Good morning. I would like to begin by thanking my friend Safeen Dizayee, the Minister of Municipalities and Tourism and the Governor of Erbil for making this event and wonderful dedication possible. I echo the powerful sentiments expressed by Safeen just a moment ago.
Thirty years ago last month, the world’s TV screens were filled with the pictures of Kurds who had fled into the mountains and were living in appalling conditions.
The response in the UK was enormous. Large NGOs in the UK organised for hundreds of tons of food and other humanitarian aid to be delivered. I personally know a person in the UK who hired a van, got his friends to donate food, and who drove it across Europe and across Turkey to get it to the Kurds. And there were many other stories like this.
Our then Prime Minister, John Major, was also moved by the images. He became clear that the atrocities being perpetrated by Saddam could not be allowed to continue. He ensured UK support for the critical resolution of the UN Security Council, Resolution 688, which was passed thirty years ago today. He played a key role in the promotion of the idea of a safe haven, persuading other world leaders. He had strong backing from members of the UK Parliament.
It is worth saying that the idea of interfering in another sovereign country, even to protect vulnerable civilians against a dictatorship, was very new then. What Sir John Major successfully advocated for represented a radical change in the conduct of international affairs.
I know that Sir John Major still feels a tremendous warmth for the Kurds – indeed he will be joining Prime Minster Masrour Barzani and other guests, including myself, to speak this Thursday, in an online event organised by a British parliamentary group focused on the Kurdistan Region.
In order to give effect to the safe haven concept, John Major and other leaders committed UK military forces to Operation Haven, otherwise known as Operation Provide Comfort. These included Royal Marines from 3 Commando Brigade – some of our finest military forces. We also provided planes over a number of years to help police the No Fly Zone.
The Kurdistan Region of today grew out of these initiatives. Through the space provided by the no-fly zone, autonomy became possible for the Kurds. The KRG today runs a region stronger and more prosperous that could possibly have been imagined in the late 1980s, when so many Kurds had taken refuge abroad, and those who remained were faced with the Anfal. We continue, as your international partners, to watch on with a smile as you achieve things that are a testament to your enduring motivation and resilience. We will also continue to be with you in this journey.
I lead a substantial diplomatic mission here in Erbil – in fact it is larger than many of our embassies. And our programme work reaches many aspects of Kurdish life here. I have a permanent team led by Colonel Sir Charlie Sykes, working to deliver security sector reform, with a united Peshmerga our greatest ambition. Last week the first female Peshmerga officer graduated from the prestigious British Military Academy at Sandhurst. Another Peshmerga officer graduates from Sandhurst in the summer, and a further female officer starts there in the autumn. We have a programme of support to the KRI’s judiciary. And each year we send some of the brightest and best Kurds, leaders of the future, to the UK to complete their studies.
This road will stand here forever as a reminder of what our predecessors did for us today. Much has changed in the last 30 years but one thing remains the same: the strength of the UK and KRI relationship. I have been proud to play my part in that and in particular to have had the honour of being here for this special event today.