02 Nov 2023 | International Law Blog, Dr Loqman Radpey
Since the attack of the 7th October 2023, the world has been inundated with constantly updating, extensive media coverage of the conflict between Israel and Hamas. Additionally, professors, legal scholars, and academics from every corner of the globe have meticulously scrutinized every legal aspect of this longstanding and over-discussed conflict, whether through the media channels or in blog posts and on various social platforms. Their contributions have added to the already substantial body of work dedicated to exploring Israel and the Palestinian people, a subject that has been thoroughly researched and debated for several decades. The heightened focus on the Israeli-Gaza conflict today comes after a sustained two-year period of significant media and academic scrutiny on the Russian Federation’s aggression against Ukraine. This conflict also garnered substantial international attention and prompted an unparalleled response, emphasizing the importance of upholding the human rights of Ukrainian victims and refugees.
This begs a number of compelling and perhaps vexing questions: What is it that distinguishes the Israel-Palestine conflict, thrusting it into the global spotlight, while the ongoing and pressing struggles, for instance, of the Kurdish nation, the Middle East’s largest stateless national group divided among four states, remain in the shadows of obscurity? Why have scholars, who have passionately engaged with issues of international justice and human rights, not extended the same fervor and scrutiny to the Kurdistan question? This perplexing disparity in the coverage of so-called “forgotten wars” deepens when compared with other situations in the same region, the Middle East, with the direct involvement of prominent international actors like the United States and the Daesh.
While the Hamas-Israel conflict unfolds in the international news and legal websites, the less-reported narrative encompasses Turkey’s occupation of portions of Western Kurdistan (known as Rojava in Syria) since 2018. This occupation has been characterized by egregious human rights violations, including well-documented cases of ethnic cleansing targeting Kurds, and a relentless policy by Turkey to alter the demographic landscape through the settlement of thousands of non-Kurds — including Arab people supported by Palestinian and Qatari organizations — in Kurdish occupied areas such as Efrîn, Serê Kaniyê, Tell Halaf, and Girê Spî, and other regions under Turkish control. These are just some of the heinous violations committed by Turkey.
Simultaneous with Hamas’ assault on Israel, Turkey’s incursion into Rojava has led to the systematic destruction of over 145 humanitarian infrastructure installations and the killing of anti-narcotics and anti-terrorism personnel. The consequences are undeniably tragic, children, women and journalists included among the casualties. Moreover, the targeting of critical water sources, power facilities, energy infrastructure, grain storage, manufacturing plants, educational institutions, and healthcare facilities has inflicted hardship on a minimum of two million innocent individuals. These actions align with the goal of eradicating the existence of Kurdish self-rule in Western Kurdistan, which has served as a safe haven for all since 2012, despite facing ongoing Turkish aggressions since 2018. The Rojava Constitution, also referred to as the Social Contract, represents indeed a distinct approach to self-determination, forging innovative solutions for longstanding conflicts through amalgamating established principles into novel forms and introducing unprecedented elements to the region.
The lack of international attention is even more baffling when one considers the allegations of Turkey’s war crimes, alongside the human rights violations associated with the Kurdish struggle. However, in stark contrast to the Hamas-Israel and Ukraine-Russia conflicts, this ongoing tragedy barely registers in global headlines or diplomatic circles. It is perplexing that international law scholars and academics, who are typically outspoken on matters of international justice and human rights, have remained largely silent regarding the plight of the Kurds.
What further exacerbates the conundrum is the relative acquiescence surrounding Turkey’s repeated violations of Iraq and Syria’s sovereignty. Is the sovereignty of externally created state of Iraq and Syria is perceived as less legitimate than that of other states? One might wonder whether some states are considered more equal than others. Iran and Turkey’s use of military drones and jets in cross-border incursions has led to the tragic loss of civilian lives and the devastation of cities, villages, and UN refugees’ camps across the Kurdistani segments in Iraq and Syria. There have even been accusations of prohibited chemical weapons usage against Kurdistani forces by Turkish military, resulting in an alarming lack of response from the international law academics and international organizations, and the international community.
No need to reiterate the historical plight of the Kurds spanning the last century across Iran, Iraq, Syria, and Turkey, as it was briefly covered in a recent post on EJIL:Talk. Kurds continue their struggle across their host states for their most basic human rights and recognition as a distinct national group. Yet their efforts have received far less attention than similar movements worldwide. So, the question remains: What lies at the heart of this striking contrast? Why have academic institutions, human rights organizations, and international legal scholars allocated substantial resources, attention, and debate to the Israel-Palestine conflict while allocating minimal resources to the Kurdistan question and the injustices faced by the Kurdish people?
Academics have traditionally played a vital role in shaping global discourse and policy on similar conflicts. Their voices are often instrumental in advocating for accountability, justice, and the protection of the vulnerable. Yet, when it comes to the Kurds, the silence is deafening. The lack of rigorous scholarly inquiry into the legal and ethical dimensions of the case of Kurdistan further exacerbates this puzzle. The allocation of resources, including funding for research within academia and think thanks and governments, advocacy, and media campaigns, can significantly impact the level of global attention a particular issue receives. Inadequate attention to the Kurdistan case and the Kurdish struggle raises profound questions about the consistency of international law, the role of academic institutions, and the ethical imperatives that should guide global advocacy.
There is no locus standi to the Kurds in international law such as before the International Court of Justice, the International Criminal Court, the UN or other international organizations. It is both an academic and ethical imperative to shine a light on Kurdistan as a case of self-determination, ensuring that the Kurds’ voice is heard, and to work toward a more equitable global discourse on matters of justice and human rights. The international community should no longer remain a passive bystander at the Kurds’ slaughter but, instead, actively demonstrate pragmatism and grant legal entitlement to the nationalist consciousness of the Kurds, ensuring the protection of their rights as a national group suffering from systemic persecution, by Iraq prior to 2003 and currently by the three states of Iran, Syria and Turkey.
Dr Loqman Radpey, researcher at the Edinburgh Centre for International and Global Law