The British government this week came under pressure from several parliamentarians in the House of Lords who have visited Kurdistan and Iraq to detail its strategy for protecting religious and ethnic minorities there.
The debate was opened by the Bishop of Coventry who highlighted the mixed blessings faced by Christians hounded out of Mosul by Daesh, who then returned to celebrate mass but find the city is still not safe enough for them to return permanently.
The Bishop argued that military victory over Daesh is only the first step to its defeat: unless the causes of the violence are rooted out, it will return and minorities will be the first victims. The UK has a moral responsibility and a strategic interest in a stable and flourishing Iraq because “Daesh might be like a Hydra, with heads surfacing across the world, but if it could be fatally wounded in the country of its birth, it would be starved of vital sources of energy, morale and inspiration.” And protecting minorities is critical to a secure and politically stable Iraq.
He cited the need for reconstruction of cities and villages accompanied by social reconstruction, which requires rebuilding trust based on security. He quoted an Assyrian priest from Duhok: “We may not be able to restore the Christian demography that we had in the past but we can preserve for the future a presence and role for the Christian community in our society so that through our schools, our skills and our hospitals we can serve all the people of this land”.
Other Lords who have visited Kurdistan weighed in. Former foreign minister, Baroness Anelay highlighted the need for public trust in a unified, independent and sovereign Iraqi state and asked the minister to assess the likelihood of resolving historic differences between Erbil and Baghdad consistent with the Iraqi constitution
Labour’s Lord Glasman, a vice-chair of the APPG on Kurdistan, recalled his visit to the church of the red stone in Kirkuk where the congregation still speak Aramaic and highlighted the steady historical decimation of Christian and Jewish communities in Iraq. He described “the rupture of trust” among refugees he met in Erbil who had been told they could return home but “Not one moved…because…their neighbours had attacked them. They were subjected to murder, their homes were taken by their neighbours and they felt no security.”
He concluded that the UK should continue to support the KRG in the solidarity that they are providing these refugees and expressed concern about Iraqi military activities and the suppression of the Kurdish language in Kirkuk.
Conservative Baroness Hodgson, who was an APPG observer of the independence referendum, focused on the Kurds as the largest ethnic minority in Iraq. She recalled her visit to the Red House museum in Slemani, which shows the grimly ingenious means used to rape, torture and murder.
She outlined lessons from her visit to Kurdistan. Kirkuk would have fallen to Daesh if the Peshmerga had not immediately reinforced their positions, and security was improved under Kurdistani control. Baghdad’s withholding of federal fiscal transfers to the KRG in 2014 caused great problems and sparked calls for an independence referendum. She said Kurds “told us that they felt that there was never going to be a ‘right time’ but insisted the referendum would not mean an immediate declaration of independence, but rather negotiation with Baghdad to start state building.”
She told the Lords that “Many we met were bewildered by the lack of UK and western support for their referendum. I was told that they always felt that we were talking about democracy and that they were trying to exercise their right to self-determination.”
She urged the government “to recognise that the situation in Iraq has not been satisfactory for the Kurds,” and that Kurds need to defend themselves from “roaming Shia militia, every bit as brutal as Daesh.” She stressed that “whether the Baghdad Government or the KRG controls the disputed territories, they are still disputed territories that require the implementation of the article of the Iraqi constitution to hold censuses and then referendums so the people can decide whether they wish to be part of the Kurdistan region.”
She praised pluralism in Kurdistan, which provides “sanctuary to very many Christians who live there peacefully and practice their faith without hindrance, as I saw for myself when I visited St Joseph’s Cathedral in Erbil.”
Baghdad, she said, has shown no signs of wanting to help re-establish a better relationship with the KRG but she was pleased the UK has joined France, Germany and the USA in encouraging dialogue between Erbil and Baghdad. She concluded that “just doing nothing and allowing the present crisis for the Kurds to simmer for years will damage them in the long term and deprive Iraq and the world of a potentially dynamic and reforming country that has done so much to stabilise and improve Iraq, protect religious minorities and resist Daesh.”
Baroness Goldie, for the government, said it is “encouraging dialogue between Baghdad and Erbil to ensure they put the relationship on to a sustainable long-term footing, and we are doing everything we can to encourage the resolving of differences.”
The powerful personal testimony of parliamentarians who have seen Kurdistan for themselves will not change government policy or public opinion overnight but an accumulation can keep the issue on what is always a crowded agenda.
Gary Kent. Personal capacity.