“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 fourteen points at the end of the First World War. The concept of self-determination was the overriding principle that he imposed on the League of Nations and the Middle East.
Wilson stated in January 1918, “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, “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 Lausanne of 1923 annulled the 1920 Treaty of Sèvres, which had proposed a Kurdish state.
A secret deal between the UK’s Foreign Minister, Sir Mark Sykes, and the French Foreign Minister, Francois Georges-Picot, that divided up the Middle East has somehow become unbreakable, even if it lacked a solid socio-political or ethnic basis or failed to mirror realities on the ground.
Remarkably, close to a century later, the Kurds remain the largest ethnic group in the world without a state.
Protesters in London hold up the Kurdish flag. Demotix/Guy Corbishly. All rights reserved.
Self-determination is recognised by key international charters as the means by which repression, imperialism and subjugation are eradicated, and the free will of nations attained.
Arabs have fiercely campaigned and struggled for the establishment of Palestine as the 22nd Arab state in the Middle East to right what 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 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 the 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 talk of the Kurds breaking away from Iraq has been ubiquitous, it is Iraq that is breaking away from the Kurds thanks to the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) and the marginalising and centralist policies of Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki.
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 reality by acting as the crutch supporting 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 one of 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 there are many countries dotting the global horizon with populations numbering in the thousands, or gripped by immense poverty and a lack of infrastructure, the Kurds are warned to tread carefully or that their time has not come.
Some claim that Kurdistan does not have the necessary infrastructure or conditions for statehood–but just how much infrastructure does Palestine or Kosovo have compared to the Kurds?
Kurdistan is awash 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 immeasurable 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 shift in the Middle East after the fall of the Ottoman Empire, the Kurds were side-lined 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 train darts past this time around.
Is Kosovo really a “special case”?
The ruling by the International Court of Justice in 2010 on 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. The argument was that since Serbia’s brutal campaign had forfeited the right to govern Kosovo by “breaching its responsibility to protect” its civilians under international law, the Kosovars 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 the same logic, 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 said of Kosovo’s independence, "history will prove this to be a correct move to bring peace to the Balkans." A UK government statement deemed the Kosovar move 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 had 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, Kosovars had yet to build a distinctive national image, lacking an official flag, security force and national anthem. After all, it was the greater Albanian flag that flew in every corner of Pristina.
Bids for independence
South Sudan followed on the heels of Kosovo by declaring statehood in 2011, after a referendum (ironically, despite statements by Barack 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.
Scotland had an independence referendum in September to vote on whether to break away from the United Kingdom, and Catalonia is in a bid to break away from Spain.
All the while, the international community worry about what precedent is being 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 are already linked to independent states?
New Kurdish push for independence
Kurdish President Massaud Barzani recently declared his intention to hold a referendum on independence from Iraq. Barzani stated, “everything that has happened recently shows that it's the right of Kurdistan to achieve independence." Barzani added,
"From now on, we won't hide that that is 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’s 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, Bayan Sami Abdul Rahman, the Kurdistan regional government’s High Representative to the UK said 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, 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 stated,
"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.
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