The surge in Turkish drone assaults on Kurdistani segments in Iraq and Syria, accompanied by a resounding silence from the very states and global media that are swift to address actions elsewhere, underscores a perplexing and concerning dynamic. Where is the global outcry?
September 2023 | Australian Institute of International Affairs, Dr Loqman Radpey
For well over a century, the world has witnessed the struggles of nations striving for self-determination. However, the spotlight seems to consistently evade certain narratives, leaving us to ponder the reasons behind such disparities. The perplexity deepens when a parallel is drawn between this situation and another analogous plight in the same region. While much attention has been directed towards Palestine, the struggles faced by the Kurdish nation in Kurdistan, the Middle East’s largest stateless national group, have largely languished in obscurity.
The aspirations of both Kurdistan and Palestine, along with their respective peoples, revolve around the fundamental right to self-determination, a principle enshrined in international law that asserts the right of all peoples to freely determine their political status, and to pursue their economic, social, and cultural development. While the principle seems balanced on paper, the stark contrast in attention between Palestine and Kurdistan is evident not only in media coverage and press releases but also in the realm of academia.
A cursory online search reveals the staggering difference in research funding and academic focus dedicated to the Palestine cause compared to the Kurdistan one. Over the past seven decades, the volume of studies, analyses, and discussions centered around Palestine has far surpassed that of any other self-determination struggle globally, particularly since the establishment of Israel. This disparity is further exemplified by the numerous resolutions in UN General Assembly and Human Rights Council addressing the question of Palestine. In stark contrast, in the case of Kurdistan, a single resolution — UNSC Resolution 688 — was issued in April 1991, exclusively pertaining to only a segment of Kurdistan, Southern Kurdistan in Iraq. This glaring inequality in international attention becomes even more pronounced when examining the number of resolutions targeting Israel, which has exceeded 200 since 2015. Meanwhile, the plight of the Kurds across Iran, Syria, and Turkiye has gone largely unnoticed by the international community.
In 2005, and after decades of suppression by the Iraqi state, the Iraqi Constitution extended a rare constitutional recognition to the Kurds in Southern Kurdistan, endowing them with self-governance provisions and representation within the state’s governing administration. Other repressive, unitary, and nationalist states such as Iran, Syria, and Turkiye, despite their commitment to human rights conventions, continue to withhold recognition.
Tragedies in Kurdistan have unfolded with a magnitude not to be underestimated. The loss of life there far exceeds the toll exacted by the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. In a single instance, the Iraqi regime orchestrated the mass murder of more than 5,000 innocent Kurdish civilians of Southern Kurdistan in a single day on 16 March 1988 through the use of nerve-gas. The Iranian regime’s track record includes systematic extrajudicial killings and excessive use of force against the Kurds of Eastern Kurdistan, while a disproportionately high number of Kurdish political prisoners have faced the death penalty. Economic, social, and cultural rights violations against Kurds are also pervasive, which was initiated by the Pahlavi regime.
In Turkiye, the Kurdish identity has long been denied recognition within the country’s constitution, going back to 1923. The nation has also faced numerous massacres under the Turkish state that could amount to genocide. The suppression is evident in various domains. Kurdish mayors elected by their communities have been arbitrarily removed and arrested on politically-motivated charges, replaced by government-appointed officials who have exceeded their legal terms, casting doubt upon the impartiality of the process. In Northern Kurdistan, Kurdish parliamentarians, subjected to an excessively high and discriminatory electoral threshold within the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE), have collectively been stripped of their parliamentary immunity and handed lengthy prison sentences. In Syria, prior to the protracted civil war, the Kurds of Western Kurdistan (known as Rojava) have endured Arabisation and denationalisation by the hundreds of thousands. The apparent silence of the United Nations in response to such countless and flagrant actions raises critical questions about its role in safeguarding human rights and democratic principles.
Further complicating the matter, Turkiye’s actions have not been limited to its own borders. It has infringed upon the sovereignty of Iraq and Syria, occupying parts of Rojava, committing housing, land, and property violations and effecting demographic change since 2018. Moreover, Turkiye has repeatedly initiated incursions and conducted drone strikes, leading to hundreds of civilian casualties among Kurdish forces in Western and Southern Kurdistan in Syria and Iraq, respectively. Southern Kurdistan is also not immune from the suicide drones and missile attacks by the Iranian regime, targeting dissident Kurdish parities based there.
These transgressions, which undermine international peace and security, have raised minimal international outcry. One cannot help but wonder whether the sovereignty of Iraq and Syria is viewed as less legitimate than that of other states, given the lack of concerted international response. The complaints of Turkish forces employing prohibited chemical weapons against Kurdistani forces have been met with a troubling lack of response from the international community. One must question whether NATO membership confers certain impunity to transgress international law without consequences. Each civilian casualty should warrant a headline in global media, yet such incidents often slip under the radar.
The disparity in international attention becomes even more poignant when drawing parallels to the situation between Israel and Palestine. The question arises: what distinguishes the Israel-Palestine conflict, elevating it to global prominence, while relegating the plight of the Kurds and the division of Kurdistan among the four states to relative obscurity? Israel has faced allegations of imposing apartheid on Palestinians. While these claims remain controversial, what label should be attached to the systems of Turkiye, Syria, Iran and Iraq prior to 2003, which have suppressed Kurdish rights since the end of World War I?
It is imperative to remember that all peoples hold the inherent right to self-determination. The media and academia play a pivotal role in shaping narratives and perceptions, inadvertently influencing which struggles receive recognition and which remain in the shadows. The Kurdistan case is one example, amid a myriad of others including West Papua, Baluchistan, the Rohingyas in Myanmar, Uighurs in Xinjiang (China), and various indigenous or religious minority groups in states like India, Pakistan, Indonesia and South America. As for the Kurds, there is no standing for these peoples in international law such as before the International Court of Justice. If the European Union, the UN, academia, and global media support the right to self-determination for Palestine, there should be no hindrance to a similar approach for Kurdistan.
It is a testament to the power of global media, dedicated scholars, and NGOs, intentionally or not, that propelled the Israel-Palestine issue to the forefront of international consciousness, thereby keeping it on the global agenda. However, while these global mechanisms are focused on this high-profile dispute, they often neglect to address the pressing problems that afflict the planet as a whole. This spotlight should not blind us to the real and pressing problems. A balanced and equitable distribution of attention and support across all self-determination struggles is essential for fostering a just and inclusive world order.
Dr Loqman Radpey is an independent researcher, based in Scotland. Over the past decade, he has written extensively about the legal status of the Kurdistan question and the application of international law to the right to self-determination of the Kurdish nation. Routledge is publishing his monograph, titled Towards an Independent Kurdistan: Self-Determination in International Law.