By SETH J. FRANTZMAN
On Thursday the UN Security Council voted unanimously to express concern about the Kurdish referendum scheduled for September 25. The UNSC “expressed concern over the potentially destabilizing impact of the Kurdistan regional government’s plans to unilaterally hold a referendum next week…The planned referendum is scheduled to be held while counter-ISIL (Daesh) operations — in which Kurdish forces have played a critical role — are ongoing.” It sought “dialogue and compromise.” It follows condemnation of the vote by UN Secretary General Antonia Guterres on September 17. Guterres claimed “any unilateral decision to hold a referendum at this time would distract from the need to defeat ISIL.” He also urged “constructive compromise.”
In a normal world
In a normal world the rights of the Kurds of northern Iraq, who have run an autonomous region for two and a half decades, to vote on independence would be supported. It’s just a vote. In a normal world the victims of genocide, like the Kurds, who suffered grievously at the hands of Saddam Hussein in the 1980s, would receive a right to determine their future.
It’s perplexing how almost the entire world, including almost every western democracy, has united against a referendum on independence. Dozens of countries that speak often about “democracy” have come together against democracy. Dozens of countries who celebrate their own independence day and who fought colonialism, have supported keeping the Kurds inside a country that many of them do not want to be part of. They not only support keeping them in Iraq, but not even letting them have a vote to say they want to leave.
In recent decades countries such as Kosovo, South Sudan and East Timor have received independence, often after referendums. In addition western countries have recognized referendums as a legitimate process in their own countries. There was a referendum in Quebec in 1995, in Catalonia in 2014, in Scotland in 2014, and a UK referendum to leave the EU in 2016. That is just the beginning of a long list. Montenegro had a referendum in 2006, Bermuda 1995, Curacao 1993, Eritrea 1993, Bosnia 1992 and fourteen states, including Ukraine, had referendums in 1991. Norway had a long drive for separation from Sweden that ended with a 1905 referendum. Puerto Rico has had five referendums on independence. Many of the states that have opposed the Kurdish referendum have supported all these referendums and even played a role in them.
In a normal world many states would support Kurdish rights to vote. They would at least not oppose it. However this is not a normal world. There is a hypocritical stance by many western democracies against having democracy in other countries. Democracy and independence is treated as an ever-more exclusive club. This is clear in Spain’s recent treatment of Catalan attempts to have a referendum. Police raids, fines, and everything possible has been done to frustrate their efforts, including berating them as “disobedient.”
A normal world would support independence for Kurds, but this world is still living in the shadow of colonialism and many former colonial powers still refuse to admit that local people have the right to change the borders they imposed on the world. Colonial powers drew most of the borders of Africa, and many borders in the Middle East and Asia. Every time local groups have sought to change these borders, the former colonial powers have been horrified. This has also led to mass killings as happened in Biafra in the 1960s as people are forced to live within countries that they were never given the right to decide whether they want to be a part of. Many conflicts have been sparked by these colonial borders. For instance the ongoing conflict in Kashmir is a result of them, so are many of the issues affecting the Middle East, and conflicts in the Caucuses, the horn of Africa and the Sahel. The unwillingness to allow for self-determination has led to conflicts in Cyprus and the Western Sahara. The long suffering of East Timor was caused by them. The area in Myanmar where Rohingya are fleeing was annexed to Burma after British colonial rule ended. It had once been autonomous. Colonizers often shoe-horned groups into states without asking them, and then left those countries with simmering ethnic conflict. Sometimes that conflict has led to genocide, as in Sudan and Rwanda. It has also led to mass killings and ethnic-cleansing in many places. The obsession with the “unity” and “sovereignty” of artificial states, such as the former Yugoslavia, led to ethnic conflict.
In a normal world none of this would have to happen. States would be allowed to go their own way as the Czechs and Slovaks did. People would decide, as the Scots did. Countries wouldn’t have to wage long, bloody, independence wars. Why keep people in a country they don’t want to be in? If a group has run an autonomous region, why force it to remain. The UN Security Council ignored the Kurdish suffering under Saddam Hussein, yet today the same UNSC rallies around attempts to prevent a Kurdish vote? Why didn’t it prevent Saddam from gassing 180,000 and the destruction of 4,000 villages? Why does the UN and western democracies rush to stop a vote, but not to stop genocide?
A history of hypocrisy
On September 20 the US State Department also released a statement “strongly opposed” to the referendum. It claimed that “all of Iraq’s neighbors, and virtually the entire international community, also oppose this referendum. The United States urges Iraqi Kurdish leaders to accept the alternative, which is a serious and sustained dialogue with the central government, facilitated by the United States and United Nations, and other partners, on all matters of concern, including the future of the Baghdad-Erbil relationship.” It threatened the Kurdistan Regional Government that if it did not back down the “international offer of support for negotiations will be foreclosed.” In addition “the referendum may jeopardize Iraqi Kurdistan’s regional trade relations, and international assistance of all kinds.” Sounding a kind of neo-colonial note, it claimed that the referendum was unnecessary since the US had endorsed an “alternative path.”
This is the third US condemnation of the Kurdish referendum in a week. On September 14th Brett McGurk, Special Presidential Envoy for the Global Coalition To Counter ISIS, said in Erbil “this is not just the United States’ position, it’s the position of the entire international coalition that I help lead. All these countries have come to us and said, you know, they do not support this.” He claimed “there is no international support for the referendum, really, from anybody. To have the legitimate process, you want to have observers, you want to have the United Nations, you want to have international legitimacy. And there is no international legitimacy for this process.” On September 15th the White House also said it did not support did not support the referendum.
On September 15 US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson addressed the Community of Democracies in Washington and said that it was important to support emerging democracies. The United States often gives lip-service to democracy, but when it has come to the Kurdish referendum the US has stood on the side of Iran, on the side of totalitarian states, countries that imprison the most journalists, monarchies and sectarian militias in its statements says one reason to oppose the Kurdish referendum is because all its “neighbors” do.
Many of the members of the UN Security Council that condemned the referendum all know the meaning of independence. Uruguay, for instance, had a long independence struggle that began in 1811 under José Gervasio Artigas, However the country did not receive independence until 1828. The country fought brutal wars with its neighbors and internal civil conflict until the 1850s. Egypt was nominally declared independent in 1922 but had to struggle for decades to free itself from colonial rule. Bolivia also began its independence struggle in 1809 but had to wait until 1825 to gain full independence. Bolivia is named for Simon Bolivar, the independence hero of part of Latin America. Ethiopia also had to struggle for freedom against numerous attempted colonization attempts, particularly the Italians in the 1930s. Senegal and Kazakhstan also know the need for independence. Ukraine, fighting its own war against separatists, knows the dangers of foreign rule that it suffered during the Soviet era. Italy, once a collection of warring states that were often taken over by outsiders, had its own risorgimento in the 19th century.
The permanent members also know not only the struggle for independence, but also have a responsibility, due to their own role in colonialism, to support independence and self-determination. The US most famously declared independence in 1776. If it had applied it’s own demands on Kurdistan to its Second Continental Congress of 1776 it would not have declared independence. The US declaration against a great power was “risky” and it did not involve enough “constructive dialogue.” It was also “unilateral” and involved “disputed areas.” Yet, the Americans went ahead with it.
Read the lines of the US Declaration of Independence and consider how closely it fits the Kurdish aspirations.
“When in the course of human events, it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another, and to assume among the powers of the earth, the separate and equal station to which the Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God entitle them, a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to the separation.
-US Declaration of Independence,
Historically the US has historically supported self-determination in places like Kosovo, South Sudan and East Timor. It was at yhe heart of Woodrow Wilson’s policy on entering the First World War. Franklin Roosevelt ensured that self-determination was a key part of the Atlantic Charter signed with the United Kingdom in 1941, and a guiding principle of the Second World War. In general the US recognized and supported the independence of new states during the end of colonial rule, increasingly under John F. Kennedy’s caveat of “support any friend, oppose any foe.”
The UK opposition to the Kurdish vote is particularly ironic, considering its own Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson supported the UK referendum of Brexit that sought to leave the EU. Johnson said that Brexit was “about the right of the people of this country to settle their own destiny.” The UK has presided over the independence of many of its former colonies, and has recognized for decades the right of people to seek independence. The UK has recognized newly independent states, such as Kosovo. The Russian Federation has also supported numerous small statelets as independence, such as South Ossetia, Abkhazia and Transnistria. If Russia can support the separatist rights of groups in Ukraine, why not stand by the self-determination of the Kurds. Ukraine, which had its own referendum in 1991, has opposed the Kurdish vote at the UN.
The right of groups like the Kurds to seek independence is even enshrined in the United Nations Charter which states “friendly relations among nations based on respect for the principle of equal rights and self-determination of peoples.” UN General Assembly resolution 1514 of 1960 says that all peoples have the right to self determination and “to freely determine their political status.”
Reasons to support Kurdish independence
Besides general reasons, such as self-determination, which other countries have sought in the world and which is enshrined in the UN charter, there are numerous specific and historical reasons to support Kurdish rights to have a vote.
The Kurdish region was incorporated into the modern state of Iraq in the early 1920s. It was an area of unrest during the 1920 Iraq rebellion and contested by the modern state of Turkey that claimed Mosul. The British brought a King for Iraq who was not from Iraq and proclaimed a Kingdom and then “independence” in 1932. King Faisal wanted Mosul and the Kurdish areas in Iraq to bolster the demographics of Sunnis in his new state. By 1926, when the Permanent Court of International Justice at the Hague ruled that Mosul would remain part of Iraq, the British had succeeded in pacifying it. The local people, Kurds or Arabs in Mosul or Turkmen in Tal Afar and Kirkuk, were never asked if they wanted to be part of a new country called Iraq.
Given the legacy of colonialism, it is only reasonable that Kurds should be allowed to decide their future, one denied them in 1920. This is particularly true because they suffered such abuses at the hands of Iraq.
The Kurdish Regional Government has been a region of stability since the mid-1990s, after its brief civil war. It has built international airports, and modern cities, from the ruins of what Saddam Hussein was forced out of in 1991. It has brought in foreign investment and, before the rise of ISIS, tourists flocked to the region. In the post-2003 Iraq it played a key role in helping fight the insurgency and creating an area of peace free from the mass ethnic-cleansing and sectarian killings of other parts of Iraq.
Unlike the rest of Iraq which seeks to ban alcohol and increasingly has pro-Iranian Shia sectarian militias, the Kurdish region has welcomed millions of IDPs who fled ISIS and also the sectarian killings in other parts of Iraq. In 2015 IDPs made up 35% of the Kurdish region. The region hosted not only IDPs but also has been the one place in Iraq where diversity and minority communities have grown since the 1990s. Unlike Mosul which was cleansed of Christians and Yazidis and other groups, the Kurdish region has had diversity and welcome Christian and Yazidi IDPs who fled ISIS. None of this is without its own internal political disputes and controversies. But given the track record of the rest of Iraq, one would think the Kurdish region should be praised and supported in its desires. It isn’t a source of instability, but stability.
The reason for opposition to Kurdish aspirations has much to do with the 2003 invasion. In many ways the US invasion was good for the Kurdish region and the region has benefited since. However because the US views itself as taking on the mantle of the British of 1920, fixing Iraq and fixing the Middle East in a fit of neo-colonial Orientalism, the Kurds cannot be allowed to leave Iraq or that will put a failing mark on US policy. US policy failed twice in Iraq since 2003, first during the insurgency when the “surge” had to be brought in, and again in 2014 when the US, having left, had to return to aid Iraq against ISIS. The US sees Kurds as burden because it expects to take them for granted and have them be “obedient” and not make demands. They are expected to provide stability and security and diversity and democracy, and then be held to higher standards, whereas the rest of the Iraq, where there are anti-American militias, where there is ethnic-cleansing and genocide and sectarianism, is in need of US support and aid. This is the catch-22 hypocrisy of western policy. The more democratic and stable a country, the more it is viewed as “in the way’ as the West seeks to aid “failed” and “ungoverned” areas.
The naive way the US viewed Iraq in 2003 can be read in the “tour” reports of some of those first to drive around Iraq for the US policymakers. In 2004 one cable notes “Thanks to extensive work by the Coalition Provisional Authority, USAID and U.S. military forces in the area, the USG has developed excellent working relationships with local tribal and political leaders. A visit by Kirkuk Embassy Regional Office PolOffs on July 15 to two of these villages – Rashad and Yaychi – shows how villagers are adjusting to life after transition.” There is a neo-colonial feeling here. But one can imagine the despair when these areas fell under al-Qaeda and then ISIS. So that means rather than wanting to spend to support the Kurds, the US spends political and economic capital on areas that continue to fall under extremism. The more an area is pro-Iran, the more the US wants to work with it under the theory it can be “brought back.” That is why US administrations in 2008 and after kept warning the Kurds not to seek independence or “lose everything.” They have more to lose, so threats like this worked.
Today the rulers of Baghdad have transitioned from Arab nationalist Ba’athist rule to pro-Iranian rule. The Kurds are still the “other.” Instead of working with the “other,” the US is tethered to Baghdad. It has tried to provide some assistance to the Peshmerga through salaries and training. But the idea is that in return for that assistance, Kurds are not supposed to act “unilaterally.” Baghdad of course can work closely with Iran and do as it wants. Even though the US officially opposes Iran, in Iraq it sees Iran as more of a constructive role and has legitimated this puzzling situation.
After so many years, don’t Kurds deserve a chance to vote on their future? Why are western democracies opposing that right, especially when some western countries played a key role in the colonialism that forced Kurds to live in Iraq and deny them choice 100 years ago?
In a normal world, the Kurds would be supported in their independence desires, the ones every other group in the world has sought. But this is not a normal world.