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Turkey: Analysis From Washington -- When Principles Clash

  • Paul Goble

Washington, 25 November 1998 (RFE/RL) -- The continuing controversy over the fate of Kurdish leader Abdullah Ocalan reflects the clash of several legal principles broadly shared among Western countries.

But even more it highlights the difficulties the international community always faces whenever its various members attempt to invoke legal arrangements to solve what are inevitably political questions.

And as such, the Ocalan case underscores the extent to which the international system remains an anarchic place, one in which there is no agreed-upon hierarchy of legal principles and in which power rather than principle determines outcomes.

Since his detention in Rome on November 14, Ocalan has confronted the international system with a set of challenges that it is ill-equipped to deal with.

In each of three cases, the longtime Kurdish leader has forced the members of that community to choose between two pairs of principles, each of which the members of that community say they are committed to.

First, Ocalan has challenged the international system to choose between the right of individuals to seek political asylum versus the right of governments to seek the extradition of those charged with crimes on their territories.

When he arrived in Rome, Ocalan appealed for political asylum in order to prevent his extradition to Turkey where he is wanted for terrorist activities.

Given his legitimate fears that he would face the death penalty were he returned to Turkey, Ocalan's efforts to remain in Italy are part of his broader effort to portray himself as a freedom fighter rather than a terrorist.

But given Ocalan's involvement in and responsibility for a conflict that has already cost 30,000 lives -- his PKK party has been the leader of the Kurdish challenge -- Turkey's efforts to secure his extradition are equally understandable.

Second, Ocalan has called on the international community to decide whether the right of governments to expect that treaties will be honored is more important than the right of governments to make judgments about the consequences of applying the treaties.

Not surprisingly, the international community and its members have been reluctant to make a clear-cut decision.

Italian officials have suggested that their legal system does not allow the extradition of someone like Ocalan to any country where he would face the death penalty.

But their legal arguments on this score have not answered the question as to why they should obey this law but not existing extradition treaties that are part of the framework of how countries, especially allies, do business with one another.

And third, his demands have underscored the difficulties the international system has in choosing between the right of nations to self-determination and the right of governments to insist that their laws be obeyed and their territorial arrangements are respected.

Ocalan has cast himself as the leader of the Kurdish national cause, and he has used the publicity surrounding this case to demand the internationalization of the Kurdish question.

In a series of interviews, Ocalan has argued that the European Community and other international bodies should intervene on behalf of his cause in order to protect the rights of the Kurdish people and to prevent any new bloodshed.

Many in Europe and elsewhere are sympathetic to the Kurdish cause, but -- and this is the major sticking point -- they are unwilling to challenge the territorial integrity of any other country, especially when those claims are advanced by someone widely seen as a terrorist.

That is one of the foundations of the international system as it is currently constituted. But by using violence and by exploiting the media, Ocalan has exposed this contradiction in the thinking of many world leaders.

And by sketching out a series of unpalatable choices, all of which involve violence or the threat of violence, he has hoped to force them to choose the one that will most benefit himself and his cause.

In none of these three areas does international law or even international political arrangements provide a clear answer. Instead, each of them exposes some contradictions in the existing system that many have preferred to ignore. Ocalan has cleverly exploited each of them to advance his case in the international media, to focus attentions on the Kurds and their current political problems.

How successful he has been on that score remains unclear. But his actions and the ways in which both governments and the media have responded have succeeded in highlighting one fundamental fact that some have lost sight of in the post-Cold War world:

Power politics rather than legal principles are likely to determine the outcomes for Ocalan, the cause he represents, and much else, regardless of what he or anyone else now involved may try to claim.