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Turkey, a member of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), is a leading recipient of U.S. arms. Because Turkey’s economy has been much weaker than other NATO members, the U.S. used to provide the Ankara government with grants and loans to finance the purchase of new American weapons. This practice was stopped by Congress in 1998 because of an assessment that Turkey then possessed sufficient funds to finance its arms purchases. Military aid was also cut off to Turkey's regional rival Greece for the same reason. Both Greece and Turkey continue to receive large quantities of free or heavily discounted "surplus" American weaponry.
International human rights organizations, as well as the U.S. State Department, have for many years reported that the Turkish military and police are committing egregious violations of human rights against Turkey's citizens, sometime using U.S. weapons to do so. Among the documented violations are the widespread use of torture, police abuse, assassinations, and "disappearances." Terrible conditions, torture and beatings in Turkish prisons were brought to light by a large hunger strike staged in the fall of 2000. In addition, Turkey continues to repress political and civil rights, especially related to expression of views by Islamic or Kurdish groups. Journalists are frequently threatened or jailed for voicing their opinions on these issues, and dozens of human rights workers have also been threatened, jailed, and even killed for their work. Leading human rights activist Akin Birdal was seriously wounded in a 1998 assassination attempt, only to be sentenced to jail in 1999 for stating support for a peaceful end to the conflict with the Kurds (see below). Turkish officials regularly ransack or close the offices of the main Kurdish political party and throw their leaders in jail. Even Kurdish members of the Turkish Parliament have been imprisoned in recent years for "crimes of opinion"; others have fled into exile in Europe. In the fall of 1998, Turkish courts extended the sentence of Leyla Zana, a Kurdish ex-Deputy, for allegedly "inciting racial hatred."
Many of the human rights violations - especially involving the indiscriminate use of force - stem from the Turkish government’s 16-year long war against Kurdish rebels (PKK) in the southeastern part of the country. Over 30,000 people have been killed in the war, and rampant human rights violations have been committed by both government and PKK forces. The Turkish military has destroyed over 3,000 villages, turning between 500,000 and 2 million people into internally displaced persons. The Turkish regime has spent over $120 billion on its military campaign against the rebel Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), siphoning scarce resources away from investment in infrastructure and contributing to the overall fragility of the economy. In 1995, a Congressionally mandated State Department report, along with independent reports from Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, all documented the use of U.S.-supplied weapons in the commission of human rights abuses, including indiscriminate attacks on civilian populations. In 1997, a second State Department report repeated these claims, though restricted access to the region prevented verification of the extent of the violence.
Fighting with the PKK has subsided, but not ended, since the 1999 imprisonment of PKK leader Abdulah Ocalan. (Ocalan was convicted of treason and sentenced to death, but the Council of Europe's Court of Human Rights is now reviewing the trial, which many human rights groups called severely flawed.) Although the PKK endorsed Ocalan's - albeit self-interested - call for a truce, the Turkish military has refused to stop the fighting and begin peace talks. A state of emergency that facilitates the repression of political and civil rights is still in force in five provinces in the Southeast. The military is also trying to prevent the civilian government from reaching out to the Kurdish population by granting long sought after cultural rights such as Kurdish broadcasting and education.
Most PKK soldiers heeded Ocalan's call and retreated to bases outside Turkish territory, shifting the bulk of the fighting to those areas. Reports indicate that at the end of 2000, around 10,000 Turkish troops had crossed into Northern Iraq, apparently to aid the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, an Iraqi Kurdish group, fight the PKK. Turkish troops have staged similar assaults in the past, but this incursion - bringing Turkish troops up to 100 miles within Iraqi territory - is the deepest yet. After similar attacks in the past, the U.N. Secretary General condemned the cross-border invasions as a violation of international law, but the U.S. State Department has voiced its support for Turkey’s right to violate Iraq’s borders to defend itself from the PKK. U.S. support for Turkish attacks against the PKK stands in ironic opposition to U.S. efforts to enforce a No-Fly-Zone in this same part of Iraq. And because U.S. officials or independent observers are not allowed into the region, it is not possible to know whether Turkish forces are continuing to use force disproportionately or indiscriminately, as they have done in past attacks on PKK-controlled areas.
In addition to internal political and human rights problems, Turkey has extremely tense relations with neighboring Greece, which is also a member of NATO. The two countries are at odds over Cyprus, which Turkey invaded in 1974, as well as resources and boundaries in the Aegean Sea. Both countries' militaries have repeatedly engaged in provocative sorties into each others' airspace and territorial waters, and Turkey threatened in 1995 to consider it an act of war if Greece ratified the Law of the Sea Treaty, which would legally extend Greece's territorial waters. In February 1996, this long-simmering tension boiled over. President Clinton had to intervene to head off a military confrontation over a disputed island. While 1999 and 2000 brought much positive rhetoric about possible reconciliation, the two countries have yet to make progress on key areas of dispute.
Attack Helicopter Sale
Since 1997, Turkey has been planning to purchase 145 attack helicopters for approximately $4 billion. In late 1997, Boeing and Bell Textron requested marketing licenses from the State Department to compete in the bid, despite reports of abusive use of U.S.-origin attack helicopters against Kurdish villages in the mid-1990s. Human rights and arms control groups protested the participation of U.S. companies in the bid, but were matched by forceful industry lobbying. The State Department compromised by granting a marketing license to the U.S. companies, but promising to condition approval of an export license—if a U.S. helicopter were to be selected—on specific improvements in Turkey's human rights and democratic practices. The specific criteria were actually identified by then Turkish Prime Minister Yilmaz as needing the most work in his country. Yet despite well-intentioned promises by Yilmaz and his successor Prime Minister Ecevit, these conditions – which include an end to impunity for torture, decriminalization of free speech, re-opening of state-closed non-governmental organizations, and ending the state of emergency in the Southeast –have not been met.
In July 2000, the Turkish government chose Bell Helicopter Textron’s AH-1Z KingCobra over the other four finalists: Boeing, Kamov Helicopter (Russian-Israeli consortium), Agusta, (Italy), and the Europcopter (Franco-German). But to maintain pressure to receive a U.S. export license and the best possible contract terms, Turkey is keeping the Russian-Israeli model in the competition until the deal is signed, sealed, and delivered. At issue is the amount of local production and technology transfer that Turkey will receive. Ankara has plans to become an independent producer of attack helicopters, just as it used to manufacture and export F-16s under license in the 1980's and 1990's. Anxious to seal this lucrative deal, Bell Textron may be willing to give away the store, including not just a license to produce the exterior of the aircraft, but access to the technology needed to build, alter and improve upon the software operating the gunships' high-tech instruments. While the loss of jobs to overseas production is deemed an unavoidable cost of doing weapons business today, the U.S. government has refused in the past to allow the transfer of software "source codes" and other sensitive technology for reasons of national security.
Turkey's negotiations with Bell Textron are scheduled to conclude in March 2001, at which time the State Department will need to decide whether to issue an export license. The new administration has signaled that it will look favorable upon this sale, paying less attention to human rights considerations than its predecessor. However, the sale might still be held up in the administration over the question of technology transfers, which has prompted concern by both Republicans and Democrats in similar past cases. Certain members of Congress are also likely to raise questions about the sale based on questions of regional stability, U.S. security, and the protection of human rights. Because the deal involves a NATO member, however, Congress will have only 15 days to officially review the sale.
For more information on this sale, see:
Situation of the Kurds
Last Updated: February 2003