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Kurdish Referendum: What is the Lowdown? | ASHARQ AL-AWSAT English Archive 2005 -2017
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An Iraqi Kurdish man decorates a car with the Kurdish flags ahead of the independence referendum in Erbil, on September 7, 2017. AFP PHOTO / SAFIN HAMED

Despite many efforts to stop or postpone it, the Iraqi Kurdistan referendum has become a fait accompli and must be taken into account in shaping future developments, and Masoud Barzani, the man who orchestrated the exercise, must be as pleased as Punch.

In contemplating the future, it is important to know exactly what we are talking about. Supporters of the referendum have pinned their flag to two concepts: independence and self-determination.

They say Iraqi Kurds want independence. However, like all other Iraqis, Iraqi Kurds already live in a country that is recognized as independent and a full-member of the United Nations.

The concept of the quest for independence applies to lands that are part of a foreign empire or turned into “possession” of a colonial power. Legally speaking, at least since 1932, that has not been the case in Iraq. If, Iraq isn’t independent, then we must assume that Kak Masoud, rather than being a prominent leader contributing to the development of Iraq’s new but fragile democratic process, is a satrap for an unknown empire or an agent for a mysterious colonial power. But Kak Masoud isn’t a satrap precisely because his country, Iraq, is independent.

Then we come to the concept of self-determination which is recognized as a right under international law. It was first developed in the wake of the First World War and the beak up of the Ottoman and the Austro-Hungarian Empires. The idea was that people in the component parts of those empires should determine their own future, especially by deciding whether or not to form states of their own. The Wilson Doctrine and the so-called Briand-Kellogg Pact (between France and the US) further refined the concept.

Later, in the wake of the Second World War the concept was used to provide a legal framework for decolonization as British, French and Dutch Empires broke up. In the past 100 years, thanks to the concept of self-determination, over 120 new independent countries have appeared on the global map.

Self-determination was established as the right of all peoples to choose their own governments and pass their own laws rather than be subject to distant foreign rulers and lawmakers.

Seen in that light, Iraqi Kurds already enjoy self-determination because they choose their own local and national governments and lawmakers.

The first thing to understand is that the recent referendum was about independence and self-determination is bogus, to say the least. Used to hoodwink public opinion could lead to dangerous complications in the future.

So, what was the referendum really about? It was about secession which is not the same thing as self-determination or independence. Its organizers want to detach the areas where Kurds form a majority and set up a new separate state.

However, while self-determination is universally recognized as a right, secession is not.

Secession is an option, not a right. At best, it could be regarded as a desire and, at worst, a folly.

But seeking secession, though unlawful in both national and international law, isn’t a crime. Also, it has little to do with the degree of democratic development of societies. The United Kingdom is a well-established democracy but still faces secessionism on the part of large number of Scots. There are secessionists in several other democracies: the Quebecois in Canada, the Corsicans in France, the Basques and the Catalans in Spain, the Frisians in Denmark, the Kashmiris in India and even Porto Allergens in Brazil.

The important thing is that in all those cases, parties that support secession say so openly, seldom trying to disguise their ambition as a quest for self-determination and independence.

So, the first thing that Kak Massoud should do is to stop doing taiqyeh, call a spade a spade, and openly admit that what he is seeking is secession.

He should say that his aim is to break up Iraq, which is a multi-ethnic republic, in order to create a mono-ethnic Kurdish state. Interestingly, the word Iraq, which means “lowland”, is a geographic term with no ethnic connotations. Iraqi citizenship is a civic concept, transcending ethnic, religious and racial identities.

Many countries in the world are named after their majority ethnic component. In our region Turkey is the land of the Turks and Armenia the land of Armenians. All the “stan” countries refer to ethnic majorities there. Beyond the Middle East, all but 12 of the European states are also named after ethnic components: Germany is the land of Germans and Russia the land of Russians.

However, none of the Middle Eastern countries that emerged from the break-up of the Ottoman Empire are labeled with ethnic identities. They are known under historic and/or geographic names and regard the presence of various ethnic and/or religious communities within their borders as a given. Even Israel, though a special case for obvious reasons, fits into that pattern if only because 27 per cent of its citizens are not Jews. They are Israelis but not Israelites.

The Middle East has been the sphere of multi-ethnic empires for some 25 centuries: Assyrian, Babylonian, Persian, Roman, Byzantines, Umayyad, Abbasid, Ottomans etc. So, the Kurdish state that Kak Massoud wishes to create would be the first over 2000 years in the Middle East to claim a purely ethnic identity.

Let’s give an example of the difference between independence, which is the right of all peoples under foreign colonial or imperial rule, and secession. Morocco and Tunisia were both under the domination of the French Empire in the name of colonial protection. In the 1950s they exercised their right of self-determination and obtained their independence without a minimum of hassle. Algeria, on the other hand, was regarded as two provinces of the French Republic itself, elected its own members of parliament and enjoyed full French citizenship rights.

Thus, its demand for independence was regarded as secession and could only be granted with the agreements of the French state, later ratified in a national referendum throughout France. But before that happened, Algerians had to fight a 5-year war, with perhaps half a million dead, and go through a two-year negotiating period.

Other states have treated secession in different ways.

Canada and the United Kingdom have organized referendums in Quebec and Scotland giving the local populations a chance to reject secession. In Czechoslovakia and between Malaysia and Singapore, secession came through negotiations producing divorce by consent. In the Federation of Rhodesia and Nyasaland, secession was organized by Great Britain as the colonial power. South Sudan’s secession was ratified by the Khartoum government after 20 years of war and six years of negotiations.

The international community recognizes the outcome of any secession only if it is achieved with the consent of the country concerned. Montenegro seceded from Serbia through negotiations and was immediately admitted into the United Nations. Kosovo also seceded but without consent and still remains in a limbo, rejected by the UN and recognized by only a handful of nations.

Holding referendums does not automatically bestow legitimacy on secessionist programs. Russia has held referendum in Crimea, which it snatched from Ukraine, and in South Ossetia and Abkhazia which it took from Georgia. However, no other country recognizes those secessions.

The reason is that there is no mechanism in domestic or international law to recognize non-consensual secession. The International Court of Justice at The Hague made that clear by refusing to certify Kosovo’s independence. In Canada the High Court has ruled against Quebec secession and in France Corsican secessionist demands have been thrown out by courts. In Iraq, the Constitution, drafted with the full and enthusiastic participation of Masoud, excludes unilateral secession in articles 107 and 116 and 13.

Finally, secession does not feature in the programs of any of the dozen or so parties active among Kurds who live in Iraq, Turkey, Syria, Iran, Armenia and Azerbaijan. So the next step that Masoud must take is to enshrine secession in his party’s charter and manifesto for the next Iraqi general election in 2018. If he does that and obtains mandate to seek secession he could then demand that the central government in Baghdad enter into negotiations on the issue of secession.

In other words, any attempt at a unilateral declaration of independence could lead only to impasse, a deadly impasse.