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Great Seal logo Harold Hongju Koh
Assistant Secretary of State for Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor

Remarks to the Assembly of Turkish-American Associations
Washington, DC, October 1, 1999

Blue Bar rule

Thank you, Professor Lowry, for that kind introduction. First of all, let me say what a pleasure it is for me to be here at the 20th Annual Convention of the Assembly of Turkish-American Associations to discuss a topic that is tremendously important to Turkey, to the United States, and to me personally. As most of you know, I returned not long ago from a trip to Turkey, where I met many wonderful people and made very good friends. I grieved, as the world did, over the tremendous losses suffered by the people of Turkey during the catastrophic earthquake that struck only days after I had been there. As you know, American rescue teams--including a contingent from the Washington metro area--worked with Turks and other friends of Turkey to help rescue survivors. Americans also have responded generously to other relief efforts. These actions underscore the common values that unite us.

The United States has long considered Turkey a key ally. Turkey is an increasingly important partner in trade, investment, and energy. Turkey and the U.S. have a growing economic relationship, and we both strongly support the Baku-Ceyhan pipeline. But it would be a mistake to think that our mutual interests are limited to economic issues. At both the start and the end of this decade, Turkey reaffirmed its importance by the way it responded to tyranny in this region: first by supporting Operations Desert Storm and Northern Watch in Iraq, and this year, by lending critical support to NATO's effort to halt Slobodan Milosevic's brutal oppression of Kosovo's Albanian population. In that operation, Turkey demonstrated its determination and compassion, by opening its doors and extending its famous hospitality to thousands of Kosovar refugees. President Clinton and Secretary Albright personally expressed America's gratitude to Prime Minister Ecevit during their visits this week.

But I must tell you that my regard for Turkey goes even deeper than appreciating what it has done recently. Like you, I trace with pride my roots to another country. Like you, I enjoy a double blessing: I can take enormous pride in being an American and at the same time preserve a piece of my heart for the country of my parents and grandparents--in my case, Korea. I cannot tell you how much it means to me to come here to speak with all of you--whose hearts still keep a little bit of Turkey in them. As the child of immigrants, speaking to groups like yours always fills me with a mix of wonder and pride: the wonder of a child who saw his parents sacrifice so much in their quest for a better life, and the pride of a parent who can now show his American children how much their culture and heritage has enriched the United States.

When my parents left Korea 50 years ago, they watched from America while the Korean War left that country in a state painfully reminiscent of today's Kosovo. Among the troops who fought for their homeland's freedom were Turkish soldiers, far away from their homes, whose sacrifice helped begin Korea's path toward democracy. I am sure that my parents never dreamed that one day their son would be able to stand in front of a group like yours, representing the United States as its Assistant Secretary of State for Democracy, Human Rights and Labor, to thank your parents and grandparents for their sacrifice.

So the relationship between the United States and Turkey is not just multifaceted, but multilayered. I easily could spend the rest of the day talking to you if I tried to address all the issues of mutual concern. But as the Secretary's principal advisor on democracy, human rights, and labor, my primary responsibility here today is to outline some of those concerns.

During my trip 2 months ago, I traveled to Ankara, Istanbul, Sanliurfa, and Diyarbakir. I met with an extraordinary variety of individuals, asking them numerous questions in order to gain a more complete understanding of the context in which questions of human rights and democracy arise in Turkey. I was privileged to meet with a wide variety of people in all of these places, including national, provincial and local government officials, parliamentarians, human rights defenders, religious leaders, journalists, and--discussions it became increasingly clear to me that the people of the United States and the people of Turkey share important interests in and aspirations for human rights and democracy

During my travels, Turkish citizens shared their concerns about restrictions on freedom of expression, especially political, cultural and religious expression. They talked about the continued use of torture and the lack of accountability of those who commit it. They worried about the harassment of human rights defenders, including non-governmental organizations, defense lawyers, doctors, and journalists. And they provide their varying perspectives on the difficult situation in the Southeast, where terrorism by the PKK and other groups, economic underdevelopment, forced village evacuations, and the rights of Turkey's citizens of Kurdish descent remain serious concerns. Let me underscore that those who raised these issues with me were not just those who have suffered human rights abuses, but also national, provincial, and local government officials who have committed themselves to addressing these problems. I was impressed by their openness, and I pledge the United States' support for their efforts to make significant and concrete human rights improvements.

I also had the opportunity to sit down in Ankara with Prime Minister Ecevit to discuss his concerns and hear his thoughts about improving the human rights situation in Turkey. The Prime Minister reiterated to me his and his government's commitment to make human rights a top priority. In the weeks since my visit, his government has taken some important steps toward realizing that commitment. Just last Saturday, the Government released on medical grounds Akin Birdal, former President of the Human Rights Association, a noted human rights organization. The United States welcomes this and all future concrete steps to improve human rights.

Just this week in meetings with the President and Secretary of State, the Prime Minister reaffirmed his government's commitment to strengthening and enhancing human rights protections. The Prime Minister told President Clinton and Secretary Albright about some of the steps his government has taken, and they discussed where the process might head in the future. Secretary Albright took advantage of the meeting to invite State Minister for Human Rights Irtemcelik to visit the United States this fall, and the Prime Minister accepted in principle.

Since my trip, Turkey has amended anti-torture regulations to increase the punishment from 5 to 8 years for those who engage in torture or hinder torture investigations, has amended the political parties law to make it more difficult to close down such institutions, and has postponed the sentences or halted the trials of some journalists convicted or charged on speech acts. When I was in Turkey, I told Prime Minister Ecevit, Justice Minister Turk, and State Minister for Human Rights Irtemcelik that we welcomed some of the other steps that they have taken on human rights:

  • removing the military judges from the State Security Courts;
  • proposing legislation to ensure the accountability of civil servants and to increase the punishments for those found to have engaged in torture;
  • and issuing a circular announcing no tolerance for human rights violations by law enforcement officials and outlining ways to ensure that such violations are discovered and punished.
The government's mandate is strong and signals sharper focus on these issues, and we look forward to seeing concrete improvements in human rights on the ground.

Other high-ranking Turkish officials have also recently spoken out in favor of human rights reform or taken action. President Demirel initiated a dialogue with mayors from the Southeast. In a ground-breaking speech that has spurred a national debate and intensified public calls for more democracy, Supreme Court of Appeals Chief Justice Selcuk called for revision of the Constitution to strengthen democracy and better protect the freedoms of Turkey's citizens. Constitutional Court Chief Justice Sezer has called for lifting restrictions on freedom of expression. Turkish General Staff Chairman Kivrikoglu recently stated that elected HADEP mayors should be allowed to do their job without interference and acknowledged that many Kurds want an increase in cultural rights, not autonomy. We applaud the vision of these leaders as they work to strengthen Turkey's commitment to a culture of human rights.

The challenges that face Turkey are not unique. With respect to democracy and human rights, every country in the world still has progress to make. The United States also is a work in progress; indeed, our Constitution defines our national mission as achieving "a more perfect Union." Since the United States is an open democracy, we are committed to addressing our most difficult and divisive human rights issues in public and in the courts. At times in our history, both non-governmental groups and other governments have helpfully prodded us to move faster, and to do more, to ensure justice and freedom.

It is sometimes painful when others point out our errors to us, but we Americans have welcomed the scrutiny, for such domestic and external criticism have made us stronger by pushing us to address our problems. We have learned that the promotion of human rights is not a subversive activity but an investment in democracy. I have encouraged Turkish officials to view human rights defenders as their allies as they move to make needed reforms, and to ensure that these groups-- NGOs, lawyers, doctors, journalists--enjoy unfettered ability to carry out their legitimate activities. State Minister Irtemcelik's recent meeting with the chairman of the Human Rights Association of Turkey is a welcome step. We hope that such measures signal a new approach, one that will result in the reopening of closed non-governmental organizations and prevent future such closings by the government.

Currently, the Government of Turkey also is considering a number of different measures that would lift some of the restrictions on freedom of expression. This is a crucial area for reform. Full freedom of expressio-- political and cultural--may feel threatening, but freedom of expression in fact enhances societal order and stability. When all elements in society have access to meaningful, peaceful political and cultural expression, emotional and contentious issues can be raised within the existing system, rather than in extremist opposition to it.

We therefore strongly support Prime Minister Ecevit's ongoing efforts to lift those articles of the Turkish Constitution, penal code and anti-terror law that restrict freedom of expression. But it is important that reforms be thorough and effective. When restrictions were lifted in the past, individuals were still prosecuted for speech acts. Here in the United States, we may not like hate speech or when Nazis parade, but if we try to block such acts we lose far more than we gain. We have learned through hard experience that the best way to respond to bad speech is with good speech, not with restrictions. In that spirit, I would like to encourage Prime Minister Ecevit to extend the limited relief offered the press under the amnesty law and to extend his reforms to all articles used to restrict freedom of expression.

We welcome and support the commitments of Prime Minister Ecevit, Foreign Minister Cem, Justice Minister Turk, and State Minister for Human Rights Irtemcelik to end the practice of torture. The government has authorized surprise inspections of detention facilities and called for initiating legal procedures against security forces accused of abuse. Only by thoroughly implementing these measures can the government begin to address this problem. Unfortunately, many of those I met in the Southeast did not know about the government's new measures or how they are to be implemented. I urged government officials at all levels to make such changes a priority and to ensure that the public, prosecutors and security forces are aware of the initiatives. As we have learned in the United States, a climate of impunity can only be ended by vigorously prosecuting, convicting, and punishing those officials who commit such acts.

Finally, let me turn to the extraordinarily difficult and sensitive challenge of the Southeast and achieving reconciliation with Turkey's Kurdish population. On my travels, many of those with whom I met told me that there is now an unprecedented opportunity for progress on this issue. I met a few mayors from the Southeast. They struck me as dedicated public servants who want to deliver quality municipal services to their citizens, but they often struggle to be accepted by Ankara and provincial authorities. We hope that other Turkish officials will follow President Demirel's lead in reaching out to political leaders in the Southeast and, as TGS Chief Kivrikoglu stated, that the mayors will be allowed to do their jobs. The people of the Southeast, who are mainly Kurds, demonstrated their bond with the rest of the country with their prompt and generous assistance to victims of the earthquake in the Northwest.

As you all know, the United States has staunchly supported Turkey's right to defend itself against terrorism in the Southeast. But one can oppose terrorism and still support human rights. Most Kurds in Turkey do not support the use of violence. They want to remain Turkish citizens, while enjoying the basic human rights guaranteed to all people under international law, including freedom to express one's language and culture, and freedom to organize political parties that represent their interests. Far from hurting Turkey's territorial integrity, an inclusive policy that acknowledged these rights would strengthen Turkey by giving the Kurdish community a genuine stake in their country's future. The United States has long maintained that there can be no purely military solution to Kurdish issues. Any enduring solution must lie in the expansion of democracy, and in bold and imaginative political, social, and economic measures to foster full democratic political participation for all of Turkey's citizens and in the promotion of greater freedom of expression in and on the Southeast.

This November, the Organization of Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) will hold its summit in Istanbul. That decision pays tribute to the respect the OSCE has for Turkey and to Turkey's own diplomatic capacities. The summit will shine a global spotlight on Turkey, and offer the entire country an opportunity to demonstrate its commitment to human rights and democracy. The United States recognizes and respects the sincerity of Prime Minister Ecevit's government, and we hope the many important reforms that it has initiated will be implemented fully in the very near future.

Fifty years ago, the people of Turkey played a crucial role in defending freedom in Korea. Five months ago, the people of Turkey helped bring to an end a brutal campaign of ethnic cleansing in Kosovo, in the process demonstrating to the world its continuing commitment to fostering human rights and democracy. It is my hope that, in the next few years, the Ecevit Government will build on its commitment to improve human rights at home by safeguarding freedom of expression, ending torture and impunity, protecting human rights defenders, and finding a peaceful and democratic solution to the issues confronting the Southeast. As Turkey moves to implement these reforms, the United States, as a true friend and close ally, will stand with Turkey as it faces these and other challenges that will define our shared future.

Thank you very much.

[end of document]

Blue Bar rule

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