US Tragedy Poses Human Rights Challenges in Turkey, Central Asia
After the shock and disbelief at the horror across the Atlantic, Turkey has begun to calculate the possible impact of the US response on Central Eurasia.
Official condolences and expressions of outrage were accompanied by offers to help in the mission to rescue those trapped under the rubble -- something Turkey has had recent experience of in the wake of the devastating earthquake in August 1999. But, surprisingly, the comparison in most people's minds was not with that natural disaster, despite the superficial similarities in the images of destruction and carnage.
Instead, the almost universal association in people's minds was with another apocalyptic event: the war with the Kurdish separatist organization, the PKK, in which an estimated 30 thousand people lost their lives over a 16-year period between 1984 and 2000.
President George W Bush's warning that the US would not distinguish between those who carried out the acts and those states that harbor terrorists have struck a chord of recognition in Turkey. Turkish commentators have been articulating an almost universal mood of grim vindication, reminding their readers that for years, PKK militants were allowed to organize and to raise funds in relative freedom from havens in Western Europe.
"Ankara is convinced that the biggest terrorist attack ever seen has unfortunately vindicated the Turkish position on the war against terrorism," writes Murat Yetkin in the daily Radikal.
There is also anxiety about the repercussions of any retaliatory action by the United States on the fragile balances in the region, particularly if any kind of link to the attacks were to be established with neighbouring Iraq. "Please God don't let it be Baghdad," said one senior diplomat, "That would be the worst case scenario. The last thing we need is another Gulf War situation."
The mood of the ordinary person in the street is even more pessimistic. One worry is that as a key NATO ally and potential base for any retaliatory action, Turkey could itself become the target for terrorist attacks. Another is that Turkey and its people might be caught up in a wave of anti-Islamic hostility and apprehension in the West, particularly if any Turks were found to be implicated in the activities of the prime suspect for the attacks, dissident Saudi billionaire, Osama Bin Laden. Jane's Intelligence Review reported in August that Turkey was among the countries where Bin Laden's Al-Qaeda group had a presence.
Not all commentators are so pessimistic, however. "After this, Turkey is going to be much sought after around the world," opined retired Lieutenant General Cevik Bir, who commanded UN forces in Somalia in 1993. "NATO is once again going to re-emerge as the predominant force. Turkey's problems over European integration will be resolved. Europe will see the error of its ways," added Bir, articulating the views of Turkey's military elite, who claim they want to see Turkey integrate with the rest of Europe, but only on its own terms.
And so, ironically, the most significant impact on Turkey of the attacks in the US may end up having nothing to do with any potential changes in regional balances, but rather with Turkey's own internal reckoning. Parliament is shortly due to debate the most sweeping changes to the constitution in 20 years, as part of the process of bringing Turkey's rights record into line with the rest of Europe.
Liberal commentators fear the new situation in the aftermath of the US attacks could tip the balance in Turkey in favor of hardliners who argue against greater freedom of expression and political organization. The warning shots in this battle have already been fired. Even as Western leaders were pledging that the war against terrorism would be a war to defend freedom and democracy, Turkey's Defense Minister, Sabahattin Cakmakoglu, was issuing warnings that extending human rights "could mean inviting terrorism in at a later date."
Ali Erginsoy is a freelance journalist specialising in Turkish affairs.
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