This year marks the tenth anniversary of the formation of the all-party parliamentary group on the Kurdistan Region in Iraq.
It began for me almost accidentally. My first fleeting experience of the Kurds was in 1991 when I helped send blankets and food to those sheltering in the freezing mountains. After the invasion of Iraq, I helped found the Labour Friends of Iraq group, and organised a senior delegation to Kurdistan in 2006 to meet union leaders from across Iraq.
We also met the President and other political leaders in Erbil and Slemani. The Communist Party leader asked to borrow our bourgeoisie to invest and trade and break the isolation of Kurdistan. On our return, I asked several MPs to form the APPG and we started talking about commercial and cultural opportunities for British companies and institutions. It was difficult because few people could then place Kurdistan on the map and the mere mention of Iraq often caused people to gulp.
The group’s influence is based on frequent delegations where we decide who and what to see and include visitors who have been before as well as those who are fresh to Kurdistan. The combination of in-country experience and fresh insights from new MPs maximises our understanding.
On our first APPG trip in 2008, two of us had been before and two were new. We heard a lot about the potential of agriculture but had not yet ventured outside Erbil. The new MPs were sceptical about investing in agriculture but fully saw the point when we made the road trip through the wonderful countryside to Slemani.
Delegations have often been told of the quality of Kurdistani pomegranates and our reports mention the merits of exporting them from, say, Halabja to western supermarkets where these superhealth goods are valued and valuable and could allow Kurdistan, and Halabja, to be seen as about much more than genocide.
A highlight of our work was to persuade the Commons to formally recognise the Anfal genocide in the year of its 25th anniversary in 2013. Some suggested this was backward-looking but the argument for recognising the past was soon illustrated by the use of chemical weapons that year in Syria and the continuing contempt of many in Baghdad for the rights of the Kurds, whose budget transfers were unilaterally halted in 2014.
Frequent delegations also allow us to see for ourselves the pace of change in Kurdistan. Back in the mid-noughties, there was barely an energy sector and our drivers used to buy petrol in jerry cans at the roadside as there were few petrol stations then. The drivers used the opportunity to light up cigarettes and walk around the cars. We came to understand the need to boost health and safety provision. The hotel we stayed at in Slemani later burnt to the ground with significant loss of life, for instance.
On our second APPG delegation in 2009, we toured the new airport as it was being constructed and drove down the runway – the fifth largest in the world. Derek Wyatt MP suggested that we ask the petrolhead programme, Top Gear to organise a race down the runway. I wrote to the producer and they eventually did a programme in Kurdistan which reached millions of people with high praise for the beauty and security of Kurdistan.
Our regular reports seek to encourage the UK government to implement small but iconic measures that put Kurdistan on the political and commercial map. We persuaded the government to send an official trade mission in 2010 and that began to encourage companies and trade bodies to look west.
We heard many complaints about the visa system and encouraged reform so that Kurds no longer had to travel to Amman or Baghdad but we know that there is still great unhappiness about the high refusal rate, which was 66% at the last count.
There are limits to what we can judge and we instead encourage calm and moderate dialogue on vexed questions and urge continuing political and economic reform. We do not, for instance, take a collective view on whether the President should be directly or indirectly elected but we can urge a negotiated settlement. We can encourage the sharing of experience and expertise from our parliament. Some years back myself and the then Chair, Meg Munn MP, did presentations to most Kurdistani MPs on how Westminster works.
We are independent of both the KRG and the HMG – Her Majesty’s Government – but I hope we can continue to be a bridge of mutual interest between the Kurdistan Region, its High Representation in the UK, its Diaspora and the people and parliamentarians of the UK. It has, I hope, been a fruitful decade of solidarity and friendship.
This article by Gary Kent, writing in a personal capacity, appears in Rudaw.