As the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) problem nears a new watershed, an old controversy has recently resurfaced: the issue of child recruitment by the group.
The demonstrations launched by Kurdish mothers to get their kids back show that the social and human dimensions of the problem are changing along with its political dimension, so much so that the conscientious and humanitarian side has for some time overshadowed other aspects.
Political and military dimension
The PKK continues to stoke tensions ahead of the August presidential elections, sending out a warning of renewed armed action if Ankara fails to move forward on the Kurdish “autonomy” demand.
To reinforce the message, the PKK has been “punishing” village guards [government-paid Kurdish militiamen], blocking roads and torching earth-moving machines and trucks. These are all tactical moves, thought out carefully as part of a clear strategy.
The PKK wants to make it clear to Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, under the time pressure of the presidential polls, that it is capable of derailing his road map. In the meantime, it is also making a declaration to the [Kurdish] people that it is the legitimate authority to obey.
The PKK is trying to force the security forces to step back and be pacified. The state is losing the initiative as officials struggle to see what might come next.
The PKK’s intensified activity helps it sustain its dynamism as an organization, galvanizing cadres, militants and sympathizers. In-house crises are thus being deferred and the negative energy is directed at the government. Potential sponsors, meanwhile, rub their hands in glee as they watch the unfolding scene with growing interest.
At the point we have reached today, the dialogue [between Ankara and the PKK] is turning into negotiations, and the government’s maneuvering room seems to keep shrinking. In other words, the looming questions are now of strategic proportions.
PKK’s tactical problem
Given this atmosphere, the debate on the PKK’s recruitment of minors and the mothers’ demonstrations have put strain on the PKK. The problem is actually an old one; children have always been a prominent feature in PKK history — sometimes as victims of terror, as in the Pinarcik massacre, and sometimes as “child soldiers” driven directly into the battlefield.
Many children were kidnapped by the PKK in the 1980s under the group’s so-called “military service law.” The commander for Hakkari province, Halil Kaya, for instance, overdid the practice so much that PKK’s Abdullah Ocalan, who had first encouraged him, grew furious in time, charging that good-for-nothings were being recruited. In PKK jargon, the forcible recruitment of children is called “the blind Cemal practice,” which means the indiscriminate recruitment of adults and minors alike.
Under international law, individuals younger than 18 affiliated with armed forces or organizations are considered to be “child soldiers.” The armed groups remain accountable even if the children have volunteered to join. The phenomenon is no doubt a crime against humanity and falls within the jurisdiction of the International Criminal Court.
The PKK seems to be facing a tactical difficulty nowadays. Yet, being a quick learner, it remains fully capable of maneuvering fast and overcoming the problem. Meanwhile, its adversary [the government] is facing strategic problems and needs to do some learning. And one basic thing it [the government] needs to learn is that tactical moves do not make for strategic success.
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