Cathartic Commons debate on the Kurdish Genocide

The Commons has formally agreed to recognise the genocide against the Kurds 25 years after the poison-gas attack on Halabja and following a concerted campaign by Kurds and their British supporters to break the silence on this untold story.

The word historic is often overused but for once we can say that this debate on a motion moved by APPG Co-Chair Nadhim Zahawi MP was just that and showed Parliament at its best. It was an electric debate with passionate advocacy of recognition from both sides of the Commons, detailed and honest examination of the genocide and past relations with Iraq and powerful encouragement to deeper links between the UK and the Kurdistan Region. It was watched live around the world, not least by Kurds.

Many Commons debates are theatrically scripted. One side moves, the other opposes. They slug it out and one of them wins following prepared speeches with little or no quarter given to arguments from the other side. The Government had made clear weeks before that it couldn’t recognise the genocide although it acknowledged the unique suffering of the Kurds. The Labour Opposition reached a similar conclusion.
The Foreign Office is typically wary of unintended consequences. The Middle East Minister Alistair Burt very candidly told the Commons that he was sure that his brief and that of the Shadow Minister, Ian Lucas “said exactly the same thing: be very careful.”

The debate was, however, cathartic in moving the official Opposition and the Government from saying why they should resist recognition to being willing to work together to find how they can do it.
However, the passionate advocacy of the moral and political case for recognition shifted both from their prepared positions. The dynamic was first picked up by Lucas who said that “the cause of recognising the genocide in Kurdistan has noble, well informed and eloquent torchbearers.”

He outlined the legal complexities but accepted the need to find further common ground with the Government and the Kurds collectively. The theme was developed by Burt who admitted that his position was “clear, but not necessarily comfortable or sufficient” and “to the horror, no doubt, of officials,” conceded that “I do not think that I would be respecting the mood of the House and the way in which this issue has been debated if I were simply to say, ‘Look, this is our position, which you all know very well, and that is where we are.’” He added that both government and the Opposition know the implications, “but I think we both recognise that we would like to go a bit further.”

The formal recognition of the genocide by Parliament places the issue on a new plateau. The Government and the Opposition made formal commitments to co-operate in finding a legal pathway for recognition. It is not a done deal but it is much better than myself and others expected.

The debate was also characterised by searing honesty and soul-searching about the past from MPs with a long track record of support for the Kurds. Stalwarts Ann Clwyd and Jeremy Corbyn were the first to condemn Halabja. They both rounded on past British Governments that continued business as usual with Saddam including support for the Baghdad Arms Fair after Halabja. The Minister said that his predecessors were probably not right about that.

Labour MP Dave Anderson, who “completely and utterly” opposed the 2003 intervention explained how he had changed his mind through links with Kurdish trade unionists. We both went together in early 2006 to the Kurdistan Region as guests of its labour movement. Dave told the Commons that they had told him “We thank you, as a nation, for what you did for us in 1991, and we thank you even more for what you did for us in 2003, when you liberated us.’”

He confessed that “that was a shock for me: it was a slap in the face. I had seen what happened in 2003 as an invasion. However, it was all very well for me, sitting in the comfort of (his constituency) Blaydon, to say that it was really, really wrong. It was not me who was being wiped off the face of the earth, it was not my parents who were being buried alive, it was not my village that was being flattened, and it was not my real life—my community—that was being devastated and destroyed. That was happening to these people. Listening to what they said did not change my view that we went into Iraq for the wrong reasons, but what became very clear to me, and has remained clear to me ever since, was that we should have done it 20 years earlier. Why on earth did we not do that? If we had, this disgraceful thing (Halabja) would not have happened.”

It is clear that the testimony of survivors, and the eloquence of the advocates could result in formal recognition of the Kurdish genocide by the British Government as well as its Parliament. This can then make it much more likely that the world will finally understand what happened to the Kurds and that the genocide will come to be marked in similar ways to other genocides.

Gary Kent

The whole debate can be read online at

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