In Syria and Iraq the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) and aligned organisations are lauded for their struggle against the brutal insurgent group commonly known as ‘Islamic State’.
Yet, within Australia the PKK is a listed “terrorist organisation”, and support for the PKK carries significant criminal penalties under Division 102 of the Criminal Code Act 1995.
This ban on the PKK is both illogical and unjust, and it should not be renewed when the current listing of the PKK expires in August this year.
The Banning of the PKK
There are presently twenty organisations proscribed under Division 102 of the Criminal Code. When compared to the rest of the list, the PKK certainly appears the odd organisation out.
All 19 other organisations purport to be or are described as “Islamic” in some way. The PKK is keeping some odd company on this list, it appears alongside the likes of “Al-Qa’ida (AQ)”, “Boko Haram”, “Islamic State”, and “Jemaah Islamiyah (JI)”.
It is interesting to compare the listing of the PKK with the three Palestinian organisations listed. The PKK entry is a catch all, which snares all manner of PKK political organisations in a single listing. In contrast, the entries that affect Hamas and Hezbollah are highly selective, they list “Hamas’s Izz al-Din al-Qassam Brigades” and “Hizballah’s External Security Organisation”, ie. the military wings but not the political wings of both entities.
It is also worth noting how many organisations are not listed.
According to that eminent source Wikipedia, there are some 175 groups that have been designated “terrorist” by one or more governments in the world today. The United States presently lists 60 “designated Foreign Terrorist Organisations”.
The Australian government’s listings are significantly more selective, and with the exception of the PKK they do appear restricted to organisations that could conceivably pose some form of threat to the Australian state or the interests of the Australian state abroad.
The listing on the government’s national security website further highlight’s the absurdity of the PKK ban. Is there a PKK presence in Australia that might cause concern? According to the Australian government:
There are no known PKK links to Australia; however, it is likely elements of Australia’s Kurdish community remain sympathetic to the Kurdish nationalist cause.
Kurds might be sympathetic to the Kurdish nationalist cause. Wow. What about abroad, does the PKK pose any threat to Australian ‘interests’?
There are no known direct threats from the PKK to Australian interests.
The PKK entry on the Australian government’s National Security website is farcical. It includes claims that the PKK controls “up to 80 per cent of the European illicit drug market”, a claim made by Turkish police and believed by few others.
When it comes to establishing the claim that the PKK is a terrorist organisation, the National Security website lists a handful of attacks “by suspected PKK militants” in 2010-2012 in southern Turkey alongside the 2010 Taksim Square bombing – an attack openly claimed by a non-PKK secessionist group.
So why was the PKK proscribed in Australia? Well back in 2006:
The Attorney-General, Philip Ruddock, pronounced the Kurdistan Workers Party a terrorist group just a week after the visit of the Turkish Prime Minister, Recep Erdogan, to Australia.
And what’s Turkey to Australia? Not so much, but to the United States, Turkey is critical. Just go and look at Turkey on a map, then look over at Iraq, then glance up to Russia.
Effects of the ban
Should it really be a crime to wish your homeland were free? According to the Australian government, apparently the answer is yes.
As I’ve already pointed out, the National Security website states “it is likely elements of Australia’s Kurdish community remain sympathetic to the Kurdish nationalist cause”, as if this were somehow threatening or dangerous.
For as long as the ban on the PKK is in place, association with or support for the PKK would result in significant criminal penalties under Australian law:
The party, which has been running a long campaign for autonomy for Turkey’s Kurdish minority, was listed as a proscribed terrorist group in mid-December, making it a criminal offence to recruit, train, fund or have “other forms of association” with the group. A person found to have links with the party or 16 related entities faces a jail term of up to 25 years.
A particular complication for Australia’s Kurdish community is the issue of money. The government’s website states:
Under Division 102 of the Criminal Code, it is an offence to do things such as direct the activities of, be a member of, recruit for, provide training to, receive training from or participate in training with, provide funds to or receive funds from or provide support to, a terrorist organisation.
This becomes a threatening mess for the Kurdish community in Australia when you realize the potential implications of sending money home to families or charities in areas under PKK influence or control.
Australian Federal Police raided several Kurdish community organisations in 2010 pursuing supposed terrorist financing. It is telling that no links to the PKK were ever found and no one was ever convicted of an offense following these confronting and invasive raids.
The absurdity of banning an entire political movement was pointed out at the time of the initial listing of the PKK under the Criminal Code. Writing in the Age, Labor MP Duncan Kerr stated:
Our minority report asks the Government to reassess the listing. It asks why any ban could not be limited to the PKK’s military arm. This has been the approach taken on other groups such as Hamas, which have both political and armed aspects. The Government’s own statement of reasons for listing the PKK referred to the PKK’s military wing – so such a distinction would have been possible. A limited ban would allow Australians to exercise their democratic rights to express their support for the PKK and its campaign for a Kurdish homeland while at the same time treat membership or support for their military or terrorist wings as an offence.
The Peace Process
The government’s own protocol for deciding on whether to list a “terrorist organisation” states that “engagement in peace or mediation processes” should be considered as a factor. In re-listing the PKK in 2012 the government stated:
The PKK is not known to be engaged in any peace or mediation processes.
This was false in 2012 and if repeated would be doubly false today. The peace process between Turkey and the PKK dates to the 1990s. Between 1999 and 2004 the PKK engaged in a unilateral cease fire, a process which ended due to Turkish government aggression.
In 2012 when the listing was last renewed, the Turkish government publicly admitted they were in talks with the PKK. The actor in that conflict that continually breaks from the peace process and seeks a “military solution” is the Turkish state; for this reason the proscription of the PKK prejudices peace talks.
In 2015 the jailed leader and founder of the PKK openly calls for an end to armed conflict and a turn to peaceful struggle within Turkey:
Above the jubilant cheers of the hundreds of thousands of Kurds celebrating the festival of Newroz, Kurdish new year, the jailed leader of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) Abudallah Ocalan yesterday called for a definitive end to the “40-year-long armed struggle” against the Turkish state.
As Mr Ocalan’s statement was read to the huge rally, the sun broke through the clouds and the thudding rain eased: even the weather seemed to recognise a momentous occasion. His emphasis on a democratic solution is seen as a pivotal step in a process that many officials from both sides believe is the single most important issue the country faces.
“I see it as historical and necessary to hold a congress to stop the armed struggle which has been carried on by the PKK against the Turkish Republic for nearly 40 years and to determine political and social strategies and tactics which are suitable for a new period,” he said in a two-page letter read out by deputies of the Kurdish People’s Democratic Party (HDP), first in Kurdish and then in Turkish.
Ocalan made these statements despite the impact of support the Turkish state has provided to IS in their fight against PKK inspired Kurdish groups in Syria.
Australian Government support for the PKK
At the start of this article I noted that the PKK and aligned groups are routinely lauded for their ongoing fight against the so-called Islamic state in Syria and Iraq.
In Rojava PKK aligned/inspired groups are showing in that even in the midst of a bloody civil war, another world is possible.
In 2015 nothing highlights the absurdity of Australia’s proscription of the PKK like the Australian state airdropping arms to PKK aligned forces in Syria.
I utterly disagree with Bernard Keane’s characterization of the PKK in this article, but he hits the nail on the head when pointing out the “many absurdities and contradictions in the government’s decision — without debate — to rejoin the war in Iraq” in relation to the PKK:
Under Part 5.3 of the Criminal Code, it is a crime to provide support to groups like PKK. That is what the Abbott government is now doing, albeit under the fig leaf that the weapons supplied will only be used by the Kurdish regional government forces. In fact, the PKK is central to the fight against Islamic State militants that we have now joined. It’s only a matter of days since the US media was lauding the role of the PKK in the battle against IS, with battle-hardened PKK soldiers — or are they more correctly called terrorists? — providing critical support for the Kurdish peshmerga both in operating alongside them and operating as special forces units behind IS lines. The president of the Kurdistan Regional Government actually visited a PKK camp recently to acknowledge their efforts.
The idea that somehow we’re not helping a proscribed terrorist organisation is thus, given the on-the-ground reality, laughable.
Lift the ban on the PKK
The listing of the PKK under division 102 of the Criminal Code Act 1995 is self evidently absurd, and it must not be renewed when it expires in August this year.