“There’s not much talk about the Kurds because we have never taken any hostages, never hijacked a plane. But I am proud of this.” So wrote Abd al-Rahman Qassemlou, the Iranian Kurdish leader who was assassinated in Vienna last July. The Kurdish Institute of Paris and France-Libertes, a human rights foundation sponsored by Danielle Mitterand, organized a conference in Paris October 14-15, 1989, precisely to remedy the cynical international neglect of the Kurdish question. Some French government quarters clearly had misgivings, particularly concerning the impact on relations with Iraq. A measure of French sensitivity and Iraqi pressure was an attempt to introduce into the conference the president of Iraq’s so-called Kurdish Autonomy Zone. In the end, the official Iraqi was kept waiting outside the hall and left of his own accord.

Politicians, human rights activists, academics, journalists and leaders of various sections of the Kurdish movement, as well as representatives of non-Kurdish democratic organizations in the Middle East attended. One of the eight Turkish parliamentarians present, Ibrahim Aksoy, movingly spoke about the daily harassment and violence by the military authorities against people in Turkey’s Kurdish regions. Yelena Bonner from the Soviet Union conveyed a message of support from Andrei Sakharov, who proposed that the United Nations be asked to convene a special session to consider the Kurdish question, and that the Kurds be given an observer seat at the General Assembly. Maxime Rodinson gave a characteristically erudite sketch of the communal history of the Middle East and concluded that rather than more nationalism, what was needed in the region was full respect for the rights of all the communities.

Iraqi Kurdistan has undergone the most horrendous campaign of depopulation, by chemical bombardment and forced population transfers. Those not killed have been forcibly moved to encampments (“modern villages”), mostly within Kurdistan, but some reportedly in remote desert parts of Arab Iraq, near the Jordanian border, deprived of their means of livelihood, land and livestock. Recent elections in the “Autonomous Zone” (instituted in 1974) brought forth tame Kurdish personalities loyal to Baghdad. Kurds complain that the zone’s only tangible advantage — the use of the Kurdish language in broadcasting and education — is being steadily curtailed and limited. The University of Suleimaniya, for instance, has been removed from this cultural capital of Kurdistan to Erbil, and its Kurdish character, administration and student body diluted with an influx of non-Kurds. The oil-rich areas around Kirkuk and Khanaqin (not included in the Autonomous Zone) have seen extensive settlements of Arabs. “Pacification” measures — depopulation of the countryside, razing villages and towns, destroying food resources and blocking water sources — have deprived what remains of the guerrilla forces of support or supply. The different Kurdish fighting groups, based in Iran, are confined to skirmishes just over the border. They hope to reestablish themselves in Iraqi Kurdistan, but must be aware that they are the likely victims of any peace settlement between Iran and Iraq.

Kurdish forces on each side were armed and supported by the government of the other. Iranian Kurds, who at first shared the general optimism about the Iranian Revolution, were soon disappointed by Khomeini’s pronouncement that Kurds were no different from other Muslims and should be content with an Islamic government. The same sort of “pacifying” experienced by their Iraqi counterparts followed, though without chemical weapons. Presently there may be some Kurdish military activity from bases in Iraq, and an estimated 150,000 Iranian troops are tied down in Kurdistan. Yet the Kurdish movement in Iran is divided over objectives and strategy. Qassemlou was negotiating secretly with representatives of the Iranian regime when he was assassinated, most probably by an Iranian faction. His attempt was strongly opposed by the hardline Komula grouping as well as by sections of his own Kurdish Democratic Party.

The largest section of the Kurdish population, an estimated 12 million, is in Turkey, where public use of the Kurdish language or publication of any Kurdish cultural product is punishable by many years in prison. Yet Turkey is politically more open than Iran or Iraq, and press coverage and parliamentary debates can air grievances and exert pressure. This process is reinforced by Turkish official aspirations to join the European Community. The presence of Turkish parliamentarians at this conference indicates this greater openness. True, they faced repercussions on their return, but such action by Iranian or Iraqi counterparts is unthinkable.

Nadir Nadirov, a Soviet academician, reminded the conference that Soviet Kurds were dispersed in the 1940s, away from their homelands in the republics of Azerbaijan and Armenia into various Asiatic republics, denied their language and culture and rights such as higher education. Nadirov had to petition Stalin himself for permission to move to the nearest town where he could pursue his studies.

The main objective of this conference was to confront world public opinion with the injustice and neglect still suffered by the Kurds, and to raise the Kurdish question closer to the top of the human rights agenda. Third World governments, many with shameful human rights records in their own countries, have followed Arab pressures in international forums, notably the UN Human Rights Commission, in blocking a consideration of the Kurdish question in Iraq. In the US, the administration evaded Senate attempts to impose economic sanctions. Britain, France, West Germany and the Soviet Union and its allies maintain cozy relations with Iraq and Turkey, and some with Iran, and will not allow humanitarian considerations to interfere.

One of the questions not raised at this conference was that of the ultimate objectives of the Kurdish national movement. A unified independent Kurdistan appears more remote than ever. The realistic objective is recognition of Kurdish national rights, cultural expression and some measure of administrative autonomy. Qassemlou’s slogan was “an autonomous Kurdistan within a democratic Iran.” The PKK in Turkey and Komula in Iran oppose this, offering instead a continuing struggle without tangible prospects which ultimately depends on the fickle support of neighboring governments who are oppressing their own Kurds. Yet the “democratic” component of Qassemlou’s aspirations remains elusive in the region. Without a measure of democracy and genuine political pluralism in the countries in question, any “autonomy” granted will remain a dead letter, as it is in Iraq. “Human rights and cultural identity for the Kurds” are tied up with the fate of the democratic movements in the region, and the prospects, alas, do not look bright.

How to cite this article:

Sami Zubaida "Report from Paris: The Kurdish Conference," Middle East Report 163 (March/April 1990).

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