Progress | Centre-left Labour politics

Recognising genocide in Iraq

Many have heard that the Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein was responsible for killing hundreds of thousands of people. Only some will understand what was involved in the slaughter, and fewer still will know he systematically targeted the Kurdish people living in northern Iraq to remove any possibility of opposition. During the period from 1963 to the late 1980s tens of thousands of Kurdish men, women and children were murdered.

It was only in 2003 after Saddam Hussein was captured that the first of hundreds of mass graves were discovered, and the true scale of the horror revealed. Nine years later, expert forensic teams are excavating these graves and identifying the bodies so they can at last be returned home to their families for burial. Recently a petition backed by MPs and peers was launched in parliament calling on the British government to recognise that this mass murder of Iraqi Kurds was an act of genocide.

The dropping of chemical weapons in 1988 on the town of Halabja is probably the best known single atrocity committed upon the Kurdish people. Survivor Kamaran Haider, who now lives in Portsmouth, was 11 years old when the chemical weapons were dropped. As many as 5,000 men, women and children were killed, and tens of thousands of people injured in the attack. His four brothers, sister and both his parents died.

He said: ‘I lost my whole family. I watched them die in front of me. My skin was burning and I couldn’t see or move. After three days in a bomb shelter surrounded by dead bodies, I was rescued. Please sign this petition to help win justice for my family and for the thousands of people who died during the genocide.’

It’s over 60 years since the second world war but we do not forget the victims of that genocide. It was the Labour government that first ensured funding for the Holocaust Education Trust to work with schools, colleges and communities to educate people about genocide and its contemporary relevance. It ensures that each new generation learns what happened. This government has continued that commitment.

In Israel the Holocaust Memorial Museum Yad Vashem chronicles not only the murder of millions but Jewish life before the Holocaust. There is a memorial to those killed and a database of the victims. Just as happened to Jewish families at the end of the war, today many Kurdish families don’t know the fate of their loved ones.

But some say ‘why does it matter? Why not move on?’ There is the rebuilding of society to get on with – and this is important. Not just building the economy, but re-establishing the thousands of villages that were destroyed and re-establishing the essence of Kurdish life around agriculture.

But genocide is one of the worst crimes that can be committed. Think of it – the systematic killing of all the people from a national, ethnic, or religious group, or an attempt to do so. We have a duty to remember and honour the victims. The recognition of the genocide by the British government is a crucial part in ensuring that such crimes never happen again.

You can sign the e-petition here


Meg Munn MP is a former minister at the Foreign and Commonwealth Office


Photo: William John Gauthier

Progressive centre-ground Labour politics does not come for free.

It takes time, commitment and money to build a fight against the forces of conservatism. If you value the work Progress does, please support us by becoming a member, subscriber or donating.

Our work depends on you.

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

Meg Munn MP

is MP for Sheffield Heeley


  • Charity begins at home, and perhaps in historical order we should admit – and rectify? – the genocidal expulsion of the French Canadians by the British in the 18c ((somewhat to the West of the Maine/south east Canada area, from which the Acadiens/’Cajuns’ were expelled, Major George Washington was committing war crimes against French settlers under the aegis of HM government)). British repression of freedom fighters during the war of indian independence 1857-8 was not confined to those in arms, or indeed to adult males; ”hang anyone who looks suspicious” was the slogan of the British forces from Delhi to Calcutta: words of General Lawrence as quoted in the admiring biography of Lawrence by George Otto Trevelyan, official historian to the Whig establishment. He could have been quoting Goering and Hitler’s conversation about the Soviet population: ‘hang anyone who looks sideways’ (Shirer’s Rise and Fall of the Third Reich). Goebbels shrewdly adopted the British term ‘concentration camp’ from the British conduct of the war against the Afrikaners 1899-1902; so atrocious were the conditions imposed on the Afrikaner population at large that they fled TO these centres of disease and death (Emily Hobhouse). Europeans, who regarded the British attacks on the Boers much as we (well, some of us) regard the US genocidal war of aggression against Vietnam, took the hint. Brits are blithely unaware as they trill smugly as to how uniquely atrocious the Germans are….British genocidal starvation agaisnt the German and Austrian people continued long after the Armistice, well through the Versailles Conference (well,’conference’; Lenin described it as a thieves’ kitchen, granting self-determination only to selected nations – NOT the Irish……). Nor should we forget the aerial repression of the people of Iraq, often using poison gas; Churchill’s boasts about these crimes are recorded in e.g. Charmley: Churchill – the End of Glory. Neighbouring Arabs were brutalized in collusion with zionist settlers in Palestine, notably by the celebrated SS-style gangster Orde Wingate. Nor should we forget the policy-driven Bengal famine of 1942; to keep up the high British standard of living (Edgerton: The British War Machine) hundreds of thousands of Indians were deliberately starved to death (cf Goering on the Ukraine in Shirer). For the time being, let us conclude this brief paean to British civilization with the Kenyan torture and extermination camps; Hola was only one of these. Barbara Castle made herself very unpopular in our Labour Party by denouncing these mass tortures and murders conducted by ‘our heroes’. Though we should note that the continuing mass murders and expulsions of (mainly) black Libyans, notably from the town of Tawergah, were vaunted IN ADVANCE by the threats made against ‘mercenaries’ by Hague and Cameron with the keen support of our party spokesmen.
    Until and unless this record is addressed and rectified, Ms Munn’s sermonizing will be seen for what it is: a typically British piece of hypocrisy designed to wheedle into existence a new British Empire.

  • I wonder why Ms Munn shows so little interest in the history of Ottoman Asia. Hitler famously opined ‘who now remembers the Armenians?’ The imbroglio – indeed, imbrogli – of Eastern Anatolia and Greater Mesopotamia became more complex and conflictual after the decline of the Ottoman millet system of regulated interethnic social relations, under the impact of Russian and austroHungarian manoeuvring to grab slices of the Ottoman Empire. Tsarist cynical use of the Armenians as a Christian catspaw accelerated ethnic hatreds in the course of the First World War, in this area largely precipitated by British theft of two capital warships which had been paid for by private Turkish subscriptions. Kurdish recruits played a disproportionately large part in the mass murder of tens of thousands (at least) of Armenians.
    In the event, as Barry’s book A LINE IN THE SAND reminds us, it was the British and French imperial thieves who, seizing most of the loot, used the divide and rule policy, achieving, eg, the genocide of the Assyrian Christians as a predictable (and predicted) and perhaps intentional by-product. Saddam Hussein’s policy of changing alliances between the two Kurdish nations was in direct line of succession to British methods, and indeed is to be found alive and well in AngloAmerican ‘nationbuilding’ (!) in Afghanistan.
    The – no doubt pretty cynical – competition for the support of the Kurds of Northern Syria between the Assad regime and the AlQaedistic – and genocidally anti-Christian – “Free Syrian” movement has intensified Turkish repression of Kurds , no doubt Arab hostility to Kurdish claims on the oil of the Mosul area, and must have effects on the fraught plight of Kurds and nonKurdish Iranians in NW Iran. (Justin Raimundo “Christ Almighty” on, 9th august).
    In this tinderbox, what good do Ms Munn’s sermonizing bleats do for anyone? Even Zionists will resent her attempt to steal the tactical accolade of “most-murdered-people”.
    “the English middle class in one of its periodical fits of morality” (TB MacAuley) is fishing in waters too troubled for its narcissistic notions to do anything other than (hopefully marginal) harm.

  • What utter nonsense from Thomascartwright1739. Attributing blame to nations for “wrongdoings” committed in the past has moral probity ONLY if the original “wrongdoings” directly relate to contemporary practices and cultural mores. Take, for example, the actions of the Nazi regime c75 years ago in Germany. No sensible person would deem it imperative for German people today to accept moral responsibility for Hitler’s deeds (unless, of course, they are culpable and still alive) and no sensible person would want to burden presentday Germans with feelings of guilt and obligations towards financial compensation. Your concept of assigning modern blame for past actions is not only morally indefensible, it is futile, destructive and misguided. Also, in your case, I suspect your arguments are based more on a bigoted, irrational attitude to the concept of the ‘British Empire’ and less on past “wrongdoings” of other nations and empires.
    History is the thread that runs through a nation’s past but understanding history is understanding context. It is pointless to impose 21st century European moral standards on, for instance, 18th century practices (like trading in slaves). Nowadays, we (western democracies) can proclaim the ‘immorality’ of slavery (not universally held) but it was not the case 200, 300, 400, 500 years ago and more. Morality is relative, not absolute. If we assumed that contemporary ‘moral standards’ applied to ALL historic events we would be demanding repatriation of much of France and financial damages from Italy and Denmark (to name but a few) for pillage and illegal occupation.

  • There is direct political, constitutional and ideological continuity between the British governments that appear in Cartrwight’s reflections, and the present government that is assisting in the massacre regime of Libya and the murderous insurrection in Syria. (that I suppose is why he did not mention the Cromwellian massacre of English royalist soldiers and civilians in Drogheda, or his expulsion of the tribal peasants of Ulster ‘to Hell or Connacht”.) The responsibility of NATIONS was no more mentioned than slavery was. The massacre of prisoners was universally acknowledged as criminal in the 18C. The Czech government has assumed (ir)responsibility for the 1945-6 criminal expulsion of the Sudeten Germans and forced the EU to share in its complicity – within the Lisbon Treaty process. Most of Cartwright’s examples come from the C20. Perhaps Mickelmas could enlighten us as the precisely WHEN – and also WHERE – the moral divide is located. No doubt since the British torture and murder camps in 1950s Kenya. WHY does he avoid this issue – when the concealed archives are just being opened, and many of our “heroic” murders and torturers are as available as 1940s Nazi mass murders?
    As for ‘the beam that is in thine own eye’ as distinct from ‘the mote that is in they neighbour’s eye’ , every modern propaganda machinery has abused humanitarian propaganda. Goebbels learned this from the ‘Belgian nuns raped’ fabrications of the Brits in 1914-9; for a contemporary view see Robert Graves: GOODBYE TO ALL THAT.
    Sorry Mickelmas, your attitude to the British empire is bigoted and irrational indeed: a propagandistic apologist with no shame or conscience. Supporters of British imperialism (unlike the contemporary Emily Hobhouse) have no moral standing on which to label genocide. Even Meg Munn rises above your level.
    Her purported shock at attempted genocide is a bit limited, though. What about the systematic murder in order to re-use of body parts? Horrifying. Try these predicted effect of the much boasted genocidal British war against Serbia to help the so-called Kosovo Liberation Army:

    (from william Blum on
    Why, if the enemy is Islamic terrorism, did the United States shepherd Kosovo — 90% Islamist and perhaps the most gangsterish government in the world — to unilaterally declare independence from Serbia in 2008, an independence so illegitimate and artificial that the majority of the world’s nations still have not recognized it?

    Why — since Kosovo’s ruling Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA) have been known for their trafficking in women, heroin, and human body parts (sic) — has the United States been pushing for Kosovo’s membership in NATO and the European Union? (Just what the EU needs: another economic basket case.) Between 1998 and 2002, the KLA appeared on the State Department terrorist list, remaining there until the United States decided to make them an ally, due in no small part to the existence of a major American military base in Kosovo, Camp Bondsteel, well situated in relation to planned international oil and gas pipelines coming from the vast landlocked Caspian Sea area to Europe. In November 2005, following a visit to Bondsteel, Alvaro Gil-Robles, the human rights envoy of the Council of Europe, described the camp as a “smaller version of Guantánamo”.[2]

  • My attitude to past actions taken by nations and empires is not predicated on bigotry and irrationality, as you claim, but on the relativism of morality and cultural behaviours of peoples within a historic context. Even in this 21st century it is not difficult to find examples where moral, legal and cultural actions acceptable in one country may be totally abhorrent in another. The incidences of children in the UK being tortured and killed for being witches by members of their own family is abhorrent here but an acceptable aspect of behaviour in some countries in Africa (a moral/cultural attitude that would have had echoes in parts of 18th century Britain). Likewise, Western democracies are proud to proclaim their attitudes to equality of the sexes; in sharp contrast to the graphic inequalities found in many ME countries (a cultural approach in tune with much of 17th century Europe).
    There is nothing wrong with holding a moral preference in relation to the practices of various cultures. What is unacceptable is to castigate the distant (in time or space) moral and cultural actions of one society compared with some 21st century “norm”. Morallity and civilisation is evolutionary, not absolute. We don’t condemn children’s behaviour because it is less developed and sophisticated than adults – we accept the premise that it is ‘work in progress’.
    This is not to excuse ‘pure evil’, which will always appear in any society in any century and which is outside cultural norms. The 20th century has had more of its share of megalomaniacs prepared to sacrifice millions of their own people in the name of power yet, according to your version of history, these ‘evils’ pale into insignificance compared to, say Guantanamo or Drogheda! Who, now, is the deluded bigot?

Sign up to our daily roundup email