Kurds and self-determination rights in Iraq

Speaking at the13th congress of the Kurdistan Democratic Party in Erbil, Kurdish leader Massud Barzani said "the issue of self-determination," which was considered "a right," would be presented to those attending the conference "to be studied and discussed."
While the demand of self-determination rights has been discussed in Kurdistan Parliament since the glorious uprising of 1991 and with the elites of new Iraqi governments since the fall of Saddam's regime in 2003, some Iraqi and regional circles have deliberately accused Kurds of unlawful and maximalist demands that could lead to the breakup of the country. Nevertheless, Kurds see the right of self-determination as a lawful and standard process alongside their perception of voluntary union in the new Iraq. Indeed, what is mostly implied in the term "self-determination" is the right to participate in the democratic process and influence one's future politically, socially and culturally.

As Kurds have argued, the right of self-determination of peoples is a fundamental principle in international law. It is embodied in the Charter of the United Nations and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights. Common Article 1, paragraph 1 of these Covenants provides that "All peoples have the rights of self-determination. By virtue of that right, they freely determine their political status and freely pursue their economic, social and cultural development." Therefore, self-determination embodies the right for Kurds the same as all other peoples to determine their own economic, social and cultural development. While this is a legal and international standard for acquiring the rights of all nationalities, Kurds have undergone a long and bloody struggle in order to be able to achieve parts of its rights in the new Iraq.

Following the massive uprising in the spring of 1991, Kurdistan Front, an alliance of the main Kurdish political parties, aimed to formulate a new vision of the Kurdish national demands in Iraq. Indeed, the Kurdish leadership provided a critical analysis of the Kurdish national question after the new geopolitical developments in both the international and regional stages, namely the end of the Cold War and the consequences of the second Gulf War, which had created a new political dimension for Kurds in the region. In May 1992, the Kurds--by holding the first free election with international observers in attendance and providing political and civil administration in their area--in essence had de facto autonomy.

In the same year, as a clear sign of demanding right of self-determination, Kurdistan's Parliament embraced the idea of a federal Iraq in order to find a peaceful solution to the long-standing ethnic conflict in this country. At the London Conference and later, just days before the demise of Saddam Hussein's regime, at the Salahaddin Conference, the Kurdish leadership repeatedly stressed the importance of federalism as a political structure for a multi-ethnic country such as Iraq. Following the collapse of Saddam's regime in 2003, the Kurds joined all Iraqi groups to build a democratic and federal Iraq that can respect human rights and Kurdish national aspirations.

Close to almost eight years ago, when the Kurds aimed to remain part of a federal and democratic Iraq, there were new developments at the national, regional and international levels that could be seen by many as a golden opportunity for them. At the national level, there was no central authority in Iraq, which was the first time for such a total breakdown of any government presence since the establishment of modern Iraq more than 80 years ago. At the regional level, two critical developments were taking place. First, Turkish Parliament's objection to the U.S.'s demand of using Turkey's soil to open a "northern front" resulted in great damage to their relations; second, Iran was under massive pressure following the presence of the U.S. military in Iraq and Afghanistan, and it seemed at the time that Iran would be the next target based on former U.S. President George W. Bush's "war on terror" doctrine.

At the international level, recognition of East Timor as a new nation-state, and also increasing the international support of Kosovo's demand for separation from Serbia, were all new developments. However, the Kurds put a great amount of faith and hope into the new Iraq's political structure and Iraqi opposition parties, whom for many years had used Kurdistan as a safe haven and enjoyed a great deal of security in that region. The Kurds also were hoping that the new political elites of Iraq would take a much different path from that of the previous regimes of Iraq and would respect their long struggle for freedom and right of self-determination.

Today, Kurds have chosen to be part of a voluntary union in federal Iraq, and their demand for right of self-determination should be interpreted as legal and standard process as well. It is so clear that federalism does not equal separatism; it means a state that makes way for different identities and (two or three) regions carry their own authorities. Indeed, the division of Iraq into three strong, autonomous federal states is not ideal, but it is the only realistic and historically necessary solution for peace. The last and also the main reason for arguing for legal and lawful base for Kurdish right of self-determination should be found in Iraq's historical background. Iraq is not a real state, but rather a random, opportunistic borderline drawn following WWI by the British colonial power, an artificial structure that doesn't have the slightest chance of survival due to the tensions between the oppressed Shiites and Kurds and the Sunni minority.

The last seven years, however, have proven that Iraq's new political elites haven't learned much from the modern history of Iraq, and day by day the vision of Iraq to become a federal and democratic entity is losing momentum. During this period, the new Iraqi governments have adapted almost similar methods of pre-2003 regimes in dealing with the Kurdish long-standing national and political demands. These policies included deliberate acts of delaying, wasting time or sometimes suspension of the process of Article 140 of Iraq's Constitution, which can be seen as a road map to resolve the issue of Kirkuk and other Kurdish territories that are currently not under authority of the Kurdistan Regional Government. Also, there are obvious signs that the Iraqi governments since the fall of Saddam have shown more signs of being confident when they have tried to create a strong and centralized system and take away most of the political and economic powers from the regions (especially the KRG), which is totally opposite of their previous support for the federal system in Iraq.

In line with remarks of Kurdistan's President, self-determination embodies the right for all peoples to determine their own economic, social and cultural development. Indeed, self-determination has thus been defined by the International Court of Justice (in the West Saharan case) as "the need to pay regard to the freely expressed will of peoples." However, we have to face this important question: Will Kurds become able to acquire right of self-determination with the new "federal" Iraq, Today, the new Iraqi government has been formed after nine months of a political stalemate in Baghdad, and they should have learned this great lesson that Kurds are a great factor in stability and preserving peace in Iraq. Nevertheless, there are some worrying signs as well when new parliamentary speaker Osama al-Nujeifi doesn't believe in the Iraqi Constitution and, more importantly, Article 140 and Kurdish political and economic interests in Iraq. http://www.kurdishglobe.net

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