No one wants peace more than those people who daily put their lives on the line. But peace is not just the absence of fighting, It must also allow people to lead their lives with dignity. It must address the issues that forced people to resort to armed resistance in the first place. A peace settlement requires commitment by both sides. Abdullah Öclalan and the PKK have repeatedly shown that they are ready to give that commitment when the Turkish government is ready to commit too. But, so far, there have always been forces within government not prepared to give up their old hatreds.

Öcalan was already talking publicly about the possibility of a ceasefire and negotiations in the late 1980s. In the early nineties, some Turkish politicians raised the prospect of making a settlement, but, at the same time, the government’s war on the Kurds was increasing in brutality. In 1993, Öcalan declared the PKK’s first unilateral ceasefire, and Turkey’s President Özal agreed to negotiate; but, before negotiations could happen, Özal died of a heart attack. An autopsy in 2012 found that his body contained high levels of poison.

The PKK declared another ceasefire in 1995, and again while Öcalan was seeking asylum in 1998, and when he was appealing his death penalty in 1999. To underline the seriousness of their call for a peace settlement, the 1999 ceasefire was accompanied by the withdrawal of the PKK’s guerrillas across the Turkish border into northern Iraq, and the sending of two peace delegations, one made up of Kurdish guerrillas and the other of Kurds from Europe. The government responded by ambushing and killing hundreds of withdrawing guerrillas and imprisoning the peace delegates.

The 1999 ceasefire lasted until 2004, but every attempt to open up dialogue was rebuffed. The PKK’s hopes for a peaceful solution were severely damaged by the European Union’s 2002 decision to include them on their list of terrorist organisations, which Turkey has portrayed as support for its militarised ‘solution’, and for treating every demand for Kurdish rights as an existential threat that must be met with severe penalties.

Hopes were raised in 2005, when then Prime Minister, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, told a rally in Diyarbakir, ‘the Kurdish problem is my problem’. The late 2000s saw further ceasefires, and even talks, but each time it became clear that, despite those words, there was no serious commitment from the government. Erdoğan was happy to win some Kurdish votes, while continuing attempts to eliminate the PKK guerrillas, and also to arrest Kurdish politicians who made their demands through a non-violent political route.

A long period of talks began in autumn 2008 but was ended in the summer of 2011. These involved discussions in Oslo between PKK representatives and representatives of the Turkish government, as well as meetings between Turkish government representatives and Öcalan in İmralı. 2009 also saw some liberalising of anti-Kurdish rules – such as allowing private institutions to teach the Kurdish language – and talk of bigger changes, but the mass arrests continued, along with the banning of the pro-Kurdish political party. When the PKK sent a peace delegation, including guerrillas from the Qandil mountains, which was given a rapturous welcome, opposition parties claimed the government was making guerrillas into heroes, and some members of the delegation were arrested.

At the government’s behest, Öcalan wrote a roadmap for peace. Before doing so, he called on the public to contribute their ideas, initiating widespread debate, despite his own continued isolation. His roadmap was completed on 15 August 2009, the 25th anniversary of the start of the PKK’s armed struggle, and was written as evidence to support his case at the European Court of Human Rights. It was immediately confiscated by the Turkish authorities and not passed onto the court until January 2011, but it was central to the ongoing peace talks, and Öcalan was informed that Erdoğan agreed with 95% of what he had written.

Again at the government’s request, Öcalan drew up three protocols: for a truth and reconciliation commission, for a committee to draw up a democratic constitution, and for PKK withdrawal and disarmament. These were then signed by the PKK. Elections came and went, and Erdoğan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP) was elected to a third term, but the government’s promised response never arrived. In July 2011, Öcalan announced that he had no option but to withdraw from the talks. Before the end of the month, all visits from Öcalan’s lawyers were brought to an end.

The next period of peace talks, and the one that seemed at the time to offer the most promise, took place between late 2012 and 2015. It followed a mass hunger strike by thousands of political prisoners, with peace negotiations as one of their demands. A momentum of hope was inspired by Öcalan’s manifesto, which was read out to a crowd of over a million at the Newroz celebrations on 21 March 2013 in Diyarbakir. As well as setting out the steps to peace, Öcalan called for another ceasefire, accompanied by another withdrawal of PKK guerrillas from North Kurdistan. The pro-Kurdish Peace and Democracy Party (BDP), which has now merged into the Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP), acted as intermediaries in the state’s discussions with Öcalan and the PKK leaders. (He was still not allowed meetings with his lawyers.)

Öcalan in discussion with Selahattin Demirtaş and Pervin Buldan

The government held back on the promised process from the beginning. They kept Öcalan away from contact with the public, and they ignored the democratising recommendations of their own group of ‘wise people’ from civil society. While they dragged out the process, they continued their military activities in the Kurdish regions of Turkey, and supported the jihadi groups that were attacking the Kurds in Syria.


The emergence of Kurdish autonomous structures across the Syrian border, and the electoral success of the HDP in the June 2015 elections – where they deprived Erdoğan of his overall majority – ensured Erdoğan’s rejection of the peace process. In February 2015, ten priorities for resolving the Kurdish Question had been agreed at Dolmabahçe Palace and signed by the deputy Prime Minister. After the June elections, Erdoğan denied all knowledge of the agreement. He called further elections for November, and, after a bloody campaign in which the HDP came under repeated physical attack, he established a new government that was supported by the far-right National Movement Party (MHP). By 2020, he was also denying the existence of a Kurdish issue and misquoting his own speech from fifteen years before.

Erdoğan is a consummate opportunist, and he has now calculated that it serves him better to take a hard ultra-nationalist line and to crush all resistance with force – including incarcerating ever more Kurdish politicians and activists. But four decades of violent state suppression have demonstrated that there is no military ‘solution’, and Öcalan and the PKK remain ready to negotiate a different route when political circumstances change.