While the EU recognises the PKK as a terrorist group, many European countries like France and Germany continue to allow PKK and its proxies to operate across their territories.
European states have long banned what they saw as extremist leftist groups. From outlawing Germany’s Red Army Faction (RAF) and France’s Action Directe (AD) to Italy’s Red Brigades (BR), European governments left no room for discussion and outrightly branded these outfits as terrorist groups.
But when it comes to the PKK, the same European countries turn a blind eye to the terror group’s bloody legacy and actions. While the PKK, which has launched a nearly four decades-long terror campaign against Ankara that claimed the lives of tens of thousands of people, is officially recognised as a terrorist group by the EU, the US and Türkiye, its affiliates like the YPG, the Syrian wing of the terror group, are allowed to operate freely on European soil.
“Interestingly, the Western countries that shut down their own radicals continued to support and love radical groups [like the PKK and DHKP-C],” says Aytekin Yilmaz, a writer and an expert on PKK violence, whose latest book, The Last Dictator, presents a fierce criticism of the leadership of Abdullah Ocalan, the founder and leader of the PKK, who was imprisoned by Türkiye in 1999.
“PKK violence functions as a mirror for Western countries, and we can understand who is who from their approach to this violence. Western countries must drop this hypocritical mask and face reality,” Yilmaz tells TRT World.
Yilmaz, a former PKK member, witnessed many violent PKK actions first-hand. Since leaving the group, he has extensively written about the PKK’s recruitment of child soldiers and has published several books, including They Were Just Children. The PKK has recruited nearly 20,000 people under 18 in the last 35 years, according to the writer.
Although Yilmaz spent much time writing his book in order to increase international awareness about the PKK’s recruitment of child soldiers, it did not attract the attention of the Western press or academia, according to Yilmaz. Even human rights groups in Europe and North America have yet to reach out to him about the PKK’s illegal recruitment of child soldiers, he says.
“Westerners, who cry for the child fighters in Africa and Cambodia, cannot help but praise the 14 to 15-year-old Kurdish children in Syria,” says Yilmaz, referring to the YPG’s recruitment and use of child militants across its controlled territories in northwestern Syria.
Despite the YPG’s illegal actions, the US and its Western allies openly back the group in the name of fighting Daesh, refusing to recognise clear links between the PKK and the YPG.
“Westerners are openly hypocritical. Although the PKK shares photos of underage fighters killed in clashes in its media every day, Western countries — and, of course, UN representatives — do not want to see them,” says Yilmaz.
According to the UN principles, engaging a child in war is a crime against humaniy. But those, like the PKK/YPG, who commit this crime are doing it freely and no one in the West objects, says Yilmaz. European civil society organisations are not any different either, he adds.
Giving the YPG/PKK a free pass
Across European capitals from Paris to Berlin and Stockholm, Western states allowed the YPG to open their offices, providing a platform to the PKK and its agenda. Yet the consequences of sheltering such groups are directly felt in Türkiye, which has been attacked by the PKK since 1984.
In 2018, the Czech Republic, another EU state, released Salih Muslum, the former leader of the PYD, the political wing of the YPG, drawing Türkiye's ire. Ankara has pressed various charges against Muslum, which include "disruption of the unity and territorial integrity of the Turkish state, homicide, damaging public property and promoting hazardous information."
“Since the 2000s, Sweden has become a country in which the PKK has easily been organised,” Yilmaz says. Due to Sweden’s connections with PKK-affiliated groups, Türkiye is currently objecting to the Nordic state’s membership request to join NATO.
According to a 2015 annual report compiled by German domestic intelligence agency, BfV, Germany had more than 14,000 PKK members and supporters. The same report also indicated that the PKK was able to raise more than 13 million euros ($14.3 million) in 2014.
France has also long allowed PKK-affiliated individuals and groups to operate in various parts of the country.
“There has always been sympathy in France for the PKK, especially since François Mitterrand’s election in 1981,” says Yasser Louati, a French political analyst and the head of the Committee for Justice & Liberties (CJL).
Relations between France and the PKK date back to the 1980s. Former French President Francois Mitterrand's wife, Danielle Mitterrand, had publicly voiced her support for Ocalan during her husband's presidential term.
Since 2012, when the YPG was able to gain territories across northeastern Syria, exploiting the country’s civil war conditions, there has particularly been an increasing tendency across the Western world to turn a blind eye to the PKK’s presence. While Western states go after any groups related to Daesh, they allow PKK-affiliated groups to operate across their territories.
For a long time, left-wing radicalism in Türkiye has found most support from countries such as Germany and France, according to Yilmaz. “I have not heard of a single revolutionary comrade who took refuge in socialist Cuba or in North Korea. In the past, they also avoided going to the USSR,” he sarcastically points out.
Like Yilmaz, Louati sees the signs of hypocrisy and double standards in the approach of Western states towards the PKK.
“The hypocrisy lies in how Western so-called democracies can demand from the rest of the world to support them in their struggle against organisations they have labeled terrorists, first without clearly defining on what terms, second without refraining from supporting organisations labeled as terrorists by their own allies,” Louati tells TRT World.
Based on the EU’s official list, the PKK is labeled a terrorist organisation, yet the head of the French communists’ leading newspaper, L’Humanité, and José Bové, a member of the European Parliament, published a call in 2016 to have the PKK removed from the EU’s list of terrorist organisations, according to Louati.
“The initiators were not targeted by either EU institutions or the French government for providing support to the PKK. That call was published less than a year after the bloody terrorist attacks against Paris,” says Louati, referring to Daesh attacks in the French capital.
Despite the PKK's attacks on Turkish civilians, Louati points out that there were a number of pro-PKK demonstrations in Paris and Marseille and such demonstrations were supported by national figures like Jean Luc Melenchon, a far-left leader, who came third in the first round of France’s latest presidential election.
The French government under Emmanuel Macron took no legal action against such pro-PKK demonstrations, he says. “Hence, there seem to be terrorist organisations that can be supported by civil society, while others would land you in jail if you ever express support for them,” he says, referring to how different the French establishment reacts to different groups.
“What if a call were published in a major newspaper or demonstrations organised to have Hamas or the Islamic Jihad removed from the EU terrorist list? People can’t even legally boycott Israel or hold pro-Palestinian demonstrations,” he says. Hamas and Islamic Jihad are two Palestinian armed groups.
France even went against the EU Court of Justice to uphold its ban of BDS (Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions), a civil society movement that aims to put pressure on Israel to cease its illegal occupation and settlements and other human rights violations.
Will France welcome the FLNC?
While Paris welcomes PKK-affiliated groups, it is very harsh when it comes to groups like the National Liberation Front of Corsica (FLNC), which advocates the Mediterranean island’s separation from France to form an independent state.
“I doubt the French government would welcome foreign support to the FLNC in Corsica, the MIM in Martinique, the MDES in Guyana or the FLNKS in New Caledonia,” says Louati, referring to anti-French independence movements in different French-led territories.
The MIM (Martinican Independence Movement), a left-wing party, defends "the decolonization and independence” of the overseas island from France, while the MDES, or the Decolonization and Social Emancipation Movement, a political party in French Guiana, advocates for its independence from France. The FLNKS is the Kanak and Socialist National Liberation Front, which also seeks New Caledonia’s independence from France.
When steps were taken by French domestic intelligence against funding of the PKK, the group’s representatives in France even declared they were shocked to be “treated like terrorists”, says Louati, indicating how confident the PKK-affiliated groups are about their presence in the Western European state.
“Under Macron, playing on all fronts is not a surprise,” he says. On the one hand, he will call out terrorism, yet support organisations like the PKK, which is labeled as a terror group by NATO, he says.
“Because Türkiye is viewed as a rival, the PKK can be supported for reasons that the French government will have to clarify and then put into perspective in the so-called ‘war against terrorism.’”