Remembering the Holocaust in every new generation is now solidly anchored in many countries, but this took many years to establish according to Gillian Walnes MBE of the Anne Frank Trust in the UK.
She was one of 40 senior speakers at last week’s international conference in Westminster on the untold story of the Kurdish genocide, organised by the UK High Representation of the Kurdistan Regional Government, and which attracted nearly 300 people.
Walnes told the conference that the emotional trauma was so profound for the survivors that they kept silent for years as they struggled to overcome guilt that they had made it through Hitler’s maw while so many others died and because many were anxious to protect their children from their nightmares. The momentum to mark the Holocaust only took off in the early 1960s.
It is also taking time to understand and mark the genocide against the Kurds, which has many echoes of the Holocaust. Many genocides start slowly and become increasingly organised. This one began with demonisation, proceeded to forcible resettlement including the mass deportation to Iran of Shia Kurds, the abduction and murder of 8,000 male Barzanis in 1983 before Saddam’s killing machine became industrial and murderously meticulous. Thousands of Kurdish villages were bombed and bulldozed to smithereens. Every living thing in the countryside was shot on sight. Wells were capped. Chemical weapons were used against Halabja and other towns.
Initially, the scale of this genocide was hidden. It took time for brave people to prove that chemical weapons had been used at Halabja. Another speaker, former US diplomat, Peter Galbraith, who played a vital role in highlighting Halabja, told the conference that America muddied the waters by falsely claiming that Iran carried out the chemical attacks. This was during the cynical Cold War era when competing superpowers sought allies at any cost. Saddam was seen as a bulwark against Iran who could be denied to the Soviet bloc.
The Kurds were lucky that Saddam then over-reached himself by invading Kuwait in 1990. When he was dislodged in 1991, the Iraqi Kurds and the Shia were encouraged to rise up. They did and were crushed thanks to the amazing decision of General Schwarzkopf to permit Saddam to use fixed wing aircraft which pursued the rebels.
Many thousands of Kurds fled to the freezing mountains and Saddam was set to finish them off once and for all. Thankfully, public outrage forced the international community to institute a no-fly zone and a safe haven which allowed the fledgling Kurdistan Region to begin rebuilding, a process accelerated when Saddam was finally deposed in 2003.
The Kurdistan Region is now undoubtedly the safest and most stable part of Iraq. It has been able to raise living standards, democratise, reform and build a vibrant energy sector from nothing – its vast potential was deliberately neglected by Saddam, for whom it was futile finding oil and gas for a people being lined up for elimination.
One of the biggest positive changes is a blossoming relationship with neighbouring Turkey thanks to commercial imperatives but which could also help stop the decades-long war between Turkey and the PKK. One hopes that the dreadful assassination of three Kurdish women in Paris doesn’t sabotage this.
Yet genocide still casts a huge shadow. Nearly 200,000 died in just a few months in the late 80s, with many more beforehand. Every Kurdish family has been physically and psychologically affected. Mass graves continue to be discovered. Agriculture is a pale shadow of its former self. Worse still, poisonous anti-Kurdish prejudice that sustained the genocide still animates some Arab nationalists with an increasingly centralised and authoritarian government in Baghdad seeking to kybosh Kurdish achievements.
Recognising the reality of this genocide is morally right in its own terms but could also make it harder to recur. Galbraith argues holding tyrants to account for their actions is a ‘strategic necessity’ because unacknowledged crimes only make it easier for others to follow suit.
Bernard Kouchner, former French foreign minister and another long-term friend of the Kurds, also told the conference that human rights should be enforced in real-time not just after the fact. This is the basis of the UN’s often invisible doctrine of the ‘responsibility to protect’ which hasn’t stopped 60,000 deaths in Syria nor the possible use of chemical weapons, which if not already deployed, would be a frightening reminder of Halabja where 5,000 people died in just a few hours.
The campaign to urge the UK and others to recognise formally the Kurdish genocide through an e petition sponsored by the British-Kurdish MP Nadhim Zahawi is nearing its end. Its nearly 30,000 supporters puts it in the top 20 of 16,000 e petitions and has done much to lift the veil on the genocide. You can sign at http://epetitions.direct.gov.uk/petitions/31014
The British government has recently responded to it. Positively, it recognises the unique suffering of the Kurds and encourages friendship and partnership with the Kurds, including those in Britain. Negatively, on recognition, its says that ‘it is not for governments to decide whether a genocide has been committed in this case, as this is a complex legal question.’ It says vaguely that recognition by an international judicial body will often play an important part in a British decision.
This weak position need not be the final word on the matter. A continuing cross-party campaign should encourage Britain to follow the example of Iraqi courts and parliament in recognising this genocide and help mark it similarly to the Holocaust.
Gary Kent is administrator of the All-Party Parliamentary Group on the Kurdistan Region. He tweets @GaryKent
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