Referendum for Kurdistan: Will the West Continue to Stand in Their Way?

The referendum for Iraqi Kurdish independence has been scheduled to be held on September 25, 2017.

The Kurds are a non-Arab people indigenous to the Middle East.  Comprising an ethnic group united through a distinctive culture and language, they are currently spread out over Iraq, Iran, Syria and Turkey and remain the world’s largest stateless nation.

Unfortunately, efforts to establish an independent Kurdistan have been historically opposed not only by the neighboring countries but also by Western powers, primarily in Europe. This policy of “discouragement” continues to this day.

European diplomats and ministers have been warning of the instability Kurdish independence would cause. Britain’s Foreign Secretary, for example, has recently stated that “a referendum at this time will distract from the more urgent priorities of defeating Daesh.”

Furthermore, the Council of the European Union has declared its “steadfast support for Iraq’s unity, sovereignty and territorial integrity” and stated that “unilateral steps must be avoided”.

European interference with a free Kurdistan amplifies on the historical background of the creation of the Middle East borders by the British and the French, who drew lines that had nothing to do with ethnic or tribal affiliations.

The Sykes–Picot Agreement, having cut lines through Kurdish-populated territories in the Middle East, was to potentially provide for a Kurdish territory subject to a referendum and League of Nations sanction within a year of the treaty.

This treaty originally set aside part of Turkey as Kurdish territory. However, the Turkish War of Independence led to the suspension of the treaty by the Treaty of Lausanne in which there was no provision for a Kurdish State.

Of greater importance than political and legal questions of sovereignty is the reality on the ground which has left the Kurds suffering from severe oppression, persecution, and in some territories, even genocide.

And yet, as the EU views itself as the international champion of human rights, and prides itself for advancing the causes of peace, reconciliation, and democracy, one would expect its full support of the idea of this referendum.  Why is this not the case?

The answer is simple and can be summed up in one word – realpolitik.

While the Europeans may very well be in favor of all those values, they remain primarily committed to their own global interests.  EU-Turkey relations, for example, are now possibly more complex than ever, given the recently signed agreement between them which aimed to prevent many more millions of refugees from making their way from Turkey into Europe.  The same goes for the EU-Iran relations – the recent removal of sanctions against Iran and the resumption of trade. And finally, Syria and Iraq which are in complete shambles, and the EU’s fear that added stress and conflict might encourage more radicals to turn their wrath to European capitals.

A knowledgeable and honest examination of the circumstances would make any reasonable individual understand the European considerations.

But if, indeed, European policy is being guided by such considerations, does that mean that European policy is de-facto about pressuring the weak and enabling the bullying of the strong to “maintain stability?”

If the Western powers want to intercede, isn’t it more reasonable to promote and protect Kurdish rights, condemn acts of persecution, and if and when it comes to it, act to “discourage” the Turks, Iraqis, Syrians and Iranians from taking military action against the Kurds?

Regardless of what the true motive of the EU may be, it is truly time for the world to support Kurdish independence, or at the very least refrain from interfering with it. Here’s why:

The Kurds have historical and legal rights of which they have been deprived of for too long due to the political agendas of others.

The Kurds now have a historic opportunity to have their independence in Northern Iraq, and they are (generally speaking) willing to compromise and accept a smaller and more feasible piece of the entirety of the territory to which they have a claim.  The willingness of the Kurdish population to compromise should be praised and supported.

It is true that Iran, Turkey, Iraq and Syria will probably use any possible tool to leverage other countries into opposing an independent Kurdish State.  Moreover, there is real cause for concern that the situation will go beyond diplomatic efforts and escalate to warfare.

The bottom line is that the decision as to whether or not to take that chance should be completely up to the Kurds.

The Kurds, after decades of persecution and with no international support or assistance, were able to build a vital democratic society and economy.  This, while actively functioning as the main military opposition on the ground against ISIS.  It is time for the world to stand by them.

About the Author
Attorney Yifa Segal is currently the Director of the International Legal Forum (ILF),a non-profit a proactive legal hub for lawyers, organizations and activists from all over the world, providing them with the knowledge, strategic planning, research and international network needed in order to effectively fight against human rights violations, radical ideologies, terror and the BDS movement. In the years 2013-2014 Ms. Segal was the Joint Director of Tazpit Press Service (TPS), the only Israeli news agency disseminating news reports and footage in real-time from Israel to media outlets across the world. While co-managing the news agency, Ms. Segal also volunteered her time and skills in the legal battlefield, both in Israel and across the world, joining efforts with various organizations. Prior to 2013, Mrs. Segal was a leading member of Shurat Hadin – Israel Law Center's legal team. ​​ Ms. Segal has a BA in Law from the University of Haifa, and an MA in International Relations from the University of Tel Aviv.
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