Evidently distracted by violence in neighboring Syria and Iraq, much of the world appears to be overlooking a mass atrocity now underway in Turkey - a member of NATO and aspiring entrant to the European Union. Since the summer of 2015, the government of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has in effect laid siege to predominantly Kurdish areas in southeastern Turkey - denying food, water, and even emergency medical evacuation to civilians seeking escape from places the President has placed under martial law.
Some of the worst suffering is now occurring in the Turkish cities of Diyarbakir and Cizre - 100,000 of whose 120,000 residents have fled. In one incident this week, over 20 wounded civilians found themselves trapped underground after government shelling and were - indeed, at the time of this writing still are - denied any form of assistance. Seven have now died from blood loss or additional mortar fire; those who remain will likely perish of thirst unless something is done soon.
President Erdoğan asserts that his government is merely responding to Kurdish separatist fighters in Cizre, and charges academics who question his violence with 'academic terrorism.' But even taking him at his word about merely fighting separatists - more and more evidence suggests we should not - the indiscriminate killing of innocents is wrongful and illegal under both domestic and international law. Some European Parliamentarians have accordingly begun to take notice.
Alarmed by the Erdoğan government's policy of collectively punishing Turkey's Kurdish citizens, we have drafted an open letter to U.S. President Barack Obama, in hopes that he might remonstrate with his colleague in Turkey, President Erdoğan. Its text is reproduced below. We urge all who are comfortable doing so to visit the site at which we have posted the letter and add their signatures to those of the hundreds who have already signed.
President Barack H. Obama
The White House
1600 Pennsylvania Ave., NW
Washington DC 20500
Dear Mr. President,
We write you with a growing sense of alarm, and a simple request, concerning actions now being taken by the government of Turkey against its own citizens.
As you have no doubt been briefed, the government of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has in recent months been blockading and indiscriminately shelling ethnic Kurdish neighborhoods in eastern and southeastern Anatolia. The official rationale has been to fight domestic terrorism - specifically, to weaken the Kurdistan Workers' Party, or 'PKK' - eerily echoing the justifications routinely proffered by Syrian President Bashar al-Assad for barrel-bombing his own citizenry, and at best providing a partial explanation of the Erdoğan government's actions. (These actions appear to be part of a wider intimidation campaign, the targets of which include advocates of Kurdish and other minority rights in Turkey who explicitly seek diplomatic conflict-resolution, including members and supporters of the People's Democratic Party, or 'HDP').
However plausible or otherwise the official motivation may be, the Erdoğan government's chosen means are grossly disproportionate to its professed end. They are causing avoidable and unacceptable civilian suffering, they are wrongful and illegal under domestic and international law, and - we fear - will only exacerbate existing tensions within Turkey, possibly pushing it towards full-scale civil war. And this at a time, ironically, when Kurdish citizens of Iraq and Syria seem to have established comparatively stable regional governments and, like their fellow Kurds in Turkey, have offered effective resistance against ISIS/Daesh.
The Erdoğan government's actions have not gone unchallenged, either inside or outside of Turkey. Turks of multiple ethnicities, genders, and vocations have peacefully petitioned their government to cease making war on its own Kurdish citizens, to open dialogue with peaceful Kurdish advocacy groups, and to allow independent journalists access to Kurdish neighborhoods now under blockade and bombardment. The Erdoğan government's response has been only the further persecution of dissidents, the detention of protesting academics, and, it now seems, the outright murder of opposition political figures - or at the very least, egregious security lapses that have enabled such murders to take place.
We recognize that options are limited where influencing the domestic affairs of other nations' governments is concerned. We also believe, however, that the power of moral suasion - particularly when coming from you - is anything but trivial, and that it can even in some cases be transformative.
We therefore respectfully request that you consider both publicly calling for and privately urging upon President Erdoğan: (a) the immediate cessation of the indiscriminate shelling by government forces of Kurdish neighborhoods in eastern and southeastern Anatolia, (b) the immediate lifting of the blockades - Orwellianly referred to as 'curfews' - of those neighborhoods, and (c) the immediate opening of these same neighborhoods to journalists of all nationalities and political persuasions, who collectively still constitute the most effective form of 'sunlight' where exposing abuses of governmental power is concerned.
You have long been and continue to be a source of moral and political inspiration to hundreds of millions of people worldwide, Mr. President, including to us. We hope you will know that it is precisely in virtue of your unique combination of moral stature and political influence that we write you, in the confident hope that you will do what you can to spare Turkey's Kurdish minority - as well as the tens of millions of other Turks who respect their own constitution and fellow citizens - any further depredations by the government of Mr. Erdoğan.
With thanks and best wishes,
Robert Hockett, Edward Cornell Professor of Law at Cornell University.
Anna-Sara Malmgren, Assistant Professor of Philosophy at Stanford University.
Noam Chomsky, Institute Professor and Professor of Linguistics (Emeritus) at Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
Judith Butler, Maxine Elliot Professor in the Department of Comparative Literature and the Program of Critical Theory at University of California Berkeley.
Joshua Cohen, Editor at Boston Review, Distinguished Senior Fellow at University of California Berkeley, Faculty at Apple University.