polat, this could have been a major reason why Turkey refused to sign the joint statement as the text urged “all parties involved in an armed conflict to allow full unimpeded access by humanitarian personnel to all people in need of assistance.”
Speaking to Al-Monitor, Polat said that by hosting the summit, Ankara had hoped to polish its image as the country that shelters the largest number of Syrian refugees, an issue he described as the “soft spot” of the West. “Yet this [image-polishing] plan went down the drain as the military operations that followed the suspension of the talks on the Kurdish problem caused a huge humanitarian toll and scenes of urban and historical heritage destruction,” Polat said. “That’s how Turkey went down in history as a country that refused to sign the joint statement of the World Humanitarian Summit, which it hosted.”