This guest blog by Aoife Hanrahan (LLM International Human Rights Law and Public Policy, 2019-20) examines the October 2019 assassination of Kurdish human rights defender Hevrin Khalaf.
Hevrin Khalaf, who was the serving Secretary General of the Future Syria political party and a human rights defender was brutally assassinated in October the 12th, 2019 Rojava, Kurdistan. She was a Kurdish Syrian student who graduated from the University of Aleppo as a civil engineer in 2009.
One needs to acknowledge that it was Hevrin’s commitment, intellect and passion as a civil engineer that saw her rise to prominence and become deputy chairperson of the energy commission in the Jazira Region. It can be argued that Hervin’s rise to power may have been an affront to traditional patriarchal cultural norms and expectations, whereby roles of influence may have often gone to male figures. Hevrin Khalaf was allegedly assassinated by the Turkish backed Ahrar al-Sharqiva fighters on the M4 motorway in Northern Syria, during the Turkish ‘Peace Spring Operation’ in Syria, October 2019.
The assassination of Hevrin Khalaf provides a focus upon the issue of women in political power, especially as she represents the minorities of Kurdistan in the state of Syria. According to the Human Rights United Nations High Commissioners Office, women’s participation in politics has seen steady progress in the right direction over the last century. However, “women still remain under-represented at all levels of political decision making, with only one quarter of parliamentarians worldwide being female” (OHCHR, 2019). It is however, worthy of note that the first judge in the Middle East was Zakiyya Hakki a Kurdish woman who was appointed in 1959.
When one focuses on the manner of the death of Hevrin Khalaf, her murder reflects the realities of gender-based violence which many women face should they choose a life of communal leadership like Hevrin did when she was empowered with the leadership of Secretary General of the Future Syria political party. According to the OHCHR, “a recent Inter-Parliamentary Union study showed that 81.8 of women parliamentarians surveyed experienced some form of psychological violence from members of the public and fellow parliamentarians” (OHCHR, 2019). Due to the patriarchal society and cultural norms that are synonymous with the middle east region, women are subjected to forms of psychological and physical harm to deter women from empowerment. Empowerment of women can be viewed as an encroachment of western ideologies hence the formation of The Arab League, which enforces middle eastern values and protects against perceived western influences on cultural and political life. Hevrin Khalaf was an engineer working at the pinnacle point of her career and had the right to pursue new environmental policies which could have yielded better outcomes for the Kurdish peoples. As a female engineer in a position of political power, she was a positive symbol for the Syrian Democratic Union Party in RojaVa. Her positive influence on Kurdish women may have led her to being targeted by the Ahrar al-Sharqiva fighters. The force, indignity and sheer brutality including the ambushed scene (checkpoint) of M4 motorway in Northern Syria chosen by the Ahrar al-Sharqiva to carry out the execution of Hervin Khalaf was inhumane and arguably a premeditated crime.
In 2017 the United Nations accused Turkey of “massive destruction, killings and numerous other serious human rights violations” (UN NEWS, 2017), against the Kurdish people which are the largest minority in their state. One can argued that Hevrin was targeted because she was a prominent female leader of Kurdish ethnicity, a group arguably deemed unfit for cultural assimilation into larger Turkish ideology and life. Not only was her ethnicity targeted she was a symbol used to deter other Kurdish women from empowerment, education and political aspirations while it can be noted that Turkey ratified the ICCPR in 2000.
The murder of Hevrin Khalaf arguably symbolizes the greater targeting of Kurdish ideology and culture as the Kurdish peoples are the largest ethnic minority within the state of Turkey. The execution of one person can have a lasting and damaging impact on the collective spirit and willpower of the peoples it targets.
According to the Guardian newspaper videos recorded by the Ahrar al-Sharqiva fighters, which were uploaded to the internet and went viral, were validated by US officials as authentic (Guardian Newspaper, 2019). According to Lindsay Freeman “Digital photographs, aerial and satellite images, digital audio and video-recordings, call records, emails and other electronic communications or records are considered documentary evidence and are therefore evaluated based on the same criteria as paper documents” (Freeman, 2018). A BBC news report on the killing can be viewed here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UMcm2a2KNLA.
The video evidence of the execution proves beyond the benefit of doubt that the men involved are allegedly the perpetrators and the Turkish government need pursue the Ahrar al-Sharqiva for the accountability of the brutal murder of Hevrin Khalaf. It can be argued that a witness testimony is no longer the cornerstone of a defendant’s argument, that video evidence can enable convictions. For example, in a case study outlined by Freeman, a defendant in a case in Al Mahdi “was identified through video footage for which he willingly posed and which he himself posted to social media as propaganda and promotion of Ansar Dine’s attack on cultural heritage” (Freeman, 2018). As with this case, the Ahrar al-Sharqiva fighters who killed Hervin Khalaf also use video footage as a means of psychological warfare against the Kurdish community within Syria. (see e.g. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mjevTXSD6l8 Warning Graphic Contents!)
The Turkish backed Ahrar al-Sharqiva fighters attacked and assassinated Hevrin Khalaf arguably to lessen the impact of her educational, political, and female empowerment throughout the Kurdish community. The evidence of the vicious violations of her body and her dignity on the M4 motorway in Northern Syria via the video footage while filming, was used as propaganda and to emphasize their oppression on the Kurdish culture within Syria. Which in return can be argued instils future fears of the Kurdish female empowerment movement especially in the area of RojaVa where it is a revolution within itself. However, these heinous acts can also instil a sense of motivation for UN policy makers to enforce peacekeeping policies, and that more needs to be done to protect women at the frontline of change. “Who cares about rights on paper when they don’t mean anything, it’s a sign of a very futile patriarchal society and only with a real meaningful struggle that the insights of the society will change. We don’t want the world to know us as the women who are fighting ISIS and we don’t want people to know us for our weapons only. We want them to know of our ideas.” quote from Viyan Peyman a member of the Eastern Kurdistan Women’s Movement, who was a teacher before the Syrian Civil War and who was also killed fighting ISIS in 2015. Her birth name was Gulistan Tali Cinganlo.
Freeman, L., 2018. Digital Evidence and War Crimes. Fordham International Law Journal, pp. 283-336.
Guardian Newspaper, 2019. Kurdish politician among nine civilians shot dead by pro-Turkey forces in Syria. [Online]
Available at: https://www.theguardian.com/world/2019/oct/13/female-kurdish-politician-among-nine-civilians-killed-by-pro-turkey-forces-in-syria-observers-say
Office of High Commissioner United Nations, 1979. Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women New York, 18 December 1979. [Online]
[Accessed 25 Feburary 2020]
OHCHR, 2019. Call for submissions on Violence against Women in Politics. [Online]
Available at: https://www.ohchr.org/EN/Issues/Women/SRWomen/Pages/ViolenceAgainstWomeninPolitics.aspx
UN NEWS, 2017. Turkey: UN report details allegations of serious rights violations in country’s southeast. [Online]
Available at: https://news.un.org/en/story/2017/03/553062-turkey-un-report-details-allegations-serious-rights-violations-countrys – .WMMp5DvyuM