Essay: 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.

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