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The Kurdistan Region - A Case for Independence

School children walk through the streets of downtown Erbil to support a call for a referendum on Kurdish independence.
School children walk through the streets of downtown Erbil to support a call for a referendum on Kurdish independence.

By Shahla Al Kli

The International Relations discipline is filled with theories that explain the conditions of recognizing a state as an official member of the international system. Yet, depending on the context of the global politics, not all the functioning states are recognized, and not all the failed political entities are stripped of their statehood. The Kurdistan Region is an important example of such functioning state that, though it has stronger internal legitimacy and external sovereignty than some regional cases such as Iraq, Syria, and Yemen, yet still lacks the international legal recognition.


Despite the numerous theories on what makes a state, the ability of a political entity to a) consolidate an internal legitimacy through state-building and nation-building and an external sovereignty through advancing viable foreign relations, b) administrate a liberal market economy with the capacity to enter to international trade agreements, and c) adhere to the international human rights values, are what most scholars agree on to be the basic criteria in granting international recognition.


These criteria have become especially important after the experience of the de-colonization process during the 1960s. A process that has granted statehood through juridical international recognition to many political entities in Africa and Middle East, before most of these entities were able to establish sound governing institutions, political and social coherent values, or avow their external sovereignty independent from the scaffolding of the international doctrine of non-intervention. De-colonization linked recognition to a legal juridical action, rather than a sequential (eventual outcome) resulting from/dependent on the empirical capabilities of states to consolidate and protect their territorial sovereignty. In most cases, this process has produced failed states, dictatorships, and autocracies.


State Recognition was again articulated as being contingent on solid criteria in the post-Cold War era, particularly in the Charter of Paris in 1992 and the Vienna Declaration in 1993. In these documents, the EU has outlined its principles for admitting the quasi-states of the Balkans and Eastern Europe into the international system after the collapse of the Soviet Union. The major criteria were to: 1) hold free and fair elections; 2) establish a multi-party parliamentarian system; 3) adhere to human and minority rights mandates; and 4) adopt a free market policy to administrate the economy.


Like the rest of the world’s quasi-states, especially those in the Caucasus, the Kurdistan Region used the Charter of Paris in 1992 and Vienna declaration in 1993 as a road map in pursuing its independence. The Kurdistan region emerged for the first time as an official separate political entity in 1991, with the implementation of United Nations SCR 688. Immediately after the establishment of the no-fly zone, the Kurdish leadership called for free elections to legitimize the local political leadership and change yesterday’s rebels into today’s state builders. This step served to differentiate the region from the regime in Baghdad, which had been internationally denounced as a dictatorship.


According to the quasi-states literature, the Kurdistan Region is a clear case of a quasi-state. In terms of government structure, the Kurdistan Region has a local government—the KRG, as well as a local parliament —the Kurdistan parliament—which develops laws and regulations independent of the Iraqi Council of Representative (ICOR). The Kurdistan Region also has its own judicial system which operates independently from the Iraqi courts and is headed by the Kurdistan Judicial Council. The Kurdistan region also maintains its own independent Department of Foreign Relations (DFR) with a mandate to promote the interests of the Kurdistan Region and its people, and with minimal coordination with the Iraqi embassies.


Militarily, the Kurdistan Region has its own military force—the Peshmerga—which conducts itself independently from the Iraqi government. The Peshmerga forces are administrated solely by the Ministry of Peshmerga, serves in many aspects as Ministry of Defense. The sovereignty of Kurdistan Region over its own military forces was further consolidated during the fight against ISIS. For example, on July 12, 2016, the U.S. directly signed a military agreement with the KRG under the auspice of President Barzani. In addition, the Region also receives direct military support from several EU members such as Germany, France, and Sweden.


Economically, the Kurdistan Region administrates its own economy, international investments, and natural resources through its Board of Investment, Ministry of Natural Resources, Ministry of Trade and Industry, and Ministry of Finance and Economy. These institutions administrate the local economy and enter into international trade and energy deals independently from the Iraqi economic institutions. In addition, the KR has entered into several financial deals and development programs with the World Bank, UNDP, IMF and EU.


In terms of the development of an educational system and Media independently from Iraq, the Kurdistan Region is quite advanced. Taught in Kurdish, the education system is independent from the Iraqi government and implements its own separate school system and curriculum, which follows the European and international standard in its pedagogical approach. Likewise, the media in the Kurdish region works independently from the Iraqi Media Network and broadcast their content in Kurdish rather than Arabic.


However, the quasi-state of Kurdistan Region differs from the other quasi-states in several major ways. While it has not declared independence, it has consolidated a positive internal legitimacy and territorial and political positive sovereignty, as well as a collective international soft recognition that no other quasi-state has achieved, despite that they have declared independence. For example, while many of the Caucasus quasi-states have been recognized by one or two patron states, typically Russia, the Kurdistan Region is softly recognized and dealt with as a full sovereign entity by the US, UK, EU, Russia, Turkey, Iran, the Gulf and Arab states and UN humanitarian agencies. It receives official visits by UN Secretary General, President of France, President of Turkey, American Vice President, EU and special envoys from the Pope. This is in addition to Germany, Italy, U.S., Canada, and other states’ ministers of foreign affairs and defense. These visits are treated as state official visits. The President of the Kurdistan Region, Masoud Barzani, is received in major international capitols with official and presidential protocols as well.  



Additionally, the process of political transition in the quasi-state of the Kurdistan Region provides an excellent example of the changing nature of the criteria used by the international community in determining the sovereign legitimacy of a political entity. The changes in the political platform of the Kurds—from Kurdish nationalism using armed conflict against the central government, to state- and nation-building using operational normative ideals such as human rights, and adopting free elections—depicts the change from the moral basis for the Kurdish demands (based on self-determination and minority rights) to the political and empirical basis. This further demonstrates that the Kurdistan Region has politically adapted to the modern interpretations of the concepts of sovereignty and legitimacy needed to gain international recognition and enter the inter-state system.


In today’s Middle East, the international community faces several monumental challenges: Transnational terrorism, the Syrian civil and proxy wars, Yemen’s plight, and above all the deeply rooted sectarian and ethnic rifts to name a few. These challenges cannot be brushed off by the wasted effort to keep the status quo, sticking to the outdated policies of holding to the myth of Iraq or Syria as states.


The ultimate objective of world order and international community is to restore peace in this volatile yet strategic region of the Middle East. In order to do that, the international community should be ready to deal with on ground-functioning political entities that proved a degree of success in their political development, and can contribute to the peace and stability of the region. The idea of wasting the loss in people’s life, and time and effort to reinstate what is already evaporated – e.g. Iraq- while ignoring what is already materializing as viable solution for the historic dilemma of the Kurdish issue will only lead to further anarchy, conflict, and jeopardize the regional security for years to come.


Shahla Al Kli is a PhD candidate at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy and former senior adviser at the Kurdish Parliament from 2010-2013. 


Kurd from Wan | 30/9/2016
It is great article! With all the achievements now we wish to see our country on the map. Our flag in Olympic Games. Our Kurdish people earn to be people proud with their identity all over the world!
FAUthman | 25/10/2016
This is a powerful article, it has made in my opinion by far the best case for independence of the Kurdistan region of Iraq that I have read! Of course we still have our concerns, nevertheless this is a very thorough persuasive statement for independence!Hope you get your PhD soon Mr. Al Kli. Thank you, sorry I did not have the chance to read your piece until now!
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