Supporters listen to the speech by Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan during a rally for the upcoming referendum in Istanbul, Turkey.
(photo credit: REUTERS)
Kurds living along the borders of Iran, Iraq, Syria and Turkey have been subjected to torture, humiliation and massacres since antiquity. It is thus ironic to note that the leaders of Shiite Iraq and Sunni Turkey warned Kurdish leader Masoud Barzani, president of Iraq’s autonomous Kurdish region in Northern Iraq, against holding last month’s referendum on Kurdish independence. The nearly 30 million Kurds are widely known as the largest oppressed ethnic group on Earth.
During the reign of Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein, some 50,000 Kurds were massacred by chemical weapons during the 1980s. Nevertheless, Iraqi Kurds managed to establish regional autonomy in 1992 in northern Iraq, after the United States enforced a no-fly zone there following the Gulf War in 1991.
During the same period, however, Kurdish rebel leader Abdullah Ocalan took up arms against Turkey in a bid for autonomy, that has been vigorously opposed by President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who has designated the rebel Kurdistan Workers Party, known as the PKK, as terrorists.
Since 1984, nearly 40,000 people have lost their lives in the conflict – half of them Kurdish freedom fighters – while hundreds of thousands of villagers were displaced.
Turkish Kurds still lack autonomy, while Erdogan claims to have provided greater tolerance for Kurdish cultural activities.
The Turkish constitution denies Kurds basic democratic rights.
Moreover, this past July two Kurdish parliamentarians lost their seats after being charged of alleged association with the PKK. Both of them belonged to the People’s Democratic Party. Additionally, 16 mayors were summarily removed recently in Turkey accused of connections with the Kurdish Workers Party.
The self-determination of peoples is enshrined in international law, including in the charter of the United Nations. Self-determination is also included in two international covenants on civil, political, and economic rights formed in 1966.
Barzani declared on September 26 that the Kurdish people had unanimously voted for independence the day before, but international opinion is divided on the status of the referendum. While the Trump administration has sided with Iraq and Turkey, the US’s closest ally, Israel, supported the referendum.
Some leaders feel that secession could escalate the region’s instability.
The US State Department announced on September 26 that “We believe this step would increase instability and hardships for the Kurdistan region’s people, while a secession bid would greatly complicate the Kurdish region’s ties with the central Iraqi government as well as the country’s neighbors.”
The semi-autonomous Kurdish region of northern Iraq is largely peaceful, prosperous and democratic in nature. Having discovered its own oil reserves, Barzani’s government has come under increasing pressure to share the wealth with its violent southern neighbor. There are several foreign consulates in the Kurdish capital of Erbil. Bangladesh, Pakistan and Ukraine have proposed opening consulates.
The emerging Kurdistan has its own security forces, the Peshmerga, which has spearheaded the assault to drive out ISIS from Kirkuk and has taken control of several big oil fields there as well. Over the last few years, the Peshmerga in cooperation with US armed forces drove out ISIS fighters from many places in Syria.
It is ironic that Erdogan sheds crocodile tears for the Rohingya Muslims being ethnically cleaned in Myanmar, while he pursues Turkey’s Kurdish ethnic minority. It is time for the international community to acknowledge an independent Kurdish state.The writer is a retired diplomat from Bangladesh who lives in Falls Church, Virginia.