As Iraqi crisis haunts the Kurds, double standards in the principle of self-determination come to the fore

“What is good for the goose is good for gander” – English Proverb

It is fast approaching 100 years since US President Woodrow Wilson issued his 14 points at the end of the First World War with the concept of self-determination the overriding principle that he imposed on the League of Nations and the Middle East.

Wilson stated in January 1918 that “The Turkish portion of the present Ottoman Empire should be assured a secure sovereignty, but the other nationalities which are now under Turkish rule should be assured an undoubted security of life and an absolutely unmolested opportunity of autonomous development”.

Wilson later warned that “Self-determination is not a mere phrase. It is an imperative principle of action, which statesmen will henceforth ignore at their peril….”

For imperial interests at the time, Kurdistan was the only major nation not to be granted statehood. The Treaty of Sèvres in 1920, which proposed a Kurdish state, was later annulled by the Treaty of Lausanne in 1923.

A secret deal between UK Foreign Minister Sir Mark Sykes and France Foreign Minister Francois Georges-Picot that divided the Middle East has somehow become unbreakable even if it lacked real socio-political or ethnic basis or mirrored realities on the ground.

Remarkably, close to a century later, the Kurds remain the largest ethnic group in the world without a state.

Self-determination is one of the key international charters and by which repression, imperialism and subjugation is eradicated and free will of nations is attained.

Arabs have fiercely campaigned and struggled for the establishment of Palestine and the 22nd Arab state in the Middle East that they see as a historic wrong, yet many oppose the establishment of a single Kurdish state.

The principle of self-determination

At the end of World War II, the ratification of the United Nations Charter in 1945 placed the right of self-determination into the framework of international law and diplomacy.

The United Nations Charter states that nations based on respect for the principle of equal rights and fair equality of opportunity have the right to freely choose their sovereignty and international political status with no external compulsion or interference.

Chapter 1, article 1, part 2 clearly states that purpose of the UN Charter is “to develop friendly relations among nations based on respect for the principle of equal rights and self-determination of peoples, and to take other appropriate measures to strengthen universal peace.”

Self-determination is also protected under the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights as a right of “all peoples.”

The Iraqi struggle

With Iraq engulfed in yet more sectarian flames, the renewed Kurdish bid for independence is met with resistance, caution and obstacles. Ironically, while the ubiquitous talk has been of the Kurds breaking away from Iraq, thanks to the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) and the marginalisation and centralist policies of Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, it is Iraq that is breaking away from the Kurds.

Yet the Kurds are been asked to put the brakes on any move towards self-determination and save Iraq and Maliki.

The Unite States helped mask some of the post Saddam Hussein realities by acting as the crutches to support an Iraq that was broken and could not stand on its own two feet.

Here is the problem, what good is a comprehensive constitution, democratic frameworks, concessions and promises if the end product is failed implementation, by-passed legislature, half-hearted unity and empty gestures?

Today Kurdistan has a fundamental and unmolested right to two clear options. Either a truly democratic, federal and balanced Iraq or outright independence. Since the first option has all but eroded, outright independence remains the only real option.

What do you need to be independent?

While other countries, some with populations numbering in the thousands and others gripped with immense poverty and a lack of infrastructure dot the global horizon, the Kurds are warned to tread carefully or that their time has not come.

Some claim that Kurdistan does not have the infrastructure or conditions for statehood but just how much infrastructure does Palestine or Kosovo have compared to the Kurds?

Kurdistan is washed with immense amounts of oil, with a booming economy, a vibrant population and all the trappings of any state. It is a key strategic hub of the Middle East and with the influence and standing to play a key part in the evolution of the Middle East.

Have the Kurds spilled countless blood, tears and tragedy to now return to centralist rule in Iraq or to have terms dictated upon them by other groups?

At the first seismic shifting of the Middle East after the fall of the Ottoman Empire, the Kurds were sidelined and had to painfully endure decades of suffering for their chance to rewrite the wrongs of history. They can ill-afford to be passengers as the evolutionary trains darts past this time around.

Is Kosovo really a “Special Case”?

The ruling by the International Court of Justice in 2010, the first case of secession raised before the World Court, declared that Kosovo’s declaration of independence was in fact legal and did not contravene international law.

Key global powers in support of Kosovar rights have continuously pointed to the notion that Kosovo was a special case, that since Serbia’s brutal campaign had forfeited right to govern Kosovo by “breaching its responsibility to protect” its civilians under international law, the Kosovar’s were free to choose not to reside with their Serbian counterparts.

This paved the way to implement a roadmap orchestrated by United Nations envoy Martti Ahtisaari, which proposed a scheduled transition to independence.

By this virtue, after brutal campaigns of genocide, repression and even chemical bombings, Iraq has long “forfeited” any sovereign right over Kurdistan.

U.S. President George W. Bush deemed that “history will prove this to be a correct move to bring peace to the Balkans.” Whilst a UK government statement deemed the Kosovar move as the “most viable way forward”.

U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice called the situation “a special case” for reasons such as “…Yugoslavia’s breakup, the history of ethnic cleansing and crimes against civilians in Kosovo, and the extended period of U.N. administration.”

However, whilst Albanians already have a country of their own (Albania), the Kurds have nothing. The struggle to establish a ‘Kosovar’ identity in the aftermath of statehood is well documented. At the time of independence, Kosovar’s had yet to build a distinctive national image with a lack of an official flag, security force and national anthem. After all, it was the greater Albanian flag that was ubiquitous on every corner of Pristina.

Bids for independence

South Sudan followed in the heels of Kosovo by declaring statehood in 2011 after a referendum (ironically, despite statements by Barrack Obama to the contrary, a referendum was never held in Kosovo).

Crimea broke away from Ukraine and was annexed by Russia within weeks in a hastily arranged referendum.

Not to mention Scotland’s independence referendum scheduled for September as they vote to break away from the United Kingdom or Catalonia’s bid to break away from Spain.

All the while, international community worry about what precedence is been set for the likes of Cyprus, Somaliland, Nagorno-Karabakh, South Ossetia, Abkhazia and Transnistria.

Can the case of 40 million ethnic Kurds without a homeland be compared to relatively small breakaway regions whose ethnicities is already linked to independent states?

New Kurdish push for independence

Kurdistan President Massaud Barzani recently declared his intention to hold a referendum on independence from Iraq. Barzani stated that “everything that’s happened recently shows that it’s the right of Kurdistan to achieve independence.”

Barzani added “From now on, we won’t hide that that’s our goal. Iraq is effectively partitioned now. Are we supposed to stay in this tragic situation the country’s living? It’s not me who will decide on independence. It’s the people. We’ll hold a referendum and it’s a matter of months.”

Kurdistan Head of the Department of Foreign Relations, Falah Mustafa Bakir, warned “there is a new reality and that requires a new policy and a new approach.”

Meanwhile, for Bayan Sami Abdul Rahman, the Kurdistan Regional Government’s High Representative to the UK, it “would take a lot for Kurdistan to remain part of Iraq.”

The statement from Barzani had the United States and some Western powers scrambling. White House spokesman Josh Earnest stated “The fact is that we continue to believe that Iraq is stronger if it is united.”

US Secretary of State, John Kerry had reportedly told Barzani “‘whatever your aspirations are for your future, your interests now in the near-term are for a stable, sovereign and unified Iraq.”

Even as some major powers warm to the idea of Kurdish independence, they have treaded carefully around the diplomatic line. As talk of Kurdish independence accelerated, Philip Hammond, UK Defence Secretary, towed the same line as the US, affirming that the government’s position was to keep Iraq as a unified state.

Yet Iraq has failed to be united and will never achieve such a feat especially with the new reality of the Islamic State.

Some politicians have been more vocal in supporting Kurdish independence, in an exclusive interview with Rudaw, UK Labour MP, Mike Gapes, stated “It would be better for the terms and timing and degree of separation to be negotiated and agreed but ultimately the Kurds have the right to self-determination.  The UK and US should respect the will of the people expressed in a democratic referendum.”

Other analysts have warned of the dangers of any separation, Peter Harling of the International Crisis Group, told Rudaw “the Kurds are now in a situation where self-determination becomes less a function of their own course of action than Iraq’s general breakdown. This may reduce the price to pay for secession, ultimately. But that price remains steep given the remarkable benefits the Kurds currently derive from their relations with Baghdad, Ankara and Teheran. Actual partition likely would negatively affect all three.”

Egypt’s President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi warned a referendum on the independence of Iraq’s Kurdish region would lead to a “catastrophic” break-up of the country, yet the same Arab leaders have vehemently supported Palestine inspite of decades of bloodshed.

Obsessed with the unity of Iraq, it seems that the US and regional powers have missed the pieces of Iraq already lying broken on the floor.

First Published On: OpenDemocracy

Other Publication Sources: Various Misc

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