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TSSA General Secretary, Manuel Cortes. reports on his visit to Turkey and Kurdistan

15 February 2019

It's been very hard this week hearing so many first-hand harrowing stories of human and workers' rights abuses while representing the General Federation of Trade Unions on a delegation to Turkey.

There is a broad range of people alongside myself, including Ögmundur Jonasson, who is the former Justice Minister of Iceland and from showbiz, British actor Maxine Peake.

We even have someone who has joined us from far-off Argentina. We are from different countries and backgrounds but we are united in asking the Turkish government to stop its systematic abuse of human and workers’ rights.

On Tuesday I addressed a packed press conference in Ankara. I demanded that the country's Justice Minister abides by his own laws and Turkey's international obligations as a member of the United Nations, the International Labour Organisation and the Council of Europe.

When I met our sister union BTS - and later representatives from KESK the Turkish equivalent of our Trades Union Congress - they were extremely clear that trade union representatives are routinely harassed by the country's security forces.

Most recently, many trade union leaders and key activists have been jailed. And the Turkish government has gone as far as setting up a yellow union to undermine the efforts of our sisters and brothers to bargain collectively on behalf of their members.

Sadly, the worst treatment is reserved for the Kurdish minority of around 15 million people (that’s almost 20 per cent of the population). There are currently over 300 Kurdish political prisoners on hunger strike including several members of parliament. We met some of them, and they are sadly getting weaker by the day.

Just like Nelson Mandela, the Kurdish leader, Abdullah Öcalan, is serving his sentence in solidarity confinement in a prison island where he is one of only four inmates. He is regularly denied family visits and has had no access to his lawyers for over 18 months.

The hunger strikers are demanding that his isolation is broken as it breaks Turkey's own laws and the European Convention of Human Rights which Turkey signed decades ago.

Like Nelson Mandela, Abdullah will have to be released for there to be a lasting democratic settlement between Turkey and its Kurdish minority which respects their rights as currently their kids are denied even learning their mother tongue in school.

Our visit to Kurdistan itself was the most harrowing part. We met Leyla Güven a member of parliament who has been on hunger strike for almost 100 days and was recently released from jail but has continued her protest. We met the Peace Mothers. Their sons have either been killed by Turkey's security forces or have disappeared.

I am extremely afraid that death may not be that far away for Leyla. Given the seriousness of this situation, I contacted the leader of Labour's Members of the European Parliament,
Richard Corbett and he is looking to raise this issue as a matter of urgency.

However it would be good to see mainstream UK media covering this issue in depth as soon as possible as following the recent attempted coup, many Turkish journalists who were critical of the regime are now in jail.

As a result of this, our trip is only getting coverage in the Kurdish and fringe media. For example, our press conference was carried live by a Kurdish TV channel based in Brussels so most Turkish people aren’t hearing or seeing what's going on here.

I am extremely proud that last year our union's Conference endorsed a resolution demanding that Turkish authorities uphold human and workers’ rights and seeking a democratic settlement with its Kurdish majority which must include Abdullah's release.

You know this prompted a response from the Turkish ambassador in London whom I am very keen to meet having now had first-hand knowledge of what is going on. Hopefully, he will agree to see me.

At the time of writing I am meeting workplace representatives of our sister union BTS to discuss with them the proposed privatisation of their railways. Someone must have been having a demonic laugh as they have been told by their government that they want to follow the British model - don't do it!

I'll be crystal clear that they have your solidarity in their attempts to stop their government from repeating the failures of the British one. I’m having this meeting before setting-off very early on Saturday morning to Strasbourg to report on the findings of our delegation and also speaking at a rally in support of human and workers’ rights in Turkey.

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