A New Black Box of State Violence and Impunity in Kurdistan & Turkey

Contributed by a group of anthropologists working on Turkey (names withheld for security purposes)

On August 31, 2017, at around 3:30 pm, a Turkish armed unpersonned aerial vehicle (A-UAV) bombed four civilians in a picnic area near Oğul, a Kurdish village in  Hakkari Province. Two of the civilians, Mehmet Temel (35) and Ismail Aydın (43), were heavily injured. The other two, Ibrahim Sak (54) and Musa Tarhan (54), survived the A-UAV’s attack with minor injuries. Soon after they were taken to hospital by the other villagers Mehmet Temel lost his life in the hospital. Later in the day, the Turkish Interior Minister announced that four “terrorists” were killed in a military operation near Oğul village, but did not mention any civilians being targeted. The following day, the Hakkari Governorate confirmed the attack on civilians, but called civilians “collaborators” and accused them of “having a meeting with the terrorists.” Calling the civilians collaborators without a court decision, the governorate violated the presumption of innocence and justified the attack. After being released from the hospital, the survivors of the attack were detained and accused of abetting terrorism.

Figure 1: A photo taken few months before Mehmet Temel is killed. He is in the picnic area with his family. Source http://www.bbc.com/turkce/haberler-turkiye-41211984


Sezgin Tanrıkulu, a parliamentarian from the main opposition party, criticized the A-UAV operation and asked for an effective criminal investigation regarding the possible rights violations. Süleyman Soylu, the minister of interior affairs, and a choir of pro-Erdoğan media outlets immediately reacted to Tanrıkulu and blamed him for supporting terrorism. Eventually, the Turkish president, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan verbally attacked Tanrıkulu, and Ankara Head Prosecutor’s office started an unconstitutional criminal investigation against Tanrıkulu, who is also a renowned human rights lawyer and former head of Bar Association in Diyarbakır, the largest predominantly Kurdish-populated province in Turkey.

There is a strong suspicion that the attack had violated Turkish law, the European Convention on Human Rights and other international covenants signed by Turkey. As the attack was conducted through an A-UAV, none of the targeted individuals was called upon and warned to surrender according to the statements by the survivors. According to both Turkish law and international law, the use of physical violence must be proportional and the state authorities cannot use physical violence to kill besides the very exceptional cases of self-defense. Neither the Turkish Interior Ministry nor Hakkari Governorate reported that the state authorities were attacked before or during the A-UAV’s attack. The use of physical force seemed to be neither proportionate nor absolutely necessary. Although the attack needs to be investigated thoroughly, human rights defenders are concerned that there will not be an effective and accountable criminal investigation regarding the claims of human rights violations because of the state of emergency declared after the coup attempt of July 15, 2016.

Even before the emergency rule, the Turkish judiciary was reluctant in conducting effective and accountable criminal investigation regarding the rights violations committed by state authorities. On December 28, 2011, a Turkish F-16 warplane killed 34 Kurdish smugglers crossing the Turkish-Iraqi border. With the help of an AUV, the military officers detected a group of people crossing the border with mules. They identified the group as “terrorists” infiltrating into Turkey and ordered the Turkish fighter jets to annihilate the group. Later it came up that 34 people who were killed that day were the smugglers from a nearby border village. Following the criminal investigation, the Turkish prosecutor decided that the military officers made an “inevitable mistake while performing their duty” and “accidentally” killed the smugglers based on misinterpretation of both terrorism threat intelligence and aerial images provided by the UAVs. Thus, the criminal prosecution for the case was dismissed.

The use of the A-UAVs and the recent attack also indicate a new trend in state violence in Kurdistan and Turkey. In late 2016, Turkish authorities started using semi-autonomous armed UAV in addition to unarmed UAVs. These A-UAVs can autonomously take off, fly, and detect potential targets under the supervision of the remote pilot operator. The drone requires the remote pilot to make the final decision to attack. Compared to the personned aerial vehicles, it is much cheaper and faster to fly the UAVs and there is no risk of losing the pilot. In this way, the UAVs significantly extend the state’s capacity to use physical violence. The armed UAVs also create a new human-nonhuman assemblage through which impunity is produced and maintained for the state violence. Since the remote pilots and their superiors are involved in the final decision to use of physical violence, they must be held responsible for the extrajudicial executions they commit. Yet, the use of technological imaging systems which the military officers would rely on making the final decision to kill appears as an additional source of “inevitable mistake.” In criminal investigations, the remote pilot operators and other state officers can always blame the drone’s imagining systems for extrajudicial violence to avoid criminal responsibility. Through the extensive and unchecked use of drones, we witness the emergence of a new black box of state violence and impunity in Kurdistan and Turkey.


Why The Gaza Electricity Crisis is a Human Rights Violation

In the Gaza Strip today, 1.9 million Palestinians are living on six hours of electricity per day. Believe it or not, that’s an improvement. Just a month ago, it was only four. A deliberate policy commissioned by the Palestinian Authority (PA) and executed by Israel, the effects have been disastrous. Hospitals are running on generators. Sewage systems are inoperative. Access to clean water is decreasing. According to the United Nations, if the crisis continues, Gaza may be unlivable by 2020.

Perhaps one could understand the crisis if it was the result of nature. An earthquake, for example. But the electricity problem in Gaza is not an accident. It is, rather, a purposeful effort by the PA and Israel to pressure the Hamas government by collectively punishing Gaza’s entire population. For this reason, we must understand and condemn this policy as a fundamental violation of Palestinian human rights.

The Recent Crisis

The most recent crisis began in April 2017, when Palestinian President, Mahmood Abbas, stopped paying Israel for Gaza’s power. The measure was part of a larger scheme designed to weaken Hamas’s position in Gaza. In addition to ending electricity payments, Abbas reinstated taxes on fuel supplies for Gaza’s only power plant, cut funding for hospitals and clinics, and reduced the salaries of public sector employees. Claiming the issue an internal Palestinian matter, Israel complied with Abbas’s request. By June, Israel reduced its provisions by 40% leaving Gaza residents with as little as two-three hours of electricity per day. The results were catastrophic. According to B’Tselem, an Israeli human rights monitor in the Occupied Territories, the power cuts forced hospitals to reduce services including surgeries, limited water supplies by preventing regular operations of water pumps and wells, and caused hundreds of millions of liters of raw sewage to enter the sea by disrupting proper sewage treatment. The reduction in power also frustrated the most routine aspects of Palestinian daily life as refrigerators, washing machines, electric heaters, and many other appliances were no longer functioning as needed.

Although the crisis hit a new peak in April, Gaza’s electricity needs were already in dire straits. Israel bombed the strip’s only power plant in 2006 and has prevented Palestinians from repairing the damage through its blockade. Functioning at half its capacity, the power plant was unable to provide regular service and thus functioned on a rotation schedule that gave residents no more than eight hours of power per day. Gaza also has no fuel supplies of its own. Until recently, Gaza authorities had to purchase fuel from Egypt and Israel. In 2013, however, Egypt stopped its fuel deliveries making Israel the strip’s sole provider at three times the cost. The high price of Israeli fuel forced the power plant to limit its capacity by half and, in some cases, shut down completely. Thus for over a decade Palestinians in Gaza have been living on four to eight hours of power a day.

Who’s Accountable?

The Gaza Strip shares borders with Israel and Egypt and remains part of the Occupied Palestinian Territories. In 2005, Israel ended its direct occupation of Gaza removing all illegal settlements. The territory is now governed by Hamas although it is technically under the umbrella of the Palestinian National Authority. It is neither a state nor an independent territory and its borders are primarily controlled by Israel although often in coordination with Egypt on the Rafah Crossing. Given this situation, who is responsible for the latest suffering in Gaza?

The Palestinian Authority is no doubt a critical player in the latest crimes against the people of Gaza. It was President Abbas’s decision to cut payments for electricity and he made it clear the effort was politically motivated. For this reason, the Ramallah-based PA is party to the crime and thus responsible for the violation of the human rights of Palestinians in Gaza. The PA should be immediately pressured to end its policy and find another solution to the Hamas-Fatah split. But there is more to this story. The PA’s efforts to pressure Hamas are not simply an internal matter. On the contrary, since the 2006 elections that brought Hamas to power, the United States and Israel have pushed Abbas toward a policy of aggression meant to isolate the group and weaken its capacity as a militant organization. The effects of this policy set off the first Palestinian civil war that ultimately allowed Hamas to capture Gaza. The question of the PA’s accountability must therefore include attention to the U.S. and Israeli position on Hamas that continues to isolate the organization and refuses to include it in the peace process.

Addressing the question of accountability must also include Israel. Although it formally disengaged from the Gaza Strip in 2005, there is little doubt Israel remains in control of the tiny coastal area. Indeed, since 2007, it has maintained a strict blockade on the territory that has turned Gaza into an effective prison while severely undermining the living conditions of its residents. According to Amnesty International, the blockade is a form of collective punishment that constitutes a breach of international law and a violation of the rights of Palestinians. Moreover, as the occupying power, Israel is bound by the requirements of the Hague Convention (1907) and the Fourth Geneva Convention (1949) and is thus responsible for the welfare of Gaza’s residents. Its decision to satisfy the PA’s request to cut Gaza’s electricity cannot therefore be characterized as mere compliance; it is, rather, a violation of its obligations under international law and a violation of Palestinians’ human rights.


Michael Vicente Pérez is Senior Lecturer in the Department of Anthropology at the University of Washington and, following the 2017 AAA meeting, will hold a Human Rights Seat in the Members’ Programmatic Advisory and Advocacy Committee(MPAAC).