|Human Rights vs. Guns in
January 13, 2001
HUMAN RIGHTS VS. GUNS IN TURKEY
Author: Kevin McKiernan
BELL TEXTRON, THE RHODE ISLAND-BASED COMPANY THAT MAKES HELICOPTER GUNSHIPS,
GOT SOME GOOD NEWS A FEW MONTHS AGO WHEN TURKEY AWARDED IT A $4 BILLION CONTRACT
FOR 146 ATTACK HELICOPTERS, ONE OF THE LARGEST SINGLE ARMS DEALS IN HISTORY.
competition for the contract had been intense, with five companies, including
Boeing Aircraft and Bell Textron, submitting bids. When Turkey eliminated Boeing's
Apache helicopter from consideration last year, Bell's King Cobra became the
favorite to win the award. Soon after it convenes, the new Congress will have
to decide whether to grant an export license for the weapons.
About 80 percent of the Turkish arsenal is US-made, and the Turkish Army has
relied on Sikorsky Blackhawks and Apache and Cobra helicopters to win the long
(and underreported) war with Kurdish rebels in the southeast. In 1997, the Clinton
administration granted Boeing and Bell market licenses to build the attack helicopters,
brushing aside human rights objections from Amnesty International and Human Rights
Watch about Turkey's abuse of its ethnic population.
Since President Clinton took office in 1992, more than $6 billion in US weaponry
has been delivered to Turkey. Now that Bell has won the helicopter contract,
the Bush administration may try to persuade Congress to override human rights
concerns, thus brokering the sale.
American-made helicopters are well known to the Kurds. I have often encountered
refugees from destroyed villages in southeast Turkey whose only English were
the words Sikorsky and Cobra. Villagers know that the soldiers who burn their
houses arrive in Blackhawk helicopters, which are made by the Connecticut-based
Sikorsky company. And they easily recognize the rocket-equipped Cobras, which
are manufactured at a Bell Textron plant in Texas.
Turkish Kurdistan is a rugged, mountainous region, and helicopters have proved
essential in the army's scorched-earth campaign. So far, more than 3,000 Kurdish
villages have been burned, depriving the guerrillas of logistical support. Estimates
of civilian Kurds displaced by the war range from 500,000 to 2 million.
It has been a dirty war, and both sides have been guilty of atrocities.
The Kurds are a large, diverse group whose members spill across the borders of
Iraq, Turkey, Iran, Syria, and parts of the former Soviet Union. With a population
of 25 million to 30 million, they represent the largest ethnic minority in the
world without their own state.
The first Kurds I met were in Iraq, where I was shooting television news at the
end of the Gulf War. At that time, the networks had an appetite for stories of
Saddam Hussein's abuses (the Iraqi dictator had destroyed thousands of Kurdish
villages), and I had lots of work. But when I started covering the Kurdish uprising
in Turkey, I couldn't give the stories away. I was told that as far as the media
were concerned, the Turkish-Kurdish war wasn't on the radar.
Today, Ankara continues to dispatch US- made F-16s and Cobra attack helicopters
to bomb Kurdish rebels in northern Iraq, where most of rebel leader Abdullah
Ocalan's fighters have withdrawn.
Last weekend, according to Turkish newspapers, 10,000 Turkish troops crossed
100 miles into Iraq, the deepest cross-border penetration to date. At last report,
the US-equipped troops were trying to encircle 2,500 Kurdish fighters dug in
along the Iraq-Iran border.
Twelve months ago, the European Union voted to consider Turkey for admission
to the EU, but only on the condition that it clean up its human rights record.
But the EU may be having second thoughts. Soon after the vote, Turkey blocked
an EU delegation from visiting Leyla Zana, the imprisoned Kurdish member of the
Turkish Parliament who has received the EU's peace prize. Then a Kurdish educational
foundation was indicted on criminal charges of inciting separatist propaganda
because it advertised a scholarship for students who could read and write in
Last year the government ordered a CNN television affiliate off the air for 24
hours because a reporter asked a guest if history might one day regard Ocalan
as a Turkish version of the South African revolutionary Nelson Mandela. A few
days later, Turkey arrested the Kurdish mayors of three cities on vague charges
of separatism. There are 37 elected Kurdish mayors, and many observers had hoped
that their leadership would provide a nonviolent alternative to the civil war
in Turkey that since 1984 has taken 40,000 lives, most of them Kurds.
Turkey has hired a stable of former leading members of Congress to pave the way
for licensing the King Cobras. The lobbyists include former House Rules Committee
chairman Gerald Solomon of New York and former congressman Stephen Solarz, also
of New York. Best known is former House speaker-designate Bob Livingston of Louisiana,
who has received a $1.8 million contract to lobby for Turkey.
While Turkey is a valuable ally, what US exports need is gun control, but that
demands leadership from Washington. The sale of 146 attack helicopters may be
good news to Bell Textron, but human rights are also in America's national interest.
The new White House should use its influence to hold up the $4 billion in gunships
until Ankara shows a willingness to deal democratically with its own citizens.