Kurdish civilians, including women, children and elderly residents, have been killed during security operations and armed clashes since July 2015 in southeastern Turkey.
Local human rights groups have recorded well over 100 civilian deaths and multiple injuries. After unprecedented military deployments to the region in recent days, several cities are under curfew and some of their neighborhoods the scenes of shelling by the military and heavy clashes with armed Kurdish groups. The civilian death toll is likely to rise steeply in the coming days.
Human Rights Watch focused on police and military operations during three extended curfews in September and November, documenting 15 of the killings of civilians in detail through interviews with relatives and witnesses as well as the accounts of eight civilians injured with gunshot wounds and shrapnel, and three cases of serious ill-treatment in detention. Wounded people have been denied access to medical treatment. The populations of entire neighborhoods have had their water and electricity cut during state-imposed curfews and have been left without access to food. Many have fled their homes to escape fighting.
“The Turkish government should rein in its security forces, immediately stop the abusive and disproportionate use of force, and investigate the deaths and injuries caused by its operations,” said Emma Sinclair-Webb, senior Turkey researcher at Human Rights Watch. “To ignore or cover up what’s happening to the region’s Kurdish population would only confirm the widely held belief in the southeast that when it comes to police and military operations against Kurdish armed groups, there are no limits – there is no law.”
Witnesses told Human Rights Watch that security forces repeatedly opened fire on anyone on the streets or who left their homes, failing to distinguish between people who were armed and those who weren’t and making no assessment of the threat an individual posed or the necessity of using lethal force.
Clashes have taken place between government forces and armed opposition fighters since the breakdown of the Turkish government’s peace process with Abdullah Öcalan, the imprisoned leader of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK). In towns throughout the southeast massive security operations are under way against an armed movement, the Patriotic Revolutionary Youth Movement (YDG-H), associated with the PKK. The youth movement’s supporters have dug trenches and erected barricades to seal off neighborhoods.
The eight deaths in the city of Cizre, in Şırnak province, during a curfew in September and four deaths in the city of Silvan and three in Nusaybin during November curfews, documented by Human Rights Watch are only a sample of the civilian deaths and injuries that occurred during this period. While it is clear from evidence collected by local groups that the death and injury toll is much higher, a full investigation is needed to determine precise numbers, to determine who is responsible for the deaths in each case, and to determine whether any of the larger number killed were participating in the fighting. In the 15 deaths documented by Human Rights Watch, the authorities have failed to complete investigations despite a clear obligation to do so under Turkish domestic and international human rights law.
Witnesses in Cizre and Silvan told Human Rights Watch that when people tried to get an ambulance for injured people, the emergency services told them it was not possible for an ambulance to come and that police blocked them when they tried to take wounded victims to hospitals by car.
Since August 16, provincial authorities in the southeast have announced repeated prolonged curfews in whole cities and towns or in particular neighborhoods. During the curfews, lasting up to two weeks, officials have severely restricted people’s freedom of movement and prevented access to the area by observers or media.
During the curfews, Special Operations Police teams and other security forces have conducted counter-terrorism operations against the armed Kurdish youth movement, using armored vehicles and sometimes tanks and heavy artillery against their barricades. The supporters of the Kurdish armed group have dug trenches, often planted with explosives and erected barricades to seal off neighborhoods.
Turkey is party to both the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR) and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), which protect the rights to life, bodily integrity, and security. As part of those obligations, medical treatment must be provided promptly to anyone who is injured. The Turkish authorities have a history of failing to carry out effective investigations into killings in the southeast, in particular in cases where state agents were alleged to have been responsible for unlawful killings, resulting in a series of rulings by European Court of Human Rights that Turkey violated the right to life.
While Turkish authorities have a duty to protect the population from violence by armed groups, and may use reasonable force to deal with threats to the right to life, they must also ensure that their policing operations, including the imposition of any curfews, respect the rights of those living in affected areas, are proportionate to the threat faced and that people are able to access basic services including medical treatment.
In a November 18, 2015 statement, Council of Europe Commissioner for Human Rights Nils Muiznieks said:
While I reiterate the right and obligation of the Turkish state to fight terrorism, the methods employed in this fight have to respect the human rights guarantees enshrined in international standards, in particular the European Convention on Human Rights. Imposing open-ended, round-the-clock curfews in entire neighbourhoods or towns until further notice represents a massive restriction of some of the most fundamental human rights of a huge population. Their frequent and widespread use in South-Eastern Turkey since August does not appear to satisfy the criteria of proportionality and necessity in a democratic society.
A full investigation is needed to determine in each case whether members of the security forces unlawfully killed civilians or whether civilians were killed in crossfire, by armed fighters or by flying shrapnel during armed clashes. The investigation should include interviews with all available witnesses, an on-site investigation, detailed autopsies and other forensics, and the collection of all unedited video footage from cameras on armored vehicles and other video shot by police units or civilians,.
The government should immediately make absolutely clear that the security forces should not prevent anyone from reaching medical assistance or impede medics and ambulances from responding to the wounded, and hold anyone who does accountable, Human Rights Watch said.
Armed Kurdish groups associated with the Kurdistan Workers’ Party should stop digging trenches planted with explosives and erecting barricades to prevent state authorities from entering neighborhoods, Human Rights Watch said. The practice has had an adverse impact on the population, threatening their right to access medical care and impeding the delivery of other emergency services.
“Curfews, police operations, and armed clashes have made life for many people in southeastern towns and cities unbearable, and deadly dangerous,” Sinclair-Webb said. “It demonstrates the very real human cost of the breakdown of the Kurdish peace process.”