New Human Rights Law Triggers Policy Debate
By Dana Priest
The State Department this month rejected a request from defense giant General Dynamics Corp. for U.S. financing to help Turkey buy armored vehicles for police operating in provinces where state-sponsored torture "is a longstanding and pervasive practice," according to an internal State Department document.
The decision marked the first serious test of a human rights law, passed by Congress in 1996 and expanded this year, that prohibits U.S. funds, in this case U.S. loan guarantees, from aiding units of foreign security forces that have been involved in human rights violations.
While the overall effect of the ruling was relatively modest -- General Dynamics completed the deal with its own financing -- the application of the law proved anything but simple. It ignited an angry dispute within the government, with opponents -- including the U.S. ambassador to Turkey and a senator whose state manufactures the vehicles, as well as General Dynamics executives -- arguing that the decision would increase Turkey's hostility to human rights and jeopardize U.S. business and national security interests.
State Department officials said they do not expect the law, which was sponsored by Sen. Patrick J. Leahy (D-Vt.), to drastically alter Washington's deep involvement with Turkey, a NATO ally to which the United States has sold or given more than $15 billion worth of weapons since 1980. But it is likely to cause future debate over policy in Turkey and other countries with controversial rights records, especially those, like Algeria, Colombia, Mexico, Indonesia, Rwanda and China, where the U.S. military is seeking to expand its relationships despite concerns about human rights.
In anticipation of future disputes, the State Department recently set up an interagency group to work out how to implement the Leahy law, which applies to most military assistance and, after its scope was expanded by Congress this year, to all military training activities funded by the Defense Department.
The $45 million General Dynamics deal involved 140 vehicles, including 11-ton, armored Patrollers, equipped with water cannons, ramming arms and front gun ports for urban anti-riot police, and Dragoons, an armored personnel carrier that would transport anti-terror police.
Attorneys at the U.S. Export-Import Bank first raised questions this fall about whether the Leahy law applied to General Dynamics' loan guarantee request. State Department lawyers told the bank at least once that the Turkish deal did not violate the statute because the department had no evidence that specific "units" had been involved in human rights abuses.
But others in the State Department disagreed, saying U.S. assistance could be prohibited if it helps anti-terror or anti-riot police operating in geographic areas where torture and other abuses were systematic.
On Oct. 6, the State Department preliminarily decided that the U.S. loan guarantee could be used in the financing of 101 vehicles going to 32 provinces, but not the 39 vehicles destined for 11 provinces where they had credible evidence of human rights abuses involving the two police organizations. Turkey would be required as part of the deal to agree not to use U.S.-funded vehicles in the restricted provinces.
The State Department decision drew strong criticism from inside and outside the government. Leading the opposition was the U.S. ambassador to Turkey, Mark Parris, and Sen. Carl M. Levin (D-Mich.), the ranking minority member on the Senate Armed Services Committee. The vehicles' manufacturer, A.V. Technology, a General Dynamics subsidiary, is based in Michigan.
With Turkey threatening to back out of the deal, Levin visited the country in mid-November. He met with the director general of the Turkish National Police, Necati Bilican, who promised that the police would adopt U.S. rules of engagement for the vehicles, according to a report by Levin on the trip. Bilican also promised he would support pending legislation in Turkey that would make it easier to prosecute police officers.
Urging the United States to support the entire sale, Levin argued that there was no evidence suggesting the vehicles would be used in human rights abuses, and that forfeiting the deal would diminish U.S. influence over future progress on human rights.
"Having read the State Department's human rights report and the reports of several private human rights organizations, it is clear that the torture of detained or confined people is the primary human rights issue involving the Turkish National Police," he wrote. "These vehicles, however, are not instruments of torture and, although the Turkish National Police already has more than 100 of these vehicles, I am unaware of any allegations that they have been misused."
In a Nov. 16 cable to the State Department marked "sensitive," Ambassador Parris said of the deal, "I don't think it is even a close call." He described Bilican's promises to Levin "serious efforts to get a better hand on torture that go beyond anything we -- or anyone else -- have ever achieved before.
"The only way we are going to be able to operationalize these undertakings is to approve the ex-im financing," Parris wrote. "By the same token, turning down the ex-im request will essentially marginalize us as a player in the ongoing dialogue on human rights here. Maybe the Turks will go for a cash sale. Maybe they won't. What's certain is that, from this point on, we won't even be able to get in the door to talk to them about torture, accountability, and related questions if we say no to ex-im."
Finally, he added, "I certainly don't want to see the Europeans win this sale if the Turks decide not to buy American." For years, as Turkey and the United States have tussled over human rights with little notable progress, Washington has been conflicted over how hard to push. Few countries, U.S. officials argue, are as important strategically as Turkey, which they view as the gatekeeper between the secular West and the increasingly fundamentalist Middle East. Turkey itself is torn between its government's desire to become a modern, secular state and the political and cultural demands of its overwhelmingly Muslim population.
Ruthless tactics by the Turkish military and police against militant Islamists and separatist Kurdish guerrillas have been well-documented. The current edition of the State Department's human rights report says of Turkey: "Torture remained widespread . . . the rarity of convictions of police and other security officials for killings and torture fosters a climate of impunity that probably remains the single largest obstacle to reducing human rights abuses."
The annual report, and an internal State Department document prepared for the General Dynamics case, are rife with examples of abuses by the anti-terror and anti-riot police in 11 provinces. The internal document says rape, near-drowning, burning, beatings and electric shock were common tactics used by the two police groups, citing reports from the U.S. Embassy in Turkey, the United Nations, the Council on Europe and nongovernmental groups. Among 280 victims cited in the internal document were "infants, children, the elderly."
The State Department internal memo said that in Adana, one of the restricted provinces, 23 anti-terror police officers were charged with killing five people, including children ages 2 and 4, during a raid on a house. In Istanbul, another exempted province, anti-terror police allegedly burned a 2-year-old with cigarettes to force his mother, a suspected Kurdish Workers' Party sympathizer, to cooperate, the document said.
This year the State Department said it would not allow U.S. firms to sell attack helicopters to Turkey, which is considering bids for a $3.5 billion deal, unless there was a significant improvement of Turkey's human rights record. The State Department had found previously that some U.S. helicopters were used to force the evacuation of, or kill, noncombatants in Kurdish strongholds.
But Turkey has other military suppliers, and U.S. officials note that one of the benefits of Ankara's growing military relationship with Israel will be a new source for weaponry without strings attached. In 1996, Turkey canceled a planned purchase of 10 U.S. Super Cobra helicopters when Congress, concerned about human rights, delayed the deal.
Beyond arms deals, Turkey has perhaps the largest training program with the U.S. military of any country. From 1984 to 1997, some 2,500 Turkish officers received training under the U.S.-funded International Military Education and Training program. In 1998, the U.S. spent $1.5 million to train 161 Turkish officers, and another 139 military students have been trained through the arms transfer program, according to the U.S. European Command.
But when it comes to deals such as those involving the armored vehicles, Turkey retains the ability to overcome U.S. conditions. Ankara turned down a compromise proposal offered by Washington that would have delayed the financing for six months until Turkey had met conditions laid out by Marc Grossman, assistant secretary of state for European affairs, including an agreement to investigate and prosecute police alleged to have used torture, to adopt the U.S. rules of engagement and to undergo anti-torture training. The compromise was eventually abandoned.
Levin believes the State Department went well beyond the letter of the law to satisfy human rights groups. He said the law should be narrowed to prohibit only equipment that is used directly for torture. "You have to hit the right target," he said in an interview this week. "You can't hit the whole national police force."
Leahy says the decision represents a small, but important victory that shows the State Department is resolved to take the law seriously. "There's no way we can do things that appear to condone torture," he said.
In this case, the vehicles will still go to the police groups in all of the provinces cited in the original deal. In areas where U.S. loan guarantees are prohibited, General Dynamics has agreed to finance the sale. "As a business, we would rather have the Ex-Im Bank finance all of the vehicles, but that's not possible," said General Dynamics spokesman Kendall Pease. "We're prepared to finance the deal because we have a commitment to our customer."
Meanwhile, General Dynamics is among the final bidders on a $5 billion deal to produce 1,000 M1A2 battle tanks for Turkey. State Department officials said they are studying whether the Leahy law applies to that deal.
© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company