Groundbreaking link forged between APPG and the Kurdistan Parliament’s External Relations and Diaspora Select Committee

The External Relations and Diaspora Committee of the Kurdistan Parliament and the APPG on the Kurdistan Region have met formally for the first time on Zoom in a new bid to deepen and widen bilateral relations.

The unique meeting started with comments from Dr. Rebwar Babkayi MP, Chair of the Kurdistan Committee, and APPG Chair, Rt Hon Robert Halfon MP.

The two MPs were joined by 7 other parliamentarians, the KRG’s High Representative to the UK and the Representation’s Director of Political Affairs, Karwan Jamal Tahir and Khasro Ajgayi respectively, parliamentary aides, and APPG Secretary, Gary Kent.

They discussed the recent reports of the APPG’s virtual delegation to Kurdistan. The Chair of the Kurdistan Committee agreed to raise the APPG recommendations with the relevant authorities in Kurdistan while the APPG is seeking to do the same in the UK.

The meeting agreed that the Kurdistan Region currently faces many serious economic, health, and security challenges for which British engagement and expertise is particularly needed.

The APPG and the Committee also discussed how to improve relations between our respective parliaments. The APPG will put the Committee in touch with the Commons Foreign Affairs Committee.

The Committee and the APPG will meet more regularly to advance friendship and encourage greater political engagement by the UK Government with the Kurdistan Region.

zoom meeting november

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APPG Chair Robert Halfon MP tables Commons motion summarising findings of recent virtual delegation

That this House notes reports from the APPG on the Kurdistan Region in Iraq on a virtual delegation to meet Kurdistani leaders; fully acknowledges the crucial role of the Peshmerga in resisting the so-called Islamic State, that Kurdistan’s model of peaceful co-existence and equality are vital in continuing efforts to eradicate extremism, and that this is a vital UK interest; stresses the profound impact of covid-19 on oil revenues, which have fallen dramatically and may fade further as a proportion of the region’s income; further notes Kurdistan’s need to reform its public services and increase income from agriculture, tourism, and light industry with a bigger private sector and tackling corruption; wishes the KRG and the Iraqi Government the best in resolving their long-standing differences through the full implementation of Iraq’s federal constitution; believes that the APPG’s recommendations to the UK Government accord with its policy of supporting a strong Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) in a unified Iraq; further believes that the UK Government should organise an official trade mission to encourage investment by private companies and public institutions; recognises the central importance of universities to the new economy; commends the suggestion that the UK Government send experts to Kurdistan to assess higher education and make recommendations for reform; endorses the APPG’s recommendation for skills transfer to Kurdistani MPs; and urges the Foreign Secretary to visit Kurdistan as soon as possible and organise an official visit by the KRG leadership to London to advance bilateral relations.

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APPG Chair Robert Halfon raises issue of attack on Kurdistani party and flag in Baghdad with UK minister

Question from Robert Halfon MP

To ask the Secretary of State for Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Affairs, what steps his Department has taken in response to the burning on 17 October 2020 in Baghdad of a Kurdish party office and the flag of the Kurdistan Region in Iraq; and if he will make a statement. Tabled on: 20 October 2020

Answer from James Cleverly MP: We strongly condemned the attack on the Kurdistan Democratic Party’s office in Baghdad and made clear that addressing political difference through dialogue not violence was a fundamental element of a functioning democracy. The UK has welcomed steps taken to hold those responsible to account. We continue to work with the Government of Iraq on enhancing security measures, including through discussions during the Iraqi Prime Minister’s Guest of Government visit to the UK on 22 October.

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APPG Chair Robert Halfon MP condemns attack in Baghdad on Kurdistani party and flag

The APPG on the Kurdistan Region in Iraq completely condemns the attack on a Kurdistani political party office in Baghdad and the desecration of the Kurdistani flag, sadly while Iraqi security forces watched but failed to intervene.

The Kurdistani political parties play an important role in the Iraqi coalition government and are doing all they can to overcome differences with Iraqi parties so there can be a full resolution of their disputes. I am pleased that the Iraqi cabinet has condemned this outrageous and provocative attack.

Countries that believe the Kurds should be a strong influence in a unified and federal Iraq must also condemn this attack, this will reduce the majorities fear for this behaviour becoming a norm for settling the differences. I also hope there will be prosecutions of those responsible.

I understand the anger of the Kurdistanis but know they are determined not to allow this to obstruct efforts to keep building peaceful co-existence between Kurdistan and the rest of Iraq.

Rt Hon Robert Halfon MP. Chair

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The case for the UK Foreign Secretary going to the Kurdistan Region in Iraq

Thanks to Jack Lopresti MP, an APPG member, for his written parliamentary question below. It’s good that there are such conversations but recent reports from the APPG suggest that it is time for the Foreign Secretary to visit Kurdistan in real life and then invite the KRG leadership to pay an official visit to London. Other countries have sent ministers to Kurdistan and met its leadership. Moving to such visits would symbolise the importance to the UK of the Kurdistan Region and convey an important diplomatic message.

Question. “To ask the Secretary of State for Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Affairs, what meetings Ministers of his Department had with representatives of the Kurdistan Regional Government in Iraq in (a) 2018 and (b) 2019; and if he will make a statement.”

Answer from James Cleverly, the Minister for the Middle East and North Africa. “The UK continues to have a close relationship with the Kurdish Regional Government (KRG) in Iraq, and our ministers and diplomatic representatives maintained regular contact with representatives of the Kurdish Regional Government in Iraq in 2018 and 2019. Current and former Foreign Secretaries and Ministers for the Middle East and North Africa have spoken with the KRG leadership including President Nechirvan Barzani. Most recently, I spoke to Prime Minister of the Kurdistan Region of Iraq Masrour Barzani on 23rd September. The UK looks forward to continued close engagement with the KRG as a critical and valued partner in the region.”

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Let’s remember our allies

We are anxiously consumed by Covid at home but its impact on our old allies abroad also affects us.

Covid is tearing the economic guts out of oil-producing countries such as the Kurdistan Region in Iraq because global business and flights have been slashed along with demand for oil and its price.

Oil prices may see-saw but consumers are now moving to using fewer carbons as we build back greener to tackle climate change. Oil-producing countries should find new ways of earning a crust. Global oil giants have cottoned on to this and want to go low carbon or embrace renewable energy.

Yet, spare a thought for countries on a cliff-edge of falling and fading oil revenues, which have accounted for nearly all their income. Kurdistan’s oil is many centuries old but was only fully exploited after the demise of the dictatorship of Saddam Hussein who had no truck with Kurds having oil as he sought to keep them under his thumb.

The new oil sector they created from scratch in this century transformed life for Kurdistan’s people. It also gave them a greater resilience that really mattered when they resisted the so-called Islamic State (Isis), whose fanatics hunted us down like dogs here.

The Kurds were at the pincer of efforts that broke Isis, which initially came within 15 miles of their capital, Erbil, a cosmopolitan city I call my second home.

If Kurdistan’s defence force, the Peshmerga, hadn’t held the line then Isis would have grabbed more land, oil, airports and their genocide would have persisted and spread. Our military forces would have been more involved.

Kurds fought for their own homeland but also secured a victory for civilisation. The vicious Isis caliphate was liberated but Isis is now regrouping in the large physical gap between Kurdistan and Iraq where the two governments have old and bitter land disputes.

The terror cult can be better fought if Erbil and Baghdad resolve their differences and allow the Peshmerga and the Iraqi Army to jointly root out Isis before it becomes harder to dislodge.

The ideology of extremism is also challenged in practice every day by the Kurds who deeply respect religious, ethnic, and gender equality in a defiant rebuke to the rapists and head-choppers.

However, a painful transition from oil dependence to other means of making money could encourage support for the simple solutions of extremist ideology. Kurdistan itself is largely immune but a weakened Kurdistan will be less of a bulwark of moderation in the wider region.

The Kurds respect us and eagerly seek deeper relations. Many sheltered here during the dark decades of dictatorship and hold British passports.

We shouldn’t lag behind competitors in missing mutually beneficial opportunities for our companies and public bodies such as our hard-pressed universities. An official trade mission, in due course, would unlock opportunities in niche areas where the UK has much valued expertise. Companies could look at how Kurdistani gas could produce more electricity, for instance.

There is only so much the UK can do and no one is requesting vast sums of public money. The UK can seed-fund projects that make their universities fit for purpose in a more economically diverse economy, boost people’s often damaged mental health after the trauma of decades of conflict, and help train their MPs.

Our technical expertise can lift Kurdistan’s capacity to modernise and seek diplomatic solutions with their neighbours on borders and water as well as advancing economic reform and growth.

Political engagement is most important. Senior British ministers should go there and their ministers should come here to beef up our bilateral relations. Other countries have been doing that more of late and we need to catch up.

The post-Covid and post-oil age offers opportunities and dangers across the Middle East, which stands more hope of safety and prosperity if we help strengthen our allies in Iraqi Kurdistan.

Gary Kent. This article originally appeared in the Newcastle Journal on 10 October 2020.

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Joint statement by parliamentary participants in APPG virtual delegation to Kurdistan Region in Iraq. October 2020.

Covid has exposed the accumulated flaws of Kurdistan, as it has more widely, but more British political, public, and private engagement can help equip it for the future for the mutual benefit of its people and UK interests.

Covid is convulsing the Kurdistan Region in Iraq, which is dangerously reliant on oil, demand for which may fade longer term. Fundamental economic transformation is vital in Kurdistan. A more reliable and just relationship with Iraq is also needed. The UK is well-placed to provide technical support and political engagement that recognises Kurdistan’s important role in Middle East security, stability, and reform.

Oil accounts for over 90% of its income and has halved in months. Non-oil trade revenues have been cut to ribbons. State employees receive lower salaries that are regularly in arrears, vital public investments are stalled while poverty and unemployment have increased.

Kurdistan depends on fiscal transfers from Baghdad that should underpin the federal compact that led them to rejoin Iraq in 2003. The federal deal is unfinished and promises to resolve the status of disputed territories and enshrine reliable revenue-sharing in law have not been honoured.

However, Kurdistan and Iraq now both have reformist leaders. Iraqi Prime Minister, Mustafa al-Kadhimi is tackling vested interests that hold Iraq back and which also detest the Kurds. The two governments have reached confidence-building understandings, but a permanent reset based on law and the Iraqi constitution should be the goal.

The Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) seeks internal reform to diversify an economy based on big state patronage networks, a small private sector, and oil. They want to develop agriculture, tourism, and light industry. Their plentiful gas can be exported to Iraq and Europe and reduce their reliance on Iran and Russia respectively.

Kurdistan is decent, progressive, beautiful, and hospitable place that still hosts a million people who have fled conflict for sanctuary there. Kurdistan’s importance to our national security was illustrated when Deash erupted in 2014 and captured Iraq’s second city, Mosul. The Kurds then prevented Daesh seizing Kirkuk and its Peshmerga held the line at great costs for years when Daesh turned on Kurdistan. If Kurdistan had been overwhelmed, its oil could have fuelled Daesh expansionism and genocidal campaigns for years.

The Kurds saved the Middle East from disaster. They did this in self-defence but also because they espouse progressive values of secularism, religious moderation, women’s rights, and democracy. Those values are needed to challenge the continuing appeal of extremism. But Daesh is regrouping in the vast security blind spots in the disputed territories between Kurdistani and Iraqi forces, which urgently need to co-ordinate their efforts. Continued British efforts to unify and professionalise the Peshmerga are also vital.

Kurdistan is a small place with punch in the heart of the Middle East. It was, for instance, instrumental in pausing conflict between Turkey and the PKK almost a decade back. A political solution to that long war is necessary given that Turkey, in concert with Iran, is heavily bombarding PKK targets within Kurdistan.

The UK government’s integrated review of foreign, defence, security and development policy should recognise that a changing Middle East needs a strong Kurdistan in partnership with a strong Iraq.

Kurdistan also allies itself to the UK, whose services, standards, goods, and experience are respected. The UK Foreign Secretary should visit Kurdistan and invite the KRG leadership to London on a long promised official visit.

Such meetings can deepen the bilateral relationship and unleash relatively inexpensive and focused government measures to increase the KRG’s reform capacity.

Most urgently, Kurdistan needs supplies from its allies of medical kit such as ventilators to relieve its strained health sector and save lives from Covid.

Kurdistanis have endured war and two genocides for decades. UK funding for mental health projects and destigmatising mental illness could boost the resilience of our allies. Kurdistani universities have blossomed in a generation but few are world class. We suggest that the UK sends experts on a fact-finding mission to assess how the UK can encourage quality higher education. The Kurdistani Parliament’s influence can be enhanced by exchanges and skills-training.

A second official UK trade mission to Kurdistan could scope opportunities for private investors and public institutions. Possible projects in oil services, gas, minerals, solar power, wind power, health, film production, environmental projects, and agriculture play to British strengths and could stop us lagging behind European countries.

Companies must win contracts on their own merits, but the UK can facilitate projects through UK Export Finance, encouraging direct commercial flights, improving the visa system for Kurdistani visitors to the UK, many for commercial purposes, and liberalising the official travel advice in line with better security in Kurdistan.

Covid has exposed the accumulated flaws of Kurdistan, as it has more widely, but more British political, public, and private engagement can help equip it for the future for the mutual benefit of its people and UK interests.

Rt Hon Robert Halfon MP, Feryal Clark MP, Alicia Kearns MP, and Jack Lopresti MP.

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Zooming into Kurdistan. Report by Robert Halfon MP and Gary Kent of an APPG Virtual Delegation.

This is the conclusion of a longer report by APPG Chair Rt Hon Robert Halfon and APPG Secretary, Gary Kent. The full report can be found at Zooming into Kurdistan Robert Halfon and Gary Kent PDF

Initial APPG delegations heard many stump speeches from Kurdistani politicians praising British interventions in 1991 and 2003 before focusing on Britain’s role in trapping the Kurds in Iraq. That was accompanied by pleas to make up for that history. The danger is that approach ignores Kurdish divisions after the First World War and passivity rather than proactively seeking change. We hear less of this now because KRG leaders understand they need to make their own luck.

The small political class bears a huge burden and the KRG can punch above its weight in winning friends. A variety of think-tanks could help nurture a more sophisticated discourse, increase state capacity, and help build a vibrant civil society. We also urge the KRG, the UK, and businesses to focus on encouraging the skills and culture of entrepreneurialism and good management.

A professional and free media with solid journalistic ethics is essential to increasing public understanding and involvement as well as undermining hoaxes and conspiracies that are especially common in the Middle East. We don’t accept the recent closure of media outlets and urge the KRG to uphold media freedoms.

If a nation is a daily plebiscite, then Kurdistan needs constant renewal. Like much of the Middle East, it is a young country and many are under 30. Covid is tough for youth everywhere but great efforts are needed to make sure the new generation of Kurdistanis is included and cherished in renewal.

Kurdistan needs to be a bigger part of the UK’s foreign policy discussions. The APPG works with the KRG UK Representation to help do that. It is, therefore, deeply regrettable that the recent BBC Documentary, Once Upon a Time in Iraq, almost completely ignored the Kurds. We suggest that the BBC commission a documentary on the Kurds in Iraq.

We hope that the British people understand that Kurdistan matters to us all. Just imagine if the barbarians of Daesh had breached the gates of Erbil in 2014 and captured its oil wealth. Apart from a huge toll in human lives, Daesh would have been better able to menace Iraq and other countries and that would have required massive Western intervention.

Thankfully, the Kurds held the line then. They are pioneering moderation now. The UK is well-placed to lend a hand for its own interests as well as theirs.

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UK policy: strong Kurdistan Region within a strong and unified Iraq

APPG member, Jack Lopresti MP asked the Foreign and Commonwealth Office through a written parliamentary question, what recent assessment he has made of the strength of relations between the Kurdistan Regional Government and the federal government of Iraq.

The Middle East Minister James Cleverly replied that “The UK supports a strong Kurdistan Region within a strong and unified Iraq. We welcome the new Government of Iraq under Prime Minister Kadhimi and are encouraging the new Government and the Kurdistan Regional Government to co-operate closely in order to resolve all issues in accordance with the 2005 Iraqi Constitution. The UK will continue to engage with both sides in support of this endeavour.”

The two aims go together and an enduring revenue-sharing agreement is needed. There is a cautious optimism about the new Iraqi government. Such a deal would benefit both Erbil and Baghdad and help both reform their societies, diversify their economies in the light of oil price cuts, and better challenge the continuing scourge of Daesh.

Gary Kent

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APPG Chair Robert Halfon stresses KRG efforts to eliminate crimes against women

The Daily Mail recently carried an article on a forthcoming television drama on the police search in Birmingham for the murderers of 20-year-old Banaz Mahmod, whose family hailed from Iraqi Kurdistan. It was eventually established that members of her family had murdered her in a so-called “honour” crime.

The advancement of women’s rights and tackling violence against women is taken very seriously in the Kurdistan Region. The APPG Chair, the Rt Hon Robert Halfon MP sent a letter to the Mail to emphasis this.

This is the text of the letter

The tragic murder of young Iraqi Kurdish woman Banaz Mahmoud by members of her own family was truly ghastly and the dedicated police operation to track down the murderers deserves telling (How one woman solved Britain’s most notorious honour killing, 1 April)

Your readers should be assured that most Kurds hate this treatment of women and that the Kurdistan Regional Government is dedicated to ending such horrors: it eagerly co-operated with the UK in extraditing one of the accused to the UK.

Ministers and women’s groups have on my parliamentary visits there detailed how they are tackling so-called honour crimes, domestic violence, and female genital mutilation (now entirely eliminated in one previous blackspot) as well as encouraging more women into public life as ministers, MPs, and Peshmerga soldiers.

It is a continuing and inspiring journey from ancient mindsets which are more widely prevalent in the Middle East.

I hope that the coming television drama is a tribute to Banaz Mahmod and highlights Kurdish efforts to eliminate these terrible crimes and to help the many Yazidis in Kurdistan who were abducted and raped by the so-called Islamic State.

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