Nowadays, almost everyone agrees that the Palestinian people deserve a state, and that they should not live under Israeli rule. Most Israelis share this view, including even Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, who has reluctantly stated his own commitment to a two-state solution. And in many Western democracies, a strong left-wing constituency regularly organizes demonstrations in favor of Palestinian independence.
The argument for Palestinian statehood is anchored in a fundamentally moral claim for national self-determination. Yet when it comes to securing the same right for the Kurdish people, the West has been shamefully and strangely silent. Western democracies offered no support for the Kurdistan Regional Government’s independence referendum in late September, and they have not spoken out against the Iraqi and Turkish governments’ threats to crush the KRG’s bid for statehood by force.
When officials in the European Union or the United States give a reason for opposing Kurdish independence, it always comes down to realpolitik. Iraq’s territorial integrity must be preserved, we are told, and independence for the KRG could destabilize Turkey and Iran, owing to those countries’ sizeable Kurdish minorities.
But these arguments merely underscore a double standard. Moral claims for self-determination are justly raised in the case of the Palestinians, but they are entirely absent from the international discourse about Kurdistan. Worse still, the brutal oppression of the Kurds over many generations has been totally overlooked. In Iraq under Saddam Hussein, the Kurds were subjected to genocidal chemical-weapons attacks. And in Turkey, the military has razed hundreds of Kurdish villages.
Among the arguments used to deny the Kurds their right to self-determination, the defense of Iraq’s territorial integrity is the most spurious and hypocritical of all. When British statesmen established Iraq as a distinct political entity after the defeat of the Ottoman Empire in World War I, they did so in accordance with their own imperialist interests. Accordingly, they disregarded the territory’s history, geography, demography, and ethnic and religious diversity.
The residents of this newly conjured state were never actually asked if they wanted to live in a country with an overwhelming Shia majority and large Kurdish and Christian minorities. And they certainly were never asked if they wanted to be ruled by a Sunni dynasty that the British had implanted from the Hejaz, now a part of Saudi Arabia.
Initially, under the Treaty of Sevres, which the defeated Ottoman Empire signed in August 1920, the Kurds, like the Armenians, were promised an independent state. But the victorious Allied powers later abandoned this promise, and the Kurdish people have lived under constant oppression ever since.
In what became northern Iraq, the Kurds, like the country’s Assyrian Christians, were for decades denied recognition of their distinct language and culture by hegemonic Arab rulers in Baghdad. In this context, “territorial integrity” is nothing more than an alibi for ethnic or religious oppression.
Similarly, the tens of millions of Kurds living in Turkey and Iran have also long been denied basic human and cultural rights. It is thus understandable that the Turkish and Iranian governments would object to the KRG’s independence bid: they fear the emergence, if it succeeds, of similar movements among their own oppressed Kurdish populations.
But the prospect of an independent Palestine destabilizing Jordan is never offered as an argument against Palestinian statehood, and nor should such an argument be used against Iraq’s Kurds. Moreover, the KRG has already established a relatively open and pluralistic society. As a semi-autonomous region, Iraqi Kurdistan operates under a multi-party system the likes of which one will not find in neighboring Arab countries, let alone in Iran or Turkey, which is increasingly turning toward authoritarianism.
National self-determination is a universal right that should not be denied to populations suffering under oppressive non-democratic regimes. The same arguments that rightly apply to the Palestinians should apply equally to the Kurds. Human-rights activists who demonstrate for Palestinian statehood should be no less vocal on behalf of Kurdish statehood. And human-rights claims – unless they are applied selectively as part of a hypocritical sham – should always trump realpolitik.
Throughout their long, tragic history, the Kurds have repeatedly been abandoned by the West, to its great shame. This must not happen again. Kurdish Peshmerga have been Western democracies’ staunchest allies in the fight against the Islamic State. It would be a bitter travesty to abandon the Kurds to the mercy of the Iraqi or Turkish governments in their time of need.
By Shlomo Avineri
Shlomo Avineri, Professor of Political Science at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, is a former director-general of Israel’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs. -- Ed.