- The Washington Times - Friday, April 21, 2000

Several press articles and foreign policy commentators have recently taken Turkey to task for failing to move more quickly to end restrictions on freedom of expression and, implicitly, for ongoing human rights abuses. Certainly I agree with that basic point, as would most thinking Turks. At a time of growing evidence that Turkey has turned the corner on terrorism, and when fears of a fundamentalist threat to Turkey's secular order have receded, such relics of Turkey's turbulent past are increasingly difficult to justify.

In fact, a substantively similar discussion to that which is occurring in the United States is discernible in Turkey itself. A review of the Turkish media over the past few weeks reveals a lively and growing public debate on the need to amend Turkey's 1982 Constitution and relevant laws to address the restrictions in question. Prime Minister Ecevit and other national political leaders have publicly called for revision of Article 312 of the Constitution, under which former Prime Minister Erbakan was recently sentenced. The president of the Constitutional Court has called for even more sweeping changes and Turkey's interior minister has been roundly criticized by the country's mainstream press and the head of the Turkish Parliament's Human Rights Commission over his failure to put an end to torture.

The point is not that there are no human rights problems in Turkey. Quite to the contrary. But fairness requires that we understand that the situation is far from static. Responsible Turks, inside and outside of government, are working hard to change the picture.

Much has been accomplished since the Ecevit government came to power in June 1999, with the first working parliamentary majority in years. Military members have been removed from State Security courts. There has been a reduction in the state-of-emergency regime in terrorism-plagued southeastern Turkey and consequent expansion of civil liberties. Means have been found to release dozens of imprisoned writers and to suspend prosecution of dozens more.

Civil servants have been made more legally accountable for their official actions. New decrees have been issued against torture, with requirements for regular reports from the field. Despite the recent arrest (and subsequent release and return to office) of three mayors from the Kurdish-based HADEP party, 31 other HADEP mayors have been allowed to do their job, without interference, since being elected in April 1999. (And, of course, Abdullah Ocalan has not been executed despite the fact that Turkey, like many states of our union, has death-penalty statutes.)

These actions are not mere window dressing applied by the government in Ankara. There has been material progress on the ground. Human Rights Watch, an organization which has consistently pointed out human rights abuses in Turkey, reported last fall that the incidence of torture in the country had dropped "appreciably." The State Department's most recent Human Rights Report notes that accusations of state-sponsored extra-judicial killings have dried up.

These are significant developments. International (and Turkish) human rights organizations have pushed for years for the steps that Mr. Ecevit's government has now taken. Cumulatively these actions enable Turkey to claim with validity that it has done more in the human rights field in the past nine months than had been achieved over many years by previous governments.

The prime minister's success may seem surprising, but perhaps it should not. After all, it flows like the current debate on amending Turkey's Constitution out of a growing consensus in Turkey that being modern, being Western and being "Turkish" all require world-class standards of democracy and human rights. That public consensus in turn, has grown from a system which, despite its flaws, is the most well-established, most free democracy in the Muslim world one that stands favorable comparison (Israel aside) with America's closest partners in the Middle East.

That said, it is fair to hold Turkey to a higher standard, in view of its desire to become a member of the European Union and the closeness of our own relations with this long-standing friend and ally. But it will also be wise to bear in mind something that U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for Human Rights Harold Koh said recently, in a different context: "Human rights changes more frequently from inside, bottom-up, than outside, top-down."

The human rights picture in Turkey today is a work in progress, "inside, bottom-up." Much has already been achieved. More will be achieved in the future because the Turks have shown they want it and traditional constraints are becoming less relevant. Those who seek to make a constructive contribution to the process properly point out where more needs to be done. They also have a further obligation to give credit for what has been done, and for what is under way.

Sen. Jesse Helms, North Carolina Republican, is chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

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