Essay: Self determination

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  • Self determination
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“All people have the right to self-determination. By virtue of that right they freely determine their political status and freely pursue their economic, social and cultural development. ”

– The International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.

The UN Charter emphasizes that the universal recognition of the principle is fundamental to the maintenance of developing relations and peace among states. Unrecognized states and unrepresented ethnic minorities currently pose as an enormous topic of debate as nationalist movements across the globe culminate in regions that desire self-rule and international recognition as states; Kurdistan is one of the largest regions currently under debate.

This region, known formally as Kurdistan or “Greater” Kurdistan, spans Turkey, Syria, Iraq, and Iran in a roughly defined contiguous area. The Kurds, the ethnic group residing in this region, have neither a country nor a sovereign state with autonomous political identity. As of now, out of the four countries that the majority of the Kurdish people reside in, only Iraq granted them semi-autonomy in the no-fly zone. Following the recognition as an autonomous region, the Kurds have managed to set up a stable government of their own, the Kurdistan Regional Government—albeit within the federal state of Iraq.

In spite of the progressions, the increase of sectarian tensions within Iraq as a whole from 2013 onwards led to amplified violence from the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria; by 2014 the unity of Iraq was under severe threat. However, a change of leadership in the Iraqi government was followed by improved relations with Iraqi Kurdistan; with the two working together to defeat the Islamic state, plans for an independence referendum were, in effect, put on hold. The independence of Iraqi Kurdistan is feared among Iraq’s neighbors, which host their own restive Kurdish minorities. Additionally, the immediate tasks facing the Kurdish government after the 2005 constitutional settlement were great. Overall, Iraqi Kurdistan has largely exceeded all expectations in rebuilding infrastructure, creating an administration, and absorbing thousands of displaced people after years of war. But the landlocked Kurdistan region is nonetheless surrounded by countries holding animosity towards Kurdish aspirations, specifically Turkey and Iran. Disputes over several territories with the Iraqi government, such as the city of Kirkuk, further creates tension between Kurdistan and its neighboring states. Together, these factors have forestalled development on Kurdistan’s terms with achieving international recognition as a sovereign state.

Definition of Key Terms


Self-determination denotes the “legal right of a particular group of people to freely determine and control their political, economic, or social-cultural destinies”; this principle is embodied in Article I of the Charter of the United Nations.

International Recognition

Recognition in terms of international law is where a state acknowledges the status of another state or government that is in control of a state.

Internal and External Sovereignty

Having internal sovereignty means that a state is the sole authority capable of making and enforcing laws within a territory. External sovereignty, on the other hand, means the state is free from being overly dependent on the resources or decisions of another power. Both factors are usually strived for in order to gain international recognition as a sovereign state.


A nation refers to a group of people who perceive themselves as sharing culture, regarding aspects such as language, culture, and set of traditions. A state is a political authority that develops and administers laws and implements public policies in a specific territory. Hence, a nation-state combines both the political and geopolitical entities required for a state, and the cultural and ethnic aspects of a nation.

Autonomous region

An autonomous area is defined as an area of a country that has a degree of autonomy or has freedom from an external authority. However, it is not the equivalent of a sovereign state; it is often populated by an ethnic minority, as in the case of Iraqi Kurdistan.

“Greater” Kurdistan

Kurdistan, also known as “Greater” Kurdistan, is a roughly defined geo-cultural region primarily inhabited by the Kurdish people of the Middle East. Self-determination movements are prevalent over four states: Turkey, Iraq, Syria and Iran. Iraqi Kurdistan has achieved the largest degree of self-determination through the formation of the Kurdistan Regional Government, an entity recognized by the Iraqi Federal Constitution in 2005.


Post-British colonial rule

During the early 20th century, Kurds began to adopt the concept of nationalism amid the division of traditional Kurdistan among neighboring countries. The 1920 Treaty of Sevres, which created the modern states of Iraq, Syria, and Kuwait, was intended to include the possibility of a Kurdish state in the region. However, following the breakup of the Ottoman Empire, Turkey was recognized as an independent nation in 1923 when the Treaty of Lausanne was signed. Under its terms, Turkey was no longer obligated to grant Kurdish autonomy. In effect, Turkey, Iran, and Iraq each agreed not to recognize an independence Kurdish state. The Kurds have faced repression as Iraq continued its policy of not recognizing the Kurds as a minority group.

First and Second Kurdish-Iraqi Wars

Mustafa Barzani, a prominent nationalist leader in Kurdish political history, founded the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) in 1946. The party was dedicated to the creation of an independent Kurdistan. In 1961, the Kurds of northern Iraq, led by Mustafa Barzani, revolted against the government of Abdul Karim Kassem, leading to the First Kurdish-Iraq War. However, the revolt was put down swiftly by Iraq. Fighting between the Iraqi government and the Kurds continued until a peace agreement in 1970, which granted the Kurds autonomy and recognized Kurdish as an official language. When the Iraqi government proposed a draft of the autonomy agreement, Mustafa Barzani rejected the proposal, as it would have left the oilfields of Kirkuk under Iraqi government control, and called for a new rebellion. The Peace Accord collapsed, erupting into the Second Kurdish-Iraqi War in 1974. The second war ended with the exile of the KDP party.

Iran-Iraq War

After the KDP supported Iran in the 1980-1988 Iran-Iraq War, the Kurds were put down ruthlessly in Iraq; most notoriously, Saddam Hussein carried out the “al-Anfal” campaign, which entitled of deliberate targeting of Kurdish civilians with chemical weapons. The Kurds, encouraged of the United States, rebelled again after the Persian Gulf War, but were defeated again by Iraqi troops. It was only until the UN international coalition established a partial no-fly zone in 1991 that the Kurds gained control of a 15,000 square mile autonomous region in northern Iraq.

Kurdistan’s move towards unity

In 1994, civil war broke out between the two parties, both claiming jurisdiction over the whole of the Kurdish-controlled north. Later on the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), the largest opposition party to the KDP, announced a new government based in Sulaymaniyah, a city they captured from the KDP. In 1998, Jalal Talabani and Masoud Barzani, the successor of Mustafa Barzani, signed a peace agreement in Washington, however, the government of the Kurdish region remains split between the two rival parties.

US-led campaign against Iraq

In 2003, the US invaded Iraq on the basis that the country was holding nuclear weapons. The cities of Mosul and Kirkuk came under heavy fire, and were later taken by Kurdish fighters and US forces. Kurdish military forces, known as Peshmerga, played an important role in the overthrow of the Iraqi government. However, the Kurds have been reluctant to send troops into Baghdad since, preferring not to be dragged into the sectarian struggle that so dominates much of Iraq.

Key Issues

Iraq’s territorial Integrity

The secession of Kurdistan from Iraq would mean Iraq loses a large portion of its territory in the north. Furthermore, while Iraq and Syria are more open on the notion of creating a sovereign state for the Kurds, the neighboring countries of Turkey and Iran are greatly opposed to the formation. For starters, the secession of Iraqi Kurdistan would arouse nationalist unrest from the Kurds in other nations, meaning a threat to their territorial integrity as well.

Sustainability of Iraqi Kurdistan as a state

In recent years, the region’s ongoing financial crisis is reinforcing political divides. The local populations have been criticizing the Kurdistan Regional Government’s (KRB) opaque oil exports, plaguing corruption and failure to pay civil servant salaries, and questioning the legitimacy of Massoud Barzani’s recently expired presidency. These political and geographic divides could split the region administratively and create civil unrest if left unresolved, and further the supposed human rights abuses within the region. When it comes to existential threats to the Kurdistan region, the Kurds remain generally united, proudly identifying with the Peshmerga forces and generally preferring the authority of the KRG to that of Baghdad. Still, political divisions remain to be a major issue as local groups seek to gain power, resources, and recognition. The issues will continue to fester if left unchecked, and may further hinder the stability and economic development of the Iraqi Kurdistan region.

Duopoly of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) and the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP)

Since 1975, the KDP led by Masoud Barzani and the PUK headed by Jalal Talabani began fighting each other for control of the Kurdish autonomous region. By 1998, the Talabani and Barzani signed a peace agreement, ending the civil war (1994-1998) between the two rival Iraqi Kurdish factions. Barzani, the current president of Iraqi Kurdistan, has recently enacted a two-year extension to his presidency; this creates a clear division between those who regard his authority as legitimate and those who do not. Today, the government is dominated equally by both administrations after they were re-unified in 2006 in an effort to enhance Kurdish leverage in a federal Iraqi state. Competition for access to Kirkuk’s oil has emerged in recent years, not only limited between the KDP and PUK, but also with other claimants such as Iraqi populations, Baghdad, and Kirkuk officials.

Oil profits and disputes over Kirkuk

Since the beginning of Kurdish history, disputes over the oil-rich province of Kirkuk have been ongoing until this day. In 1974, the KDP attacked Iraqi troops after the government refused to give them control of Kirkuk, which was traditionally Kurdish territory, before being crushed by the Iraqi government. As aforementioned, the city was captured by Kurdish forces with the help of the US in toppling the Iraqi government. Even so, in present day the control over Kirkuk’s oil profits remains a question as the city is disputed between both parties of the KRG, Baghdad, and local Iraqi populations.

Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS)

ISIS is arguably one of the biggest issues facing the region, but this Islamist group may be the leading cause to why cooperation between the Iraqi and Kurdish government is growing. Both governments have worked together since 2013 in an effort to defeat forces from the Islamic State. However, the KRG has announced that plans for an independence referendum would be delayed, placing the fight against ISIS forces as a top priority. Without success in combatting the extremist group, the question of Kurdistan’s sovereignty may be left unanswered for a long period of time.

Major Parties Involved and Their Views


Although conflict between the central authority of Iraq and the Kurds began shortly after the defeat of the Ottoman Empire in World War I, the wars and rebellions by the Kurds generally lasted until the US invasion of Iraq in 2003. After the Hussein regime of Iraq was toppled as part of the US invasion, Kurdish autonomy finally gained recognition by the new Iraqi government. Despite the mutual recognition, relations between Iraqi Kurdistan and the Iraqi government grew strained between 2011-2012 due to power-sharing issues and the control over oil profits. However in recent years the two have grown friendly again as Iraq slowly becomes more susceptible to the idea of a sovereign Kurdish state, and as the two cooperate in efforts against ISIS.


Granted, Turkey is most strongly opposed to the idea of a separate state of Kurdistan, given that their policy does not recognize the Kurds as an ethnic minority, nor do they wish to lose territory to the formation of a new state. Animosity towards the Kurds is evident as the Turkish government withholds support for the Kurdish fighters against ISIS. Turkey, being one of the countries with the largest population of Kurds, battles with the Kurdistan Worker’s Party (PKK), which is designated as a terrorist organization by the US and several other countries. In 2007, Turkey launched air strikes on fighters from the PKK movement inside Iraq, closely pressing to the threat of an invasion. However, it is important to note that relations between the KRG and the Turkish government have been evolving as trade flourishes between the two, overcoming decades of tension. Despite so, Turkey remains obstinate on its policy towards the formation of a sovereign Kurdish state.

United States

With the aftermath of the Iraqi invasion of 2003, Kurdistan has gained major advantages as they cooperated with the US in toppling the Hussein regime. US policy towards the Kurdish details a strategic partnership as a non-state ally, and the US is an enhanced role supporting the establishment of Kurdistan. Although, the US remains reluctant on supplying arms to Kurdish fighters in the fight against ISIS. But in general, the US has generally been on good terms with Iraq’s Kurds.

Unrepresented Nations and Peoples Organization (UNPO)

The UNPO was founded as an international pro-democracy organization to facilitate the voices of unrepresented nations and peoples worldwide. Being one of the founding members, the UNPO is the only international organization in which Iraqi Kurdistan holds member status. The goal of the UNPO is to train its members in international law and organizations, diplomacy, and public relations in order for the members to gain international recognition. Their vision is to affirm democracy and uphold the universal right to autonomy and self-determination and further federalism; hence the UNPO plays a big role in expressing the aspirations of Iraqi Kurdistan.

Kurdistan Regional Government

The KRG is the official ruling body of Iraqi Kurdistan, in which has faced criticism from the local Kurds for being responsible for the region’s ongoing financial crisis. The KRG has “not only undermined necessary relations with Baghdad, but has left the region dependent on Turkey”. Although the general consensus from the Kurds agrees that the KRG has done much to reconstruct the region after decades of war and rebellions, the strengthening of this political entity is needed, especially because it is notably dominated by two major rival parties.

Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP)

Mustafa Barzani, whose son Masoud Barzani later became the current president of the region, founded the KDP in 1946. The party’s ideology is based largely around Kurdish nationalism, self-determination, populism, and conservatism, claiming to exist to combine “democratic values and social justice to form a system whereby everyone in Kurdistan can live on equal basis with great emphasis given to rights of individuals and freedom of expression.”

Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK)

A social democratic political party, the PUK was founded as a leftist party by Jalal Talabani, who was a former leader of the KDP. The PUK stands as the biggest rival party to the KDP, with clashing ideologies revolving around secularism, civic nationalism, democratic socialism, and social democracy. While the KDP worked closely with Iran during the Iran-Iraq War, the PUK was reluctant in establishing relations with Tehran.

Movement for Change

Movement for Change, otherwise known as Gorran, emerged as a new opposition left-wing party to the ruling two-party coalition of the KDP and PUK in 2009 under the leadership of Nawshirwan Mustafa. Its ideology encompasses secularism and Kurdish nationalism. One of its main objectives is to uproot rampant corruption; the party is popular with the youth of Kurdistan as it poses a new option in Kurdistan diverging from the two-party monopoly of power.

The Peshmerga Military Forces

The Peshmerga force is controlled separately by the PUK and the KDP, although both parties pledge allegiance to the Kurdistan Regional Government. By law, the Iraqi Army is forbidden from entering Iraqi Kurdistan territory, designating the Peshmerga and other Kurdish security subsidiaries (including Asayish and Zeravani) responsibility for the security of the Kurdish region. The Peshmerga and other Kurdish forces from neighboring countries have been waging an all-out war against the Islamic State in both Iraq and Syria since 2014.

Evaluation of Previous Attempts to Resolve the Issue

Aforementioned were previous significant events leading to the establishment of the autonomous area that the Kurds currently have rule over, that are United Nations Security Council Resolution 688 and the renewed Iraq Constitution of 2005.

The 1970 Peace Accord was an agreement in which the Iraqi government and the Kurds reached in the aftermath of the First Kurdish-Iraqi War, for the creation of an autonomous region. The plan intended to give Kurds representation in government bodies, and for a long time, it presented the most serious attempt to resolve the long-running Kurdish-Iraqi conflict. Having said that, the Iraqi government embarked on an Arabization program in Kirkuk and Khanaqin, leading to the rejection of this proposed plan by Mustafa Barzani; by 1973 the Accord had collapsed and a Second Kurdish-Iraqi War re-erupted.

Several decades later, the United Nations Security Council Resolution 688 established a no-fly zone in northern Iraq that granted autonomy to the Kurds, proposing a similar plan to that of the Peace Accord, however, the territory that the Kurds currently withhold now are debated and unclear. The Iraq Constitution of 2005 officially recognized the semi-autonomous rule granted to the Kurds, further advancing the region to a step closer to sovereignty. However, in the turn of recent events regarding ISIS, the independence referendum has been put on hold. Previous attempts have been largely successful in leading Iraqi Kurdistan closer to self-rule, excluding the 1970 Peace Accord, but further advancements must be made in order for the complete secession of this region from Iraq as a whole.

Possible Solutions

While the ultimate question at hand is to evaluate the merits of self-determination for the Iraqi Kurdistan people, solutions must also be proposed to strengthen the region as a whole in order for its sustainability. Economically and politically, divisions must be mitigated in order for the region to achieve stability and be self-sustaining. Aside from the internal conflicts pursuing in the region, resolutions should also be proposed to incentivize neighboring countries to allow the secession of Iraqi Kurdistan. A referendum is an unpopular idea to the neighboring Middle Eastern countries, especially to Turkey.

Clear-cut solutions are needed in order to determine the control of certain areas in the region and the oil profits. While discussion is open for both the KDP and PUK, many issues, such as a presidency crisis, remain unchecked as the division of government shows to be delaying action for the region. Another factor to consider is the presence of ISIS in the region, as this Islamist group stands in the way of an independence referendum. In general, all solutions proposed should consider all aspects of the question: self-determination, the stability of the Kurdish state, and international recognition limited by the lack of external sovereignty.

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