In contemplating the future, it is important to know exactly what we are talking about. Supporters of the referendum have pinned their flag to two concepts: Independence and self-determination.
They say Iraqi Kurds want independence. However, like all other Iraqis, they already live in a country that is recognized as independent and is a full member of the UN.
The concept of the quest for independence applies to lands that are part of a foreign empire or the “possession” of a colonial power. Legally speaking, at least since 1932, that has not been the case in Iraq.
Self-determination is recognized as a right under international law. It was first developed after the First World War and the break-up of the Ottoman and Austro-Hungarian Empires. The idea was that people in the component parts of those empires should determine their own future, especially by deciding whether or not to form states of their own.
After the Second World War, the concept was used to provide a legal framework for decolonization as British, French and Dutch empires broke up. In the past 100 years, thanks to the concept of self-determination, over 120 new independent countries have appeared on the map.
Self-determination was established as the right of all peoples to choose their own governments and pass their own laws rather than be subject to distant foreign rulers and lawmakers. So Iraqi Kurds already enjoy self-determination because they choose their own local and national governments and lawmakers.
The suggestion that the Kurdish referendum was about independence and self-determination is bogus, to say the least. Trying to hoodwink public opinion can lead to dangerous complications in the future.
So what was the referendum really about? It was about secession, which is not the same thing as self-determination or independence. Its organizers want to detach the areas where Kurds form a majority and set up a new state.
However, while self-determination is universally recognized as a right, secession is not. It is an option, not a right. At best, it may be regarded as a desire, at worst, a folly.
Also, it has little to do with the degree of democratic development of societies. The UK is a well-established democracy but still faces secessionism from many Scots. There are secessionists in several other democracies; Quebecois in Canada, Corsicans in France, Basques and Catalans in Spain, Frisians in Denmark, Kashmiris in India and even Porto Allergens in Brazil.
The important thing is that, in all those cases, parties that support secession say so openly, seldom trying to disguise their ambition as a quest for self-determination and independence. So the first thing Barzani should do is to call a spade a spade, and openly admit that what he is seeking is secession. He should say that his aim is to break up Iraq, a multi-ethnic republic, to create a mono-ethnic Kurdish state.
Interestingly, the word Iraq, which means “lowland,” is a geographic term with no ethnic connotations. Iraqi citizenship is a civic concept, transcending ethnic, religious and racial identities. Many countries in the world are named after their majority ethnic component. Turkey is the land of the Turks and Armenia the land of Armenians. All the “stan” countries refer to ethnic majorities there. Beyond the Middle East, all but 12 of the European states are also named after ethnic components: Germany is the land of Germans and Russia the land of Russians.
Self-determination was not the issue in the Kurdish referendum, and any attempt by the Kurds’ leader at a unilateral Declaration of Independence will not end well.
However, none of the Middle Eastern countries that emerged from the break-up of the Ottoman Empire are labeled with ethnic identities. They have historic or geographic names and regard the presence of various ethnic or religious communities within their borders as a given. Even Israel, though a special case for obvious reasons, fits into that pattern if only because 27 percent of its citizens are not Jews. They are Israelis but not Israelites.
The Middle East has been the sphere of multi-ethnic empires for about 25 centuries: Assyrian, Babylonian, Persian, Roman, Byzantines, Umayyad, Abbasid, Ottomans etc. The Kurdish state that Barzani wishes to create would be the first in 2,000 years in the Middle East to claim a purely ethnic identity.
The international community recognizes the outcome of secession only if it is achieved with the consent of the country concerned. Montenegro seceded from Serbia through negotiations and was admitted into the UN. Kosovo also seceded but without consent and is still in limbo, rejected by the UN and recognized by only a handful of nations.
A referendum does not automatically bestow legitimacy on secession. Russia held them in Crimea, which it annexed from Ukraine, and in South Ossetia and Abkhazia, which it took from Georgia. No other country recognizes those secessions.
The reason is that there is no legal mechanism to recognize non-consensual secession. The International Court of Justice at The Hague made that clear by refusing to certify Kosovo’s independence. In Canada, the High Court has ruled against Quebec secession and in France Corsican secessionist demands have been thrown out by courts. In Iraq, the constitution, drafted with the full and enthusiastic participation of Barzani, excludes unilateral secession.
Finally, secession does not feature in the programs of any of the dozen or so parties active among Kurds in Iraq, Turkey, Syria, Iran, Armenia and Azerbaijan. So the next step Barzani must take is to enshrine secession in his party’s charter and manifesto for the next Iraqi general election in 2018. If he does that and obtains a mandate to seek secession, he could then demand that the central government in Baghdad enter into negotiations on the issue.
In other words, any attempt at a unilateral declaration of independence could lead only to impasse, a deadly impasse.
• Amir Taheri was executive editor in chief of the daily Kayhan in Iran from 1972 to 1979. He has worked at, or written for, innumerable publications and published 11 books.
— Originally published in Asharq Al-Awsat.