China makes the headlines, but US policies toward the top three recipients of US aid — Israel, Egypt and Turkey — are perhaps the most egregious examples of the failure of the Clinton administration to make good on its commitment to human rights. While the human rights situation in the Israeli-occupied territories and Egypt has received some media attention in the US, that of Turkey has by and large been ignored. In 1993, when Turkey received close to $500 million in military assistance from the US, the situation had deteriorated to the point where torture of political prisoners and extrajudicial killings were the norm in the southeast of the country. The government is extremely reluctant to prosecute those responsible for torture in the name of the state. In fact, human rights violations are carried out with impunity by members of the Turkish security forces, leading one to conclude that they operate with de facto government endorsement.

The US is fully aware of the situation, yet no clear high-level message has been sent warning that the systematic abuse of human rights constitutes a violation of US law authorizing foreign assistance. To the contrary, the Clinton administration has signaled Ankara that gross human rights violations are acceptable in the battle against “terrorism.” Meeting with Turkish Prime Minister Tansu Çiller on October 15, 1993, President Bill Clinton stated: “It’s not fair for us…to urge Turkey to not only be a democratic country but to recognize human rights and then not to help the government of Turkey deal with the terrorism within its borders.” He went on to praise Turkey as “a shining example to the world of the virtues of cultural diversity.” Clinton’s tribute flies in the face of overwhelming evidence of massive persecution of advocates of Kurdish cultural rights.

The escalation of the armed conflict between the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) and Turkish security forces has had a direct impact on the deterioration of the human rights situation in southeastern Turkey. The interior minister admits that 600 villages have been emptied. This systematic destruction has been accompanied by threats, abductions, “disappearances,” torture and killings of civilians. On September 17, 1993, one day after nearby clashes between security forces and the PKK, helicopters flew over Palamdzu village tents, pitched on the Cet pasture in the Ovacik area. The helicopters dropped explosives on the fleeing villagers, killing two and wounding seven — all unarmed civilians. In a similar incident on March 26, 1994, eight people, including three children, were killed when warplanes bombed Kumcati village near Şırnak. Official statements claimed the bombing was “accidental,” although at least three other Kurdish settlements were bombed the same day. All had refused to join the state armed village guards.

Last year, several hundred people were victims of political killings in southeastern Turkey. The current scale and pattern of extrajudicial executions is unprecedented in recent Turkish history. The victims, who are often taken from their homes in the middle of the night and shot, include members of the independent Turkish Human Rights Association and the Democracy Party (DEP), and journalists. The government has denied the collusion of the security forces, instead pointing to the PKK and Hizbullah (an Islamist organization), but has failed to regularly and systematically investigate cases or to produce sufficient evidence for indictments. The PKK has committed killings, but it frequently claims responsibility, as its goal is to intimidate and discourage “collaborators.”

The European Committee for the Prevention of Torture monitors member states’ adherence to the European Convention against the Use of Torture, to which Turkey is a party. After its third visit to Turkey, the Committee broke with its tradition of confidential reporting, announcing in December 1992 that it had found extensive proof that “torture and other forms of severe ill-treatment of persons in police custody remain widespread in Turkey.” Most torture occurs during the initial interrogation and detention of prisoners. Ensuring proper access by lawyers is the single most effective measure that the Turkish government could take to prevent torture, but incommunicado detention is common for political detainees.

The Çiller government, like its predecessors, has failed to set up independent commissions to examine the dramatic increase in allegations of extrajudicial executions and prosecute those involved in human rights violations. The government also has failed to put into force legal structures to provide safeguards for detainees. In meetings in late 1993 with the Turkish prime minister, members of the House Foreign Affairs Committee failed to press her to take measures to improve Turkey’s human rights situation. The 1993 State Department Country Report on Human Rights Practices documents systematic abuses, yet both the administration and Congress have failed to act on it. The first sign that this may change is a 1994 House of Representatives appropriations bill. It conditions 25 percent of US aid for the next fiscal year on verification by the secretary of state that Turkey is addressing allegations of abuses against civilians in the southeast. It remains to be seen if this language will be retained in the final version.

How to cite this article:

Maryam Elahi "Clinton, Ankara and Kurdish Human Rights," Middle East Report 189 ( ).
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