Last week the British parliament formally recognised the Kurdish genocide in Iraq. This follows a year-long petition campaign in the UK and lobbying within parliament by the All-Party Parliamentary Group on the Kurdistan Region. The Kurdistan Regional Government UK Representation initiated and coordinated the campaign. KRG.org asks Bayan Sami Abdul Rahman, the KRG Representative to the UK, about the debate in parliament and to clarify what recognition means.
1) Has the British parliament formally recognised the Kurdish genocide?
Yes. On Thursday February 28, the British parliament formally recognised genocide against the people of Iraqi Kurdistan. The recognition was not opposed by any MPs, the Opposition or the Government, it was unanimous.
2) How did this recognition happen in parliament?
Nadhim Zahawi and several other MPs together requested that a debate be held asking the British parliament to formally recognise the Kurdish genocide and asking the parliament to encourage governments, the EU and UN to do the same. The MPs said the debate should be held in February or March in the run-up to the 25th anniversary of the attack on Halabja.
3) What exactly was the subject of the debate?
Nadhim Zahawi proposed this motion for debate: "That this House (this parliament) formally recognises the genocide against the people of Iraqi Kurdistan; encourages governments, the EU and UN to do likewise; believes that this will enable Kurdish people, many in the UK, to achieve justice for their considerable loss; and further believes that it would enable the UK, the home of democracy and freedom, to send out a message of support for international conventions and human rights, which is made even more pressing by the slaughter in Syria and the possible use of chemical arsenals."
4) What happened during the debate?
The debate was chaired by the Deputy Speaker of parliament. Nadhim Zahawi, as the MP who moved the motion, began by setting out what happened in Iraqi Kurdistan, why it was genocide and why it's important that the British parliament should recognise it. Other MPs, from both the governing Conservative and Opposition Labour parties, then backed what Nadhim had said.
It is important to note that no one spoke against recognition, everyone spoke in favour.
The MPs spoke about mass graves, chemical bombardment, torture and repression of the Kurds. Almost all of the MPs who spoke had visited Kurdistan and were able to speak passionately having visited Halabja, Qishtapa, seen the mass graves and cemeteries and talked to survivors.
The MPs who spoke were:
Nadhim Zahawi (Conservative)
Mike Gapes (Labour)
David Lammy (Labour)
Jeremy Corbyn (Labour)
Jim Cunningham (Labour)
Meg Munn (Labour)
David Anderson (Labour)
Robert Halfon (Conservative)
Ann Clwyd (Labour)
Stephen Metcalfe (Conservative)
Bob Stewart (Conservative)
Then the Opposition and the Government Minister responded.
Nicolas Soames, the grandson of Winston Churchill, was also present.
5) What was the view of the Opposition?
The Opposition's Shadow Middle East Minister, Ian Lucas, gave the reply of the Opposition.
He said that this was an outstanding debate and that the cause of recognising the genocide in Kurdistan has noble, well informed and eloquent torchbearers. He said it was clear that the Kurdish people had suffered but recognition of genocide is a legal issue. He said recognition could have implications for retrospective action (by this we understood him to mean that if the British government - not parliament - recognised the genocide, it may be possible that someone could sue Britain for actions it took in the 1980s).
At this point, two MPs, Meg Munn and David Anderson, said that the Opposition and Government should work together to find a way to recognise genocides in order to prevent them from happening again. They called for the Opposition to meet with the KRG UK Representation to see what evidence is available so it can be taken to the international community for wider recognition.
Ian Lucas agreed to do this. He said that the discussion should continue after the debate on the best way to take the issue forward. He said this is best done collectively both within the UK and internationally.
6) How did the British Government respond?
Alistair Burt, the Minister for the Middle East, said it was an excellent but painful debate and the MPs had spoken with knowledge and passion. He spoke at length about Britain and Iraqi Kurdistan's long relationship, their cultural, trade and other ties, and his two visits to Kurdistan. He said the government officially doesn't recognise the genocide and it had already said this in response to the online petition on the subject.
But having listened to the debate, he agreed with the Opposition's point of view that collectively they should look for "a way to do more to recognise the horror and severity of what happened to the Kurds". That they should collectively think about how the UK might be able to take things forward. He said the issues that have been mentioned will be raised again. He said they will have to talk to other parliaments and governments about how things have been done.
7) Was there a vote?
Yes, once all those who wanted to speak had done so, the Deputy Speaker called for a vote and everyone present agreed with the motion. When asked if anyone opposed, no one did. So the motion was carried unanimously.
8) There were only a dozen or so people in the Chamber during the debate and the vote. Does that still mean that the motion is the view of the entire parliament?
Yes it does. The number of MPs in the Chamber isn't that important in terms of the motion being carried because no one opposed it. The motion was published a week earlier so every MP and political party had one week to oppose the motion. No one did. This and the vote after the debate mean that it is the view of the entire parliament.
9) Why were there so few MPs at the debate?
British MPs spend a lot of their time outside the Chamber. They have to meet constituents, attend committee meetings and so on. Also on the day of the debate, there was an important by-election so there were not many people in parliament in general. It is rare for the Chamber to be completely full.
10) Does the motion have to go to the House or Lords for approval and then to the Queen for it to have any effect?
That would apply if this was a law being passed. But this is not a law, it is a motion and the House of Lords and the Queen do not need to be consulted. Elected members of parliament have had their say and that is all that is needed.
11) What is the significance of the British parliament recognising the Kurdish genocide when the British government does not?
The British parliament's decision means that, outside of Iraq, there are three countries now - Britain, Sweden and Norway - that officially acknowledge the Kurdish genocide. This will undoubtedly encourage other countries to do the same and brings us one significant step nearer to international recognition by bodies such as the Council of Europe and the United Nations. Britain has a leading international profile. It is in the G8 of top world economies, a permanent member of the UN Security Council, and a leading member of NATO and the EU. Its influence goes far and wide.
We already knew the British government's position because it made a statement in January just before the international conference on the Kurdish genocide in London. We expressed our disappointment at that time but it was not a surprise. We know that governments around the world are wary of recognising any genocide because of the concern that it might have legal implications for them or their companies.
The British parliament's recognition means that we can still work on changing the view of the British and other governments. The Minister and Shadow Minister didn't do anything to stop the motion being carried in parliament and that is encouraging.
12) What is the significance of the British parliament's decision in the Kurdistan Region?
The Kurdish genocide took place over decades, starting in the 1960s if not earlier with the arabisation programme. It went on until it reached a peak in the late 1980s. During all that time, the world was largely silent either because those states didn't know what has happening or did not wish to know. So it is significant that today a parliament such as Britain's debates the subject and concludes that it was genocide and says that it will encourage others to do the same.
It is part of the Kurdish struggle to have our history and its legacy today acknowledged by the international community. It is a breakthrough for all Kurds but most of all for the victims, the survivors, and the families of those who died. It brings them closer to real justice.
13) There has been an online petition and a campaign in Britain about recognition of the Kurdish genocide. Why was that launched and what impact has it had?
On March 7 last year, Nadhim Zahawi, with the backing of the KRG UK Representation, launched an online petition calling on the British government to recognise the Kurdish genocide. The KRG UK Representation coordinated the campaign, collected signatures, raised the issue with the media and harnessed the Kurdish community as well as youth organisations such as the UK's Student Union. We gathered almost 28,000 signatures which puts us 14th out of over 6,100 online petitions currently open. So although we didn't reach our target of 100,000 signatures, we got enough and lobbied hard enough with the MPs who are friends of Kurdistan that a debate took place in parliament.
This debate in the British parliament is partly the result of that petition but also very much a result of the hard work of the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Kurdistan Region and other MPs.
14) What role did the Kurdish community play in this?
The KRG UK Representation coordinated the awareness raising and signature campaign. We asked the advice of all the Kurdish political parties, we involved many community centres, students and academic groups. Several individuals from the community helped us either by collecting signatures in all weathers or by speaking in public or to the British media about their experience of the genocide, something that is very harrowing for them.
15) Were there other petitions on this subject?
Some members of the Kurdish community have in the past couple of years launched similar petitions on this subject. As far as I'm aware, none of them explicitly encompassed the genocide starting from the 1960s in the way that this one did. We thought it important that the petition call for the recognition of the genocide of the Faylees, Barzanis, Halabja and Anfal as well as the events that preceded these in the 1960s such as the destruction of the villages and the arabisation programme. Fortunately, the community was behind the petition and I hope they're satisfied with the results so far.