The Treaty of Lausanne: The Crime of the Century
By Dr. Hawzhin Azeez
History is a terrifying place for the Kurds. It is a place fraught with geopolitical losses, displacement, subjugations, and horrific human rights violations. Undoubtedly, the Kurds have been the consistent losers in the historical and geopolitical events in the region in the past century. A series of treaties and events which occurred in early 20th century paved the way for the difficult terrain the Kurds have been navigating ever since.
No event than the Treaty of Lausanne, finalized a century ago, has been more detrimental to the fate of the Kurds. The Sykes-Picot deal signed in May 1916 by the British, French and Russians established a foreign, colonial and Eurocentric system of governance and agency on the Middle East. The American President, Woodrow Wilson’s powerful Fourteen Point Speech two years later in 1918 helped to cement the notion of self-determination and autonomy for minorities such as the Kurds and Armenians. By August 1920, the Treaty of Sèvres had been signed, ostensibly to allow the withdrawal of Turkish forces from Kurdish areas, in order to allow the formation of an autonomous Kurdish state. Indeed, Articles 62, 63, 64 of the Treaty Sèvres explicitly detailed the nature of Kurdish self-determination in no uncertain terms. However, soon after events were to take on an increasingly dire direction for the Kurds, which has mostly remained on course up to contemporary times.
For the Kurds, Lausanne is a document that continues to live and determine their marginalized and subjugated position in the Middle East. The historical legacy of the treaty has been horrific and has singularly generated a long track record of mass human suffering and abuses, especially in Turkey. It has entrenched the right of so called ‘sovereign states’ to engage in mass murder in the name of protecting national or security interests and has perpetuated mass violence, suffering, and horror; all within an atmosphere of international apathy and inaction.
Lausanne is born
The treaty of Lausanne, which officially recognized the sovereign boundaries of the modern state of Turkey was signed in Switzerland, on July 24, 1923, after almost eight-months-long conference with the British, French, Greek, Italian, Japanese, Romanian and Yugoslavian representatives. It was the last peace settlement to be signed following the conclusion of WWI, and the most enduring of all the treaties signed during this period.
The negotiations for the fateful Treaty commenced earlier in November 21st, 1922. Turkey was deeply committed to ensuring that the foreign powers would honour the borders as defined by the National Pact of 1920, which consisted of six important decisions proposed as the last act of the Ottoman parliament. The Pact demanded the protection of the pre-Ottoman Turkish presence in the region, viewed Anatolia as its center of power, and was essentially premised on the notion that Turkish influence and control would extend to Northern Iraq (Basur of Kurdistan) and Northern Syria (Rojava); which it failed to secure. Nevertheless, Lausanne ensured that Turkey was the clear winner in the negotiations and historically the treaty is celebrated within Turkey as the nation’s “birth certificate”.
Conveniently, the British and French ignored the historical presence of the Kurds on their ancestral lands and granted Turkey sovereign ownership of these lands. Along with the Kurds, the rights of Greek and Armenians were also collectively ignored. This prompted some to call the treaty “the crime of the century, only excepting the Shoah”. Meanwhile, a deep seated sense of betrayal at the loss of Ottoman empire, the vast territories that it commanded and the increased rise of secularism began to fester within Turkey and profoundly determined the domestic and foreign policies of the regime for the decades that came. Much of these policies would have dire and long term effects on the Kurds first hand as will be shown.
Birth of Turkey
The birth of Turkey came with colossal human rights violations, ethnic cleansings and extensive, decades-long policies of violence and assimilations to the detriment of minorities, especially that of the Kurds. For instance, from 1915-1918 over 700,000 Kurds perished out of the 1 million deported from central and western Anatolia. In the period of 1918-1938 due to a number of massacres, including that of Kochgiri, Amed, Zilan and Dersim massacres amongst others over 1.5 million Kurds were either deported or massacred. In the period of 1984-1999 over 4000 villages were destroyed, 3 million Kurds ethnically cleansed and forcibly deported, with tens of thousands massacred in the process. These punishing policies have continued to date.
Consequently, the Kurds, particularly those of South and Northern Kurdistan were to launch a number of resistance struggle which were responded to with brutal and disproportionate levels of state violence. The status of the Kurds as a subjugated nation, destined to suffer gross violations of their basic rights, including cultural and linguistic genocides was cemented. For the next few decades, mass human rights violations, ethnic cleansings, pogroms and genocides were imposed on the Kurds to the total silence and apathy of the international community including the UN. The number of treaties signed by the colonial powers on behalf of minority ethno-religious communities “transferred power to a new set of oppressors, a group of colonizers with their own history in the region” and thereby established their voiceless status.
Once the Treaty of Sèvres was relegated to the dustbins of history, and the great powers capitulated to the whims of the Turkish nationalists and Ataturk, the second class status of minorities in the region was cemented. While initially it appeared that Ataturk would be inclusive of the Kurds and other minorities, the reality soon proved to be starkly and terrifyingly different for the losers of the treaty with the rise of Turkish ethno-nationalism. Ataturk immediately engaged in widespread violence against Kurdish nationalists and revolutionaries indiscriminately brutalizing the Kurds. A number of horrific massacres and purges followed, leading to increased vocalization of Kurdish nationalist aspirations and peasant uprisings. However, most notably after the defeat of Sheikh Said’s 1925 rebellion against the newly formed Turkish state, the level of brutalities took on an unprecedented level.
One of the key examples of the brutality of the newly formed Turkish state was in the Dersim genocide. Increased Kurdish dissatisfaction following continued state brutality resulted in another Kurdish revolt, this time led by Seyid Riza of Dersim. A senior Turkish official in a special report on Dersim in 1926 labelled the area as “an abscess that needed an urgent surgeon from the Republic” highlighting the high level of intolerance of the central government against any form of resistance. A military campaign by the state between the period of March 1937 to September 1938 resulted in mass devastation and the massacre of tens of thousands of Kurds. The Turkish figures gave the number of dead at a ludicrous 13,000. The real figures are considered to be multiple times higher. According to Martin Van Bruinessen, the Dersim massacre “represent one of the blackest pages in the history of Republican Turkey, gracefully passed over in silence or deliberately misrepresented by most historians, foreign as well as Turkish.”
Eye witness accounts presented a critical situation in which the Kurds could only be the losers. For instance, according to a British consul near Dersim at the time, “Thousands of Kurds, including women and children, were slain; others, mostly children, were thrown into the Euphrates; while thousands of others in less hostile areas, who had first been deprived of their cattle and other belongings, were deported to vilayets (provinces) in Central Anatolia. It is now stated that the Kurdish question no longer exists in Turkey.” The brutality of the Turkish state was so intense that a total or near total eradication of the Kurdish question was seen as only a matter of time. Similar practices were seen towards the Kurds of Rojhilat in the 1940s with the declaration of the Republic of Mahabad or with the Kurds in Basur in the 1970s-1980s.
Vast human rights violations, mass destruction of thousands of Kurdish villages, deportations, forced assimilations and displacements amongst a range of other brutal abuses continued in the decades following the Dersim massacre. These violations were well documented by international human rights organizations, academics and scholars. The status of the Kurds has changed little and on many accounts has deteriorated in recent years in Turkey, a measure that reflects the reality of the Kurds in Iran as well. According to Human Rights Watch: “Denied political, and cultural rights, Kurds have been the principal victims of the Turkish state’s excesses since the military coup of 1980.” With the rise of the PKK’s resistance against the regime, human rights organizations documented that:
“the population as a whole has often been targeted and has endured two decades of terrible hardship, instability, and fear. Kurdish villagers in particular have been subjected to frequent security raids in which they have been abused, tortured, and even “disappeared,” or extrajudicially executed.”
No democratic and institutional avenues are open to the Kurds to express their objectives or protests at ongoing human rights violations at the hands of the state. When the pro-Kurdish People’s Democratic Party (HDP) won an astonishing 11.7% of the votes in the 2018 parliamentary elections, Erdogan immediately went about dismantling and criminalizing the party. By 2021 this crackdown had intensified and in the years that followed thousands of HDP members, supporters and activists have been imprisoned and jailed indefinitely. All are accused of terrorism where the HDP and the PKK are seen as synonymous. This approach has ensured continued terrorizing of HDP staff members, offices, and even direct executions as in the case of HDP member Deniz Poyraz. Selahattin Demirtaş and Figen Yüksekdağ the co-leaders of HDP has been in jail since November 2016 and remains indefinitely despite mass protests by international organizations. With the 2023 May 14th re-election of Erdogan for the third term since 2014, the hope for a more democratic and peaceful resolution to the Turkish oppression of the Kurds and other minorities in the country took a sharp dive. The future looks bleak as the world watches the 100th centenary of the Treaty of Lausanne roll by.
The Treaty of Lausanne signified to Turkey that domestically it had unreserved and unilateral authority to treat minorities it deemed problematic in any manner it saw fit. Regarding the sovereign territory of the Turkish state the implication of the Treaty had been even more determinantal. With the incorporation of Syrian contested region of Alexandretta into the Turkish national territory in 1938-39 empowered further territorial and expansionist policies especially towards the Kurdish regions of Northern Syria and Iraq.
In the recently published book ‘Turkish Foreign Policy: The Lausanne Syndrome in the Eastern Mediterranean and Middle East’, the Greek academic Zenonas Tziarras proposes the notion of the ‘Lausanne Syndrome’, which he identifies as “a syndrome connected to certain historical memories and ideological narratives, indicative of certain strategic aspirations that stem from an undesirable geopolitical status quo.” Turkey is consequently still very much influenced by the ongoing impacts and legacies of the Lausanne treaty. The rise of ISIS has been detrimental to Turkey’s regional and expansionist aspirations and its hope of realizing the thwarted objectives of regaining lost Ottoman territories. For Turkey, it was an indication that the now long established state borders could possibly be fractured:
“Many started to worry or think about the possibility- and opportunity- of border changes in the Middle East; the emergence of new states and, effectively, the overturn of a century of geopolitical order. In the face of such an eventuality national security anxieties were exacerbated even as new prospects were opening up for certain actors in the region. Turkey was one of them. Amidst the instability and insecurity brought about by IS, Ankara initially questioned the Lausanne Treaty geopolitical order through statements by Turkish officials. This was not the first time, but never before was it done so systematically. Not only were similar statements reiterated in the next years, but related foreign policies were followed as well.”
But for Turkey the final lesson was that if a non-state actor such as ISIS could redraw the historical maps then possibly and very effectively so could the Kurds in Rojava. Additionally, considering the slow response of the international community towards addressing the ISIS crises, and considering the historical capacity of regimes like Turkey to get away with violations against the Kurds then it was possible that Turkey too could engage in expansionist policies and annex lands as it saw fit.
Since the rise of ISIS and well after its supposed demise, Turkey has continued its expansionist efforts across Northern Syria and Iraq. In Iraq alone, it has breached 150kms into the sovereign territory of Iraq, in the KRI specifically. Additionally it has an unknown number of military bases, estimated to be around a 100 military bases in the region and several thousand armed forces on the ground- supposedly in the fight to end the PKK’s existence in the region. Instead, this process has only managed to terrorize, murder and permanently displace innocent civilians and villagers in the region who continue to evacuate their homes following repeated shelling and mortar attacks by the Turks. In Rojava, a similar process has been in effect but with bolder efforts to directly annex lands including in Afrin, Seri Kanya (Ras al-Ayn) and Gire Spi (Tel Abyad).
However, the international community, most notably the U.S. has also been an important actor in expanding and entrenching the legacies of Lausanne. The role of the United States as initially an observer at Lausanne soon evolved to one of direct interventionism and state-building globally in the guise of peace-keeping. Essentially, the US abandonment of support for Kurdish autonomy in the 1920’s has continued to reproduce the same abandonment policy towards the Kurds. The US abandonment of the Kurds in Basur of Kurdistan (Northern Iraq) in the 1991 to the abandonment of the Kurds of Rojava to Turkish invasions and ‘security concerns’, resulted in a number of incursions by Turkey into Rojava since 2016. Their acquiesce to Turkey’s annexation of Afrin in 2018 and then later again in 2019 of a large swath of land on the border between the two countries has empowered Turkey to hope for an ongoing and permeant occupation of these territories. Ironically, though unsurprisingly for the Kurds, the US withdrawal of troops in 2020 was announced on the centennial anniversary of the Treaty of Sèvres, which bitterly brought home the truth to the Kurds that parchments signed a century ago continue to determine the fate of the Kurds and re-subjugate them again and again.
Likewise, the international community including the UK, Germany, US, France, and Spain have been the top suppliers of weapons and technologies to Turkey allowing it to maintain its regional stronghold and continue its ongoing domination of the Kurdish regions. The international community continues to practice the prevailing policy of silence in light of Turkey’s ongoing violations against the Kurds.
In the process, Turkey manages to engage in a dual practice of realizing the neo-Ottoman aspirations of expanding the territorial integrity of the state of Turkey, developing a massive arms based economy, while also weakening the Kurds in the process.
Lausanne effectively shattered the dream of a Kurdish state and entrenched the subjugated status of the Kurds in the region. The ill treatment of the Kurds at the hands of Turkey and the global silence for decades over the open massacre of the Kurds, empowered the Iraqi, Syrian and Iranian regimes to also engage in brutal policies towards the Kurds with little to no consequence for the regimes involved. Of course, Lausanne came off the back of a number of other previous treaties which all consolidated together to form the historical and current state of the Kurds as the largest nation in the world without a state. Nevertheless, Lausanne created a foundation of mass violations and massacres, and brutality became the cornerstone of the regimes that now dominated the Kurds. Lausanne therefore, at least on the parts of the Kurds can easily be viewed as the crime of the century; not only against minorities but also against democracy, human rights, gender equality and justice. Yet, the spirit of resistance within the heart of the Kurdish nation continues to push the boundaries of authoritarianism and dictatorship in the region and they continue to be at the forefront of the democratic movements across the Middle East. From the radical democratic model in place in Rojava to the Jina Amini protests in Iran and Rojhilat, from the unwavering commitment to democracy from the Kurds of Bakur and their demands for cultural plurality and justice to the Kurds in Basur who continue to provide material, moral and humanitarian aid to the various movements across the Greater Kurdistan acts of resistance and agency continue.
Lausanne demonstrates, in the case of the Kurds, that the Westcentric model of the single nation-state model has failed. It has demonstrated that the elitist interests of a few, who are willing to engage in mass violations and genocides supersede international human rights norms. And while the spirit of resistance continues across Greater Kurdistan, international silence continues to perpetuate their murderers as justified and honorable in their disproportionate abuses of the long suffering Kurds. A century after Lausanne as Kurds we ask ourselves: how can the Kurds continue to fight against the tidal wave of regional and global anti-Kurdish interests that continue to suffocate their aspirations for democracy, autonomy and human rights?