IN an era of surging ethnic and nationalistic aspirations, few groups can make a stronger case for self-determination than the Kurds. Descendants of the biblical Medes, the Kurds have an ancient, distinctive culture, and they live in a largely contiguous region in southeast Turkey, northern Iraq, and northwest Iran. Instead, the Kurds remain a persecuted minority in the three countries whose borders dissect their traditional territory.
Perhaps in time justice and historical logic will prevail, and the Kurds will have a homeland. That prospect isn't imminent, however. Until then, the Kurds deserve greater autonomy and better human rights treatment from their host countries, especially Turkey and Iraq.
The plight of Iraqi Kurds came to world attention after the Gulf war, when a Kurdish insurgency withered under Saddam Hussein's fierce counterattack. Many nations offered humanitarian aid, and the United Nations coalition that drove Saddam from Kuwait established a security zone for the Kurds in northern Iraq.
Less widely publicized has been Turkey's history of what one analyst calls "abominable" treatment of its own Kurdish population. Beyond denial of human rights, Ankara's policy appears to be a forcible assimilation of the Kurds into the Turkish state.
A low-level revolt by Kurdish separatists that began in 1984 has flared more hotly in recent weeks. While Ankara has been within its rights to counter separatist attacks with military action to restore order and capture terrorists, the Turkish Army has indiscriminately assaulted Kurdish civilians as well as guerrillas. In protest against the brutality of the counter-insurgency strikes, Germany last week suspended all military sales to Turkey.
In contrast, the United States, defending Turkey's actions, has turned a blind eye both to the legitimacy of the Kurds' political aspirations and to Turkey's disturbing record of human rights violations. Thus the US has established a double standard regarding Kurds: Those in Iraq are the pitiable, persecuted victims of arch-villain Saddam Hussein, whereas Turkish Kurds are deemed troublemakers and terrorists who need to be controlled.
The US rightly regards Turkey as an important ally in an unsettled region. But Washington must still make it clear that Turkey's treatment of the Kurds is unacceptable. Moreover, Turkey cannot even dream of membership in the European Community with its current human rights policies.