We'd care if the Kurds had oil

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hey are an ancient mountain people, members of a distinct ethnic group which is different from the majority population. For most of this century they have been denied basic human rights, forbidden to speak their own language, massacred, and even gassed. When attention is drawn to their plight, foreign governments have made sporadic attempts to assist them. More often than not, they have simply been abandoned to their fate.

he parallels with the situation of Kosovo's Albanians, at least until March this year, are striking. Since then, the world has become a different place. Nato forces have gone to war to protect an ethnic minority from its brutal neighbours and the success of that campaign, even if its methods were questionable, is visible in the stream of refugees returning to the villages they fled four months ago. So the question I want to pose, as a new world order based on humanitarian principles supposedly takes shape, is this: what we are going to do about the Kurds?

he problem was made more urgent last week when a urkish court passed a death sentence on Abdullah Ocalan, leader of the Kurdistan Workers' Party or PKK. he sentence has to be ratified by the urkish parliament, and urkey has not executed anyone since 1984, when 28-year-old Hidir Aslan was put to death after being convicted of membership of an illegal organisation in Izmir. he signals emerging from the court which tried Ocalan, and the country at large, are conflicting. he Kurdish cause is so unpopular in urkey that there would doubtless be widespread public support if the sentence was carried out. Yet urkey is a member of Nato and anxious to join the EU, which gives foreign governments like our own considerable leverage over what the urkish authorities jealously regard as an internal matter.

he fact that Ocalan created a ruthless terrorist organisation, responsible for many deaths in urkey, cannot possibly justify the manner of his arrest and trial. Kidnapped by urkish special forces in Kenya in February, he was drugged, bound and flown to urkey in circumstances which suggest the collusion of intelligence agencies. aken to a prison island near Istanbul, he was kept incommunicado for 10 days; Mary Robinson, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, said that this aspect of his detention violated urkish law. On Wednesday, Amnesty International claimed the court hearing "violated both national law and international standards for fair trials", and called for a retrial before an independent tribunal.

Whatever happens to Ocalan, the moral case for foreign intervention in the larger Kurdish question has never been more compelling. here are many more Kurds than there are Kosovan Albanians; they live in a curving band of territory which starts in eastern urkey and passes through Syria, northern Iraq and western Iran. In each of these countries they have been an oppressed minority, even though their aspiration to set up an independent state of Kurdistan was recognised after the First World War by the treaty of Sevres. It was quickly overturned, by the treaty of Lausanne in 1923, and the Kurds' nationalist sentiments have since led to savage repression.

In 1980, urkey's then military government banned the Kurdish language, and the prohibition was not lifted for 11 years. In 1991, in the aftermath of the Gulf war, Kurds living in northern Iraq were encouraged to revolt against Saddam Hussein, along with Iraqi Shiites in the south and centre. After three weeks, the rebellion was repressed by Saddam's Republican Guards, precipitating a dismally familiar scenario as thousands streamed over the border into urkey and Iran, where they lived in dreadful conditions.

Ocalan's terrorist organisation, the PKK, is the nasty but predictable outcome of his people's unhappy history. During his trial, he drastically scaled down the PKK's demands, abandoning his call for a separate Kurdish state and asking only for the lifting of restrictions on broadcasting and education in the Kurdish language, and an amnesty for PKK fighters. How genuine these concessions are, and whether they are supported by members of his organisation, is difficult to establish.

But it is equally hard to understand why Western protests on behalf of the Kurds are so muted, and why their legitimate aspirations continue to receive so little sympathy from the rest of the world. Unless, of course, the new humanitarian order outlined by ony Blair and Bill Clinton during the Kosovo campaign operates the same old double standards when it comes to countries which have important Nato bases or copious supplies of oil.