By Bayan Sami Abdul Rahman, High Representative to the UK Kurdistan Regional Government, Iraq
MPs in the House of Commons will today (Thursday February 28) take the unusual step of discussing an Iraq related issue in which it will be agreed that Saddam Hussein’s weapons of mass destruction did indeed exist and were in fact used.
The debate is not about the rights and wrongs of the intervention in Iraq in 2003 but a motion to formally recognise the genocide against the Kurds in Iraq which began 50 years and whose climax was Saddam’s use of chemical weapons to murder 5,000 civilians at Halabja in 1988.
Last year, the British-Kurdish MP Nadhim Zahawi launched an e-petition urging formal recognition by Britain. It said that recognition would enable Kurdish people, many in the UK, to achieve justice for their considerable loss. It would also enable Britain, the home of democracy and freedom, to signal support for international conventions and human rights.
It detailed how this genocide had, as with so many other genocides, begun with piecemeal measures before becoming meticulously murderous. The genocide began around 1963 with the arabisation of villages around Kirkuk, now a hotly contested oil-rich city sadly beset by terrorist attacks designed to push the area’s Kurds, Arabs, Turkmen and Christians into civil war.
The genocide involved the deportation and disappearances of Shia Faylee Kurds in the 1970s-80s, the abduction and murder of 8,000 men and boys as young as 12 from the Barzani clan in 1983, and then the deadliest part of the campaign, including Halabja and which killed up to 200,000 Kurds in the late 1980s through poison gas attacks and the mass disappearance of men, women and children.
Overall, hundreds of thousands of innocent people perished, families were torn apart and 4,500 villages were destroyed between 1976 and 1988 undermining the potential of Iraqi Kurdistan’s agricultural resources.
Yet we have found during the campaign around the e-petition that few in Britain now remember or know about these events. Many people only see Iraq through the prism of what we call the liberation of Iraq in 2003 but which is deeply and bitterly contested in Britain and more widely.
The major point of the campaign to recognise and mark the genocide is to make sure that it can never happen again by drawing a line under it and setting red lines for tyrants such as the Ba’athist dictator Assad in Syria. Saddam got away with it for years and would have continued the effort to eliminate the Kurds had the West failed finally to check him when he brutally invaded Kuwait.
This resulted in the British-policed no-fly zone over the Kurdistan Region which sheltered us from Saddam for 12 years. The fragile and reversible truce which we lived under was finally made more permanent with the 2003 liberation and the removal of Saddam, his sons and their regime from power. Both Sir John Major and Tony Blair are heroes for the Kurdish people. They saved us from extinction.
Recognition by the British Parliament, which follows similar decisions by the Swedish and Norwegian Parliaments, can encourage governments to follow suit.
The Kurds, through necessity, are a resilient and optimistic people but I cannot emphasise too much what a profound impact the genocide has had on Kurdistan. Nearly all of us were affected directly and indirectly and we live with the legacy of mass murder every day. We are unusual in that our regional government is one of the few if not the only government in the world that has a ministry of genocide and martyr affairs. That our story is untold adds to the injury.
Today’s motion in the Commons allows MPs to talk about the modern relevance of the genocide and about the growing links between Iraqi-Kurdistan and Britain. Last weekend, we organised, for instance, the second British Film Festival in our capital Erbil and thousands of people flocked to see a range of British movies, including Bond films. Last year, teenagers from a Bury St Edmunds’ school went to Kurdistan to teach sports leadership to their Kurdish counterparts. There are many other such people-to-people connections.
We thank our parliamentary supporters and believe that this historic debate will accelerate fruitful links between our peoples and will help the survivors of the genocide and victims’ families to realise that Britain does indeed take a stand against the mass murder of innocent people.