Kurdistan and its independence referendum

The international community has called the right to self-determination as a human right, but what about the Kurds?

A KURDISH Peshmerga soldier holds a Kurdistan flag during an intensive security deployment after clashes with Islamic State militants. (photo credit: REUTERS)
A KURDISH Peshmerga soldier holds a Kurdistan flag during an intensive security deployment after clashes with Islamic State militants.
(photo credit: REUTERS)
The Kurds in Northern Iraq (South Kurds) have announced a referendum on the independence of Kurdistan since June, which will take place on September 25. Iran and Turkey have positioned themselves against this referendum and its implementation.
How, however, could the political-legal and economic framework conditions of a future state of Kurdistan emerge after this referendum? There has never been a democratic, self-constituted state of Iraq, which as a state has completely failed: there was neither the political will, nor was Iraq able to protect its own population from massacres, expulsions and genocide. Attempts to force peaceful coexistence of the different ethnic groups (Kurds, Arabs, Turkmen) and the dominant religious communities (Sunni, Shi’ite) cannot succeed. It is obvious that these peoples do not want to continue to live together, and it is not in the interest of the religious minorities (Yezidis, Christians) either.
The South Kurds have already established a de facto state of Kurdistan in their own region since the 1990s.
It is amazing, but this “state of Kurdistan” already offers its population greater stability, coherence and peace than the two most important neighbors in the Middle East: Iran and Turkey.
The right to self-determination of peoples is an imperative right. It says that every nation has the right to freely decide its political status, its form of government and its economic, social and cultural development.
All members of the international community have undertaken to respect and recognize this right as part of international law. It is thus for the people of Kurdistan alone to decide how they want to exercise their right of self-determination.
In this context, it is important to mention that the Kurds are regarded as the world’s largest people without a state of their own. The absence of such a state is the real reason the Kurds were victims of numerous massacres, millions of expulsions and many genocides. The division of the Kurds to four countries (Iraq, Iran, Syria and Turkey) not only prevents them from developing their language and culture, but also places them in the position of a threatened national minority, subordinated to the Arabs, Persians and Turks.
The establishment of a Kurdish state therefore appears to be the solution to their problem, and is consistent with international law. However, not all Kurdish sub-populations are currently seeking such a state, and even the “Iraqi” and “Syrian” Kurds are in deep political conflict with each other. Nevertheless, in any case, for the people of the Kurdish part of Iraq, the development of their own “Republic of Kurdistan” represents the best solution; it promises a future without long-term conflicts with the Sunnis and Shi’ites.
Moreover, because of the diversity of the ethnic groups in Iraq and their traditional enmity, a Kurdish state could pacify a large part of present-day Iraq.
Because of its size and the practical experience gained by the Iraqi Kurds during the past decades, such a state appears to be viable and represents a prospect of peace and freedom for its inhabitants.
None of the neighboring states is a democracy in the Western sense. Turkey is not because it does not respect the principle of division of power, or no longer respects it. Iran is not because it has introduced Islamic Sharia law. How should the “democratically impoverished Kurds” in the Middle East form a viable democracy protecting minorities? Here, not least the Kurds in Europe and in the US could contribute their experience and put forth their influence on the constitution of the new state of Kurdistan.
Only a modern constitution, which explicitly incorporates all minorities of Kurdistan as equals and, above all, protects them positively, will work for such a state.
However, the regional powers, especially Turkey and Iran, are not prepared to recognize an independent Kurdistan. A Kurdistan which genuinely defends democratic values is not in the interest of these countries.
Above all Iran wants to prevent the planned referendum from ever taking place.
The leaders in Turkey and Iran are concerned that the Kurds in their territory could also seek further autonomy, or even their own state, if the South Kurds proclaim their own after a successful referendum. However, unlike the South Kurds, the “Turkish Kurds” (Northern Kurds) have not yet shown any apparent interest in their own state. Since 1990 the PKK has been pursuing autonomy for Kurds within Turkey. The same is true of the Kurds in Iran. It is, however, to be assumed that a future independent Kurdistan would also promote division among the Kurds in neighboring countries.
This raises the question as to whether the new state of Kurdistan could lead to the destabilization of its neighbors.
Iran and Turkey are, therefore, well advised, apart from their international obligation to protect minorities, not to give their Kurdish minorities any cause for segregation. But neither Iran nor Turkey take their respective duties seriously, instead they are repressing the Kurdish minority.
The question of whether these two countries can mobilize the loyalty of the international community to themselves and their possible actions against the new state will be decisive for its future.
In any case, an independent Kurdistan would largely be at the mercy of its unfriendly and unequally powerful neighbors Iran and Turkey. The Islamic Republic of Iran and the Republic of Turkey have already explicitly spoken out against the announced referendum. Turkey has repeatedly referred to the Kurdish referendum as a serious mistake with unpredictable consequences, and has called on the political leadership of the South Kurds to cancel the referendum.
The same Turkey has been bombarding Southern Kurdistan for decades, poisoning the ecological foundations of the country. Iran is involved in these bombardments, albeit to varying degrees. In the meantime, more than two-thirds of the Kurdish civilian population has been expelled from the border regions of Turkey, Iran and Iraq.
Even among the Kurds, fears are widespread that Kurdistan is largely defenseless with respect to its militarily superior neighboring states. It is true that Israel, the strongest military power in the Middle East, has largely the same security interests as a Kurdish state against an Arab, increasingly religious environment, but Israel would hardly turn to direct confrontation with Iran or Turkey (still a NATO state!) in favor of the young state.
Israel has clearly expressed its sympathy for the Kurdish cause, but is also exposed to a rising threat from the Iranian presence in Syria. In this difficult situation, Israel will hardly be involved in a potentially military conflict in favor of the Kurds. Realistic aid from Israel to Kurdistan would therefore only be possible if the existence of that state were recognized. Then, and not only in the area of agriculture and water management, the Kurdistan population could receive valuable and even decisive aid from Israel.
Kurdistan itself is rich not only with oil and natural gas, but also with well water – even more valuable and scarce in the Middle East. With technical expertise from Israel and the gradual industrialization of the country – and with sufficient water – a future independent Kurdistan would not have to fear for its existence in the region.
IT WAS the Kurdish Peshmerga which August 2014 left the defenseless Yezidi population in and around Shinjar before the attacks of Islamic State. A hitherto unlikely failure in the sorrowful Kurdish history. The circumstances of this incident, which led to the genocide and subsequent expulsion of the Yezidi, are still unresolved; the responsible persons have not yet been brought to account. Nevertheless, an independent Kurdistan, whose military they would be part of, would be in the interests of the Kurdish Yezidis and other religious minorities, including the Christians. This would at least provide the opportunity for better self-defense in the future.
It is not foreseeable whether the historically religionand politically-motivated disputes between the Sunnis and Shi’ites in Iraq will ever come to an end. Because of the Sharia law applicable in Iraq, equal treatment of minorities and Muslims is not possible; thus there is missing an essential prerequisite for peaceful coexistence.
The ethnic and religious minorities in Kurdistan would be better off in a free, independent Kurdistan.
While Sharia law, which is contrary to human rights, is one of the sources of legislation in Iraq, the emerging Kurdistan is a secular community oriented toward Western frontiers of democracy and rule of law. The minorities living in Kurdistan would have the greatest degree of security and the best chances of self-determined development in such a democracy. However, the actual introduction of a secular democracy would be a compelling requirement. This new state must therefore commit itself in advance, notably to the protection of human rights.
Many ethnic groups and minorities live in Kirkuk.
Historically, Kirkuk is a Kurdish city, but many Arabs still live there because of Saddam Hussein’s settlement policy. Therefore, Kirkuk, with its oil wealth, is a cause of disagreement and a great safety risk. However, the security problems and the conflicts over Kirkuk between the Arabs, Turkmen and Kurds could be significantly mitigated: a special status for this city and region should be created.
This could be achieved through transparent and consistent quotas and the joint search for modern democratic solutions in a free Kurdistan.
Under these circumstances, Kurdistan could become an important stability and peace factor in this region of the Middle East. The minorities mentioned could also develop much better than in Iraq. The EU now has the possibility to put an end to its present “dualism” and to provide material support for or at least recognize the future Kurdistan, which is friendly toward it. On the issue of the defense of democratic values, the Western states cannot rely on the continually evading Turkey, which has already introduced important provisions of the Sharia (so-called jihad doctrine), or on Iraq, which is governed by the mullahs’ regime in Tehran.
In addition, Kurdistan would be much more reliable for the West than the current NATO partner Turkey. It is above all Turkey which did not or did not want to provide the necessary logistical support to the anti-ISIS coalition forces. After the same Turkey, for political and religious reasons, initially destabilized Syria for the first time and intervened militarily there for almost a year, it was looking for a suitable way to get out of the North Atlantic pact. Iran is in any case an enemy of the West.
The author is an expert on international law, minority issues and migration.