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The Kurds are people who majorly inhabit areas at the centre of the Middle East such as northern Syria, western Iran, northern Iraq, southern and eastern Turkey (Jongerden, 2019). In 2017, the Kurdistan Region of Iraq (KRI) through the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) conducted a referendum with intent to declare its independence from the government of Iraq. Correspondingly, the intention to conduct a referendum and the actual vote elicited harsh reaction from her immediate neighbours and majorly silence form the international community. Contrastingly, Israel was the only country that significantly came out and supported KRG’s quest for independence from Baghdad. While the referendum was supposed to be a big leap towards independence, there are doubts as to whether the Kurds will ever have an autonomous state separate from Iraq.
Kurds in the KRI were already autonomous to some extent given that they had a regional government in place, controlled oil fields and airports. This scenario of internal autonomy has been referred to by scholars as internal self-determination. However, the KRG was not satisfied with the version of internal autonomy and in response, began the processes of seceding from Iraq to form an independent state. In order to give legitimacy to the whole process, the KRG cited the legitimate ‘right to decide’ in relation to self-determination. Under international law, the right to self-determination is available to all people and nations around the world.
Sterio Milena (2017) argues that the Kurdistan independence referendum did not automatically grant the KRG the right to separate from Iraq and form their own independent state. Under international law, peoples have the right to auto determine their political fate. It means that specific groups have the right to self-governance and the right to have their own chosen political representatives. A unilateral declaration of independence involves a section of a country declaring itself as an independent sovereign state as Rhodesia did in 1923. Similarly, Kosovo in 2008 declared its independence from Serbia after a long painful journey for national self-determination. Unlike the Kurdish struggle, Kosovo had the support of 23 European Union countries, the US and Turkey (Borgen, 2008).
Just like Kosovo, KRI was an autonomous area within Iraq. Contrastingly, Kosovo has been under international administration due to the volatile nature of the area and the Albanians are ethnically homogenous (Wolff and Rodt, 2013). It follows that the creation and recognition of Kosovo as an independent state from Serbia was pegged on its unique characteristics. This appears to be more of a political approach than an international law approach to statehood and territorial integrity. For the KRI, their quest for independence was in first place met with resistance from Iraq, from which it sought to secede. It leads to the conclusion that there was never any agreement on the independence referendum.
In the UK, there was a general consensus when Scotland held an independence referendum in 2014, which ended with Scotland remaining part of UK. On the other hand, Catalonia also attempted to hold a referendum in 2014 which was met with resistance from the national government (Duclos, 2015). These two scenarios point to the differences between an agreed referendum and a unilateral referendum. It goes without saying that the Kurdistan independence referendum is to be classified as a unilateral one that did not involve a consensus between the Baghdad government and the KRG. As a unilateral referendum, it is the will of one party that is in play as opposed to one involving consensus. Although, the Scottish referendum did not result into an independent sovereign state, it lends credence to the idea that an agreed referendum is likely to allow for formation of an independent state. The same may not apply to the Kosovo independence which Russia and Serbia have maintained that should have been done with agreement of Serbia.
Therefore, the independence situation in KRI was a unilateral one that had no consensus hence unilateral in an attempt to assert Kurdish legitimate expression of self-determination. The situation would have been different if KRI had stuck to internal self-determination which is supported by article 125 of Chapter Four of the Iraqi constitution. For KRI to demand external self-determination they have to demonstrate that the Iraqi government have failed to grant them internal self-determination. Within the decolonization paradigm, self-determination is has been recognized as one of the ways of creating new states from those that were previously under colonial rule. In this decolonization context, the KRG cannot benefit from self-determination since Iraq is not a colony. This leaves the Kurds with the option of internal self-determination. Alternatively, they could go the Kosovo way but the circumstances are quite different for KRG and the Kosovo precedent is unique case that is almost impossible to replicate anywhere in the world (Sterio, 2017).
Following the Kurdistan independence in 2017, there was backlash from its immediate neighbours, the international community and Iraq. However, implications of the decision to go for a referendum was already being felt even before it was actually conducted. In fact, a day before the referendum, Iran closed its airspace to the Kurdistan and Iraqi Prime Minister called on the KRG to cancel the vote lest Erbil’s airport would remain closed from 29th of September 2017 (Charbel, 2017). Additionally, President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan expressed his displeasure at the move. Overall, there was a conceited attempt by the immediate neighbours of KRI to abort the Kurdistan foetus before it was fully formed (ibid). The question as to whether they were successful has been a hot topic for debate at the international stage.
After the referendum, the Iraqi Security Forces (ISF) seized the Kirkuk territories including Baba Gugur, its oil rich basin. Further, the Baghdad government has implemented budget cuts to the KRG (Palani et al., 2019). In Turkey, hundreds of Kurdish politicians, journalists and civilians connected to the Kurdish People’s Democratic Party have been arrested after the vote. For Iran, the Kurdish population have limited or no constitutional rights in the country with regard to political representation. In Syria, the Kurds face an ISIS threat with diminished military capacity to fight back. The overall message from the three countries neighbouring KRI is that they are not happy and are not ready to accept or recognise it as an independent sovereign state.
The international community has maintained a mute stance on the Kurdistan referendum except for a few countries (Kaplan, 2019). As an ally in the fight against ISIS, the United States was expected to side with the Kurds as it did with Kosovo. Although US interests are not directly affected by the Kurdish independence, their government has come out strongly to condemn and reject the Kurdish referendum (Ottaway, 2017). The US has had a longstanding aversion to the creation of new states and in its condemnation of the Kurdistan plight for independence, it cited instability in the region and weakening of the fight against ISIS as the reasons for its stand. Unsurprisingly, it was only Israel that supported the Kurdistan referendum, presumably in pursuit of a non-Arab ally in the region.
Undoubtedly, KRI has miserably failed in gaining international recognition for statehood following the robust condemnation from the international community (Kaplan, 2019). However, KRI must have a good reason for seeking independence. Since 2003, KRI has had a partnership with Iraq and it has been under the KRG as a regional government. From 2014-2017, the Iraqi government and ISF were drastically weakened by the fight against ISIS while KRI emerged even stronger and more determined to secede as never before. In the following discussion, this paper will delve into the theoretical concepts of unrecognized states as opposed to the internationally recognized statehood.
According to Caspersen (2012), unrecognized states must exhibit certain features in order to be strictly so called. First, it must have achieved de facto independence and controls majority of the territory it claims. Second, it must have made a declaration of independence. Third, it must be building state institutions with attempts to increase internal and external legitimacy. Fourth, it must not gained international recognition. Finally, the de facto state must existed for at least two years. Harvey and Stansfield (2011) maintains that KRI falls within the above definition is a de facto state. Therefore, the attempts at independence both in 2003 and in 2017 are paths leading to a de jure state transformation. However, de jure statehood requires international recognition which KRI has not achieved so far. Instead, KRI has been met with sharp criticism and, economic and political sabotage by Iraq and the other three neighbours.
In the end, it appears that the quest for an independent and sovereign Kurdistan has brought more pain than benefit. After 2003, KRI had a partnership agreement with Baghdad government such that they had a given level of autonomy albeit internal. It appears that they pushed their luck too much by seeking external self-determination. Interestingly, some scholars have speculated that the underlying motive for Kurdistan independence was to enhance their internal self-determination through fresh negotiations facilitated by international pressure. As it is, it is difficult to tell whether they succeeded in either of those objectives, as intended. Despite all the challenges to the quest, KRI still retains its de facto statehood as unrecognized state, and the struggle may not be over.
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