Washington Kurdish Institute
Bill Rice, September 21, 2017
It was over 240 years ago that Thomas Jefferson wrote that “when a long train of abuses and usurpations pursuing invariably the same Object evinces a design to reduce them under absolute Despotism, it is their right, it is their duty, to throw off such Government, and to provide new Guards for their future security.” These words, of course, were penned for the United States of America’s Declaration of Independence. Within the declaration, these immortal words are followed by a long list of tyrannical abuses that the American colonies had suffered under British imperial control.
And much like the American colonists of the late 18th century, there today stands a group of long suffering people, dedicated to principles of republican government, democratic institutions, secularism, freedom, and liberty – a people who yearn to step out from under the yoke of an oppressive, ineffective, unrepresentative regime.
The people whom I speak of are the people of Kurdistan, including both Kurds and other ethnic groups, who have for decades upon decades dreamt of and worked towards an independent state of their own. Much like the British government of the 18th century, the Iraqi central government has been an ineffective if not outright oppressive sovereign of the Kurdistan region.
Whether it be the European philosophies of John Locke and Thomas Hobbes or even the Chinese precept of the “Mandate of Heaven,” for centuries most political thinkers understood the fundamental role of government to include the duty to provide for the basic security and stability of its people. Once a government fails to provide these fundamental services, it has lost its legitimacy, and therefore its people have the right, or even the duty as the U.S. Declaration of Independence argues, to overthrow or secede from that government.
And since the inception of the modern state of Iraq in the early 20th century – a faux polity hodgepodge of religious and ethnic divisions much like most nation states birthed from European colonialism – the central government of Iraq has failed on all counts to provide for the basic necessities of its Kurdistan population.
Some of the most obvious atrocities occurred during the Saddam Hussein regime era, where Kurds and Kurdistan residents were victims of genocide, chemical attacks, and forced demographic shift (i.e. “Arabization”) campaigns. Yet while it is this era that is most often cited for its oppression of the Kurdistan peoples, the post-Saddam era has faired little better for the Kurdistan region in achieving an Iraqi central government that provides for the essential, foundational needs of its people. While the Saddam era government was a genocidal Baathist Sunni-dominated totalitarian state, the post-2003 Iraqi government has operated, in regards to the Kurdistan region, as a Shia-partisan, dysfunctional authoritarian entity that provides little in essential governmental services and protection.
Since 2011, through a combination of conscious neglect and bureaucratic dysfunction, the Iraqi central government has failed to provide the Kurdistan region with its constitutionally and legally guaranteed federal funding. Because of this absent funding, the Kurdistan region has struggled to pay its civil servants, to pay its armed forces (the peshmerga), and to pay for basic government services.
To add insult to injury, a good chunk of the money within the Iraqi central government’s budget derives from oil revenue earned from reserves within Kurdistan. The Kurdistan region is home to a substantial amount of oil reserves – reserves that the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) has made use of since gaining autonomy in the mid-1990s, establishing trade deals with Western companies in recent years. In an attempt to give life under the state of Iraq a chance, the KRG has, as the Iraq constitution calls for, routed its oil revenues through the Iraqi central government which is then required to disperse an allotted amount of that money back into the Kurdistan region for basic government services and investment. Yet the Kurdistan region rarely sees these funds.
The post-Saddam Iraqi central government has also failed the Kurdistan region in the basic governmental role of providing security and stability. It was the actions and political failures of the Iraqi central government that led to the conditions for the so-called Islamic State (IS) to rise to power in the Sunni Arab regions of Iraq. As the Iraqi central government soldiers fled, leaving their state-of-the-art American-provided weapons and equipment behind them, the people of Kurdistan were left to fend off the brutal, inhumane terrorist group themselves. The people of the Kurdistan region of Iraq, with the assistance of their Kurdish brethren from Syria, Iran, and Turkey, were able to successfully fend off and stifle the growth of IS across the region, becoming an integral, if not the integral, component of the fight against IS in the region.
Thus the Iraqi central government has failed its Kurdistani polity on two fundamental fronts: 1) the duty to provide basic funds and governmental services to its citizens and 2) the duty to provide basic security and stability for its people.
The Iraqi central government has also failed to follow its own constitution and laws, especially in regards to the Kurdistan region. Take for example, the controversial Article 140 of the Iraqi constitution, which calls for the Iraqi executive branch to organize a census and referendum for disputed territories within the state, such as Kirkuk, as a means to decide whether they should be incorporated under Iraq proper or the autonomous Kurdistan region. Article 140 set the deadline for this action at 2007 – yet, to date, no such actions have been taken. Furthermore, in Kirkuk, legally required guaranteed elections have been continuously postponed by the Iraqi central government.
In short the Iraqi central government has failed to live by the laws and standards of its own constitution and to facilitate guaranteed democratic processes for its citizens in Kurdistan and the disputed territories.
For what reason would the people of Kurdistan want to continue living under such a framework? The central government fails to provide funds, security, legality, or stability. By the standards of our own U.S. Declaration of Independence, the time is long past for the people of Kurdistan to take their destiny into their own hands and finally leave this dysfunctional state for freer, more democratic options. It’s finally time for the largest stateless people in the world, the Kurds, to have a free, functional country of their own. By our own American standards and historical ideals, they have certainly earned it.
That is not to say the Kurdistan region and its government are beyond all criticisms. As some independence critics would point out, the KRG suffers from its own political corruption and forays into authoritarian behaviors. There have also been disconcerting reports of repression and abuse of minorities and political dissidents, especially in the Sinjar region among the Yazidi, a religious minority who has suffered some of the worst injustices at the hands of IS.
These are all legitimate and serious issues that must be addressed, both by the KRG and the international community, but these issues do not detract from the basic argument for the region’s long overdue independence from Iraq. If the United States of America had waited for the moment its government was free from corruption and illiberalism, if it had waited for its institutions to become more clearly democratic and open, if it had waited for its polity to be more acceptably absent glaring societal ills and prejudices – then it would not be a stretch to say the USA would still be under British colonial purview today.
If America and its people truly stand for the precepts of democracy, self-determination, and liberty, it should not be standing in the way of Kurdistan’s independence. Rather it should be guiding the region to a better, brighter future – encouraging them where they’ve succeeded and admonishing them where they need improvement, but above all supporting a noble and brave people in their long awaited quest for self-determination and freedom.
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