Interview: Why trade unions should campaign to free Kurdish leader Abdullah Öcalan

600 delegates, representing 6 million workers, hold placards demanding "Freedom for Öcalan" at the British Trade Union Congress in 2019. Photo: Free Öcalan Campaign.

As part of an international campaign to free Kurdish leader Abdullah Öcalan, who has been imprisoned by Turkey for 21 years, British trade unionist Clare Baker (from the Unite Union) will be speaking at a free webinar on April 16 alongside former Icelandic MP Ögmundur Jonasson, writer John Tully and Australian trade unionists.

The Unite Union has been instrumental in getting the British Trade Union Congress (TUC) to support the Free Ocalan Campaign. The webinar is organised by Australians For Kurdistan, Rojava Solidarity — Sydney, Solidarity With Rojava Network (WA) and Federation of Democratic Kurdish Society.

Baker spoke to Green Left a week out from the webinar.

Why is it important for the trade union movement to take up the campaign to free Abdullah Öcalan?

The trade union movement has a long and proud history of supporting the struggles of workers and oppressed people around the world, we have fought for the rights of Palestinians, of trade unionists and social activists in Colombia, for the repressed people’s of Western Sahara, trade unionists in Myanmar and Belarus, and against the oppressive policies of right wing governments such as that of [Jair] Bolsonaro in Brazil. This history also includes campaigns to release political prisoners such as the Cuban 5, [Luiz Inacio] Lula [da Silva in Brazil] and of course Nelson Mandela.

The campaign to free Abdullah Öcalan is a continuation of this activism.

Öcalan’s incarceration on Imrali island for over 22 years has been in the most inhumane conditions, without or with very little access to his lawyers or family. He is a political prisoner whose incarceration and isolation is unlawful, arbitrary and infringes the most basic elements of human rights.

Öcalan’s values of equality, women’s liberation, grassroots democracy and freedom, are all values of the international trade union movement. We recognise that his writings have influenced the fledgling society in North and East Syria which embraces these values and offers the start of a true equal society, which would be remarkable anywhere, but even more so in the Middle East where equal rights, especially for women, is almost unheard of.

We also see the imprisonment and isolation of Öcalan is being mirrored across Turkish society with the government's war on all Kurdish people both in Turkey itself and outside its borders.

We also see this war extended to all those who stand against the extremism of the Turkish state, such as trade unionists, all opposition and especially the HDP [Peoples Democratic Party], journalists, women and teachers are systematically oppressed, attacked and isolated by the [Recep Tayyip] Erdogan government.

We recognise that this huge slide into authoritarianism in Turkey must be challenged, and our governments that trade and have relations with the Turkish state must be held to account for inaction to address the human, civil and human rights abuses taking place within Turkey and by Turkey outside its borders.

The trade union movement recognises that in order for there to be a negotiated peace in Turkey and the wider region, and if human rights and dignity are to have any meaning then Öcalan, as with Mandela before him, must be released.

What was the level of understanding in the UK trade union movement of Kurdish issue and the particular case of Abdullah Ocalan when the campaign was first launched?

There was always support of the Kurdish people and the horrors they have faced through many years across the region, but apart from that very little was known across the movement.

However, the turning point from passive solidarity to active campaigning came during the siege of Kobanî by ISIS [Islamic State] and the refusal of Erdogan to let Kurds cross the border to help the people of Kobanî defend the city. Here was the greatest embodiment of fascism and terror to face the world and Erdogan would not help the fight against them.

This then led to more understanding of Öcalan and his role as leader of the Kurdish political movement, his abduction, imprisonment, isolation and, of course, to his extraordinary writings that he penned in prison, and how that influenced Rojava and the Kurdish cities in Turkey.

The campaign was officially launched in the UK parliament by the Unite and GMB union in 2016 and we have grown in strength from there with 15 national unions, the TUC and the trade union law firm Thompson’s all affiliating.

What were the key steps the campaign took to gather more understanding and support within the trade union movement?

The largest step is ongoing, and that is educating trade unionists about who Öcalan is, why he is important, and on the Kurdish struggle. We have done this through a number of high profile events as well as through education courses, committees and conferences.

In 2018, the campaign was the official international theme of the Durham Miners' Gala, the largest working class festival, where around 150–200 thousand people attended and were exposed to the campaign. In 2019, the campaign was the theme of the Tolpuddle Martyrs festival which is second only to Durham in size. The campaign that year also held an action at the TUC conference where every delegate held up a picture of Öcalan. Although quite a simple act, it’s importance cannot be underestimated and has made the campaign mainstream and established part of the British trade union movement.

There is still a long way to go, but in a relatively short time a lot has been achieved in terms of understanding and exposure of Öcalan’s imprisonment and the importance of his writings and the people he inspires.

[Book now for this free webinar “The time has come — Freedom for Abdullah Öcalan” on Friday April 16, 7pm AEST here.]