Kur­dis­tan and its ref­er­en­dum for in­de­pen­dence

Jerusalem Post - - COMMENT & FEATURES - (Reuters)

The Kurds in North­ern Iraq (South Kurds) have an­nounced a ref­er­en­dum on the in­de­pen­dence of Kur­dis­tan since June, which will take place on Septem­ber 25. Iran and Tur­key have po­si­tioned them­selves against this ref­er­en­dum and its im­ple­men­ta­tion. How, how­ever, could the po­lit­i­cal-le­gal and eco­nomic frame­work con­di­tions of a fu­ture state of Kur­dis­tan emerge af­ter this ref­er­en­dum?

There has never been a demo­cratic, self-con­sti­tuted state of Iraq, which as a state has com­pletely failed: there was nei­ther the po­lit­i­cal will, nor was Iraq able to pro­tect its own pop­u­la­tion from mas­sacres, ex­pul­sions and geno­cide. At­tempts to force peace­ful co­ex­is­tence of the dif­fer­ent eth­nic groups (Kurds, Arabs, Turk­men) and the dom­i­nant re­li­gious com­mu­ni­ties (Sunni, Shi’ite) can­not suc­ceed. It is ob­vi­ous that these peo­ples do not want to con­tinue to live to­gether, and it is not in the in­ter­est of the re­li­gious mi­nori­ties (Yezidis, Chris­tians) ei­ther.

The South Kurds have al­ready es­tab­lished a de facto state of Kur­dis­tan in their own re­gion since the 1990s. It is amaz­ing, but this “state of Kur­dis­tan” al­ready of­fers its pop­u­la­tion greater sta­bil­ity, co­her­ence and peace than the two most im­por­tant neigh­bors in the Mid­dle East: Iran and Tur­key.

The right to self-de­ter­mi­na­tion of peo­ples is an im­per­a­tive right. It says that ev­ery na­tion has the right to freely de­cide its po­lit­i­cal sta­tus, its form of govern­ment and its eco­nomic, so­cial and cul­tural de­vel­op­ment. All mem­bers of the in­ter­na­tional com­mu­nity have un­der­taken to re­spect and rec­og­nize this right as part of in­ter­na­tional law. It is thus for the peo­ple of Kur­dis­tan alone to de­cide how they want to ex­er­cise their right of self-de­ter­mi­na­tion.

In this con­text, it is im­por­tant to men­tion that the Kurds are re­garded as the world’s largest peo­ple with­out a state of their own. The ab­sence of such a state is the real rea­son the Kurds were vic­tims of nu­mer­ous mas­sacres, mil­lions of ex­pul­sions and many geno­cides. The di­vi­sion of the Kurds to four coun­tries (Iraq, Iran, Syria and Tur­key) not only pre­vents them from de­vel­op­ing their lan­guage and cul­ture, but also places them in the po­si­tion of a threat­ened na­tional mi­nor­ity, sub­or­di­nated to the Arabs, Per­sians and Turks.

The es­tab­lish­ment of a Kur­dish state there­fore ap­pears to be the so­lu­tion to their prob­lem, and is con­sis­tent with in­ter­na­tional law. How­ever, not all Kur­dish sub-pop­u­la­tions are cur­rently seek­ing such a state, and even the “Iraqi” and “Syr­ian” Kurds are in deep po­lit­i­cal con­flict with each other. Nev­er­the­less, in any case, for the peo­ple of the Kur­dish part of Iraq, the de­vel­op­ment of their own “Repub­lic of Kur­dis­tan” rep­re­sents the best so­lu­tion; it prom­ises a fu­ture with­out long-term con­flicts with the Sun­nis and Shi’ites.

More­over, be­cause of the di­ver­sity of the eth­nic groups in Iraq and their tra­di­tional en­mity, a Kur­dish state could pacify a large part of present-day Iraq. Be­cause of its size and the prac­ti­cal ex­pe­ri­ence gained by the Iraqi Kurds dur­ing the past decades, such a state ap­pears to be vi­able and rep­re­sents a prospect of peace and free­dom for its in­hab­i­tants.

None of the neigh­bor­ing states is a democ­racy in the West­ern sense. Tur­key is not be­cause it does not re­spect the prin­ci­ple of di­vi­sion of power, or no longer re­spects it. Iran is not be­cause it has in­tro­duced Is­lamic Sharia law. How should the “demo­crat­i­cally im­pov­er­ished Kurds” in the Mid­dle East form a vi­able democ­racy pro­tect­ing mi­nori­ties?

Here, not least the Kurds in Europe and in the US could con­trib­ute their ex­pe­ri­ence and put forth their in­flu­ence on the con­sti­tu­tion of the new state of Kur­dis­tan. Only a mod­ern con­sti­tu­tion, which ex­plic­itly in­cor­po­rates all mi­nori­ties of Kur­dis­tan as equals and, above all, pro­tects them pos­i­tively, will work for such a state.

How­ever, the re­gional pow­ers, es­pe­cially Tur­key and Iran, are not pre­pared to rec­og­nize an in­de­pen­dent Kur­dis­tan. A Kur­dis­tan which gen­uinely de­fends demo­cratic val­ues is not in the in­ter­est of these coun­tries. Above all Iran wants to pre­vent the planned ref­er­en­dum from ever tak­ing place.

The lead­ers in Tur­key and Iran are con­cerned that the Kurds in their ter­ri­tory could also seek fur­ther au­ton­omy, or even their own state, if the South Kurds pro­claim their own af­ter a suc­cess­ful ref­er­en­dum. How­ever, un­like the South Kurds, the “Turk­ish Kurds” (North­ern Kurds) have not yet shown any ap­par­ent in­ter­est in their own state. Since 1990 the PKK has been pur­su­ing au­ton­omy for Kurds within Tur­key. The same is true of the Kurds in Iran. It is, how­ever, to be as­sumed that a fu­ture in­de­pen­dent Kur­dis­tan would also pro­mote di­vi­sion among the Kurds in neigh­bor­ing coun­tries.

This raises the ques­tion as to whether the new state of Kur­dis­tan could lead to the desta­bi­liza­tion of its neigh­bors. Iran and Tur­key are, there­fore, well ad­vised, apart from their in­ter­na­tional obli­ga­tion to pro­tect mi­nori­ties, not to give their Kur­dish mi­nori­ties any cause for seg­re­ga­tion. But nei­ther Iran nor Tur­key take their re­spec­tive du­ties se­ri­ously, in­stead they are re­press­ing the Kur­dish mi­nor­ity.

The ques­tion of whether these two coun­tries can mo­bi­lize the loy­alty of the in­ter­na­tional com­mu­nity to them­selves and their pos­si­ble ac­tions against the new state will be decisive for its fu­ture.

In any case, an in­de­pen­dent Kur­dis­tan would largely be at the mercy of its un­friendly and un­equally pow­er­ful neigh­bors Iran and Tur­key. The Is­lamic Repub­lic of Iran and the Repub­lic of Tur­key have al­ready ex­plic­itly spo­ken out against the an­nounced ref­er­en­dum. Tur­key has re­peat­edly re­ferred to the Kur­dish ref­er­en­dum as a se­ri­ous mis­take with un­pre­dictable con­se­quences, and has called on the po­lit­i­cal lead­er­ship of the South Kurds to can­cel the ref­er­en­dum.

The same Tur­key has been bom­bard­ing South­ern Kur­dis­tan for decades, poi­son­ing the eco­log­i­cal foun­da­tions of the coun­try. Iran is in­volved in these bom­bard­ments, al­beit to vary­ing de­grees. In the mean­time, more than two-thirds of the Kur­dish civil­ian pop­u­la­tion has been ex­pelled from the bor­der re­gions of Tur­key, Iran and Iraq.

Even among the Kurds, fears are widespread that Kur­dis­tan is largely de­fense­less with re­spect to its mil­i­tar­ily su­pe­rior neigh­bor­ing states. It is true that Is­rael, the strong­est mil­i­tary power in the Mid­dle East, has largely the same se­cu­rity in­ter­ests as a Kur­dish state against an Arab, in­creas­ingly re­li­gious en­vi­ron­ment, but Is­rael would hardly turn to di­rect con­fronta­tion with Iran or Tur­key (still a NATO state!) in fa­vor of the young state.

Is­rael has clearly ex­pressed its sym­pa­thy for the Kur­dish cause, but is also ex­posed to a ris­ing threat from the Ira­nian pres­ence in Syria. In this dif­fi­cult sit­u­a­tion, Is­rael will hardly be in­volved in a po­ten­tially mil­i­tary con­flict in fa­vor of the Kurds. Re­al­is­tic aid from Is­rael to Kur­dis­tan would there­fore only be pos­si­ble if the ex­is­tence of that state were rec­og­nized. Then, and not only in the area of agri­cul­ture and wa­ter man­age­ment, the Kur­dis­tan pop­u­la­tion could re­ceive valu­able and even decisive aid from Is­rael.

Kur­dis­tan it­self is rich not only with oil and nat­u­ral gas, but also with well wa­ter – even more valu­able and scarce in the Mid­dle East. With tech­ni­cal ex­per­tise from Is­rael and the grad­ual in­dus­tri­al­iza­tion of the coun­try – and with suf­fi­cient wa­ter – a fu­ture in­de­pen­dent Kur­dis­tan would not have to fear for its ex­is­tence in the re­gion. IT WAS the Kur­dish Pesh­merga which Au­gust 2014 left the de­fense­less Yezidi pop­u­la­tion in and around Shin­jar be­fore the at­tacks of Is­lamic State. A hith­erto un­likely fail­ure in the sor­row­ful Kur­dish his­tory. The cir­cum­stances of this in­ci­dent, which led to the geno­cide and sub­se­quent ex­pul­sion of the Yezidi, are still un­re­solved; the re­spon­si­ble per­sons have not yet been brought to ac­count. Nev­er­the­less, an in­de­pen­dent Kur­dis­tan, whose mil­i­tary they would be part of, would be in the in­ter­ests of the Kur­dish Yezidis and other re­li­gious mi­nori­ties, in­clud­ing the Chris­tians. This would at least pro­vide the op­por­tu­nity for bet­ter self-de­fense in the fu­ture.

It is not fore­see­able whether the his­tor­i­cally re­li­gio­nand po­lit­i­cally-mo­ti­vated dis­putes be­tween the Sun­nis and Shi’ites in Iraq will ever come to an end. Be­cause of the Sharia law ap­pli­ca­ble in Iraq, equal treat­ment of mi­nori­ties and Mus­lims is not pos­si­ble; thus there is miss­ing an es­sen­tial pre­req­ui­site for peace­ful co­ex­is­tence.

The eth­nic and re­li­gious mi­nori­ties in Kur­dis­tan would be bet­ter off in a free, in­de­pen­dent Kur­dis­tan. While Sharia law, which is con­trary to hu­man rights, is one of the sources of leg­is­la­tion in Iraq, the emerg­ing Kur­dis­tan is a sec­u­lar com­mu­nity ori­ented to­ward West­ern fron­tiers of democ­racy and rule of law. The mi­nori­ties liv­ing in Kur­dis­tan would have the great­est de­gree of se­cu­rity and the best chances of self-de­ter­mined de­vel­op­ment in such a democ­racy. How­ever, the ac­tual in­tro­duc­tion of a sec­u­lar democ­racy would be a com­pelling re­quire­ment. This new state must there­fore com­mit it­self in ad­vance, no­tably to the pro­tec­tion of hu­man rights.

Many eth­nic groups and mi­nori­ties live in Kirkuk. His­tor­i­cally, Kirkuk is a Kur­dish city, but many Arabs still live there be­cause of Sad­dam Hus­sein’s set­tle­ment pol­icy. There­fore, Kirkuk, with its oil wealth, is a cause of dis­agree­ment and a great safety risk. How­ever, the se­cu­rity prob­lems and the con­flicts over Kirkuk be­tween the Arabs, Turk­men and Kurds could be sig­nif­i­cantly mit­i­gated: a spe­cial sta­tus for this city and re­gion should be cre­ated.

This could be achieved through trans­par­ent and con­sis­tent quo­tas and the joint search for mod­ern demo­cratic so­lu­tions in a free Kur­dis­tan.

Un­der these cir­cum­stances, Kur­dis­tan could be­come an im­por­tant sta­bil­ity and peace fac­tor in this re­gion of the Mid­dle East. The mi­nori­ties men­tioned could also de­velop much bet­ter than in Iraq. The EU now has the pos­si­bil­ity to put an end to its present “du­al­ism” and to pro­vide ma­te­rial sup­port for or at least rec­og­nize the fu­ture Kur­dis­tan, which is friendly to­ward it. On the is­sue of the de­fense of demo­cratic val­ues, the West­ern states can­not rely on the con­tin­u­ally evad­ing Tur­key, which has al­ready in­tro­duced im­por­tant pro­vi­sions of the Sharia (so-called ji­had doc­trine), or on Iraq, which is gov­erned by the mul­lahs’ regime in Tehran.

In ad­di­tion, Kur­dis­tan would be much more re­li­able for the West than the cur­rent NATO part­ner Tur­key. It is above all Tur­key which did not or did not want to pro­vide the nec­es­sary lo­gis­ti­cal sup­port to the anti-ISIS coali­tion forces. Af­ter the same Tur­key, for po­lit­i­cal and re­li­gious rea­sons, ini­tially desta­bi­lized Syria for the first time and in­ter­vened mil­i­tar­ily there for al­most a year, it was look­ing for a suit­able way to get out of the North At­lantic pact. Iran is in any case an en­emy of the West.

The au­thor is an ex­pert on in­ter­na­tional law, mi­nor­ity is­sues and mi­gra­tion.

ON THE way to in­de­pen­dence? A row of Kur­dish Pesh­merga ve­hi­cles dur­ing the Mo­sul of­fen­sive last year.

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