The Foreign Affairs Committee inquiry into 'Kurdish Aspirations and the Interests of the UK' got off to a flying start this week with a major question and answer session with four Kurdish experts.
They were Dr. Nazand Begikhani (Senior Research Fellow at Bristol University) Professor Mohammed Ihsan (Senior Research Fellow, King’s College London and former KRG Minister), Dr. Zeynep Kaya (Research Fellow, LSE,) and Guney Yildiz (Visiting Fellow, European Council on Foreign Relations).
The initial evidence-taking session sought basic facts about the Kurds. Ihsan described them as having a “forward-looking vision, not like some other nations in the area that are digging up their past and living in their past. I find them to be life lovers and freedom lovers, culturally.” He added that since 1991, “instead of looking to Tehran, Qom, and Ankara, they were looking at London, Paris, DC—a different, liberal point of view.”
Begikhani agreed the Kurdish “identity is based on culture... and that has made them open, tolerant and moderate, ready to embrace secularism and to integrate international human rights conventions, as well as gender equality.” She added that resistance is another defining aspect and includes Kurdistani women who “have very strong characters, despite the fact that the society is very traditional and patriarchal,” and have always been considered important actors in fighting, including against jihadists.
The Committee is studying aspirations in the four Kurdistans and views on a single Kurdistan. Ihsan said that Kurdish nationalism is fragmented: “We are brothers, but we are not partners in politics... We sympathise with Kurds in Turkey and Iran. We were thinking about big Kurdistan. The new generation thinks about a piece of Kurdistan.”
Ann Clwyd, the former UK Human Rights Envoy to Iraq, focused on internal Kurdistani issues. She expressed disappointment that the Kurdish Parliament has not met for two years. When corrected about the reactivation of parliament, which approved the referendum, she said it was “only for a few days.”
Yildiz explained events before the suspension of parliament in 2015 and that extremely high political fragmentation is the main obstacle to a united Parliament that can negotiate in a democratic environment. I would add, as one who once lectured half its MPs on the workings of the UK parliament, that the Kurdistani parliament is an asset but often sidelined by more powerful politburos, and that developing its expertise is a priority.
Clwyd also raised women's rights and cited the incidence of FGM (female genital mutilation) as well as women but not men being charged with adultery. Kaya said women's rights in Kurdistan are better than Iraq thanks to legal changes after 1991, and that the KRG and policymakers “are, to an extent, genuinely trying to improve the situation but, in an institutional structure where certain practices have become very established, it is difficult to change, to turn legal changes into practice or make change on the ground.”
Witnesses also focused critically on the UK's reaction to the referendum. Ihsan said Kurds were shocked by the UK's silence since 16 October. Begikhani, who described the UK as “the midwife of the state of Iraq,” said Kurds were disappointed that the UK has been a “bystander,” rather than engage in preventing Iraqi army attacks, and stopping Iran in strengthening its bases, because “the Iraqi army would never have been able to do what it has done without the support of... Iranian-backed militia groups.”
She told MPs that “The UK should realise that this is going to lead to disaster, because the Kurds in Iraq now feel that they are taken as hostages by al-Abadi and by Iran. If we leave Iran to move further and to strengthen further its bases in Kurdistan and it weakens further the KRG, that will lead to further violence and religious and ethnic confrontation, not only in Iraq but in the whole Middle East...”
Begikhani urged UK mediation between Erbil and Baghdad and help to facilitate the return of over 2 million displaced people in Kurdistan. Ihsan said the totally untrue Iraqi excuse is they are implementing the constitution: “They are implementing corruption and power against Kurds and Kurdistan.” He appealed for “a truth-finding mission group to see what crimes have been committed in Taza Khurmatu and Kirkuk, which were not less than the crimes committed during Saddam Hussein’s time.”
Ihsan also argued that “A UK diplomat carries much more weight in these matters than any European diplomat, though not as much as a US diplomat.” It makes it essential that the UK fully understands events on the ground.
Earlier that day, Conservative MP Henry Smith asked a Commons question: “We have a lot to thank the Kurdish administration for, such as protecting minorities and its fight against Daesh in recent years. Will the Foreign Secretary speak to his counterparts in Baghdad to stop the intransigence of the federal Iraqi Government towards the aspirations of the Kurdish people for independence?”
Alistair Burt, the highly respected Middle East Minister, replied that “This has been a difficult recent chapter between the Kurdish region and Iraq. So far, because of good sense on both sides and a desire to reconcile, there has been no physical conflict at the border area. It is essential that both the Government in Baghdad and those in Erbil find a way through the present constitutional difficulties to make sure that the long-standing concerns of the Kurdish people are recognised within a united and strengthened Iraq. The United Kingdom will do all in its power to make sure we put our words to that effect.”
Maybe the minister's reference to the recent chapter refers to the period following clashes at border points, but there has definitely been violence. That seems to be over as Baghdad edges slowly towards dialogue with Erbil. But it underlines the importance of the FAC's detailed inquiry into events and how the UK might respond to Kurdish aspirations in the interests of the UK.
Gary Kent is the Secretary of the All Party Parliamentary Group (APPG). He writes this column for Rudaw in a personal capacity. The address for the all-party group is email@example.com.
The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the position of Rudaw.