For nearly three years, Iraqi Kurdistan has been in a state of de facto self-rule. At first glance, it appears that the international engagement in Iraq on the basis of UN Security Council Resolution 688 (Operation Provide Comfort) provided this opportunity.

The experience on the ground tells a different story. UN and NGO activities, directed by the large donor nations, have actually obstructed the rehabilitation of Kurdish society and compromised the option of self-determination. Gross violations of Resolution 688 have been tolerated in deference to Iraqi sovereignty, in contrast to persistent breaches of Iraqi sovereignty when the issue is that country’s armament industries or oil sales. The situation today is one of stalemate, with Saddam Hussein in power, the Kurds weak, and a military foothold for the US and its allies.

Iraqi Kurdistan today exists under a kind of double rule: a weak Kurdish Regional Government and a collection of international relief agencies. Donor states continue to deal with the Kurdish administration insofar as necessary to contain social unrest and prevent refugees from heading to the “civilized world,” while denying it any kind of political recognition. Given the deepening economic crisis and growing interference of neighboring states, the situation of the Iraqi Kurds does not differ substantially from that of the Kurds in Turkey, whose oppression continues with the knowledge and even support of the leading NATO states.

Providing Comfort

After the Gulf war ceasefire on February 28, 1991, Iraqis in the north and south rose up against the regime in Baghdad. The Gulf war allies stood aside as the Republican Guards, exempted from allied attacks, brutally crushed the rebellion. [1] Some 2 million Kurds fled from advancing Iraqi forces into the mountains near the Turkish and Iranian borders. According to UN assessments, more than 20,000 Iraqi Kurds died during this exodus and in the border camps. [2]

In mid-April, after Turkey refused to admit fleeing Iraqi Kurds and the media began to focus on their fate, the UN Security Council adopted Resolution 688, which demands that Baghdad stop the suppression of its citizens, especially in the Kurdish areas. The resolution mentions the violations of human rights of Iraqi citizens, Kurds and Arabs, only in the context of the threat to the stability of neighboring states created by millions of refugees streaming to their borders. [3]

On April 16, 1991, the US, Britain and France started Operation Provide Comfort, concentrating on the refugee camps near the Turkish border. Allied forces were deployed and Iraqi forces had to retreat from a declared “safe haven” area. In addition, Britain, France, Russia and the US declared a larger Iraqi area, north of the thirty-sixth parallel, a no-fly zone for fixed-wing Iraqi aircraft.

On April 18, 1991, the UN Secretary-General’s special representative, Sadruddin Agha Khan, concluded a Memorandum of Understanding with the Iraqi government. The Memorandum defined the framework of humanitarian activities necessary to organize repatriation of refugees. It obliged the UN and participating NGOs to preserve the political status quo ante, implicitly accepting the results of Baghdad’s previous policy of depopulation and destruction in Kurdistan. On June 7, 1991, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) took over the responsibility for repatriation and humanitarian assistance from the allied command.

Facing a catastrophe because tens of thousands of refugees were still massed in camps on the Iraqi side of the border, the UNHCR in late summer 1991 decided to distribute construction material in the border camps for temporary shelters for the winter. However, approximately half of the refugees returned home and used the shelter material to reconstruct their villages.

The Memorandum of Understanding was renewed in November 1991, and then expired in March 1992. UNHCR staff pulled back while negotiations for an extension of the Memorandum went on for months. During this time, relief activities were technically illegal and nearly ceased. Iraq refused to extend visas, and most NGO and UN staff members had to leave the country. [4]

A new agreement between the UN and the Iraqi government, finally signed in October 1992, forced the NGOs to cooperate directly with the Iraqi government. NGOs assisting in the resettlement of villagers in former free-fire zones (areas controlled by the Kurdish resistance prior to the uprising), for instance, had to cease their activities or continue without UN protection. Only two NGOs accepted the terms of the Memorandum. Iraqi forces made an increasing number of assaults on the “illegal” NGOs.

Meanwhile, UNICEF, the primary implementing agency for the UN Department of Humanitarian Affairs after the UNHCR pulled out in March 1992, implicitly recognized Baghdad’s blockade against Kurdistan. Instead of forcing the government to provide all parts of Iraq with fuel on equal conditions, UNICEF agreed to purchase kerosene and gasoline for the Kurdish area at the official Iraqi exchange rate, which meant paying exorbitant prices.

The main donors grew increasingly discontented with the Memorandum of Understanding and the long delay in implementing the UN’s plan of action for humanitarian assistance. In October 1992, the large donors organized a fact-finding mission to study the possibility of an alternative program via Turkey instead of Baghdad. These donors, including the EC and USAID, explicitly supported the “illegitimate” NGOs and declared their readiness to fund them. As a result, the UN struck a compromise with the donors by which NGOs working outside of the Memorandum umbrella were nevertheless covered by Resolution 688. The donors were thus able to establish a sort of twilight zone whereby the UN could coordinate activities with the Kurdish administration without recognizing Kurdish sovereignty.

The Kurdish Dynamic

After the mass exodus to the mountains in April 1991, the Kurdistan Front, which represents the two dominant parties — Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) and Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) — and a number of smaller groups, saw no alternative to negotiating with Baghdad concerning extended autonomy for Kurdistan. The US-led coalition forces told the Kurdish leaders essentially what they told PUK leader Jalal Talabani in 1988 following the genocidal Anfal campaign against the Kurds: “Make your arrangements with Saddam.” While the leadership negotiated, several smaller uprisings against the Iraqi army erupted in the major cities of Suleimaniya and Erbil. Step by step, the Front’s peshmerga (guerrilla) forces took control of Kurdish areas beyond the safe haven zone vacated by Iraqi force, with the important exception of Kirkuk. The Kurdistan Front decided to hold elections for a regional parliament after negotiations with Baghdad broke down in March 1992, while they still enjoyed the limited security provided by the ongoing international relief effort. The goal was to overcome the growing conflict between the two main parties, to delegate social and administrative tasks, and to create a democratic alternative to the central Iraqi government. From the beginning, the allies insisted that they would not recognize the elected Kurdish regime as an independent entity. [5] The Iraqi government expressed its opposition to the elections with increased bombings. After several postponements, elections were finally held on May 19, 1992. International observers declared them relatively free and democratic. [6] The KDP and PUK each won approximately 42 percent of the votes, with smaller parties sharing less than 7 percent.

The Regional Kurdish Government that emerged demanded that the UN grant it access to frozen Iraqi assets, exempt it from the terms of the embargo against Iraq as a whole and allow it to export oil to cover expenses. The Kurds also wanted the Iraqi government blockade against Kurdistan lifted. [7] The UN refused, but an escrow account was set up to cover the external costs of humanitarian resistance with the frozen Iraqi assets. The Regional Government has no access to the escrow account; nor can international donors bill projects with the Regional Government to this account.

In October 1991, the Iraqi government ceased paying salaries to state employees and reduced food rations and fuel shipments to 25 percent of the prewar level. In July 1992, food rations to the Kurdish area were stopped completely. With Iranian and Turkish restrictions on cross-border traffic, this led to severe shortages in local Kurdish markets. Due to UN sanctions, spare parts and machines for the reconstruction of the infrastructure and local industries could not be imported. At times it seemed as if UN and NGO food rations were all that sustained the Kurdish economy.

Deepening Crisis

Food prices escalated to previously unknown heights, while salaries and wages stagnated. Before the Gulf war, an average family’s needs amounted to 100 Iraqi dinars per month; the same family today needs 2,000-3,000 dinars monthly for basic food items. The fuel shortage resulted in such high transportation costs that food distribution collapsed and crops remained in the fields. Some 165,000 people are on the Kurdish administration payroll; one third of its 1.37 billion-dinar budget goes to salaries. [8] One million people — one third of the population — depend on government salaries averaging 250 dinars per month, while another 750,000 people depend on monthly UN food rations. Food is often allotted regionally, without attention to the most vulnerable groups.

After the return of the refugees in 1991, the UNHCR tried to reestablish functional departments of the Iraqi administration. In doing so, the UNHCR ignored local Kurdish initiatives. For example, Kurdish health professionals had built up a network of dispensaries in rural areas of the free-fire zones before 1990. The Iraqi Department of Health, supported by the UNHCR, refused to cooperate with this local initiative.

Since the May 1992 elections, the Kurdish administration has taken over all government departments. UN organizations cooperate in the field with the Kurdish departments in food distribution, health and education, but refuse to cooperate with the Regional Government itself. Other donors also refuse to assist the Regional Government, on diplomatic grounds. They instead fund local and international NGOs. The Kurdish administration thus remains underfunded and weak. Most international and even some local NGOs have larger budgets than the Kurdish Regional Government.

Kurdish NGOs emerged in 1991, comprising former state employees who had worked as contractors when Baghdad started its economic liberalization toward the end of the Iran-Iraq war. Now they function as subcontractors for international donors and NGOs. Local people turn to the NGOs rather than to the Kurdish administration for assistance. Even government ministers have to approach the NGOs for funds before starting a project.

In 1993, international NGOs started to integrate projects of reconstruction with agricultural, infrastructural and health activities to support the return of peasants to their destroyed villages from the overcrowded towns and “collective villages” (relocation complexes). Many projects have been successful, but follow-through and demands from areas where inhabitants feel neglected put a heavy burden on a Kurdish administration which has neither the capacity nor the resources to respond.

Internal Fragmentation

The economic crisis has led to an aggravation of contradictions and divisions within Kurdish society. International aid has been concentrated in the safe haven zone, which is also the stronghold of Masoud Barzani’s KDP. But most of Suleimaniya governorate, which is under the control of Talabani’s PUK, is outside of the safe haven zone and has been largely neglected in the international relief effort. While both parties try to mobilize resources for their areas, this imbalance in the allocation of funds and services has been one factor contributing to the conflict between these two main parties.

There are many disturbing signs of social breakdown. Assaults on women for alleged moral transgressions have increased, according to the independent women’s union. Conflicts over land and water rights have led to armed clashes between peasants and landlords. In the Pishder area, a peasant movement expelled tribal leaders who tried to reassert land rights by force.

Given the weakness of the Kurdish administration, some mustashars (former leaders of the Iraqi government’s mercenary National Defense Battalions) have reestablished their local power bases by controlling food distribution and assistance to relocation complexes and rural areas. One of these mustashars who earned notoriety during the Anfal campaign, Tahsin Shawes, controls the relocation complexes in the Chamchamal area and has conscripted a large number of armed men for a personal militia.

In early December 1993, clashes broke out in Suleimaniya between KDP forces and a breakaway group of the Socialist Party under the leadership of Hama Haji Mahmoud, a commander whose relations with Iranian authorities are widely known to be excellent. The KDP reinforced its ranks with Shawes’ militias. Only intervention by the local population prevented an escalation of these clashes.

Two weeks later, heavy fighting broke out between fighters of the Kurdish Islamic Movement and PUK forces. Armed members of the Islamic Movement occupied Rania and Chwar Qurna and assassinated some local PUK officials. In response, PUK fighters attacked Islamic Movement strongholds and occupied its headquarters. The leader of the Islamists was captured and handed over to the KDP leadership on December 16.

The Islamic Movement gained influence in Kurdish refugee camps in Iran after 1988. In the 1992 election, they came in (a distant) third, with 4 percent of the votes. The Movement enjoys Saudi and Iranian support in the form of food distribution and charitable programs, and has gained influence in slum-like relocation complexes of the internally displaced near Rania and Halabja. The Islamists are also cooperating with some former mustashars. [9]


After almost three years, the safe haven project in Iraqi Kurdistan must be regarded as a failure. The Kurds have not been protected from Iraqi, Iranian and Turkish attacks and acts of terrorism. While the framework for disaster relief is maintained, international assistance has not prevented the impoverishment of most of the population, nor the escalation of internal unrest. This policy of refugee containment has established no more than a reservation for a stateless people. The only solution is a bold one: for the international community to recognize Iraqi Kurdistan and its Regional Government, on the basis of Iraq’s 1974 autonomy law and the Iraqi constitution. [10] This should not be considered interference in Iraq’s internal affairs. States are obligated to comply with international human rights conventions, which the government of Iraq has violated severely. In accordance with a 1993 resolution of the European Parliament, an international conference under UN auspices should review the situation of the Kurds in Iraq, Turkey, Iran and Syria in terms of human rights, minority rights and international law of armed conflict, and propose a solution to the Kurdish question based on the right of self-determination within the framework of a just and peaceful order in the Middle East.

The UN system and the donor states should cooperate directly with the Kurdish Regional Government and provide serious economic assistance. Countries which supplied weapons to Iraq must commit themselves to a rehabilitation fund and to disposal of the remnants of war such as landmines. Such a compensation fund should be created under UN supervision. Resolution 688 must be enforced, and the Kurdish region exempted from UN sanctions against Iraq, as the Regional Government has demanded. Sanctions against Iraq should be eased to ensure sufficient nutrition and health care for all Iraqi people. At the same time, southern Iraq must be made accessible for international relief and UN human rights monitoring. Diplomatic recognition and serious assistance must be accompanied by real protection. A UN force with a mandate for protection and human rights monitoring should be deployed.

Military interventions, even if based on humanitarian justifications, necessarily reflect only the strategic interests of the powerful permanent members of the UN Security Council. The experience of Iraq and Kurdistan illustrates the double standard in dealing with human rights. Even after the Anfal campaign and use of chemical weapons against the Kurds, a coalition of Western and Arab countries prevented a condemnation of Iraq in the UN subcommission on human rights and in the international conference on chemical weapons in Paris in early 1989. Today, Turkey’s Kurds are making similar appeals while the same Western powers continue to build up Ankara’s military.

In order to safeguard the universality of human rights, the right to appeal to international bodies and to compel them to act must no longer be the monopoly of states. International bodies like the Security Council have to be democratized, and bodies like the new UN Human Rights Center and the International Court of Justice have to be reformed and strengthened. Stateless people like the Kurds should be allowed some form of representation in the UN General Assembly. Developments in international law toward limiting state sovereignty and toward state responsibility for essential human rights should become binding.

International discussion of intervention should concentrate on preventive diplomacy. Massive violations of human rights or the laws of armed conflict should be regarded as early signs of potential genocide. [11]

There should be a ban on the production and proliferation of indiscriminate weapons like landmines. In controlling weapons proliferation, there exists a double standard which favors the interests of leading Western states. While Iran and North Korea face international sanctions, countries like Saudi Arabia, Turkey and Indonesia continue building military capabilities which fuel ongoing conflicts and create new ones. [12]

Changes like these may seem unrealistic. But they are no less realistic than the practice of intervening in dozens of conflicts around the world, getting mired in deepening crises, and creating still more reservations for stateless refugees attempting to march northward.


[1] For an account of the uprising and its suppression see Middle East Watch, Endless Torment (New York, July 1993); and Middle East Report 176 (May-June 1992).
[2] Eric Hooglund, Middle East Report 171 (July-August 1991), p. 3.
[3] Bill Frelick, Middle East Report 176 (May-June 1992).
[4] David Keen, The Kurds in Iraq: How Safe Is Their Haven Now? (London: Save the Children, 1993), p. 46.
[5] See, for example, Margaret Tutwiler’s statement, State Department, May 15, 1992.
[6] For instance, Pax Christi International, Elections in Iraqi Kurdistan: An Experiment in Democracy (Amsterdam, August 1992).
[7] Letter of Prime Minister Fuad Masoum to the UN Secretary-General, August 1992.
[8] Khosrow Saidi, Deutsche Humanitare und Wiederaufbauhilfe fur Kurdistan-Nordirak (August 1993). Due to the fluctuating exchange rate, this is between $18-50 million.
[9] See al-Wasat, January 14, 1994.
[10] Though the autonomy established in Iraq after 1975 on the basis of this law has had very poor results, it is a legal milestone. The proposal for a new autonomy law made by the Kurdistan Front in the 1991 negotiations with Baghdad should be taken into account. For the text, see Michael M. Gunter, The Kurds of Iraq, Tragedy and Hope (New York: St. Martin’s, 1992), pp. 63-70.
[11] On prevention and early recognition of genocide, see Barbara Hauff, “Recognizing Genocides and Politicides,” in Helen Fein, ed., Genocide Watch (New York, 1992), pp. 27-41.
[12] See, for example, the British-American Security Information Council, Fueling Balkan Fires: The West’s Arming of Greece and Turkey (London and Washington, September 1993).

How to cite this article:

Ronald Ofteringer, Ralf Backer "A Republic of Statelessness," Middle East Report 187-188 (March/April 1994).

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