How the Commons can break the silence over Halabja

The British Parliament is set to debate the political recognition of Saddam Hussein's campaign against the Kurds as genocide. With the threat of chemical weapons in Syria a declared 'red line', the need to properly understand and account for the legacy of the largest chemical attack against a civilian population remains as pressing as ever.

Halabja. The name of this small Kurdish town used to be a byword for the multiple crimes of a fascist regime - that of Saddam Hussein. Yet a new generation has come to see Iraq mainly through its experience of the intervention in 2003. Halabja and the wider genocide against the Kurds, in addition to Saddam's crimes against the people of the rest of Iraq, have been somewhat lost in the mist of time.

And that mist over Halabja was composed of sarin or mustard gas and nerve agents. Halabja was attacked by Iraqi jets on 16 March 1988 and instantly killed about 5,000 people. The initial scenes were not dissimilar to Pompeii. People were frozen in their last few ghastly seconds. Another 12,000 were hideously injured and suffer to this day, if their lives weren't shortened.

Halabja was the pinnacle of a meticulous campaign of genocide which had begun in smaller ways in the early 60s and reached a bloody crescendo in the late 80s. About 200 Kurdish communities were gassed from the air. Thousands of villages were razed to the ground, to dust in fact, and the agricultural heart of the Kurdistan Region was plucked out as wells were capped and poisoned, people shot on sight and herded into concentration camps. The figures for this deliberate effort to exterminate a people are difficult to estimate, but the last stage of the campaign in the few months between 1987-1988 is thought to have killed 200,000 people.

The genocide would almost certainly have continued if Saddam hadn't finally incurred the wrath of his former western allies which enforced a no-fly zone over Kurdistan from 1991 onwards. This allowed Kurds in their thousands to return from the freezing mountains where they had fled when their uprising was brutally crushed, along with the Shia rebellions in the south. They have since then flourished.

It is no wonder that the Kurds see both interventions, in 1991 and 2003, as liberations. But that powerful narrative forms little, if any, part of the wider debate about whether the 2003 intervention was worth it.It would be fair to criticise the intervention on two major counts. First, it was 20 or more years too late and secondly, the occupation was bodged. These arguments are deeply controversial in the current debate about the war and it is a shame that the untold story of the genocide is further obscured by writers who factor it out as an inconvenient element of the equation. But that's another story; the key point now, whatever the view on intervention, is to bear witness to this genocide and to recognise it as such.

This is not merely an academic issue nor one that can bring great comfort to the people of Kurdistan, who are anxious that they never ever find themselves in the same position again.It also has implications for other countries, which can assume that ignoring genocide is a green light to carry out similar attacks themselves. You don't have to look very far for a tyrant who may be tempted to use chemical weapons, which are a largely useless means of warfare a but perfect tool for ethnic cleansing.

The neighbouring Ba'athist dictatorship in Syria, which has already killed 70,000 people in the last two years, has stocks of chemical weapons and could find them very useful in the event of the imminent loss of power, which looks increasingly likely. Kurdish leaders feel that some of the lessons of their experience could be applied to Syria by, for instance, enforcing a no-fly zone and safe havens for the beleaguered Syrian people, who have fled in large numbers to refugee camps within Iraqi Kurdistan.

The British Parliament today has a chance to break the silence on the genocide and send powerful signals that repetition elsewhere will not be tolerated in an historic debate on the 25th anniversary of Halabja and its contemporary relevance.

MPs from the right and left of British politics will debate a motion moved by Conservative MP Nadhim Zahawi, who was born in Iraq of a Kurdish father. They are active members of the all-party parliamentary group on the Kurdistan Region, which has sent several fact-finding delegations to Iraqi Kurdistan and seeks to deepen and broaden the commercial, political and cultural relationship between the Region and the UK, which also has a large Kurdish Diaspora.

The motion formally recognises the genocide against the people of Iraqi Kurdistan and encourages governments, the EU and UN to do likewise. It says that this will enable Kurdish people, many in the UK, to achieve justice for their considerable loss and enable the UK, the home of democracy and freedom, to send out a message of support for international conventions and human rights, which is made even more pressing by the slaughter in Syria and the possible use of its chemical arsenals.

The government's view is that the British Government should not recognise the genocide but follow the example of international judicial bodies, although Iraqi judicial and political bodies have recognised Saddam's crimes as genocide. There is a wariness of legal implications including, presumably, the possibility that big-name companies could be prosecuted for knowingly supplying the ingredients used at Halabja.

But this is primarily a moral and political issue. As the Kurdish High Representative to the UK, Bayan Sami Abdul Rahman told a recent conference on Halabja, hiding behind legalities is a "cop-out" and "passing the buck".

Parliamentary recognition would help kick start a movement to mark the Kurdish genocide in a similar way to that of the Holocaust. It is high time that the increasingly acknowledged and unique suffering of the Kurds becomes better known and a part of the wider debate on Iraq.


The author writes in a personal capacity. The debate takes place 28 February at 14:15 in the main chamber of the Commons. It can be viewed live at the BBC Parliamentary Channel or online

About the author

Gary Kent is the director of the APPG on the Kurdistan Region.