By Marina Dokken
It may feel like we live in the era of major referendums. The Scottish independence referendum, Brexit and Catalonia’s recent vote have all taken place over the past three years and caused a significant international stir. However, another government is facing threats of violent repercussions which seem to be increasing in the aftermath of the vote. We need to be talking about the Iraqi Kurdish independence referendum.
The Kurdish referendum took place September 25th. The turnout was over 70%, and a large majority voted in favour of the Kurdish region leaving Iraq. This was not the first referendum in the Kurdish region’s long struggle for statehood; in 2005, Kurds also voted in favour of independence. However, what made the 2017 referendum special is that it has been backed by the Kurdish Regional Government (KRG). While the one in 2005 was organised by Kurdish NGOs, the government declared that the result in the recent election would result in an official declaration of independence from Iraq.
Meanwhile, the referendum has sparked a variety of reactions. Internationally, it is opposed by the United States, Turkey, Iran and the UN, who have refused to acknowledge any Kurdish independence. They argue that independence could cause further destabilisation in a region still affected by the fight against ISIS. On the other hand, several states have supported the Kurds’ right to self-determination, including Ireland, Israel and Sweden. Much like the Catalan referendum in Spain, this referendum has also been criticised nationally by Baghdad for being illegal and unconstitutional. Even among the Iraqi Kurds themselves the question of independence is controversial. Especially the younger generation has accused the KRG of using it to rally a Kurdish nationalistic sentiment and hence strengthen the government’s power. Still, the overwhelming turnout and strong positive result of the referendum seem to imply that there is something unspoken that ought to be discussed.
However, it is difficult to pin down what this something is, much due to lacking Western coverage. While a quick search for “Catalan referendum” leads one down a rabbit-hole of long, researched articles shedding light on multiple angles of the issue, it is a challenge to find nuanced Anglophone coverage of the aftermath of the Kurdish referendum. Although it made headlines in both European and North American newspapers before the vote took place, the event was followed by a relatively muted response. This is probably associated with the delicate geopolitical situation the region faces, with Iraq’s geographic importance in the fight against ISIS, the fact that both the Kurdish and Iraqi governments have been helpful allies to the US, and the fear that an independent Iraqi Kurdish region could cause a chain effect of similar referenda across the greater region. The general response from most European and North American governments was that, while the Kurdish people ought to have a say in matters concerning them, this is largely an internal affair best left to the two governments of Baghdad and Erbil. Hence, while there have been some attempts at easing tensions, the results have been lacking. If proper dialogue is to be ensured between the KRG and Iraqi government, it is important to move beyond simple conflict de-escalation.
It is necessary to keep in mind the long history of the Iraqi Kurdish region’s struggle for independence. The Kurds, who make up roughly 15 % of the Iraqi population, have faced persecution from the Iraqi state since its creation in 1922. In the 1980s, more than 50 000 Kurds were killed, including thousands of women and children. Since 1991, the KRG has been in charge of the autonomous Kurdish region under US protection.
In order to understand the divided Kurdish opinions on the referendum, it is necessary to look at the situation in the region in the months leading up to the vote. The Iraqi Kurdish parliament, until just recently, has been suspended for more than a year by the KRG due to tensions between the two main parties over the term of presidency. The main proponent of the referendum, Massoud Barzani, is not even the formal president of the region at the moment. Furthermore, the devastating economic crisis that the region has suffered through has added even more pressure to the situation. On one side there is the desire for autonomy, on the other is the arguably lacking legitimacy of the referendum as a path to a democratic Kurdish state. This is where the importance of media coverage comes in, because with less coverage comes less nuance, and treating this matter simply as an affair between Baghdad and Erbil is to strip it of a very significant civilian aspect. If history has taught us anything, it is that for civilians to thrive states must look out for each other’s citizens, and that is essential to keep in mind as we Westerners try to enter this conflict as mediators.
We should not dismiss this matter as an internal affair, but rather attempt to unravel the complexity to see the human beings tangled up in it. Because ignoring this issue, with the way things are developing between Baghdad and the KPR, will surely lead down the slippery slope of violent repercussions. As Desmond Tutu eloquently put it:
“If an elephant has its foot on the tail of a mouse and you say that you are neutral, the mouse will not appreciate your neutrality.”
Similarly, if we do not acknowledge the layered nature of the referendum and take our role as mediators seriously, we risk the extension of a toxic silence that will leave the Kurdish people voiceless, their grievances hardening and the continued power struggle of two bickering governments that fail to address these grievances. Western media needs to address these issues with sufficient depth of analysis. It is a complex affair, but that does not change the ominous reality of the people living in its aftermath.
Marina Dokken is a psychology student, and previously studied modern diplomatic European history at the International Baccalaureate Diploma Programme. She has been active with Amnesty International Norway and believes that books and dialogue can make the world a better place.
Image: Wikimedia Commons