Turkey: Arms and Human Rights

By Gabelnick, Tamar | Foreign Policy in Focus, May 21, 1999 | Go to article overview

Turkey: Arms and Human Rights


Gabelnick, Tamar, Foreign Policy in Focus


Considered a strategic NATO ally, Turkey has benefited from a U.S. policy that is long on military assistance and short on constructive criticism. Washington values close ties with Turkey both as a secular state with a predominately Muslim population and as a buffer between Europe and the Middle East and Caucasus regions. Once valued as a deterrent to the Soviet threat, Turkey is now considered a key ally in stopping terrorism, drug trafficking, and Islamic fundamentalism from seeping across the Bosporus Straits. Turkey also offers opportunities as an emerging market and a potential site for the Caspian Sea oil pipeline. Finally, Turkey won U.S. favor by supporting the Gulf War, participating in Bosnian peacekeeping, and providing a base for U.S. fighter planes monitoring the "no-fly-zone" in northern Iraq.

The 1980 Defense and Economic Cooperation Agreement reaffirmed the tight relationship between the U.S. and Turkey, which had been threatened after Turkey's 1974 invasion of Cyprus and the subsequent U.S. arms embargo. This accord allowed U.S. military bases on Turkish soil in exchange for help modernizing Turkey's military, opening the door to a flood of U.S. arms transfers. Since 1980 the U.S. has shipped $9 billion worth of arms to Turkey and provided $6.5 billion in grant and loan military aid to purchase U.S. equipment. By fiscal year 1999, Congress phased out this type of military aid to both Greece and Turkey out of a recognition that these relatively well-off states could finance their own arms purchases. Before FY 1999, Turkey had been the third largest recipient of U.S. military aid.

The U.S. government believes large quantities of arms sales buy political influence in addition to providing economic benefits. In reality, Washington has held little sway over Ankara's behavior in such key foreign policy areas as promoting human rights and democracy, preserving regional stability, keeping Turkey tied to Western Europe, and promoting economic growth. Additionally, Turkey has only reluctantly accepted the embargo against Iraq and is pursuing a natural gas pipeline deal with Iran in defiance of the U.S. embargo.

U.S. arms sales actually undermine many U.S. foreign policy goals by providing physical and political support to the Turkish military at the expense of democratically elected leaders and civil society. The Turkish military's 15-year war against the rebel Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK) in southeast Turkey has involved severe violations of international human rights and humanitarian law, including indiscriminate and disproportionate use of force. The war has served as an excuse to repress political leaders, journalists, and human rights activists seeking greater rights for Kurds and a peaceful end to the war. Additionally, in the name of protecting a strictly secular society, the Turkish military uses its inordinate power to suppress religious expression and mild political Islamic activism. …

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