Iraqi Kurdish diplomat: Helping Middle East now would be cost-effective for Europe

Iraqi Kurdistan Regional Government minister of foreign relations Falah Mustafa Bakir (L) and Iraq's Foreign affairs minister Ibrahim Al-Jaafari at the start of EU-Iraq Cooperation Council in Brussels, Belgium, 18 October 2016. [EPA/OLIVIER HOSLET]

Europe should engage in the Middle East by providing technical aid and promoting investment and programmes that enhance tolerance and peaceful coexistence, said Falah Mustafa Bakir in an interview.

“If we don’t address the needs of people on the ground, they will become asylum seekers at the doors of Europe,” he warned.

Unlike the Kurdish minorities in Syria or Turkey, Kurds in Iraq enjoy a relative autonomy. Last year, the Iraqi Kurds organised an independence referendum which overwhelmingly approved their separation from Baghdad but no world power, including the EU, went along with such a scenario.

Falah Mustafa Bakir is one of the most active Iraqi Kurdish politicians who travelled the world to secure international support. He has been the foreign minister of the Kurdish Regional Government (KRG) in Iraq since 2006.

He spoke to EURACTIV Slovakia’s Lucia Yar.

The Iraqi elections held a few weeks ago had brought two peculiar moments. On the one hand, the low participation implied the frustration of the Iraqis, and on the other, the primacy was surprisingly secured by the anti-American, pro-Iranian cleric Muqtada al-Sadr. How do you assess the results of national elections?

All elections have elements of surprise, not only in Iraq. Yet we hope this is a new start for the country. If we can benefit from the mistakes of the past and be able to implement the constitutional articles, work on consensus, share the power and the wealth and be partners in decision-making, we have a chance. It is important for us to realise that this is the new opportunity, and maybe the last one.

Why the last one?

Because it is a tough time. Last year, we saw that the people of Kurdistan lost their hope for the future in the country. They wanted to exercise a very legitimate right – a right to self-determination – peacefully and democratically. We were expecting that the whole international community would respect the will of the people, yet we wanted to do it peacefully and with Baghdad. It did not happen, it seems that neither Baghdad nor the neighbourhood believe it.

Could the new government in Baghdad be of better help to Kurdistan?

The point is that we cannot have a premature judgement on the players who have won. A combination of like-mindedness between those who have the same aspiration of peace, stability, and security, working for the benefit of the Iraqi and Kurdish region would work. What can be done to send the right message to the Kurdish community, Turkmen, Christian, Yazidi, Sunni, Shia community that they are all partners?

For us in Kurdistan, there are issues that need to be addressed. Some of these are Iraq-wide issues – including the full implementation of constitution as a package; some are between Erbil and Baghdad, such as a proper mechanism of relationship or budget-sharing, the status of Peshmerga or the Kurdish language. As people of Kurdistan were denied having a state of their own, they should feel that they have a say in Iraqi politics. This way, we would be able to build trust and have a fresh start.

Although many world leaders, even the EU representatives, confirmed the support for the KRG, independence was out of the question for most. Iraqi Kurds and their leadership faced quite a disappointment.

Certainly, there was a huge disappointment of the people of Kurdistan, who expected that they – the international community – were our friends and partners, understanding the aspirations.

We said that we wanted our international partners to understand and help us, that we would not declare independence the day after, nor change the borders. Since we had declared this commitment and had been truly committed to it, we were expecting a sympathetic approach. What happened happened.

Do you regret not to change the strategy in advance, knowing that a result of the referendum will simply not be recognised in the form that had been executed?

The point is that when you talk about a democratic right, the right to self-determination, it is never wrong. But the problem is that the whole international order is in chaos. I believe there should be a revision of the UN literature and Charter. There is much talking about the rights of individuals, the rights of people, the right of self-determination, yet you handcuff them with sovereignty.

All those who tried to stop the referendum from happening could not stop the 93% of people who voted for it. That should be taken seriously. Nations do not want to live in subordination. We want to live as equals. A federal system is a system of governance that prepares the ground for sharing power and wealth. But when you deny this system, when you empty it from its content and you impose a strong central government, it does not work. It will not bring stability, nor prosperity.

Borders are sacred for some, but they are meaningless for others. Some people who are freedom fighters and sacrifice their lives for their nation are unfortunately are viewed by others as terrorists. We are labelled as terrorists. This is wrong. What gives the right to the world order to decide who should define the Kurds?

Calling Kurds terrorist is the recent rhetoric of Turkish president Erdoğan. When we talked last time, a few years ago, to my surprise you claimed that Iraqi Kurds have fine political and business relations with Turks. The situation has changed.

Our message to our neighbours is that we are a peaceful nation. We believe in cooperation and coexistence. The fact that Kurds are divided among four countries in the Middle East is not our fault. But we deal with today’s new reality and our approach is very clear.

Kurds in Syria need to have a better future – a future of their own that would be decided together with the Syrians. The same goes for the Kurds in Turkey, who should decide with the government in Turkey.

We believe in good relations and developing our bilateral ties, in political consultations, economic and cultural cooperation. And we are a safe neighbour to all our neighbours. We do not interfere in their internal affairs, and we do not pose a security threat to them, we are a neighbour that is committed to partnership. Therefore, we hope they understand the intentions of the Kurdish leadership in Iraq.

We cannot change geography and I believe we are bound together to accept each other.

How do you see the European Union´s role in the region, cooperating with the Kurds?

The EU can play an important role as it is closer to the Middle East, having more day-to-day contact with the region. Yet more commitment is needed to enhance on policy. Europe can do a lot in enhancing democracy in the Middle East – building institutions, helping the empowerment of women and the young, finding areas of common interest.

We have asked for a European commitment with Erbil and the KRG, yet everything must come through Baghdad. We are part of Iraq, but deal with us with a special program. Engage in programs that would enhance tolerance, peaceful coexistence, reject hatred and invest in culture and education. Engage with the KRG in building capacity, trying to provide a technical assistance, promoting investment and providing legal guarantees for the investors.

Secondly, when we talk about future of the Middle East, people do not feel safe or secure. Not having a future, they would decide to leave for Europe. If we do not address their needs on the ground, they will become asylum seekers at the doors of Europe. Help dealing with their problems. It would be cost-effective for Europe to do so.

The EU should not only focus on the humanitarian assistance for the displaced communities. It should go beyond that. We hope that the international community will be able to find a solution that would ensure that the region does not live in war, because the people have suffered a great deal and they need and deserve a better future.

Subscribe to our newsletters