Written by Dr. Federico Venturini, Human Geographer and Social Ecologist
This is a personal relection on an activist-researcher’s experience as a peace delegate. As with all stories, let’s start from the beginning.
I believe in freedom and I work towards the elimination of all forms of domination. For this reason I am embedded in many social movements and parts of diferent campaigns, from social centres to environmentalism, from the student movement to union actions. As such, I believe that research can be an invaluable tool for the advancement of social and political struggles. Through research, a critical relection is realised, endowing social movements with speciic and general knowledge to understand the society in which we live and, at the same time, to develop mechanisms that help its transformation. Research is precious in order to organise and systematise this knowledge, and it allows us to develop methods and analytical tools that support and improve the performance of campaigns and movements. In a dark age of nationalism and capitalism, it seems that the Left has lost its way. Research’s aim of building a culture of resistance seems crucial to analyse and re-create practices that can enable social change. !is is why I call myself an activist-researcher. I am not just a detached academic; rather, social change is at the core of my eforts.
My interest in the Kurdish question came via social ecology. Since my university years I was involved in an occupied social centre in Udine, my hometown. There I was exposed to the ideas and practices of social ecology, a philosophy founded by Murray Bookchin, based on the concepts of freedom, democracy and self-management. In 2011 I moved to Leeds (UK) to study a doctorate on Brazilian social movements, using social ecology as a reference philosophy. Moved by political interests, I began to develop Bookchin’s research on social ecology and his inluence on Abdullah Öcalan. In April 2015 I was selected to present a paper at a conference entitled “Challenging Capitalist Modernity II” in Hamburg organised by the Network for an Alternative Quest, a network of several Kurdish organisations. My contribution, entitled “Social Ecology and the Non-Western World,” focused on the need for social ecology to develop by learning from outside the Western world.
In December 2015, I received an unexpected email from the EUTCC, inviting me to join a peace delegation that was to leave for Istanbul for the purpose of meeting with Öcalan and resuming the dialogue between Turkish oicials and the Kurdish movement. !is invitation was probably due to my contribution at the Hamburg conference and my academic credentials.
However, I soon had a question for myself: How could I contribute to such an endeavour as activist-researcher?
At the beginning I was sceptical, but then I realised how I could contribute. First, the academic credentials that I hold (as do others in the delegation) open doors that would otherwise remain closed. Of course, it then depends on individual skill to keep that door open and have a fruitful discussion. However, academic credentials are useful in order to initiate a debate, to be selected to give an interview, or to write an article. So, why not use them? Second, the knowledge on the subject that I developed during my studies and the mediating skills that I’ve developed over years of interminable activists meetings could be useful as well.
Then I had another set of questions: an activist as a peace delegate? Would it be too “institutional”? Would I dirty my hands working at an institutional level?
As an activist, I am accustomed to working with people “from below and on the Left,” as the Zapatistas say, and I felt uneasy using institutional channels.
However, soon I found out that no delegate from the EUTCC would take part in the trip (the chair, Kariane Westrheim, is persona non grata in Turkey) and that the participants were mainly, though not exclusively, academics and intellectuals. These factors reassured me as to the independence of the delegation and, after some relection—and motivated by curiosity and trust in the organisers—I decided to take part.
Two months of preparation followed, during which time I never disclosed my participation in the trip to anyone, due to security issues. I found out that the ten-person delegation would be led by the late Essa Moosa, a retired judge of the Supreme Court of South Africa involved in the negotiation process in
South Africa at the end of apartheid. Later, I would meet Moosa in person. He led the delegation with charisma and knowledge, setting the direction and giving precious advice. It was an honour to have met him.
During that irst delegation I must admit I was very naïve regarding the possibility of being granted permission to visit Öcalan, imprisoned on İmralı Island since 1999. As an Italian, I felt somehow responsible for his imprisonment, given the involvement of the Italian government in his arrest and in refusing him political asylum while he was in Italy in 1999.
After the irst delegation, another followed, involving work both in Turkey and at the Council of Europe in Strasbourg (France). !e goal of the delegation has always remained the same: pushing the Turkish government to the peace table. And in all of our delegations we met a range of politicians, lawyers, NGOs, trade unionists, journalists and activists. However, if in the irst delegation we had few politicians as members, later more were incorporated in order to increase the political pressure in the Council of Europe and in the European Parliament, institutions with a crucial role in denouncing human rights violations in Turkey.
Amongst all the information we garnered over the course of the two delegations, which do I value the most? I want to stress two key concepts that, in their simplicity, may seem almost trivial. First, the conlict between Turks and Kurds cannot be solved militarily: there are 14 million Kurds in Turkey, representing 18% of the entire population and they cannot simply be eliminated. At the same time, Kurdish guerrillas cannot eliminate the Turkish state, a NATO force. The only solution is to sit down to negotiate. !e Kurdish proposal of democratic confederalism goes in this direction: no longer an independent Kurdish state, but a confederalist Turkey, where all social groups can achieve autonomy and self-governed freedom. From this perspective, the Kurdish question would be better termed the Kurdish answer (Virasami 2015).
The main actor for this peace process is the leader Öcalan, who has become the unifying symbol of all Kurds in Turkey. Like many activists, I am often dubious of leaders. However, thanks to the Delegation, I came to terms with the importance of Öcalan’s leadership. I am convinced that no progress towards a solution can be achieved without Öcalan, the recognised leader of Kurdish people, who has become the symbol of the liberation movement. Since the end of preliminary peace talks in 2015, Öcalan has received very limited visits either from politicians, lawyers or family members, increasing his isolation. It is very striking that Öcalan’s lawyers have not been able to see their client since 2011. News is circulating regarding his troubling health. From this point of view, the Turkish-Kurdish situation is similar to apartheid South Africa: Nelson Mandela, leader of the Black freedom movement, was held in his cell for 27 years. Before genuine Turkish-Kurdish negotiations can begin, the state must free Öcalan, just as Nelson Mandela was released before—not a%er nor during—the South African negotiations. For as long as Öcalan remains imprisoned, there will be room only for preliminary talks, not for real negotiations. Mandela himself had pointed out that only free and non-imprisoned persons could negotiate a political solution on behalf of their people. Öcalan’s freedom is therefore a fundamental prerequisite for the peace process.
Second, Turkey is on the brink of a civil war similar to Syria’s. A civil war is a creeping reality in the south-eastern part of the country—in northern Kurdistan—and the chances of increasing and intensifying clashes, and of the spreading of the conlict on a national scale, are rising every day. President Erdoğan is pushing for dictatorial measures throughout society—not least tightening media control—putting in place a forced displacement, committing massive human rights violations against the Kurdish population, denying language and culture, forcing migration, and perpetuating the indiscriminate massacre of civilians. He took advantage of the state of emergency declared a%er the failed coup in July 2016 to intensify repression against any opposition (not just against those accused of the coup) directly inluencing the constitutional referendum in 2017. Furthermore, since the summer of 2016 Turkey has occupied a portion of Syria and is a continuing threat to the Democratic Federation of Northern Syria. The latter is experiencing a new society directly inluenced by the ideas of Öcalan and based on anti-authoritarian values like gender equality, ecology, nation-state refusal, confederalism and multiculturalism. Democracy cannot exist in Turkey without a peaceful resolution of the Kurdish issue and the peace process in Turkey is interlinked with the peace process in Syria.
Let’s return now to my role as an activist-researcher in a peace delegation. This is kind of delegation had very clear aims, within a deined political arena, and it is just one form of supporting a freedom struggle. !e Kurdish freedom movement will not achieve its goals thanks to the Council of Europe. However, the latter is an arena in which it is worth ighting for the Kurdish cause. As with many others, this struggle is composed of a myriad of diferent pieces of a complex puzzle. Moreover, the information gathered through the delegations has been useful to meet another goal: to acquire knowledge to be spread in Turkey and abroad in order to create a media impact in favour of the peace process. And in this case the outcome was positive; the delegation organised several press conferences and issued several press releases published in Turkey and abroad. For example, during my stay in Istanbul, I participated in a round table on social ecology promoted by the Transnational Institute of Social Ecology, with an intervention on the philosophy of social ecology and dialectical naturalism. In addition, the Devrimci Anarşist Faaliyet—Anarchist Revolutionary Action (DAF)—held a public meeting where I presented the theme “Social Ecology and Anarchism.” In the UK, I was twice invited to public debates at the House of Commons, and, in Italy, I participated in public events organised by lawyers’ organisations, the Rotary Club, and social movements, always to talk about human rights violations in Turkey.
The whole Western world is silently watching the genocide happening to the Kurds and it is crucial to raise awareness at all levels. The European Union’s silence is particularly signiicant: beyond rhetorical and marginal mentions of human rights, the agreement with Turkey on migrants gives Erdoğan full freedom in the criminal administration of the Kurdish question. All the people we met during our delegations were shocked by the silence of public opinion and the Western media around what is happening in Kurdish territory. The help that the Kurds have sought is that we not leave them isolated and without support, that we speak out loudly about what is happening there; the Delegation worked to meet this call.
As an activist I often ask the question of the necessity and consistency of participation in these initiatives. If you avoid spectacularisation, these international delegations are an efective way to gather ield information, as mentioned before. Even the account we present here can be understood as the continuation of the work of the peace delegation: it is part of the efort needed to break the silence and try to build pressure from below on an international scale—and especially in Western countries—so that Turkey is convinced to sit at the negotiating table. Our task as activists from diferent parts of the world is to break barriers and walls of silence, building real bridges of solidarity between liberation mov ments around the world. Certainly a coherent and incisive revolutionary commitment cannot be conined to sporadic institutional delegations, but these are only a small part of our support for the Kurdish liberation movement.
As an internationalist, I call for unity and cooperation between all the oppressed of the world and actively help struggles for freedom all around the globe. A critical solidarity is needed between diferent struggles, one that should be built on respect for the historical context of each struggle and be mirrored by a theory able to accommodate the speciicity and learning of diferent experiences.However, we should bear in mind two important aspects. First, being in solidarity does not mean a-critical acceptation of the other:
“[S]olidarity is based on mutual respect and understanding, not agreement for agreement’s sake. If real solidarity is worked at, respectful critique and disagreement are vital.” (Chatterton et al. 2007: 219).
Avoiding the idealisation of any movements is necessary to maintain a critical attitude towards their theories and practices, precisely so that we may continue to move forward.
Second, being in critical solidarity is crucial because it allows us to learn from other experiences, helping us to not fossilise in our struggle and pretend that our way is the right or best way to do things. It helps us keep our minds open and receptive; it is a chance to grow. Then it is necessary to elaborate and reinvent ourselves in diferent contexts and times, building a culture of resistance that is able to speak to our struggles.
As Handler (2007) reminds us, activists for social change are not just “loyal” to a nation, a party, a group or collective but to the idea of social change, as against all forms of domination: in the end, our loyalty is poetically—but also truly—to the sky. Struggles for social change are everywhere and we should be able to move, act, and contribute wherever and whatever we can.
I believe that my contribution as an activist-researcher to the peace delegation has been fruitful, an example of what Souza (2006) called “together with the State, despite the State, against the State.” Crucially, I contributed to the efort of the delegation. !en, I was able to relect, comment, and analyse the events I witnessed and participated in, speaking in diferent events and incorporating the lessons learned in my theory and practices.
Being a peace delegate is not only limited to a few days of meeting and discussions. It also means to continue to work in solidarity with that struggle and continue to build our own struggles.
And from the Kurds we have much to learn.
Chatterton, P. et al. 2007. “Relating Action to Activism: !eoretical and Methodological Relections.” In: Kindon, S. et al. Participatory Action Research Approaches and Methods: Connecting People, Participation and Place, 216–222. London: Routledge.
Handler, M. 2007. Loyal to the Sky: Notes from an Activist. San Francisco: Berrett-Koehler Publishers.
Souza, M. L. 2006. “Together with the State, Despite the State, Against the State: Social Movements as ‘Critical Urban Planning’ Agents,” City. 10(3), 327-342.
Virasami, J. 2015. “Rojava’s revolution is roaring—Are we listening?” Contributoria. [Online]. March 2015. [Accessed 10 September 2017]. Available from: https://bit.ly/2KJkYCy