Reservoir of Sleaze

The British Government is underwriting Turkey’s ethnic cleansing programme.

By George Monbiot. Published in the Guardian 23rd December 1999

Injudicious as Neil Hamilton’s misdemeanors were, they were only the flotsam on the tide of Tory sleaze. Houses were boarded up to change voting patterns, false certificates were used to evade arms embargoes and palms were greased to help secure foreign contracts.

Conservative corruption left such a broad tideline that it isn’t easy to say where the highwater mark was. But many would choose a story which resulted in the most humiliating legal verdict any recent British government has faced: the Pergau dam scandal. The Tory administration, being determined to secure contracts for both its arms manufacturers and the construction company Balfour Beatty, misdirected some £200 million to finance a white elephant dam in Malaysia, through an obscure funding mechanism called the Aid and Trade Provision.

If, somehow, you managed to miss this drama, don’t worry. The whole intriguing tale is now being repeated by a government near you. The Labour administration, being determined to secure contracts for both its arms manufacturers and the construction company Balfour Beatty, has misdirected some £200 million to finance a white elephant dam in Turkey, through an obscure funding mechanism called the Export Credit Guarantee Department.

There is, however, one critical difference. The primary purpose of the Pergau dam, like that of most major construction, was to provide lucrative work for large companies. The Ilisu Dam in Turkey will certainly fulfill this function. Like Pergau, it will also provide some electricity, though not, of course, as much as forecast. But the main purposes of the Turkish government’s project are quite different. The first is to hold Syria and Iraq to ransom by controlling the flow of the River Tigris. The second is to assist its ethnic cleansing programme.

The ancient city of Hasankeyf is one of the most important archaeological sites on earth, continuously inhabited for 10,000 years, bearing the remains of nine distinct civilisations. The Kurds regard the city as their cultural heartland. Turkey sees it as an emblem of resistance. When Hasankeyf and surrounding settlements are drowned by the dam, some twenty thousand Kurds will be forced from their homes and moved into model villages in which they can be monitored and controlled. Our government, which went to war in the spring to stop ethnic cleansing, is, in the winter, underwriting it.

It is not hard to see why. European leaders have just agreed that Turkey can join the union: one result will be valuable contracts for British companies if the government can forge strong commercial links with the Turkish administration. Turkey has recently doubled its military budget, partly in order to complete its destruction of the Kurds. British companies see the country’s defence sector as a massive potential market.

The Labour government’s involvement in the Ilisu Dam may be the biggest corruption scandal in western Europe, but you could be forgiven for having missed it. The decision was, it seems, to have been announced on Christmas Eve, but when the Hamilton verdict broke, the government seized its chance. The headline on the press release it distributed indicated only that Stephen Byers, the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry, had released reports about the dam. To rushed news editors frantically clearing space for the Hamilton story, it must have looked like a routine and deathly dull announcement. Only halfway down the press release was notice given that Mr Byers was “minded to grant” the project government backing. A story which should have been at the top of the bulletins was, by most outlets, either missed or excluded altogether. The Labour government, in other words, has successfully hidden its own corruption behind a tale of Tory sleaze.

The reports on which the government’s decision is supposed to have been based provide a compelling case for taking precisely the opposite course. They show that most local people object to the dam, that no provisions have been made for adequate compensation, that the project has been attended by an information black-out, that it threatens fish species found only in the Tigris, and could poison the water downstream. The “consultation” and “informed consent” the reports insist must take place before the project goes ahead are a sick joke in a region in which dissent is ruthlessly crushed and people are imprisoned and tortured simply for speaking their own language. As the Kurdish Human Rights Project has documented, nineteen villages in the area due to be flooded have already been evicted at gunpoint and destroyed. Instead of insisting that human rights are respected and the environment is defended, the British government is relying on assurances from the Turkish authorities, which are about as dependable as Neil Hamilton’s memory.

Silenced by Turkey’s repression, the Kurds are a half-forgotten, disposable people. Our government has wrapped them up and handed them over to big business. Christmas presents seldom come so generous.