Turkey’s main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP) has announced that it will take the de-mining law adopted in parliament on June 3 to the constitutional court. The controversial draft bill was approved by 255 to 91, following a 15-hour long stormy debate, during which some lawmakers came close to engaging in violence.
The deputy head of the CHP parliamentary group Hakki Suha Okay explained: "There was no need to pass a law for either the ministry of defense or the finance ministry to tender for the destruction of the mines. The Build-Operate-Transfer (BOT) model was specifically inserted in the law. Laws are there to provide continuity; they are not intended for use only once, then to be ignored. Therefore, we will apply to the constitutional court for the law to be abolished" (www.ntvmsnbc.com, June 4).
The month-long fierce debate over the draft legislation, which left the Turkish parliament deadlocked, culminated with a severe war of words among lawmakers on June 3. Consequently, this has forced the government to rewrite parts of the bill, while maintaining the BOT clause. The preservation of this clause -against which not only the opposition parties but also some ruling party deputies raised objections- has prompted the CHP to announce plans to challenge the bill in court.
Lawmakers objected to the BOT clause, since it might allow foreign companies to destroy the mines in return for securing agricultural rights for up to 44 years. "The majority of the AKP deputies are also against the BOT model," a ruling AKP deputy told Jamestown.
Opposition parties claim that if companies from foreign countries, particularly Israel, were contracted to conduct the de-mining, this might pose a threat to Turkey’s border security. According to the revisions to the bill, Turkey will apply to NATO’s Maintenance and Supply Agency (NAMSA) for it to tender for clearing the anti-personnel mines (APM’s) along Turkey’s border with Syria. If NAMSA cannot carry out the work then the finance ministry will then tender for the de-mining of the area. In the event of these options failing, then a tender will open for both mine clearance and for leasing the land for up to 44 years for agricultural purposes -under the BOT model. There are an estimated 615,000 APM’s and anti-tank mines (ATM’s) along an area of 510 kilometers on the Turkish side of its border with Syria. Once the area is finally cleared, 216,000 hectares of land will be available for cultivation.
The bill has stirred nationalist passions to an extent that has prompted the opposition to accuse the government of treason. Speculation that an Israeli company might win the contract, has inflamed sentiments and revealed endemic prejudice towards Israel, even among the staunchly secular lawmakers of the CHP in this constitutionally secular but predominantly Muslim nation. This is despite Turkey’s continued close military and defense procurement ties with Israel, under the Islam-sensitive rule of the AKP.
The Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan in response to severe criticism over his government’s draft bill said, "We should first clear the mines in our heads" (Hurriyet, June 3). During a speech on June 2 at his party’s parliamentary group, Erdogan similarly criticized the opposition for hyping fear over the issue throughout the country. "Opposition parties have planted so many mines on the borders of their own minds that they cannot walk past them," he noted.
Meanwhile, despite the severe criticism leveled against the government over the de-mining bill, lawmakers have not questioned the rationale behind the absence of de-mining technology within Turkey’s politically powerful armed forces (TSK). The TSK has the second largest force after the U.S. within NATO at around 800,000 personnel -while also having one of the largest defense budgets.
General Metin Gurak, the head of the communications department of the Turkish General Staff said the TSK had neither the necessary specialized personnel nor the equipment to carry out the de-mining work and that the TSK suggested NAMSA should do the job (Anadolu Ajansi, May 23). Moreover, the General Staff initiated a plan in the late 1990’s to clear the Turkish border of mines. But owing to the high costs involved combined with the lack of advanced equipment, it requested that the government should instead coordinate the de-mining activities. The finance ministry then established a committee composed of representatives from the relevant ministries to formulate a new strategy on how to clear the mines.
Under the Ottawa Convention to which Turkey became a party in 2003, the remaining 1,804,205 APM’s out of 2,690,929 placed along the Turkish border regions should be cleared by 2014. The Turkish Defense Minister Vecdi Gonul confirmed that there are currently APM’s placed along the country’s borders with Syria, Iraq, Iran and Armenia as well as around some critical military facilities (Sabah, May 17).
There are also an unspecified number of APM’s which have been deployed by the outlawed Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) as part of its conflict with the Turkish security forces in the Kurdish dominated southeast, mostly along the Turkish border with Iraq.