Robert Halfon (Harlow) (Con)
It is an honour to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Davies. It is also an honour to follow the hon. Member for North Tyneside (Mary Glindon) and, in particular, my genuine hon. Friend the Member for Filton and Bradley Stoke (Jack Lopresti), who introduced this debate and knows a huge amount about the region. Without sounding too sycophantic, I could not be more pleased to have my right hon. Friend the Minister back in his rightful position as the Minister for the Middle East.
I have been privileged to join all-party group delegations to Kurdistan—I draw attention to my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests—five times since becoming an MP. Kurdistan has its problems, but it successfully has the essential ingredients for a flourishing society. It is an extraordinary place run by a progressive Muslim Kurdish Government dedicated to improving property rights, boosting private enterprise and encouraging inward investment. Unusually for that part of the world, the Kurdistan Government have determined that the rule of law must prevail. There are the beginnings of a vibrant civil society. I have met the trade unions several times on my visits, and I wish them well in developing sharp elbows to ensure that working people get a fair slice of the cake, although I would not recommend they follow the example of Len McCluskey and others. I have spoken to women’s organisations that have put domestic violence on the agenda and helped reduce the incidence of female genital mutilation. I salute the religious pluralism, and commend Prime Minister Barzani who said: “What differentiates [us] from most of the countries around us is religious and ethnic tolerance. Accepting and defending each other’s rights strengthens the principle of humanity in this country, particularly in difficult times.”
It is astonishing to see religions from all over the region—Turkmen, Christians and others—literally fleeing to Kurdistan, because they know that it is the one place where they will receive protection. I note that the KRG has appointed an official in charge of Jewish affairs. Jews once made up 17% of the population in Slemani before they were expelled in the bad old days, and there is a large Kurdish Jewish community in Israel. I remember driving past a Jewish area synagogue that was being preserved. Not many other nations in the middle east would preserve synagogues; they are usually knocking them down or demolishing them. I was very pleased when President Barzani told me that if Iraq recognised Israel, there would be a consulate-general in Irbil the next day. The relationship with Israel could be a major asset for both countries in future. Just imagine, Mr Davies, a progressive Muslim nation building relations with Israel, working together to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. That would set an example across the middle east.
There is one place, however, that I will never visit again: the Red House in Slemani. It was a horrific Ba’athist torture centre where thousands were murdered, tortured and raped. It is now a museum. More than anything, it shows the devastating inhumanity of Saddam’s regime. I remember going into a room inside the prison that was called the “party room”. In that room, women were raped by the guards and the subsequent foetuses were thrown into furnaces, in echoes of the holocaust. I remember going into the rooms of the prison, which were bugged. That was not for the prisoners, but to bug the guards in case they were giving anything to the prisoners, which has echoes of Stalin and Nazism. When we visited the Red House the second time, I refused to go in; I just sat outside.
The visits encouraged me to lead the Kurdistan Genocide Task Force, which united the KRG in the UK with MPs, academics and legal practitioners. In 2013 it helped persuade the Commons to formally recognise the Anfal genocide. We wanted to encourage the UK Government to do the same, but as my right hon. Friend the Minister will remember very well, the Government did not agree on the grounds that the decision should be legal and not political. I suspect we will still disagree, but I ask him to rethink. I give my real thanks to him for agreeing that the British Government should formally mark Anfal Day every April. I passionately believe that given the suffering of the people of Kurdistan, it is vital that we recognise the genocide, because it was the demonisation, marginalisation and annihilation of the Kurdish people.
Some people at the time asked why we focused on the past, but the history of genocide remains relevant to the Kurdistan story. Let us remember that they lost nearly 200,000 people, most notoriously in the chemical weapons attack on Halabja in 1988. Let us also remember that Saddam bombed the area before he used chemical weapons, so that the windows of all the Kurdish people’s houses were broken. That meant that when the chemical weapons were dropped, the people could not protect themselves by shutting themselves in their houses and shutting their doors and windows. More than 4,000 villages were razed to the ground. That was the beginning of forcible urbanisation, which makes it difficult nowadays to persuade people to leave the cities and make their money from agriculture. It could be a major source of income and help Kurdistan diversify away from a reliance on oil.
The past is never far from the surface. Just a few months after the Commons recognised Halabja and Anfal, the Syrian Ba’athist regime used chemical weapons in Ghouta. It is no coincidence that that was done by a Ba’athist party. In 2014, ISIL attacked Iraq and later Kurdistan. I am sure I have no need to persuade the Minister that ISIL undertook a genocide against the Yazidis and the Christians. I would welcome his update on the measures the UK is taking to help preserve evidence to mount criminal prosecutions. I remember being in Kurdistan and being warned by Kurdistan Ministers that, “In some months, we will have al-Qaeda in Mosul.” I think the shadow Minister, the hon. Member for Leeds North East (Fabian Hamilton), was at that meeting. They called it al-Qaeda, not ISIL, but they said that that would happen. All the awful things they predicted would happen tragically did happen.
The genocide against the Kurds ended when they rose up against Saddam in 1991 and evicted him from most of Kurdistan under our armed protection. For that the Kurds will always thank the then British Prime Minister, John Major, and British public opinion, which was appalled at the sight of so many people dying in the freezing mountains which had, in the old Kurdish saying, been their only friends. It is a privilege to sit next to my hon. Friend the Member for Stratford-on-Avon (Nadhim Zahawi), who was so involved at that time.
Whenever one thinks of the Iraq war, the thing we must always thank Tony Blair for is the fact that but for the removal of Saddam Hussein, the Kurdistan nation would likely still face an existential threat. Saddam has gone. Leaders that followed may not have been like him, but their actions did much to break the hope of federalism. That is why the Kurds are now seeking their sovereignty. I worry, however, that the mentality that allowed thousands of soldiers to conduct genocide is still obvious in the condescending and high-handed manner in which the Kurds are treated by Baghdad. I am also concerned about the attitude of the Shi’a militia towards the Kurds.
I have much sympathy with the Kurds’ desire for independence so that they can always protect themselves. I certainly believe they have the right to exercise self-determination by holding a referendum in September. I have signed the early-day motion stating that, and would be willing to observe the referendum. I understand that the Government’s position is to ask them to be proactive in seeking to facilitate the negotiations that will follow a successful referendum result, so that the Kurds and Arabs currently in Iraq can negotiate a more productive relationship. The UK must do everything possible to support this remarkable nation, which is at the vanguard of the fight against ISIS and for democracy, rule of law and a free economy in Iraq and the middle east.