The Forgotten Dilemma in Iraq – what future for the Kurds?

In amongst all the talk from all sides over the last couple of years about freedom and the future for Iraq, there has been surprisingly little about the specific situation and uncertain future for the Kurdish people, a significant section of who live in the north of Iraq, and what impact their strong long-standing desire for self-determination may have on the future prospects of Iraq.

The most open Parliamentary supporter of independence for the Kurds has been Liberal Senator Ross Lightfoot. Unfortunately, the controversy over his alleged behaviour during a visit to the region is probably the most specific media coverage touching on the Kurdish issue in recent times. I wrote at the time that I was worried about possible damage that controversy might have on the credibility of the Kurds’ desire for self-determination, which is a totally separate matter from whether or not Senator Lightfoot did anything wrong on his visit.

On Tuesday I attended and spoke at a conference in Brisbane organised by the Kurdish community in Australia to look at the prospects for genuine self-determination for Kurds. I’ve had some contact with members of Brisbane’s Kurdish community over the years. They are valuable members of our society in Australia who also maintain a strong interest in the cause of self-determination for their people and I believe it is important that their concerns are more widely heard and understood.

The Kurds are the largest ethnic group in the world without a recognised nation of their own, with up to 40 million Kurdish people estimated to live in the area traditionally defined as Kurdistan, which covers areas currently governed by Turkey, Iran, Iraq and Syria.

It is unclear what the future will be for the semi-autonomy that Kurds achieved in northern Iraq following the first Gulf War. The election of a Kurd, Jalal Talabani, to the position of President of Iraq also creates something of a paradoxical dilemma for the many Kurds who still aspire to an independent nation.

One little-reported aspect of the Iraqi elections was the simultaneous unofficial referendum conducted in tents outside official polling booths by a Referendum Committee established by a group of Kurdish intellectuals and independent politicians who are concerned that if the Kurds become too involved in Iraqi politics, they will compromise their autonomy and lose the chance of an independent Kurdistan. According to this report, over 98% of those who voted supported an independent Kurdistan over Kurdistan being a part of Iraq, although I don’t know what the percentage of eligible voter turnout was.

On the other side of the spectrum, some Kurdish leaders criticised the Referendum Committee, arguing that it impaired the credibility of the Kurdish leadership at a time when there was a need to speak with one voice. These divergent views illustrate clearly that there is no uniform consensus among Kurds about the best way forward – and that is just in the context of Iraq. If we add the views of Kurds living in Iran, Turkey and Syria, the picture gets even more complex.

The fact that there are so many different ideas about the best way to pursue independence illustrates that the right to self-determination is almost always exercised in a highly politicised context. The goal of independence is clear, but there are often different views about how to get there. This reflects the experiences of minority groups all around the world and demonstrates some of the challenges associated with the right to self-determination.

However, none of the difficulties should be used as an excuse to say “it’s all too hard” and drop the issue all together unless a majority of the Kurdish people should decide to forgo the issue themselves.

The very first article of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights states that:

“All peoples have the right of self-determination. By virtue of that right they freely determine their political status and freely pursue their economic, social and cultural development. ..”

Yet, although self-determination is universally recognised as a fundamental human right, it does not exist in a political vacuum and, as Rupert Emerson, argued more than 40 years ago:

“…All too often self-determination is a right to be defended in lofty terms when it is politically advantageous and to be rejected when it is not…”

Emerson’s observation is as accurate today as it was when he originally made it. In today’s world, there are more than 2000 thousand ethnic groups but fewer than 200 States. The list of conflict situations involving the right to self-determination is extensive.

The right to self-determination is relevant to minority groups all over the planet – from West Papuans to Palestinians to Tibetans. In our own region, we have witnessed the formation of one of the world’s newest nations – Timor-Leste – and despite the joy associated with finally achieving their independence, we are all too acutely aware of the high price that the Timorese paid. However, I imagine if the Timorese people were to be asked today whether they would still have pursued independence if they had known how much bloodshed would result, they would still give a resounding ‘yes’.

Time after time, the evidence shows that the right to self-determination has become stifled by politics and almost impossible to exercise. It is in urgent need of attention, debate and a renewed commitment to ensure that it is not merely an unrealisable concept.

The answer to this question, I believe, can be found in the very nature of the right to self-determination. It has been argued that some human rights are absolute, while others are not. Indeed, this notion is found enshrined in legislation in different parts of the world. Without wanting to delve into a debate about the correctness of that approach, I think it is clear that, whatever way you look at it, the right to self-determination is, and must be, an absolute right.

It is not a right which can, or should be, balanced against competing interests or watered down to accommodate those interests.

However, I believe there are two significant considerations which apply when considering the right to self-determination. The first of these is whether the right actually applies in a particular situation. For this reason, it is important that we have a very clear definition of the right to self-determination. The fact that we have a fuzzy concept of when the right of self-determination applies contributes enormously to the difficulty associated with exercising the right.

Having a clear definition of self-determination – a clear, basic threshold of circumstances when it applies – is very different from saying that the right to self-determination needs to be balanced against competing political interests. If the right to self-determination applies to a certain group of people, then it applies regardless of the political sensitivities of existing sovereign states.

The second consideration involves a sober assessment of the cost associated with exercising the right to self-determination. Obviously this does not mean monetary cost, as the pursuit of independence often involves violence and loss of life. By making this point, I am not trying to suggest that the right to self-determination should only ever be exercised where it can be done so completely peacefully. Rather, I am simply saying that where minority groups are considering exercising their right to self-determination in the face of opposition from powerful sovereign states, the cost of addressing the injustice they have suffered will naturally be a relevant consideration and it is imperative that the international community do all it can to ensure peaceful approaches to resolving the problem.

As history demonstrates, even in the example of Timor-Leste that I mentioned earlier, a desire for self-determination is often so acutely felt by groups who have suffered injustices that they are willing to pay the high price associated with exercising that right.

It is important to recognise, however, that it is the people in whom the right is invested who must ultimately make that assessment, whilst obviously being supported in eschewing violence to achieve that aim.

My intention in delving a little deeper into the concept of self-determination is to illustrate the fact that, although it is an unequivocal and absolute human right, its exercise is almost always fraught with complex political challenges – particularly if there is more than one group or nation claiming rights to the same land.

As an international community, our response to these challenges must not be to water down the right to self-determination. Rather, we should be engaging in vigorous debate about how to overcome the challenges. If, as an international community, we accept that the right to self-determination is an absolute right, we are more likely to come up with creative solutions to ensure that all people to whom the right applies are able to exercise it as peacefully as possible.

Most existing nation states would only be able to stifle the right to self-determination of those within their borders if they receive political support from others in the international community. It would be near impossible for any nation state to prevent a particular people’s aspirations for independence if the international community unanimously supported those aspirations.

Unfortunately, the political reality is that we live in a world in which international affairs are so often determined by a handful of powerful states and the right to self-determination is so often subject to the interests of those states.

My intention in exploring this issue is to illustrate that the right to self-determination is an issue for all peoples around the world, whether we are in the process of seeking to exercise that right or not. That is why it is equally important for us to be discussing issues of self-determination in Australia today as it is for Kurds on the other side of the world.

It is only in a context in which the international community supports and recognises self-determination as a fundamental human right that those seeking to exercise it will be able to do so without unnecessary loss of human life.

As the world’s largest nation without a state, and with many political obstacles and challenges ahead, these issues are obviously of critical importance to the Kurds. Too often the international community has shied away from issues affecting the Kurdish community because they have seemed too complex to tackle. That should never be a reason for ignoring the rights and aspirations of any group of people.

This is an important and pivotal time in Kurdish history and, despite the many challenges and differences of opinion, there is certainly reason to hope that issues affecting the Kurdish people now have a chance to receive more attention than they have in the past.

*I acknowledge major assistance from Jo Pride in the preparation of this piece

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  1. Andrew,
    I agree with you that the issue of self-determination for peoples has been one of the most important issues in international relations over the last century. If I remember correctly, Woodrow Wilson thought that the way to avoid another disaster such as WWI was to encourage peoples to assert their national self determination so they could look after their own interests in autonomous national states. As you write here, people’s rights have been used politically for different purposes and with sometimes violent outcomes. You recognise that there needs to be an adequate theoretical approach to differentiate the IR mush so that we can find non-violent ways that facilitae self-determination for groups of people who identify with each other. This is only a spontaneous post to your blog, not a researched paper, so my comments will no doubt omit things that only a prolonged dialogue could tease out. My comments do not refer specifically to the situation of the Kurdish people.
    I think that the topic of people’s self-determination is understood in too narrow terms. A modern state is bound to a limited extent of territory – physical and fixed. A modern state has, in theory, the sole right to the legitimate use of force – again physical: there’s nothing cultural about a spinning bullet.
    We are also physical bodies, but there is something else about humans as well. We have language, culture – blah blah you know all this…
    Another thing about a person is that while we may stand there, one singular person, we are the result of the union of two different people. Some people may be able to claim a lineage that has only derived from one ethnic group, but many more in our modern world could not. I don’t think that full membership to a modern nation state should be predicated on such criteria. (Yesterday I watched Downfall and we all had to laugh during the marriage ceremony – especially because the answer for Hitler was possibly in the negative.)
    The peoples we wish to associate with and the groups we identify with are largely cultural constructions. They have a history and we know them historically. Sure, we may feel very strongly about this, because this is our identity – who we are. But the reductive step to link a singular person to only one singular nation is, I think, too narrow. It also confuses what is understood as being physical with what is cultural. It can reduce people to the status of ‘things’.
    I have rambled on before about states and individuals – see my blog if you are interested. But I see liberal democratic states as providing the space where we are free to associate with who ever we please and organise politically for our benefit. Self-determination for peoples belongs to a time when politics was a winner-takes-all system of authoritarian power. I don’t doubt that Iraq is that kind of a place – and the invasion hasn’t changed that aspect of it.
    These are just a few thoughts. Please feel free to comment. Last year I started a course in international relations, but I walked out before finishing the first semester because I thought it was inherently authoritarian and that the ‘discipline’ was not in the academic aspects. Weasel word warren…

  2. Andrew, Iraq remains a key issue, no question about that, but what about the rumblings over Iran? Much of the debate is being ignored in Oz, and indeed in the US. Are we being led into a military confrontation with Iran? Let’s bloody hope not.
    Read this for a backgrounder of what’s really going on, pressure from Israel and its proxies in Washington (you couldn’t make this stuff up!):

  3. I think the Taiwanese deserve the right to self-determination. On one level of course, it is a right all should have (it is enshrined at the start of the ICCPR after all). But in regard to the specific group of people, I think the people of Taiwan should have should have a right to determine what nation they should be part of and (within reason) on what terms.
    It does highlight how we need to do better in defining what we mean when we talk about self-determination – using it as a noble sounding right without defining what we mean is not much help to anyone, and quote possibly a hindrance.

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