Head of Kurdistan Region Foreign Relations Department, Falah Mustafa.
We want to have good neighbourly relations with our neighbours based on respect and understanding and mutual benefit. Second, we never were a source of threat to any country. And we do not allow our territory to be used against any of our neighbours. Third, we have never and we will never interfere in the internal affairs of the Kurds in other parts.
On September 25, people of the Kurdistan Region will go to the polls to answer the question, ‘Do you want an independent Kurdistan’?
Rudaw sat down with Falah Mustafa, head of the Kurdistan Regional Government’s (KRG) Department of Foreign Relations, to talk about what this historic vote means for the Region’s foreign relations and Kurds living outside the country.
The following interview with Falah Mustafa has been edited for length.
Rudaw: Can Kurds in the diaspora, including groups like Faili Kurds in Baghdad, serve as ambassadors for the Kurdistan?
Falah Mustafa: Well, certainly. This is a national issue. It’s an issue for every single individual in Kurdistan and we do want to communicate that message - that we have had a tragic past, we want to secure a better future. Each individual can be an ambassador for Kurdistan.
In this part of the world the quest for independence is never easy. It’s risky and it needs mobilization of forces and also communicating that message and finding friends and partners around the world in order to support you. We do need to mobilize our people here, those who live in Kurdistan Region. But certainly not only our Kurds in diaspora, in Baghdad or other parts of Iraq, but also other Iraqis - elite, political groups, civil society - so that they understand this is not done in order to create animosity. It’s done to create peaceful co-existence. It’s done so that we can be partners as two good neighbours. To explain to them that we are a different nation. We have the same rights as they have. Having been with Iraq for so long, we have not felt full-time or full-fledged Iraqis. We have not felt that we were treated equal. That’s why we wanted to take this step towards Kurdistan independence in order to live equal to other nations.
And, for us, it’s important that the Kurdish community in Baghdad and other parts of Iraq that they exist, they support and also they lobby for this. They communicate with their neighbours, with their friends, with their families, so that they understand that we are a peaceful nation. We want to live in peace. And we want to put an end to this relationship that does not work. It’s an awkward relationship.
To answer your question, yes, the diaspora community can play an important role. And we, our expectation is that they would be engaged from today until the time the referendum is carried out and also the independence is reached, for every citizen of Kurdistan Region, those who are in or out, to play their role because we want people to be owners of this process. We want to give a sense of ownership to every single citizen of Kurdistan.
Does the KRG have a responsibility to advocate for the rights of Kurds outside the Kurdistan Region?
We have a responsibility to advocate for the rights of all the communities who live in Iraq. And, in fact, if we go back to the times of drafting of the constitution, we stood very firm on ensuring freedom of religion, freedom of faith, and respect for the national and religious or ethnic and religious communities. So, therefore, we stand for tolerance and we stand for every community who is living with us, regardless of the size of the community.
For us, the Chaldean, Assyrian, Syriac, Christian community, the Yezidi Kurds, the Shabak, and the Faili Kurds, they’re all important components of our society. When we talk about Kurdistan, we mean all of them. So everybody who lives on Kurdistan soil is part and parcel of this land and we want them to be part of that.
Definitely we advocate, we try to defend their rights and also secure their rights, be that in Kurdistan or until the moment that we are with Iraq.
A Faili Kurdish man in the south of Iraq we spoke with on the phone did not want to speak on the phone. He was very afraid, he said he can’t be heard to speak Kurdish publicly.
It’s unfortunate that the politics in Iraq has turned this way. We were expecting that after 2003 we would all start a new beginning, a new chapter in the history of Iraq. And we were very serious about that. We thought that we in Kurdistan have suffered from the regime which was in power. The Shias in the south suffered from the same regime. And we thought that we had a kind of a partnership or an alliance, because we fought against the same regime. But unfortunately, the politics turned a different way, that whoever is standing against Kurdistan Region or to talk against the aspirations of the people of Kurdistan would get support and votes. And that’s dangerous. Because we need to stand for peaceful co-existence. We may differ, we may agree or disagree, but that doesn’t mean that we have to go to war.
It’s our responsibility to fight for the rights of all people of Kurdistan, whether they are in or out of this Region. The same applies for those who are in diaspora, outside of Iraq, I mean. They can play an important role. But also they have been playing a role, some of them in politics, some of them in business, some of them in education, in culture. We do need to get back together in order to contribute at this stage. We need them to come back and help the society, we need them to come back and help the economy, we need them to come back to help the education system, the health system, the economic system, because they are an asset. And the leadership in the Kurdistan Region considers our communities abroad, the diaspora, as an important national asset who can contribute hugely.
The Kurdistan Region, especially if it gains independence, could be a symbol of hope for Kurds in these neighbouring countries, but you have to balance that with having good relations with your neighbours.
Look at our history. If we just go back to 1991. After the Kurdish uprising, after the Kurdish spring in 1991, we were able to introduce a new experience. We have been a factor for stability in enjoying good relations with the neighbours. We understand there have been ups and downs in these relations, but we always had clarity of vision. We want to have good neighbourly relations with our neighbours based on respect and understanding and mutual benefit. Second, we never were a source of threat to any country. And we do not allow our territory to be used against any of our neighbours. Third, we have never and we will never interfere in the internal affairs of the Kurds in other parts. Fourth, we support dialogue between Kurds and the governments of these countries so that they are able to find a peaceful solution to that question. Fifth, each part has got its own characteristics. It’s not one size fits all or a quick fix that you take this model and apply it elsewhere. That’s why we have been very realistic.
In having a balanced relationship, we want to have good relations with all our neighbours. Whether the neighbours themselves have disagreements and differences is none of our business. But we want to have a balanced relationship. Second, our relationship with these countries are not at the expense of the Kurdish population in these countries. Third, we support a solution to the question but through an understanding and a dialogue between the government and these groups. So therefore the wisdom of the leadership in Kurdistan and the clarity of vision and the clear messages that we have communicated demonstrated to all our neighbours that we are a friendly, peaceful nation.
Can you tell me about the referendum committee that President Barzani announced yesterday? Do you know about the timeline, when it will be formed and when it will be sent to the neighbouring countries?
Of course this was a very important step forward. It was a show and a good demonstration of unity, unity of purpose, unity of stand that the fifteen political parties who are in the government and parliament in Kurdistan Region together made that decision that time has come for us to conduct the referendum and for the people of Kurdistan to be given this opportunity.
First, the date was set for the 25th of September, 2017. Second, until the 12th of June, political parties do nominate their representatives into this committee. And for the political parties to work together between now and then on the internal domestic issues of parliament and government, improving the living conditions of the people, et cetera. So, therefore we believe that was a very important step and that was a very strong message that political parties in Kurdistan, regardless of their differences, they have the same objective. They are united. And the people of Kurdistan are happy that there is a sense of unity. But also, for all of us to play a role - this is history in the making. So, therefore, everybody is excited in Kurdistan about the right to self-determination, but also going to ballot boxes to make sure that they have this.
We hope that, by the timeline that has been set up, political parties would nominate their representatives and they will start working from this date.
In your meetings with officials overseas, what do they say about Kurdistan independence aspirations?
There is a lot of sympathy and support around the world for the people of Kurdistan, for Kurdish independence. We do understand the political side or the official channels or policies vis-a-vis Iraq or about stability. We have made it clear to all our friends and partners that we introduce and present independence as a solution, not as a problem. This is one. Second, an independent Kurdistan would be a factor for stability and we would be a partner for peace and stability. We are of course asking and reaching out to governments and public opinion to support Kurdish independence or the independence of Kurdistan, but we do understand the politics of it. If governments, countries are not able to support that publicly, then we do request that they will not stand against it publicly. This is one.
Second, for them to want stability it is important that when they have a partner like Kurdistan, stands for stability, for peace, for freedom, for democracy, to do the easiest, which would be to support dialogue between Erbil and Baghdad. I think that’s the right thing, to say that this is a matter for Erbil and Baghdad and we support dialogue between Erbil and Baghdad. And we support the outcome of the dialogue between Erbil and Baghdad. That would serve Baghdad, it would serve Erbil, it would serve stability, and also it will be left to Erbil and Baghdad, because this is a matter internal, for Iraqis to handle. We believe in peace, we believe in dialogue, and we believe in stability. In order to avoid problems, in order to avoid confrontations in the future, we’re presenting the independence of Kurdistan. That’s why we’re trying to reach out to our friends and partners around the world, to explain to them that we stand for peace and stability. And we are committed to that. We want to do it through peaceful means and dialogue with Baghdad. We are against violence in all its forms. Therefore, the international community has a partner in peace in Kurdistan.