Uludere: Civilian Deaths and a Culture of Silence in Turkey

January 9, 2012

On the night of December 28, 2011, two Turkish F-16s attacked a group of civilians crossing into Turkey from Iraq, killing thirty-five, many of whom were children (one only twelve years old).  The Turkish government has described it as an unfortunate accident and promised an investigation, but many believe the attack was intentional, especially given that this was a well-known smuggling route for Kurds along the Turkish-Iraqi border.   It was, according to the head of the Turkish Human Rights Association, Öztürk Türkdoğan, quite simply, “a massacre… an extrajudicial execution.”

Clearly, without a transparent inquiry, the truth cannot be known.  But, will the Turkish government be willing to fully investigate these deaths and hold those responsible to account?  Despite the promises of Turkish government officials, early signs are not positive.  The investigator has, for example, refused to meet with Turkish human rights organizations, despite multiple petitions.  Protests in response to the deaths were met by arrests.

Moreover, the government has not been subject to substantial pressure from the Turkish press.  Both Fréderike Geerdink and GIT-North America have highlighted the extent to which Turkish media sources held back reports of the Uludere deaths until after the office of the Turkish Chief of Staff had made its own statement.  Even once reporting began, the Turkish press has treated Uludere gingerly.  This is not censorship, but rather, as a New York Times article recently noted, a culture of self-censorship born of years of pressure, lawsuits, and arrests which has fundamentally weakened the Turkish press’ capacity to hold its government to account.

Amnesty has called for full investigation of these events.  The question is whether the Turkish government, with its intolerance of criticism and its new, warm relationship with the military, is willing or able to bring the truth to light and punish those responsible.  Early signs do not leave me optimistic.

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