In the September 2017 referendum, Iraqi Kurds voted 92 per cent in favor of transforming their semi-autonomous region in northern Iraq, often called Iraqi Kurdistan, into a sovereign nation. Although the referendum failed to yield immediate results, it sends a signal to the central government of Iraq and the international community that Iraqi Kurdistan will seek to secede.
Iraq reacted critically to the referendum, shutting down the Kurdish airspace and threatening to send troops to quell dissidence in the region. Turkey, a key trading partner with Iraqi Kurdistan, threatened to cut off all trade and to close the Ceyhan-Kirkuk oil pipeline, which passes through Turkey and carries most of Kurdistan’s oil. Iran, a powerful foreign influence in Iraq, mobilized loyal militia groups and sent them to aid the Iraqi Army in recapturing the key oil-producing city of Kirkuk.
The Iraqi government, along with most other Middle Eastern powers, save Israel, voiced their opposition to the idea of a sovereign Kurdish state. Additionally, the United States, which initially appeared supportive of the idea, rejected the referendum. American Secretary of State Rex Tillerson remarked that “the vote and the results lack legitimacy and we continue to support a united, federal, democratic and prosperous Iraq.”
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Officially, Canada has been neutral,with Prime Minister Justin Trudeau stating, “As a Quebecer, I’m very sensitive to other countries weighing in on internal decisions around the future of a country or separation questions.”
Trudeau’s opinion and Canada’s neutral stance are somewhat understandable, as we have long supported a unified Iraq. For a time, there was fear among Western policymakers that an independent Kurdistan would result in the “Lebanonization” of Iraq, wherein the country would be locked into a protracted state of infighting and sectarian violence.
Furthermore, the formation of an independent Kurdish state may destabilize the region with a domino effect coursing through neighboring Kurdish populations in Turkey, Iran and Syria. Canada, for its part, under Operation IMPACT, has supported Western efforts at Iraqi stability and unity through a number of channels, including conducting air operations against ISIS, airlifting cargo and fuel, and providing military training to Iraqi security forces and the Kurdish military force, the Peshmerga.
For Canada, recognition of the outcome of the Kurdish referendum could result in a perilous standing with the central government in Iraq and other nations in the region. Consequently, it is unlikely that Canada, whether by its own accord or in following allies’ policies, will support an independent Kurdistan.
The debate on the sovereignty of Iraqi Kurdistan is the foreground for a significant event in modern Kurdish history, one that may be relevant to Canada’s standing internationally. During the later stages of the Iran-Iraq war in 1988, the “crime of crimes” took place against the Kurdish people of Iraq, the result of a series of campaigns launched by the Iraqi government, named the Anfal campaign, Arabic for “spoils of war.” The Canadian government has yet to recognize this genocide, one which resulted in the death of an estimated 50,000 to 100,000 Kurds and was so grave in nature that few parallels can be found since the Holocaust.
Anfal meets the definition of genocide, in three stages identified by Raul Hilberg, historian of the Holocaust: defining the group, concentrating or seizing the group, and annihilating the group. The goal of Anfal was to eradicate the Kurds from north-eastern Iraq and replace them with Arabs, using the pretense that the Kurds had fought alongside the Iranians, enemies of the Iraqis.
In 2007, the Iraqi High Tribunal Court ruled that through the Anfal campaign, Saddam Hussein and members of his upper echelon were guilty of genocide and crimes against humanity. Moreover, every aspect of the Anfal campaign fell under the purview of the United Nations’ definition of genocide, as they were “committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnic, racial or religious group.”
The sheer brutality of the Anfal campaign is perhaps sadly best exemplified by one episode: a surprise chemical weapons attack on the border town of Halabja, which killed 5,000 civilians. Kaveh Golestan, an Iranian journalist among the first on the scene described the horrific aftermath: “Some villagers came to our chopper. They had 15 or 16 beautiful children, begging us to take them to the hospital. So all the press sat there and we were each given a child to carry. As we took off, fluid came out of my little girl’s mouth–she died there in my arms.”
The international community did not judge or label this concentrated period of killing a genocide. In the pervasive view of realpolitik dominating Western foreign policy at the time, this was seen as an effort by Iraq to curb the export of Iran’s Islamic revolution to other countries, thereby limiting direct confrontation with Iran and protecting the flow of oil to the West. Citing declassified CIA documents, a recent article in Foreign Policy suggests that the U.S. had foreknowledge of Hussein’s intents, provided him satellite imagery and neglected to pass on evidence of Iraq’s chemical weapons usage to the UN.
As an observer of the Kurdish genocide and subsequent referendum, Canada can influence international opinion and political outcomes by leveraging its competencies which include forging the concept and practice of peacekeeping and developing the UN’s doctrine of responsibility-to-protect. It can further draw upon wide-ranging domestic expertise in the arena of human rights, exemplified by the contributions of individuals such as Louise Arbour, Romeo Dallaireand Stephen Lewis, and organizations such as the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada.
Canada’s neutrality towards the outcome of the Kurdish referendum may be politically logical; however, the failure to acknowledge the Anfal campaign is not. In lending Canada’s social and political credentials to recognize the Anfal campaign as genocide, we declare that genocide is not tolerated and we also extend our tradition of defending human rights. In taking this step, Kurds are afforded recognition of this sad episode of their history, enabling them to move forward with dignity.