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The Case for the Kurds

WEDNESDAY'S dramatic photos of three Kurds setting fire to themselves in Germany could be written off as a gruesome publicity stunt for the Kurdish cause. But perhaps it is the only symbol the Kurds - one of the most oppressed groups on earth - feel is strong enough to make their case.

The Kurds, 20 million people scattered between Turkey, Iraq, and Iran, are easily forgotten: They are stateless. Their homes are on no major media byways. They are a problem no one wants to deal with: Their cause is legitimate, but they happen to be persecuted, among others, by a NATO ally. Also, their oppression does not involve Western ``national interests,'' which means these governments must confront the unpleasant shortcomings of their human rights policies.

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The White House, for example, has made an issue of human rights in China, a nondemocratic former foe, and threatens to withhold most-favored-nation status. Yet nothing has been said about Turkey's year-long onslaught, which approaches ``ethnic cleansing,'' against Kurds. Turkey is an MFN state, and is about to enter a customs union with Europe. MFN status may or may not be a useful tool in a human rights policy; democracy and political stability in Turkey are weak on the eve of the March 27 elections there. But still, the United States ought to have a consistent policy.

The fight between Turks and Kurds is now a civil war. Ankara calls the guerillas dangerous separatists; Kurds correctly counter that they are being persecuted and denied rights to language, education, press, and safety. Some 5,000 people have been killed.

Equally disturbing is the arrest in Turkey of eight elected Kurdish members of the Turkish parliament - for a nonviolent expression of their views. The MPs are part of the 18-member Kurdish Democratic Party (DEP) delegation in the 450-member parliament. DEP itself is constructed from the Kurdish People's Labor Party, which was banned last July. The run-up to Sunday's election has been marked by the assassination of 70 DEP members.

The West must do better by the Kurds. Is the war in Turkey escalating? How many exactly are killed? The Human Rights Foundation of Turkey claims 874 villages have been burned and 1 million people forced out.

This seems exaggerated, but the problem is, no one knows. Ankara should allow Red Cross visitors and Amnesty International monitors to investigate. Sen. Dennis DeConcini (D) of Arizona has said that a Helsinki human rights team ``is warranted.''

Three people set themselves on fire. Someone ought to find out why.

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