I beg to move,
That this House formally recognises the genocide against the people of Iraqi Kurdistan; encourages governments, the EU and UN to do likewise; believes that this will enable Kurdish people, many in the UK, to achieve justice for their considerable loss; and further believes that it would enable the UK, the home of democracy and freedom, to send out a message of support for international conventions and human rights, which is made even more pressing by the slaughter in Syria and the possible use of chemical arsenals.
You will have noticed, Mr Deputy Speaker, that I do not stand in my usual place in the Chamber. I deliberately chose to sit next to my hon. Friend the Member for Harlow (Robert Halfon) today, because in this Parliament I think no one has done more than he has for the cause of the Kurdish people and recognition of the genocide—indeed, he chairs the Kurdish Genocide Task Force.
As the horrors of the holocaust pass beyond living memory, there is a danger that we drop our guard—that we believe such terrible events are safely sealed in the history books and that they could never happen again—but the truth is they already have happened again. Genocide did not end with the fall of the Third Reich in 1945. In the Srebrenica genocide in 1995, 8,000 Bosnians were murdered en masse; in the Rwandan genocide in 1994, more than 500,000 people were killed in just 100 days; and between 1960 and 1991, during the campaign of persecution unleashed by Saddam Hussein against his own people, singling out the Kurdish community, more than 1 million people “disappeared”, with most presumed dead, murdered by Government forces. Yet only the first two have been recognised officially as genocide. No international criminal tribunal has been convened to investigate the extermination of the Kurdish people, nor has there been an international campaign to bring those responsible for those atrocities to justice, and the British government have not formally stated that the actions of Saddam and his lieutenants constituted genocide. That must be put right.
To many people, the plight of the Kurds in Iraq remains unknown. The demonisation, the internment camps, the gassings, the mass graves—those are images that take us to the darkest depths of the 1940s, not the 1980s, yet Saddam Hussein and the Ba'athist regime carried out these actions. The Iraqi Kurds endured a systematic military programme of discrimination, demonisation, removal and death. So-called “men of battle age”—a definition that included tall, strong boys as young as 12—were rounded up, and thousands of women and children vanished. Strong evidence shows many were taken to internment camps, where they were executed or died from malnutrition and torture. When coalition forces entered Iraq looking for weapons of mass destruction, they found instead mass graves and the thousands of bodies that they were concealing—men, women, and children, all killed for nothing other than their ethnicity, their bodies hidden from the eyes of the world.
This year is the 25th anniversary of the final act in that persecution: the Anfal campaign—literally translated, it means “the spoils of war”. That last and best known phase took place in 1988, when more than 182,000 Kurds are believed to have died—182,000 men, women and children systematically wiped out. In all, more than 2,000 Kurdish villages and towns were destroyed, including the town of Qla Dizeh, which along with its 70,000 inhabitants was literally wiped off the map. Let me put that in context: that is enough people to fill Wembley stadium twice over, or, if compared with the horrors of the September 11 attacks against the USA, 60 times the 3,000 innocents killed on that terrible day. Yet even that was not the worst of it.
On 16 March 1988, Iraqi planes bombed the town of Halabja with mustard gas and, some suspect, other nerve agents such as sarin and VX. Five thousand civilians died in incredible agony that day, and estimates suggest a further 7,000 were injured or suffered long-term illness. For years afterwards, many babies were born with deformities, and even today, if you visit Halabja as I have done, Mr Deputy Speaker, you will see mass grave sites, and the basements of bombed buildings remain contaminated.
For me the events hold a personal significance. I am proud to be the first British MP of Kurdish descent. It was the persecution of the Kurdish people that brought my family to the safe haven of Great Britain. I remember, as an eight-year-old boy, standing with my mother in Baghdad international airport watching my father attempt to flee the country, boarding a plane to the safe haven of Britain. The night before, he had been tipped off that the regime was planning to come for him. As the plane taxied towards the runway, we watched in horror as an army vehicle stopped the plane and soldiers boarded it. It was only later that we discovered that they had taken the man sat right next to my father. That was the life of a Kurdish family in Iraq—waiting for the knock on the door in the middle of the night, knowing that they could be coming for you, living in fear.
In 1988, as news of Halabja reached the Kurdish community overseas, we all waited for the media to take notice. In a box in my attic, I have some of the first photographs to get out of the region. As hon. Members can imagine, they are horrifying. Yet Saddam's spin machine had gone into overdrive—no gas had been used, they said—and the first western journalists did not visit the area until more than a week later. What confronted them was truly terrible. Writing in The Guardian, David Hirst described the scene:
“The skin of the bodies is strangely discoloured, with their eyes open and staring, where they have not disappeared into their sockets, a greyish slime oozing from their mouths and their fingers still grotesquely twisted. Death seemingly caught them almost unawares in the midst of their household chores. They had just the strength, some of them, to make it to the doorways of their homes, only to collapse there or a few feet beyond. Here a mother seems to clasp her children in a last embrace, there an old man shields an infant from he cannot have known what.”
Even after that there was still scepticism from many, yet that was just the culmination of a decade-long campaign against the Kurdish people, the final stage of the regime's attempts to wipe out the Kurdish people in Iraq. Saddam had unleashed all the resources of a modern, industrialised state on the Kurdish population of his own country. His forces used chemical weapons, concentration camps and aerial bombardment—all methods that were last seen during the second world war. If it was not genocide, one has to ask what would be?
The crime of genocide was brought into law to prosecute those put on trial at Nuremberg. The word comes from the Greek for race and the Latin for killing. The literal meaning is clear, but legally it requires the aggressor to have pre-planned the destruction of a national group. In its investigation, Human Rights Watch was clear that that was the case:
“This crime far transcended legitimate counterinsurgency and includes the murder and disappearance of tens of thousands of non-combatants due to their ethnic-national identity.”
The fact that some of the atrocities took place during the Iran-Iraq war or during a time of uprising have led some to argue that they were war crimes or crimes against humanity, but I disagree. There is no doubt that atrocities were committed in the conflict, but what occurred in Kurdistan—the mass killing of civilians, including women and children—was not a conflict; one side could not and did not fight back. And it was not random violence; it was the planned destruction of the Kurdish population.
Prior to requesting this debate, I launched an e-petition calling on the Government to recognise formally the genocide against the people of Iraqi Kurdistan, and as of this morning it had attracted nearly 28,000 signatures. At 10,000 signatures, it received a response from the Government:
“It remains the Government’s view that it is not for governments to decide whether a genocide has been committed in this case, as this is a complex legal question. Where an international judicial body finds a crime to have been a genocide, however, this will often play an important part in whether we will recognise one as such.”
However, without international pressure it is unlikely that an international judicial body would begin a prosecution in order to provide that “important part” that the Government require.
There is also the fact that many of those responsible, including Saddam himself, were tried and executed for other crimes before an international court could intervene on the question of genocide. However, in March 2010 the Iraqi Supreme Court ruled that the 1988 operations were genocide, four years after Saddam was executed for crimes against humanity. There is no doubt now that he should also have stood trial for genocide.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for giving way and apologise for being a couple of minutes late for the start of his speech, which caught me out. I think that he is making a very strong case. Other Parliaments, such as Norway’s, have already said that in their opinion there was genocide, so the British Government need to reconsider their position.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his intervention. He is absolutely right, and I am coming to that point in my speech.
The Iraqi Supreme Court has ruled that the 1988 operations were genocide. Earlier this year the Norwegian Government, as we have just heard, recognised the Anfal campaign as genocide, stating that the judgment in Iraq, in accordance with international law, justified that decision. Sweden followed, with the Swedish Parliament stating that, based on research, statements from organisations and the 2010 judgment in Iraq, it was legally able to make that declaration. In the Netherlands, we have even seen a Dutch citizen successfully prosecuted for his part in the genocide: Frans van Anraat was tried at The Hague and charged, among other things, with selling chemicals knowing that they were to be used for genocidal purposes. Such a charge required the court to decide whether the Anfal campaign was indeed genocide. Unsurprisingly, it agreed that it was. Therefore, there exists a judicial decision in Iraq, a decision at The Hague and the decisions of other nations to support a declaration that the Kurds were subjected to genocide. The United Kingdom can act to make it clear to the world that this Government recognise the genocide committed against the Kurdish people.
Beyond the legal arguments there is another important dimension. The United Kingdom carries enormous moral weight around the world. I am proud that Britain is at the forefront of the international community when it comes to protecting human rights and standing up to regimes that threaten their people and their neighbours. That is why we must be at the forefront of this argument.
I stand shoulder to shoulder with the hon. Gentleman in his desire to see this recognised as genocide. In relation to the point he has just made, does he not also think that that would bolster the position of the 38 million Kurdish people living in Syria, Iran, Iraq and Turkey today? Does he also believe that, given the tremendous concern about the position of Kurdish people in Turkey at the moment, it is important that we recognise those past sins?
I thank the right hon. Gentleman for his intervention. He is quite right. I do not think that the Kurdish people can get closure on the horrific crimes that were committed against them in Iraq, but if Parliament today recognises that what took place was genocide, they will be one step closer. We will also send a clear message to all those countries that might at some point be tempted to attack their own people because of their ethnicity to think twice. I thank him for being here and for supporting the motion.
I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing the debate and on his speech, which will do a great deal to create greater understanding of the plight of Kurdish people in all countries. Will he reflect for a moment on the fact that, although what happened in 1988 was genocide and was appalling, this country, to its shame, continued to sell arms to Iraq, and indeed took part in the Baghdad arms fair less than a year later, and that the weaponry it continued to supply might well have been used in the oppression of the Kurdish people?
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his intervention. As I said in my opening remarks, Saddam Hussein’s spin machine and many instruments of power were available to him, including a number of people who lobbied this Parliament and the Government very hard at the time to continue to do business with him. At this point, I must recognise John Major’s contribution to safeguarding the Kurds in ’91 when Saddam used his helicopter gunships to attack the Kurdish people after Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait. This country decided to put in place a no-fly zone to protect the Kurdish people and the Shi’a people in the south of Iraq, who were coming under similar attack.
I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing the debate. Does he see what he is asking for today as a step towards justice for the Kurdish people across various countries in the middle east, such as Turkey, which has been mentioned? As I see it, he has done the Kurdish people quite a service today if this can start the ball rolling for justice for them across the region, particularly in Turkey.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for that intervention. If we recognise what took place in Iraq as genocide against the Kurdish people, we will send a clear message to all leaders in the region that they should think twice before deciding to attack their own people, as we are seeing currently in Syria. Indeed, today a conference is being held in Rome, attended by the Foreign Secretary, to try to see what more we can do to safeguard the welfare of the Syrian people.
I am truly proud that Britain is at the forefront of the international community’s efforts to protect human rights. Recognising the Kurdish persecution as genocide will send a strong message to totalitarian regimes around the world that might consider committing such acts. After all, history has shown that when a dictator thinks they will get away with it, they will commit atrocities against their own people. We need only turn our gaze to Syria to remind ourselves of that.
It is only by raising international awareness of these crimes that we will educate people against the intolerance and hatred that led to these heinous acts. It is only by proving that the perpetrators of these crimes can and will be brought to justice that we will make the dictators of this world think before they act. It is by recognising the Kurdish genocide that we can ensure that these aims are achieved and that the British nation can cement its position as a protector of liberty and human rights. I commend the motion to the House.
I refer to my entries in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests.
It is an honour to speak in this important debate. Over the past five years I have been involved with the all-party group on the Kurdistan region in Iraq, which I am now proud to co-chair with my hon. Friend the Member for Stratford-on-Avon (Nadhim Zahawi), who eloquently set out the reason for this debate. The all-party group is very active and has an excellent website with a range of views and news. Members can look at the issues relating to Kurdistan and to this debate on that website at www.appgkurdistan.org.uk.
Genocide, as my hon. Friend said, is the methodical killing of all the people from a particular national, ethnic or religious group. Today’s debate is an important milestone towards persuading this House, the wider public and the international community to recognise the attempted genocide of the Kurdish people in Iraq by Saddam Hussein. As my hon. Friend said, an estimated 1 million Iraqis have disappeared since the 1960s, all presumed murdered by the regime. This year marks the 25th anniversary of the Anfal genocide operation against the Kurds, including the dreadful chemical attack on Halabja, as well as the 30th anniversary of the killing of 8,000 male members of the Barzani clan.
The scale of these atrocities is clear and not seriously challenged, but few outside the Kurdistan region understand what was involved in the mass slaughter, and fewer still understand the organisation and methods used in what has been described as “Saddam’s killing machine”. It has been referred to as a prison above ground and a mass grave beneath. The targeting of the Kurdish people living in northern Iraq was designed to remove any possibility of opposition to the vile regime. Last night, I watched again two DVDs that have been produced by the Iraqi Ministry of Human Rights about the terrible crimes committed by Saddam Hussein’s regime: “Execution of People” and “Dust Talks”. They include pictures of some of the atrocities filmed by the regime, including shootings, beatings and the severing of ears of young men who had deserted the army. They show the devastation of the way of life of the Marsh Arabs by the deliberate draining of the marshes, and of course the chemical attacks at Halabja and elsewhere.
Today we have only words to try to describe what happened, and I fear that they will fall short of portraying the full horror. These monstrous events have a contemporary relevance. Many families still do not know if a father, brother or sister is dead or not, and do not know where their body may be buried, perhaps in some undiscovered mass grave. Not knowing about the fate of a member of the family weighs heavily. The impact of the killing continues and will continue for many, many years to come.
It is important to remember just how closed and controlled a society Iraq was. There were few opportunities for contact with the outside world. After the no-fly zone was imposed over Kurdistan in 1991, people at last had the opportunity to begin to develop their own democracy and to make their own decisions, but sustained contact with the outside world really began only after the 2003 invasion. Only then did we slowly begin to understand the true scale of the horror. According to the International Commission on Missing Persons in 2006, there were 270 mass graves, each estimated to contain between 10 and 10,000 bodies. Since then, many, many more mass graves have been uncovered.
Of course, it was not just the Kurds who suffered under Saddam Hussein. The impact of 35 years of dictatorship is still very evident in all sections of the Iraqi population. I have visited Iraq a number of times and have been privileged to meet the politicians who are building their democracy. Some have shared with me their experiences of that dark time: family members killed, tortured or simply missing. The number of widows in the country is simply huge. In Kurdistan today, many children are affected with cancers caused by the chemical weapons. Others live with the effects of barbaric torture.
Ten years after the fall of the dictator, the health services are far from adequate to meet the needs of the population, but they are improving. In the UK, we have benefited from the Iraqi doctors who came here to work during the time of exile, and it is encouraging to see that many have returned and are now working to improve health services in their home country. Indeed, it was an Iraqi doctor in Sheffield who began the process which has led to significant partnerships between Sheffield Hallam university and the Iraqi Ministry of Health and Iraqi universities to provide much-needed skills for the health service. A strong partnership has also developed with the Kurdistan Regional Government.
Great support has also been given by members of the Newcastle-Gateshead medical volunteers, led by Deiary Kader, who, as well as the people from Sheffield, have been going over to Kurdistan to treat people for a number of years. Next month, they will go there for the eighth time. Over those years, thousands and thousands of people have benefited from the relationship that we have developed between our two countries.
I thank my hon. Friend for bringing that partnership to the attention of the House. It is true that in the UK there are very many doctors of Iraqi and Iraqi-Kurdish origin. While they have continued to serve and provide support for our community, they are also doing such things as my hon. Friend described and doing what they can at a time when the health services in Iraq still need a great deal of investment to develop to serve an ordinary population, let alone one that has suffered the kind of trauma, torture and chemical attacks that have been suffered in Iraq, particularly in Kurdistan.
Alongside the physical impact of repression on the population, we must not underestimate the psychological effects: living with the grief of lost family members, remembering the terror of attacks and, above all, the constant fear. As a woman says in one of the DVDs I mentioned, Iraqi people had no dignity because they had to sell out their consciences to Saddam Hussein to stay alive.
Thirty-five years of dictatorship are not easily forgotten, but there have been positive moments since the 2003 invasion. We remember the TV pictures of the purple-stained fingers shown with pride when the Iraqi people were able to exercise the right to vote—something that we take for granted. They were excited about being able to take part in the first democratic elections. But of course voting is only the first act; building the institutions and democratic habits are much more difficult—all the more so when people have not been allowed to make their own decisions, and acting on their own initiative was a risky thing to do.
My involvement with the Kurdistan regional and Iraqi national parliaments has shown me just how difficult this task is, but it is a task to which many brave Iraqis are committed. To take on these tasks and build a new society is complex and demanding; it will take time, dedication and determination. We should continue to support them in this. An important way to do that is formally to recognise what happened to them. Former French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner argues that
“human rights should mean that people are protected within their own countries”.
When these rights are violated, it is the duty of the international community to honour victims and to ensure that history cannot repeat itself. If democratic Governments cannot be clear about genocide and say that such crimes must be stamped out, then who will?
I thank my hon. Friend for the interesting points she is making. Does she accept that there is systematic discrimination against Kurdish people, culture and language in all the neighbouring countries—it is a product of the break-up of the Ottoman empire at the end of the first world war—and that those countries have to reckon with a multicultural, multilingual and multi-ethnic society if there is to be long-term peace in the region?
Building the kind of society described by my hon. Friend, which recognises people’s rights to their own language and culture and to celebrate their background, is enormously important and very much part of this process. Although building democracy in Iraq and working with Iraqi parliamentarians is difficult, it is encouraging to see Iraqis across all political groups and backgrounds working together. The services and reconstruction committee of the Iraqi Parliament will visit us next week. It is chaired by a Kurdish-Yezidi woman and is comprised of people from different backgrounds who are working together to try to build things for the Iraqi people. I agree with much of what my hon. Friend has said.
My hon. Friend spoke eloquently of the position in France and that of the French Foreign Minister. Does she recall that just a few weeks ago three Kurdish women were shot dead in Paris? That conveys the continued concern that we should all have about Kurdish people as they go about their business in Europe. It also illustrates not only why we must recognise genocide, as has been said, but that these are a people who continue to be routinely oppressed.
My right hon. Friend is right. I have particular concerns about the position of Kurdish people and, indeed, others. More than 70,000 have died in Syria and there is an ever-present fear of chemical weapons being used by that regime, which is a frightening reminder of the Halabja gas attack. As has been said, some of the effects of the 16 March 1988 attack on Halabja are still with us, including disease, birth defects and other health complications. Can we easily accept the possibility that more victims of these weapons could arise today in Iraq’s neighbouring country?
We know of the genocide perpetrated against the Jews by the Nazis during the second world war and the excellent work undertaken by organisations such as the Holocaust Educational Trust to educate new generations about the horror. Every year we have Holocaust memorial day to honour the dead and ensure that they are not forgotten. The story of the Kurdish genocide has yet to be fully told and is not yet fully understood, but the Kurdish people should not have to wait any longer for justice from the international community. Iraq has officially recognised the killings as genocide and the rest of the world must do the same.
It is an honour to sit next to my hon. Friend the Member for Stratford-on-Avon (Nadhim Zahawi), whom I congratulate on securing this debate and on everything he has done on the all-party group on the Kurdistan region in Iraq, on which I have been very proud to work with him.
During my last visit to Kurdistan, I remember being in a restaurant one evening where, by chance, I sat next to one of the senior members of the Iraqi war graves commission. She told me something incredibly telling, which sums up why I am here this afternoon: “There is another Iraq buried under Iraq.” We had a huge amount of food in front of us, as is the Kurdish way, but after she said that I did not feel like eating again that evening. It summed up the mass murder and terrible crimes of Saddam Hussein. Later, along with my hon. Friend the Member for South Basildon and East Thurrock (Stephen Metcalfe) and others, I went to see some of the graves. The experience left a marked impression on me and it summed up why we have to recognise Saddam Hussein’s genocide of the Kurds as exactly that.
We know that the actions of the Iraqi regime from the 1960s to 2003 were a sustained campaign of genocide against the Kurdish people. We must not make the mistake of thinking that everything started with the Anfal campaign in 1988. Had it not been for “muscular enlightenment” and the military interventions of John Major and, later, Tony Blair, the final solution for the extermination of the Kurds would have been successful. Recognition of the genocide and of the Kurds is important, not just because it is morally right, but because it is a warning to tyrants around the world and helps the survivors to fight for justice in the international criminal courts.
Raphael Lemkin, the Polish lawyer who coined the word “genocide,” defined it in 1944 as
“a coordinated plan of different actions aiming at the destruction of essential foundations of the life of national groups, with the aim of annihilating the groups themselves.”
That is a perfect description of the campaign of persecution and murder that Saddam Hussein and his predecessors led against the Kurdish people. The Kurds were repeatedly attacked by the Iraqi military from 1960 to 1970. In March 1970, Iraq publicly announced a peace plan to the world for Kurdish autonomy, but privately it started an aggressive Arabisation programme in the oil-rich regions of Kurdistan, forcibly removing people and seizing their property. In 1974, Iraq began a new bombardment against the Kurds. In March 1975, Iraq and Iran signed the Algiers accord, cutting humanitarian supplies to Kurdistan. Over the next three years, 200,000 Kurds were forcibly deported to other parts of Iraq. During the Iran-Iraq war in the 1980s, the regime implemented anti-Kurdish policies—pogroms, in essence—and a civil war broke out.
Iraq was condemned, but it was never seriously punished. The result was that the genocide accelerated: first, the Kurds were demonised, then they were marginalised, then persecuted, and finally they were massacred—all the stages of genocide. Between 1986 and 1989, the Anfal campaign led to the destruction of more than 2,000 villages and towns, and the murder of more than 180,000 Kurdish civilians. There was cold-blooded use of ground offences, internment without trial, disappearances, aerial bombing, torture and rape as a weapon of war, destruction of whole villages and towns, mass deportation, firing squads and chemical attacks, including, as so movingly described by my hon. Friend the Member for Stratford-on-Avon, the inhuman attack on the Kurdish town of Halabja in 1988 that killed 5,000 people almost instantly. We should not forget that just before Saddam Hussein dropped the mustard gas, bombs were dropped to blow up the house windows so that none of the Kurds could escape inside the buildings and retreat from the mustard gas.
After the collapse of the Kurdish uprising in March 1991, 1.5 million Kurds became refugees. It was only then, after decades of escalating violence and genocide, that in April 1991 the United Nations Security Council passed resolution 688, demanding peace in Kurdistan and access for humanitarian agencies. Disgracefully, this was the first international resolution to mention the Kurdish people by name.
In 2004, Human Rights Watch said that
“in the last twenty-five years of Ba‘th Party rule the Iraqi government murdered or ‘disappeared’ some quarter of a million Iraqis, if not more.”
As with every other genocide, the methods of killing became ever more sophisticated—think shooting in the woods by the Nazis and then the concentration camps. My hon. Friend the Member for South Basildon and East Thurrock will remember going to a prison called the “red house”, which was, in essence, a mini-concentration camp that had what were called “party rooms”, where women were raped and their babies and foetuses literally thrown into ovens outside. I had never seen anything like that in my life and I never want to see it again. In fact, on my second visit, I stayed outside because I did not want to see what I had seen before.
Saddam and the Ba’athists were determined to vacuum the Kurds from Iraq, partly because of Arab nationalism and partly through a desire to gain full control of the Kurdish lands and oil. If one defines genocide as scientifically planned mass murder, the Kurds suffered genocide. I know that there is always a debate about definitions, but the Anfal campaign was the murder of 182,000 people and the displacement of 1.5 million people just because they were Kurdish.
How is that any different from the 1995 massacre of 8,000 Muslims at Srebrenica, which has been ruled to be a genocide by the International Criminal Court? How is it different from Rwanda, where 800,000 Tutsis died in 1994, which the UN rightly recognises as a genocide? How is it different from Darfur, for which the ICC issued an arrest warrant in 2010 for the President of Sudan on genocide charges, after 300,000 people were murdered and millions displaced? The UN recognises formally that Yugoslavia and Rwanda have had genocides. Former US Secretary of State Colin Powell said that the massacres in Darfur were a genocide. Since that time, however, no other permanent member of the UN Security Council has followed suit.
I accept that the Minister will feel hemmed in by the definitions. However, to the man on the street, how are the scientific murders of Darfur, Rwanda and the former Yugoslavia any different from what happened in Kurdistan? In 1948, the UN General Assembly adopted the convention on the prevention and punishment of the crime of genocide. It legally defined the crime of genocide as:
“any of the following acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group, as such:
(a) Killing members of the group;
(b) Causing serious bodily or mental harm to members of the group;
(c) Deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part;
(d) Imposing measures intended to prevent births within the group;
(e) Forcibly transferring children of the group to another group.”
That definition is plain and clear. It describes exactly what has happened to the Kurds in Iraq over the past 50 years. It is worth remembering, as my hon. Friend the Member for Stratford-on-Avon noted, that in December 2005, a court in The Hague ruled that the Kurdish people had faced genocide in the 1980s.
What stopped the genocide was NATO intervention or what I have termed “muscular enlightenment”. In April 1991, John Major and his western allies established proper safe havens inside Iraqi borders and a no-fly zone. It is good to see Lord Archer in this place given that he was so instrumental in making that happen. Kurdish guerrillas recaptured Irbil and founded the Kurdistan Regional Government, which was ultimately recognised by the new Iraqi constitution in 2005. By the beginning of 2006, the two Kurdish administrations of Irbil and Sulaymaniyah were unified.
Kurdistan is now one of the most moderate and democratic regions of the middle east. It disproves the argument that the middle east is not ready for democracy. People always say that the middle east is just not ready yet and that it will take hundreds of years to build democracy there, but despite what they have suffered, the people of Kurdistan have built a democracy. It is not perfect, but it is a good democracy with the rule of law, property rights, equality towards women, religious tolerance and elections—all the requirements that we understand to be the values of freedom. It is no accident that Christians across the rest of Iraq go to Kurdistan when they are being persecuted. They know that they will be treated fairly and equally there, as is right.
We must finally recognise Saddam Hussein’s actions for what they were. Recognition is morally right. It acts as a warning to other dictators around the world and will help Kurds to fight for justice in the International Criminal Court. Unlike the case of Nazi Germany, where many of those who were responsible for the holocaust were tried, little has been done to bring justice to those who caused the Kurdish genocide. It is a frightening thought, but it is said that some of the organisers of the Anfal campaign and the pilots who dropped the chemical weapons remain at large and may even be in Europe. Others are in positions of responsibility in Iraq’s military and Government. To be fair, Iraq has now officially recognised the genocide. It is the duty of the rest of the world to do the same to ensure that all the perpetrators are brought to the ICC and to help with education and remembrance so that what happened is never forgotten by future generations.
We can argue about dodgy dossiers and disagree about UN resolutions. I am sure that we will be debating whether the Iraq war was justified until the next millennium. However, one matter that is indisputable is that the removal of Saddam Hussein not only saved the Kurdish nation from being destroyed by genocide, but brought about an independent, progressive and free nation in the shape of Kurdistan.
I am a Jewish MP and have very few Kurdish constituents. Because I am Jewish, because I am steeped in learning about the holocaust and because some of my family were in Bergen-Belsen, I have come to this place believing that it is my moral duty to help other nations that have suffered from genocide. One of the worst slogans that we ever hear is, “Never again.” One never imagines that what happened in the second world war could have happened all over again only 25 years ago, but it did. The mustard gas reminds me of that all too clearly. If we want to make “Never again” more than just a slogan, we have to really mean it.
We have to ensure that the Kurdish genocide is recognised as one of the world’s greatest crimes. That is why, as I said, I am very proud to be here today. This is an historic moment for our Parliament, which has such close relations with Kurdistan, and I hope very much that we will support the motion to recognise the genocide and the evil crimes of Saddam Hussein.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Stratford-on-Avon (Nadhim Zahawi) on securing this important debate, which, of course, has particular significance around this time. For years, I have chaired meetings in the Grand Committee Room of the House of Commons and we have commemorated Halabja year after year. Indeed, in 1988 along with Members from across the House, I took a group of women to a hospital in London where some of the survivors of the Halabja incident were recovering. There were women who had been badly burned by chemicals, and some could not speak because the chemical weapons had harmed their windpipes. I hope that those people survived, and I was glad that at least some of them had the opportunity to be brought to London for treatment.
In 1988-89 my hon. Friend the Member for Islington North (Jeremy Corbyn), who was in the Chamber earlier, attempted to protest at the Iraqi embassy about the use of chemical weapons against the Kurds. At the time, the ambassador told us that he knew nothing about it; it was all a mystery to him. He said, “Would you like to visit Baghdad?” We said, “No, we’d actually like to go and visit Kurdistan where the chemical weapons attack has taken place.” He continued to say, “I don’t know anything about it but I will get in touch with Baghdad and see what we can do.” He played a cat and mouse game with us for six months, at the end of which I sent a letter to the Financial Times saying that it was obviously just a game. However, it was not a game for us politicians who had followed the Kurds for many years. We protested in this House in 1988, 1989 and throughout.
I first became involved with the Kurds as early as 1977, before I was a politician, when many Kurds were students at Cardiff university. One, of course, was Barham Salih, and many prominent Kurds were at that university. There were also Iraqi students, and they told us what was happening in Iraq. It was difficult to get an accurate picture at that time, and it was not until the chemical weapons attack that the public in the west were made aware of the kind of weapons that Saddam Hussein was prepared to use against his own people. The charge of genocide was proved in the tribunal in Iraq, and many prominent Iraqis were tried. Ali Hassan al-Majid, known as Chemical Ali, was subsequently sentenced to death. The charge of genocide was made against him and it was proved.
Some of us have campaigned over a long period. I chaired the Campaign Against Repression and for Democratic Rights in Iraq—CARDRI—which many Kurds and Iraqis living in London were members of at that time. We continually published records of what was happening to the Kurds and Iraqis, and what was going on in the prisons. We had good but horrific accounts of the kind of torture being used against the people of Kurdistan and Iraq. Some of the kinds of torture were horrific. Later, I opened the genocide museum in Kurdistan, and I remember relatives of those who had been killed during the Anfal campaign coming up to me. It was a memorable day—it was snowing; it was grey—and going into that museum of torture and seeing where so many Kurds had perished left a lasting impression on us all.
Women were coming towards me with photographs of their relatives who had died. They were elderly women carrying photographs wrapped in cling film, and they showed me which of their relatives had died in that torture centre in Sulaymaniyah. CARDRI collected a lot of evidence. We had photographs and witness statements, and a few years later when Indict was set up, for several years it collected evidence of Iraqi war crimes, crimes against humanity and genocide. I am glad to say that the evidence was used in the trials that subsequently took place in Baghdad.
Many knew, or thought we knew, what was happening in Iraq, but things were not fully explained until after 2003. I first went to Kurdistan in 1991 and returned every two or three years after that. There were constant stories of disappearances and sightings of people in prisons. Nobody knew where their loved ones were.
The Anfal campaign was horrific. I have looked again at a Human Rights Watch report published in July 1993, entitled, “Genocide in Iraq: The Anfal Campaign Against the Kurds”, which states:
“Allegations about enormous abuses against the Kurds by government security forces had been circulating in the West for years before the events of 1991; Kurdish rebels had spoken of 4,000 destroyed villages and an estimated 182,000 disappeared persons during 1988 alone. The…Anfal, the official military codename used by the government in its public pronouncements and internal memoranda, was well known inside Iraq, especially in the Kurdish region. As all the horrific details have emerged, this name has seared itself into popular consciousness—much as the Nazi German Holocaust did with its survivors. The parallels are apt, and often chillingly close…In…February 1990, Human Rights in Iraq, Middle East Watch reconstructed what took place from exile sources, with what in retrospect turned out to be a high degree of accuracy. Even so, some of the larger claims made by the Kurds seemed too fantastic to credit. As it transpires, this has been a humbling, learning process for all those foreigners who followed Kurdish affairs from abroad. Western reporters, relief workers, human rights organizations and other visitors to Iraqi Kurdistan have come to realize that the overall scale of the suffering inflicted on the Kurds by their government was by no means exaggerated.”
The report goes on to say that Middle East Watch
“can now demonstrate convincingly a deliberate intent on the part of the government of…Saddam Hussein to destroy, through mass murder, part of Iraq’s Kurdish minority…Two government instruments…the…1987 national census and the declaration of “prohibited areas”…were institutional foundations of this policy. These instruments were implemented against the background of nearly two decades of government-directed “Arabization”, in which mixed-race districts, or else lands that Baghdad regarded as desirable or strategically important, saw their Kurdish population diluted by Arab migrant farmers provided with ample incentives to relocate, and guarded by government troops…The logic of the Anfal, however, cannot be divorced either from the Iran-Iraq War. After 1986, both the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) and the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP), the two major parties, received support from the Iranian government and sometimes took part in joint military raids against Iraqi government positions”.
The report goes on to describe the link, but it does not make any difference to what Saddam Hussein did to his own people.
Many will be familiar with the attacks in Halabja in March 1988—the incident caused a brief international ripple—but they might be surprised to learn that the first use of poison gas against the Kurds by central Government occurred 11 months earlier. All told, Middle East Watch recorded 40 separate attacks on Kurdish targets, some of which involved multiple sorties over several days, between 1987 and August 1988. Each of those attacks were war crimes, involving the use of a banned weapon. The fact that non-combatants were often victims added to the offence. In the Anfal, at least 50,000 people—possibly 100,000—many of them women and children, were killed out of hand between February and September 1988. Their deaths did not come in the heat of battle: those Kurds were systematically put to death in large numbers on the orders of the central Government in Baghdad just days, sometimes weeks, after being rounded-up in villages marked for destruction, or else while fleeing from army assaults in prohibited areas.
Two experienced researchers from Human Rights Watch spent six months in northern Iraq between April and September 1992, gathering testimonial information about the Anfal. Previously, one 12-year old boy had been the only known survivor of many accounts of Kurds —men, women and children—being trucked southward to the Arab heartland of Iraq in large numbers, and then ‘disappeared’. It was assumed they had all been summarily executed, but there was no proof.
I have had to stand at the side of many mass graves in Iraq, seeing the bodies excavated, and I remember one particular occasion in Kurdistan when what was assumed to be a mass grave of peshmerga was being uncovered. The relatives stood around as the skeletons were slowly brought out. One old man standing near me recognised his son, who had been a peshmerga, from the wedding ring on his hand. Those of us who have seen mass graves elsewhere in Iraq and Kurdistan will know how terrible it is for families to stand around waiting to identify a piece of clothing or jewellery.
In al-Hilla, I watched a team of British forensic scientists help with the excavation of a mass grave, and they found babies still held in their mother’s or father’s arms. When they could not identify a body, they would put the remains in a plastic bag and put it on the top of a grave. Then people would walk around the graves looking inside the bags to see if they recognised anything. That is an appalling way to have to identify the body of a dead relative, but it is still going on in Iraq and Kurdistan, because—as someone once said to me—Iraq is one mass grave.
I would like to see that work continue, because it is important that people have some closure. At least they would know that their loved one was shot there, died there and was buried there, because a lot of people still do not know. I have seen queues down the streets outside the Free Prisoners Association with people trying to find out if there is any information on a missing person. Many people in Kurdistan and Iraq are still grieving because they have not had closure on the death of their relative.
Based on the evidence we now have, Middle East Watch and other organisations urge the international community to recognise that genocide occurred in the Kurdistan during 1988. The legal obligations to act on the basis of that information, to punish its perpetrators and prevent its recurrence, are undeniable.
As I said at the beginning, many people came to CARDRI and told us what had happened to their relatives. In the 1980s, an Iraqi mother told us about her son who was typical of so many thousands of people who have died in Iraq. He was a medical student who went out one day and never returned. Many months later, she was told to go to the mortuary and collect his body. She was led to a room where his body was to be found. She said:
“When I entered and saw what was inside, I could not believe that there were people who could do such things to other human beings. I looked around and saw nine bodies. My son was in a chair. He had blood all over him, his body was eaten away and bleeding. I looked at the others stretched out on the floor all burnt. One of them had his chest slit with a knife. Another’s body carried the marks of a hot domestic iron all over his head to his feet. Everyone was burnt in a different way. Another one had his legs cut off with an axe. His arms were also axed. One of them had his eyes gouged out and his nose and ears cut off.”
There were so many of these chilling accounts that at times over the years I found it difficult to believe. The horrors of Saddam’s Iraq will continue to shock and to stun the world.
In 1989, Saddam Hussein was still considered a valued friend by this country, and the Government of the day still sent trade missions to Baghdad. As my hon. Friend the Member for Islington North will remember, we were invited to a cultural festival in Baghdad. We protested time after time after time in this Chamber about the fact that our trade links were still in place, and we called for sanctions against Iraq.
My right hon. Friend raised these issues many times in the 1980s. Does she recall a delegation that she and I went on to both the Foreign Office and the Department of Trade and Industry to suggest that we should not take part in the Baghdad arms fair in 1989? We suggested that they should suspend all arms trade with Iraq and were rebuffed by Ministers on that occasion.
I remember that very well. It was not the only occasion we were rebuffed, because we, and many others who are long gone from this House, continued the campaign.
We should recognise that although Saddam Hussein was executed on the basis of a previous trial, the rest of the co-defendants were charged with genocide, war crimes and crimes against humanity in the Anfal campaign. As I said earlier, Ali Hassan al-Majid was convicted of war crimes, crimes against humanity and genocide in the Anfal campaign, and sentenced to death. However, he was not executed until 2010. A number of others were sentenced to death, but not on charges of genocide. The case has been well made over a long period of time and I am very happy to support the motion. The Kurds need recognition, and we and others are in a position to recognise genocide.
I draw the House’s attention to my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests.
Let us consider the following words:
“I remember 16 March as if it was yesterday, I remember the roar of military aircraft overhead, hiding in my family’s shelter with family and friends, and emerging hours later to find twisted, deformed bodies lying in the street. I remember people crushed under buildings and crying for help. And I remember the black smoke from the napalm bombs, which billowed into the sky.”
Those are the words of an Iraqi Kurdish journalist, who, like other survivors of the Halabja poison gas massacre, will be haunted by the memories of 16 March 1988 for the rest of his life. To ease their burden, we have to recognise their burden for what it is, and that is why we are here today. It is also why I want to thank my hon. Friend the Member for Harlow (Robert Halfon) for all his work on highlighting the wider issue of genocide and my hon. Friend the Member for Stratford-on-Avon (Nadhim Zahawi) for his courage and his dedication to this issue.
This is an important debate and now, more than ever, is the time for recognition. As we approach the 25th anniversary of the events of 16 and 17 March 1988, now is the time to re-examine the issue of recognition. As we have heard, some 5,000 innocent people were brutally murdered in the most abhorrent of circumstances. For the first time in history, a Government used chemical weapons against its own people. As mustard gas and nerve agents rained down, the Kurdish people could do nothing but succumb to the brutal agony that these chemical weapons induce. As we have heard, that is but a snapshot of the Anfal genocide inflicted on the Kurdish people by Saddam Hussein and Chemical Ali between 1987 and 1989. I say “genocide” because I truly believe that is what it was. As I understand it and as we have heard explained, genocide can be defined as the gravest crime against humanity that it is possible to commit. It is the mass extermination of a particular group of people in an attempt to wipe them off the face of the earth.
In his own words, Saddam Hussein commissioned his cousin to
“solve the Kurdish problem and slaughter the saboteurs.”
In doing so, he initiated a two-year genocidal campaign that was characterised by: mass summary executions; the disappearance of many tens of thousands of non-combatants; the destruction of some 2,000 villages; and the death of tens of thousands of women, children, and elderly people held without judicial order in jail. We must as a Parliament and as a nation recognise those atrocities for what they were—genocide.
I am a member of the all-party group on the Kurdistan region in Iraq and, as such, I had the privilege of visiting the region last year. Before I continue on the topic of this debate, I want first to pay homage to Kurdistan and its people, many of whom are following this debate here today, for the great strides they have taken since the genocide. On the same day that I saw for myself one of the many mass graves that scar the land, I also saw a nation earnestly seeking to move forward. There is so much to be positive about in Kurdistan and it presents some exciting opportunities for British business. The Kurdistan region today is enjoying an unprecedented era of economic growth and an ever-improving security situation. After decades of destruction, neglect and isolation, the people in Kurdistan are beginning to develop their economy, to let free trade prosper and to promote commerce and investment. But as part of that process of looking forward, we have to help the Kurds to come to terms with their past and to deal with the full extent of what happened.
I remember that during my visit to Kurdistan I heard again and again about the atrocities, and saw at first hand the visible signs of a nation bearing a great burden. I visited the memorial museum that my hon. Friend the Member for Harlow talked about, which is now housed in a former torture centre, where many of the worst crimes were committed. As an all-party group and as a country, we are working to develop our relationship with the region, to maintain the already strong ties we have in many areas and to nurture underdeveloped ties in others. Given Kurdistan’s large diaspora—many of its people are watching today—those ties are extremely important and will only become increasingly so. Kurdistan is our ally and our friend, and it is therefore our duty to acknowledge that and to recognise the true extent of the atrocities that befell its people.
The Kurdistan Regional Government—the KRG—are calling for Iraq to join the International Criminal Court, as a way of preventing genocide from happening again, and they have asked us to join them in their call for justice. I believe that we have a moral responsibility to respond to that call, not to affirm the status of victim on the Kurdish people but to recognise what they have survived and to walk with them as they continue to surge forward economically, socially, diplomatically and culturally.
As we have heard, we would not be the first to make this acknowledgement. The Iraqi Government and Supreme Court have acknowledged acts of genocide against the Kurdish people. In 2005, The Hague established that chemical bombing in Kurdistan constituted genocide. Unfortunately, it reverted to using the term “war crimes” in a subsequent appeal. In 2008, the research institute Swiss Peace recognised the genocide. In 2013, we must do the same, and we must use our membership of the EU and the UN to pursue the matter to its fullest extent.
The Government responded to the petition submitted by my hon. Friend the Member for Stratford-on-Avon on the recognition of the genocide against the Kurds in Iraq by saying:
“It remains the Government’s view that it is not for governments to decide whether a genocide has been committed in this case, as this is a complex legal question.”
However, other courts have recognised the genocide. Taking into account the definition of genocide, surely it is time for our Government to revisit the matter and to rethink their position. This is a political issue on which we should be taking a lead. A widely cited index published by Monocle placed Britain as the most powerful nation on earth in soft power. We have a reputation for diplomatic excellence and for being a champion of human rights and a beacon of democracy. We owe it to our Kurdish partners to use that power to promote justice for all Kurdish people, wherever in the world they might be.
There is also a practical element involved. As I learned on my visit to Kurdistan, recognition of the genocide would assist the Kurdistan Government in their mission to uncover the 270 reported mass graves, and the many more unreported mass graves, in which between 500,000 and 1 million missing people were buried. As we have heard, the Kurdistan Mass Graves Commission has said:
“There is another Iraq under Iraq.”
That is a chilling statement, and it is one that we have to support. Recognising the genocide against the Kurds is also becoming increasingly pressing, given the ongoing slaughter in Syria and the possible use of chemical weapons there.
This is an extremely pertinent time to be reflecting on the issue, given that the House recently commemorated Holocaust memorial day. That was a day not only for remembering the holocaust but for remembering subsequent genocides that have blighted the world, such as those in Cambodia, Bosnia, Rwanda and Darfur. I would like to see Kurdistan on that list. The Holocaust Memorial Day Trust has made it clear that remembering and acknowledging are acts of reconciliation, but how can we have reconciliation without recognition? Recognition is vital if we are to ensure that such barbaric crimes do not happen again.
One survivor looked back on his experience in Halabja and said:
“I screamed. But there was no one left to hear me.”
I think we owe it to all those who lost their lives, and to all those who bear the haunting memories, to demonstrate that we are listening, that we have heard their cries for justice and that we are going to respond. I therefore call upon the Government formally to recognise the genocide against the Kurds and the people of Iraqi Kurdistan and to use their good offices to encourage other nations, the EU and the UN to do likewise. We must never forget what happened, and we must do all that we can to seek this recognition for the people of Kurdistan.
I should like to start by praising the modern-day Bard, the hon. Member for Stratford-on-Avon (Nadhim Zahawi), for successfully securing the debate, and those wonderful people on the Backbench Business Committee for agreeing to hold the debate today. I also pay tribute to my right hon. Friend the Member for Cynon Valley (Ann Clwyd) and my hon. Friend the Member for Islington North (Jeremy Corbyn) for the work they have done on this issue.
Three decades ago, most of us in our places today were not Members of the House and what was happening in Iraq was only part of the background to our lives—perhaps not so much for the hon. Member for Stratford-on-Avon because of his personal links, but most of us had other things to occupy us. The issue did not get the attention it should have had at the time. Perhaps if we had been as actively involved as we became two decades later, things might have been different. If we had had a different attitude to the Iraqi Government at that time, things might have been different and we would not be talking about the issue today.
Let me focus on the impact of what happened back then on real human beings. My interaction with Iraq started in 2003, when I was the president of Unison—the biggest trade union in Britain at the time—and a member of the general council of the TUC. Like most people in the labour movement, I was completely and utterly opposed to the invasion of Iraq. I believed that the reasons for going into Iraq were not justified, that the argument about weapons of mass destruction was not proven and that we had gone in far too early, with Hans Blix doing good work on the ground, despite the obstacles put in his way. Nothing should have happened until his work had been completed.
I remain convinced today that the leader of my party and the Prime Minister at the time decided to go into Iraq alongside the Americans for two reasons. First, he passionately believed that Saddam should be got rid of, and, secondly, he wanted to keep good relations with the Americans. I believe that the Americans went in for different reasons. They wanted to get rid of Saddam, too, but they also wanted to gain control of the oil wealth in that part of the world and, even more important for the American Republican party, they wanted to ensure that George Bush got re-elected 18 months after the invasion. I remain convinced that that was why, no matter what we did, the Americans would have gone into Iraq around the time they did, as it was a perfect way of winning the election that lay some 18 months ahead.
After the military action had finished, my role in my trade union was to ask, “What do we do now?” One benefit of Saddam’s removal was the re-emergence of a trade union movement in Iraq—a movement that, before Saddam’s reign, had been one of the most active and one of the largest from Europe to Australia but that had been suppressed. We took the decision as a trade union to do all we could to try to help people who had not been involved in real trade union activity for at least four decades to get involved in that role in the world again. We started a training scheme for trade union stewards and we brought people from Iraq—basically Kurdistan because no one could get out of the rest of Iraq—to London. This was a training scheme for a small group of trade unionists who could then go back and train the trainers.
I thank my hon. Friend, and I am very well aware of it. I shall refer later to a member of the delegation I led in 2006. She was the treasurer of NASUWT at the time, and she also chaired the TUC task group on Iraq.
That training programme was so successful that we ended up expanding it. Instead of bringing people out of Kurdistan to London, we got them out of there to Amman in Jordan, which was much easier in terms of the numbers. I was really proud when we were finally able to establish a trade union training school in Irbil in Kurdistan in early 2006.
As a newly elected MP, I was delighted to receive the backing of the trade union movement to take a delegation out to Irbil in early 2006. There were eight of us, including members from the NASUWT, the journalists’ union, Unison, local councillors and others active in supporting the Iraqi cause for many years. We went out there to see what we could do to develop trade unionism on the ground. Straight away, I was immensely struck by the attitude of the trade unionists we met. To me, they were comrades. The fact that they were from another part of the world was irrelevant to me. They were my friends, standing up for working people and trying to develop their skills so that they could look after people properly.
The first thing that those trade union members said to us was, “We need your help. We need your Government to start investing in this country, because if they do not invest we will not have work, and if we do not have work we do not have a trade union movement.” That was a very simple equation. When we asked what practical help we could give, they arranged for us to meet their labour, equality and health Ministers and the Minister responsible for matters relating to the Anfal genocide. That was the first time I had really been exposed to what had happened.
The other thing that those people said to us, very clearly, was “We thank you, as a nation, for what you did for us in 1991, and we thank you even more for what you did for us in 2003, when you liberated us.” That was a shock for me: it was a slap in the face. I had seen what happened in 2003 as an invasion. However, it was all very well for me, sitting in the comfort of Blaydon, to say that it was really, really wrong. It was not me who was being wiped off the face of the earth, it was not my parents who were being buried alive, it was not my village that was being flattened, and it was not my real life—my community—that was being devastated and destroyed. That was happening to these people. Listening to what they said did not change my view that we went into Iraq for the wrong reasons, but what became very clear to me, and has remained clear to me ever since, was that we should have done it 20 years earlier. Why on earth did we not do that? If we had, this disgraceful thing would not have happened.
What were we doing 20 years earlier? Unfortunately, we were doing the bidding of Saddam Hussein. We were, to an extent, sitting on our hands and supporting the Americans yet again while they, and the rest of the world powers, were sitting back happily watching the Iranians and the Iraqis wipe out 1 million of their own citizens, using them as pawns. If, as a by-product, we saw the Marsh Arabs being wiped off the face of the earth and the attack on the Kurds, we just had to ignore it. It was a price worth paying if Saddam was able to keep the ayatollah and his acolytes under control. Was it worth it in terms of the international situation? Well, other people will decide when it is history, but, looking back and seeing what I see now, I think that it was absolutely the wrong thing to do.
We were not just sitting back innocently. As was said earlier by my right hon. Friend the Member for Cynon Valley and my hon. Friend the Member for Islington North, we were actively engaged: we were selling arms to that regime. In fact, we were selling arms to both regimes, and it was the wrong thing to do. It may have been very grandiose in the big scheme of things, but it did nothing to help the people on the ground.
Since that first visit to Kurdistan, I have been back there, and have also been to Baghdad. On both occasions, I was hugely impressed by the generosity and warmth of the people. That is typical of people in the middle east, but it is even more noticeable in Kurdistan. They were like people from the north-east of England, who, as everyone knows, are always much warmer, more generous, more humorous and more giving. Everyone understands that, wherever they are from.
Other Members who have been to Kurdistan have mentioned the “red house”, the torture chamber in Sulaymaniyah. No one who goes there can fail to be struck by it. The first thing that struck me was what a huge building it was. It is a huge building in the main street of one of the biggest cities in that part of the world. No attempt was made to hide from the public what went on in that place. Indeed, everything that was done was documented. The holocaust was mentioned earlier; exactly the same methods were used in this case. There were documents on everyone, and all the documents were in triplicate. Wiping people from the face of the earth was seen as a normal thing to do by people who did not care about them and just wanted to replace them with their own people. It was absolutely unbelievable.
One thing stuck in my mind particularly. In 2006, as we were walking out of the “red house”, we saw five Kurdish guards in the reception area, sitting around watching television. On the television screen, live, was the trial of Saddam Hussein. I felt that that was real history in the making. For those people, it was life-changing: it would give them a chance to get their lives back. As I said earlier, for people such as me who had not wanted this country to go into Iraq, it was a huge wake-up call, making us ask what we could do. I think that what we can certainly do is promote what we are doing today.
My hon. Friend is right: the regime did document these events. The most shocking aspect of the DVD I mentioned is the fact that the footage of what happened—such as people being shot—is taken by the regime. The most horrific thing I saw—I am not sure why this was more shocking than seeing somebody being killed—was a man being held by several other men while having his wrist beaten until it was broken, and at the end someone came along and moved his arm but there was no connection between the two parts. It is just brutal, and there is no excuse for our not recognising this, as the evidence is there.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. There was never any attempt to pretend this was not happening; it was just hoped that the rest of the world would not care that it was happening and would turn a blind eye, which is exactly what we in the international community all did. Today, we have a chance at least to make amends in a small way, and it is very important that we do that.
As well as visiting the “red house”, I visited some of the villages in the north-east of the country, where people saw their way of life totally terminated. Not only did the perpetrators take the men away from their homes and kill them, but what really shocked me was that many of these people were buried alive. They did not even give them the justice of putting a bullet in their brain. They put them in trenches and covered them over using bulldozers. That is how little feeling, and how much contempt, they had for these people.
I discussed with families and friends their despair. I visited what effectively had become a concentration camp in the capital, Irbil. Only young men and women were held there. They had been taken from the agricultural area, which had been the bread basket of Iraq and which is now devastated. All these young people want is to go back home. Sadly, however, if they go back home they will not know how to start getting the farms up and running again, because they have lost contact with the farming industry. Their fathers were taken away and killed 20 or 25 years ago, so they have nobody to tell them how to do things.
We visited a place in the north of the country. I spoke to a village elder, who thought I was my right hon. Friend the Member for Kirkcaldy and Cowdenbeath (Mr Brown); I do not know where he got that idea from, or who was more miffed, me or Gordon. This elder explained to me how passionately he had welcomed Baroness Lynda Chalker in 1991, who had gone there in her capacity as overseas aid Minister and had built some temporary accommodation. He remembered that 17 years later, and he felt such gratitude for my country for having helped his country in that way that it made me very proud to be a Member of this House, but it also made me frustrated, as we had not kept up with the work of supporting those people as we should have done. The big question asked of us was why we had not helped them earlier. I have talked about that, and I hope today’s debate will remind us of why we should have.
I want to read out a letter I received from a very close friend of mine, Hangaw Khan. He is a trade union leader in Kurdistan, and is someone I am very proud to call a comrade. He asked me if I would go and visit his mother and father, and I said, “Certainly I will”. I did not realise there would be a three-and-a-half-hour ride up into the mountains, but it was well worth doing. They were so proud of what their son had done. When we began our campaign with colleagues from across the House, he sent a letter on behalf of his trade union executive in which he thanked us for starting the campaign and said:
“Kurdish United Workers are well aware of all the genocide which has been committed against Kurdish people in Iraq. Moreover, our (KUWU) members are made aware that the Kurdish people are still suffering significantly from the genocide effects on all their life aspects.
We really appreciate your invaluable efforts along side other different parties and groups to ask the government urgently not to ignore all the crimes against humanity which had been committed against our nation for decades and to recognise it as genocide.
In fact, having recognised this genocide against our nation will enter the history for ever and will be the proud step in the view of human beings especially the Kurdish people. Also, there is no doubt that this act consider as a voice of conscience of humanity.
Finally, let us thank you very much in the name of our burned country, the pure pink blood of our genocide martyrs, buried alive innocent women and children, burned and drowned thousands Kurdish by chemical gas. As we are part of human beings, we do hope that all of us & the governments and nations will be aware of recognising any genocide which is committed anywhere in the world.”
That was sent from the Kurdistan United Workers Union last September.
In the past 50 years, millions of lives have been wasted in Iraq. Billions of pounds have been wasted and trillions of words have been wasted. I hope that the words of Hangaw Khan are not wasted and we should listen to him today. I am convinced that the House will pass this motion, which will be a huge statement, but, to be honest, although that is important it is not as important as our Government saying that they support what we are trying to do. I ask those on both Front Benches to think about what has been said in today’s debate.
I know that there are legal issues and that people will say that they want to deal with this, but they cannot. We have seen this week the rebirth of that horrible phrase “weasel words”. I have nothing but respect for those on both Front Benches and I know that they are both committed to the work they are doing. Unless we do something other than saying well done to those who have spoken in the debate and unless we get a commitment that our Government will lead this campaign, as we should, the debate will have been meaningless. No disrespect to the intention of the people who led the debate or those who supported us in bringing it together, but we need real action.
We must also bear in mind that 25 years ago, if we had taken real action, we as a nation could have stopped this. We chose not to. Let us not repeat that mistake today.
I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Blaydon (Mr Anderson) and others for their speeches and their contribution to this whole issue. I particularly thank the hon. Member for Stratford-on-Avon (Nadhim Zahawi) for his speech. As he pointed out, he is the first Kurdish Member of the British Parliament. He and I have shared platforms at Kurdish events and I have no doubt that we will do so again in the future. He made a very good case for the recognition of what was a genocide of the Kurdish people in Iraq in 1988 and I absolutely support what he said. Next month will be Newroz, the Kurdish new year, which will be celebrated across a wide range of communities both in this country and all over the region.
One hopes that we will be able to draw attention to what happened in Iraq in 1988. As my right hon. Friend the Member for Cynon Valley (Ann Clwyd) pointed out, she and I were both Members of this House at that time and we both frequently raised the issue, including in the British media. Although the lack of knowledge among much of the public is understandable because of how the media failed to report things, we must be honest that it took a long time for most of the media and the political establishment in this country to cotton on to what was happening to the Kurdish people in Iraq. To be honest, a lot of British Government policy was blindsided by their obsession with supporting Iraq against Iran in the dreadful Iran-Iraq war and Britain’s considerable economic interests in Iraq at the time, not least in oil exploration and exploitation and so on. We must have a sense of deep self-criticism about the process. If we do not have that, it does us no favours.
The news finally came out about the use of gas and, as my hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Heeley (Meg Munn) pointed out, how the villages were bombed first to break the glass so that the gas had the maximum effect. That was an evil piece of work in which a large number of wonderful, brilliant people lost their lives. In remembering a genocide, we must work out how it happened, how it came about and how we can prevent it from happening again.
Let me say a few words in general about Kurdistan, the Kurdish people and how we can move on. There is a complicated narrative in world history of equating nations, ethnic communities and languages with nation states, which does not always work. The end of the first world war was a seminal point for the whole region—this is germane to the history of the region. The Kurdish people had been part of and had recognition within the Ottoman empire, and operated with a Kurdish identity and language. They took at face value Woodrow Wilson’s 14 points, as did many people in the region, including Palestinian people and many others, and assumed that they would achieve nationhood as a result. The high point of Kurdish recognition was a sandwich between the treaty of Sèvres and the treaty of Lausanne. Between those treaties there was recognition of a Kurdish state. Modern Turkey was established, the western interests were more interested in a buffer against the Soviet Union and in the mandates that France and Britain achieved further south, and the Kurdish people and their wishes were obliterated. Britain did not have clean hands in this. We took part in the establishment of modern Iraq and the first aerial bombardment of people using chemical weapons was by Britain in northern Iraq in 1922 against Kurdish people. So there is a history of obliteration of the Kurdish people, their language, their culture and identity. What Saddam was doing was the ultimate in oppression of a nation or people, but the treatment of Kurdish people in other countries in the region to this day needs to be examined—in Iran, in Syria and in Turkey.
I have a substantial Kurdish population in my constituency, mainly but not all emanating from Turkey. Indeed, I have visited most parts of Kurdistan over the years. It is sad to report that we still do not have full recognition of Kurdish people in modern Turkey, or mother tongue teaching in all Turkish schools, or indeed in any Turkish schools except those where Kurdish is the first language. It is incumbent on us, if Turkey wants to be a partner in the European Union or anything else, to put a great deal of pressure on it and say, “You have to give greater recognition, linguistic rights, cultural rights and all the other things to the Kurdish people in Turkey.”
It does not particularly help when the mayor of a major city such as Diyarbakir is put on trial for producing information in the Kurdish language, which is the normal language for that part of the country. The break-up of the Ottoman empire led to that situation, and there has been this passion ever since for recognition of the Kurdish. To a huge extent, that has been achieved with the Kurdish autonomous region of Iraq. It is not totally correct to call it independent because in international legal terms it is not an independent recognised state, but in reality it is recognised as a representative place of the Kurdish people.
It is more than welcome that over the past few weeks, under pressure following hunger strikes and the dreadful assassinations in Paris a few weeks ago, the Turkish Government have openly admitted that they have to talk to Öcalan as a recognisable leader of the Kurdish people in Turkey. There is a growing sense of unity between Kurdish people within the nation states and a recognition that they have to come together. Does this mean that there is going to be a country called Kurdistan that encompasses parts of the other countries in the future? I do not know. As far as I am aware, none of the Kurdish national movements calls for an independent Kurdistan outwith national borders any longer. They all call for recognition within national borders. We have to understand, welcome and recognise that.
If you oppress people, deny them their language, deny them their cultural rights, drive them into the ground in the way minorities have been treated prior to genocides all over the world, including native Americans, Jewish people and many others in the past 150 years, you end up with the acceptance of the ultimate oppression, which is what happened in that genocide in 1988. So I support the motion that is before us today.
Many have drawn attention to the achievements, such as they are, in modern Iraq with the Kurdish Autonomous Region, and I recognise those. Indeed, I visited the region after the Gulf war in 1991. With colleagues, including my hon. Friend the Member for Blaydon (Mr Anderson), I opposed the Iraq war in 2003, not because I was in any sense ever an apologist for Saddam Hussein or what he did, but because I did not believe that the motives for the war were the right ones—I believed they were more to do with American military power and military resources than anything else—and I thought an awful lot of people would die and an awful lot of money would be spent as a result of the war. Although we will never agree completely on that, I think we all agree that successive Iraqi Governments have an abominable record on their treatment of the Kurdish people. One hopes that the Kurdish Autonomous Region will be recognised universally and that it will be a place where Kurdish people can live.
When we talk of genocides and holocausts, the holocaust against Jewish people in Europe in the 1930s and 1940s is paramount in everyone’s thoughts. Attending Holocaust memorial day ceremonies is an important thing, as is young people understanding what the holocaust was about, but it is also important to understand that there have been other genocides around the world. There is no time to go through all of them or define them all now, but the European treatment of native Americans during the colonisation of north America from the 16th century onward, but particularly later on, was to all intents and purposes a genocide against those people; other examples are Cambodia and Rwanda—an abominable and appalling series of events. Taking place closer to the region we are discussing today was the Armenian massacre in 1915.
Whenever one of us tables an early-day motion recognising and associating that massacre in principle with what has happened to the Kurdish people, we attract great criticism from people in Turkey who, frankly, ought to know better, but who say that we have no right to draw attention to that. It is important that we understand the history of the abominable treatment of people because of racist attitudes and approaches, which end in the vilest abuses of human rights being condoned.
The hon. Gentleman mentioned Holocaust memorial day. Having been slightly involved in what I consider to have been a holocaust, in Bosnia, whenever I speak at or attend a Holocaust memorial day ceremony, I do not think only of the Jewish holocaust. I certainly think of Armenia, the Kurds and the Cambodians as well. I totally agree with him: when we speak of a holocaust, we must mean more than one particular nation.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for making that point, on which we agree.
I am proud to represent a significant number of Kurdish people in my constituency. I am proud of the contribution they make, whether they came to this country or were born here. In a month’s time, when we celebrate Newroz in Finsbury Park, that will be, as ever, a joyous celebration—hopefully this time with the greatest possible unity between Kurdish people from every part of the Kurdish area.
If we recognise a genocide, that is a big step. We are recognising something that is defined in law as an attempt to obliterate a people because of their identity, their race or their ethnicity. In doing that, we recognise that something awful happened, and we have to examine ourselves and what we as a country or one of a group of countries did or did not do at the time. But doing that helps the next generation to understand that not forgetting puts one in a position to try to influence the future and protect minorities, wherever they are in the world. Tragically, the genocides we have been discussing today were not the first, and although I hope they were the last, I am not sure that they were. It is recognition and understanding of peoples, their rights, their identity, their culture and their traditions that bring about a safer and more secure world. Achieving that is not necessarily about wars, bombs and invasions; it is much more about understanding and a recognition of people and their rights, and sharing resources not stealing them.
We have had an absolutely outstanding debate. Everyone present knows that the cause of recognising the genocide in Kurdistan has noble, well-informed and eloquent torchbearers. They brought to the House speeches of great force and sincerity that made the case very eloquently indeed. Everyone who has spoken should be proud of the contribution they made. I say to my hon. Friend the Member for Blaydon (Mr Anderson) that I have listened closely and learned so much. I will consider what has been said extremely carefully.
I am conscious that I am the first person to speak who has not visited Kurdistan, for which I should perhaps apologise; I hope that will be remedied shortly. I have become aware, through my role on the Front Bench, of the great warmth that exists between the people of Kurdistan and the people of the United Kingdom. I have had many discussions about Kurdistan and heard many accounts of the importance of that relationship. What is striking about the strength of the relationship is that, despite the fact that there are aspects of it that bring shame on Britain, as we have heard, because previous Governments of all colours have done things we should not be proud of, the people of Kurdistan, in their current dealings and their warmth, have shown us forgiveness and respect, to their great credit, for which we should thank them very much.
I should start by congratulating the hon. Member for Stratford-on-Avon (Nadhim Zahawi). One of the great advantages of this House is that people who come from different backgrounds bring their own experiences, cultures and knowledge to such subjects. He spoke eloquently, and with a power that was compelling. His personal connections are very special. He should be commended for persuading the Backbench Business Committee, which we should also thank, to allow the debate. We all know that this matter must be taken away, considered and reflected on before moving forward. By bringing it to the House’s attention, he has taken a big step in dealing with the issue and carrying it forward.
We heard an excellent speech from my hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Heeley (Meg Munn), who brought to the debate her experiences from visits to the region and from the links between Sheffield and Kurdistan, which are building all the time. She referred to films she has seen of the terrible events that took place, which were referred to many times. I remember very clearly watching a “Newsnight” report about the Halabja attacks in the late 1980s, shortly after the attacks took place, which shocked me profoundly. The report showed a ferocity, an inhumanity and an extraordinary inability to treat people with respect that it was difficult to believe could exist. I would be interested to see the films she referred to, because the words that we have struggled to find today to explain how dreadful the events were cannot fully reflect the acts that took place.
The hon. Member for Harlow (Robert Halfon) speaks with great passion on these issues and brought his personal experience to bear on the facts. I think that his Jewish background adds a particular, and hugely relevant, context to the debate. Earlier this year I attended an excellent Holocaust memorial day service just across the road, and I was very conscious of the constant emphasis that the Jewish community places on the fact that the holocaust is not just about them. On that day, a Rwandan survivor explained the effect of the Rwandan genocide on her, and she spoke as eloquently as the holocaust survivors. It is very important that we see this as part of a broader picture.
My right hon. Friend the Member for Cynon Valley (Ann Clwyd) has an extremely long, impressive and consistent record on human rights issues, particularly in connection with Iraq. I first got to know her in the period after I came to the House between 2001 and 2003, when she was involved in the organisation Indict, which she mentioned. Not many people were involved in that campaign at the time—it became much more evident after 2003—but she was dogged, determined and absolutely committed to the cause of bringing people to justice. She pursued that from the time I met her in 2001 and is pursuing it today. She has a very long and very proud record. The consistency that she has shown on this issue right through from the 1980s—in fact, since 1977, she told us today—until now does her great credit. She is a very busy woman, so unfortunately she is not here at the moment. I am proud to put on the record the fact that she is a friend, and she has taught me a huge amount about this issue.
The hon. Member for South Basildon and East Thurrock (Stephen Metcalfe) has an advantage over me in that he has visited Kurdistan. He, too, made a compelling case. It is important that the public are aware that we are visiting these places and considering these issues, which are hugely important for all of us as parliamentarians. It does great credit to all Members present that they are here to take part in this important debate.
We then heard from my hon. Friend the Member for Blaydon (Mr Anderson)—I understand him like no one else in this House does. I remember a conversation that we had outside the Chamber when he described his complicated position on Iraq and the contradiction that he sees between his views on the Iraq war in 2003 and what he has discovered from the contacts that he has had subsequently. This is not a straightforward issue; it is a difficult one. Our job is to deal with difficult issues, such as the subject of this debate.
As my hon. Friend the Member for Islington North (Jeremy Corbyn)—another Member with a long and proud record of campaigning on these issues—said, it is a big step for this House and any Government to say that individual sets of incidents and events constitute a genocide. As we have heard, it is a step that has been taken by other Parliaments, but not necessarily by the Governments of the countries that those Parliaments represent.
The question of whether a set of incidents can be described as genocide has a legal status established under the 1948 convention on the prevention and punishment of the crime of genocide, which defines it as
“mass killings or other acts intended to destroy a particular group of people.”
The word is used colloquially, but its definition under international law is specific. Genocide requires both the material element of the act of killing and the mental element of the intention to destroy a particular group.
I have been involved in a genocide. To add to the hon. Gentleman’s point, a poor, frightened, absolutely terrified individual facing the agony of being killed does not give a damn about whether it is called a genocide or a crime against humanity—they are frightened beyond their wits. I am sure he will agree with that. These definitions have always worried me and that is what I thought when I was in Bosnia in 1992-93.
The hon. Gentleman speaks with passion and eloquence from his own experience, which we all respect. We recognise the humanity of what he says. We need to consider how best we can together use the hope behind what we are doing today to ensure that incidents on the scale of a genocide do not happen again. That is what we need to try to achieve. We should reflect on what has been said and consider how best we can prevent genocide from ever occurring again. One genocide is sufficient. We never want to see it again.
I understand the legal issues that my hon. Friend has raised and I am sure that the Minister will address them. I am concerned that the apologies that Governments now often make for things that happened many years ago are not terribly relevant, because they relate to something that somebody else did. In this instance, however, a Government could recognise genocide. That is not particularly something that this or any previous Government have done, but perhaps now is the time, on the back of this debate, for Opposition and Government parties to come together and ask whether this and future Governments should have a process to recognise genocide, because that is important.
It certainly is important that such matters are dealt with collectively. We are an international community with international institutions and, in international situations such as the one we are discussing, the appropriate approach is to work through international justice bodies to recognise when certain circumstances amount to a genocide. We then need to use our institutions to establish the facts and their implications in law. The legal implications of recognising any set of events—not just those under discussion—as a genocide are considerable. They constitute a particular crime under international law, which imposes obligations on states to prevent and punish with regard to such circumstances.
If something that has happened in the past—such as the events under discussion—is defined as genocide, the question arises of whether retrospective action can be taken. It would be helpful if the Minister clarified whether it is his understanding that a statement that an act was genocide would have a retrospective effect and allow action to be taken against anyone who is held responsible for actions that took place in the 1980s.
We heard about the considerable progress that Kurdistan has made. That has built on the relationship that exists between this country and the Kurdistan region of Iraq. I hope that this debate will add to that relationship. There is a strong group of Members of this House who have spoken eloquently today and who have great respect for Kurdistan and the Kurdish people.
We must work together to reflect on our discussions today. We must also look at what action is being taken in other countries, whether by their Parliaments or Governments, on this issue of genocide in the Kurdish region and see what is the appropriate forum to take that forward.
My hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Heeley (Meg Munn) asked about practical things that the Opposition can do. Will the shadow Minister commit our party to entering discussions with representatives of the Kurdistan Regional Government based in this country to see whether they can help us to get evidence that would help to create a legal argument that we could present to the international community? Other countries could then say whether they think that it was genocide or not and give reasons why.
I would be pleased to meet representatives of the Kurdish Regional Government to discuss the issues that we have been debating and to see what barriers are in the way of this matter being taken forward. I would also be pleased to discuss this with the Minister to explore what further common ground there is on this issue, which is considered important by a number of Back Benchers from both our parties who have made an eloquent and compelling case.
We cannot reach conclusions today, but we have heard a compelling case. This is the start of the matter, not the end. We need to continue to discuss this in detail and to reflect on the best way to take it forward. That is best done collectively both within this country and internationally. We need to reflect on the action that other Parliaments have taken and consider what steps it would be best to take to deal with the appalling set of circumstances that the people of Kurdistan suffered in the 1980s. We must work together to ensure that their pain, suffering and grief is not shared by any other group of people in the future.
I do not know about other hon. Members or those who are watching this debate, wherever they are around the world, but my goodness, I have found this a tough debate to listen to. As the hon. Member for Wrexham (Ian Lucas) said, the quality of this debate has been exceptional, as has the knowledge, compassion and honesty with which colleagues have spoken. I am pleased to be able to respond on behalf of the Government.
I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Stratford-on-Avon (Nadhim Zahawi) for securing the debate and the Backbench Business Committee for agreeing to hold it. Over time, my hon. Friend will have to get used to being congratulated on a regular basis. I found his narrative powerful and compelling, but those of us who have heard him speak previously know there is nothing unusual in that. He has already made a name for himself in the House, and he has further cemented that today. He spoke exceptionally well and we are impressed.
The pain with which my hon. Friend described his background and the circumstances of being a refugee was graphically illustrated in a way that none of us with a more forensic sense about these things could possibly repeat or be able to share. When we occasionally debate who comes across our borders, it should constantly bring a measure of pride to this country to remember the reputation we have had for providing sanctuary to people who have fled conflict and pain that is unimaginable to most of our constituents. My hon. Friend put that point extremely well.
I will mention the contributions of most of those who have spoken in the debate and seek to weave in their remarks. I especially mention the right hon. Member for Cynon Valley (Ann Clwyd) and the hon. Member for Islington North (Jeremy Corbyn) who were in the House—as was I—at the times of which we speak. They took part in these events in a way that I did not, and spoke well and effectively about the things going on that, alas, we knew far too little about. Both of them spoke very graphically, and although the details of what happened provided by the right hon. Lady were painful to hear, occasionally such things need to be said to remind us that behind all the figures and the 182,000, there are individual circumstances to be described.
A few years ago I went with colleagues to Rwanda and the genocide memorial at Murambi where some 60,000 people were corralled and killed over a few days. Seeing the places where mass attacks have taken place, and mass graves such as those mentioned by the right hon. Lady, leaves an indelible impression and we cannot help but be changed by what we hear. I commend colleagues for the way they have spoken, and I hope many people get the opportunity to read the debate and consider carefully what we have said.
As many Members have said, the UK’s ties with Iraqi Kurds are significant. Historically, those ties were cemented in 1991 with the United Kingdom’s strong support, led by the then Prime Minister John Major, for protecting the Kurdish people by enforcing no-fly zones. Since then, successive UK Governments have highlighted the need to support the rights of the Kurdish people, as well as those of other minorities in Iraq. I was in that region a couple of years ago and people were looking forward to John Major coming for a commemoration to mark 20 years since the establishment of the no-fly zone and the relief of Kuwait. There was no doubt about the esteem in which Sir John was held, which as a friend it was a pleasure to see. Friends in the other place will also know full well how Sir John is regarded, and others from that time also deserve great credit for the way in which they spoke out on behalf of those who were being persecuted.
In an interesting speech, the hon. Member for Blaydon (Mr Anderson) confronted honestly the problems that are occasionally thrown up by the twin difficulties of foreign policy and hindsight. He is right to say that sometimes we do not know everything and make decisions as best we can at the time. He asked whether we should have done more and earlier, but I remember the 1991 Gulf war and the arguments at the time. Should forces have pressed on to Baghdad? It is easily forgotten that there was no mandate for that; there was a coalition to free Kuwait, but had a decision been taken to press on to Baghdad and remove Saddam Hussein—it became clear subsequently that that might have been the thing to do—there would have been resistance to what would have seemed an intervention too far. Interventions are so much easier in hindsight than they are at the time. The hon. Gentleman and I know that full well in relation to other issues we are dealing with at the moment.
The hon. Member for Islington North mentioned arms fairs in Baghdad and rebuffs from Ministers at the time. Were my colleagues right at that time? I can say from the Dispatch Box that they probably were not right, but what might they have done with the wisdom of hindsight and the knowledge that we have now? That is the spirit in which I confront the difficulties of hindsight and foreign policy.
As a number of hon. Members have made clear, the Iraqi regime under Saddam Hussein systematically persecuted and oppressed ethnic and religious groups. No group suffered more than Iraq’s Kurds. Saddam Hussein’s regime carried out a number of atrocities against the Kurds over a quarter of a century. As many as 100,000 Kurds were killed in the Anfal attacks, and many more were displaced. This year, we will remember the attack on Halabja in 1988 as we reach its 25th anniversary in March. Iraqi planes bombarded the town with chemical weapons, causing the deaths of 3,500 to 5,000 people, as colleagues have described in the debate.
I shall say more about the appalling crimes committed against Iraq’s Kurds and the need to ensure that no people suffer a similar fate, but, like other colleagues, I would first like to say a few words about the Kurdistan Regional Government in Iraq and our relationship with them. In remembering the past, it is important to recognise and put on record what has happened since those appalling crimes.
I was able to see the fruits of our relationship first hand during my recent visit to Irbil—the second time I have been able to visit the region. My friend the hon. Member for Wrexham is absolutely right that he should get there as soon as he can. It is a very good place to visit. I am sure his remarks on visiting were heard in all the right quarters. He can look forward to going and seeing the new consulate—the site for it has been identified and it is due to be built. He will be very welcome there. He just needs to let me know and we will see what can be done—[Interruption.] I also pay tribute to the hon. Member for Sheffield, Heeley (Meg Munn), who piped up at that moment, for her indefatigable work on building democracy in many different places, but not least in that region. Efforts are now being made on the building blocks of democracy and the institutions that must be built—perhaps in recognition of so much that has gone wrong. As she said, and as she knows from her work for the Westminster Foundation for Democracy, an election is not democracy per se. We must ensure that there is another election and that elections are free and fair, and that institutions support elections and that power changes. Sooner or later, people will realise that power is invested not only in individuals but in institutions. In some of the places where we are working collectively, there is a way to go, but the efforts being made in the Kurdistan region of Iraq make it clear that the work is being done on fertile ground. I therefore pay tribute to her and her hon. Friends.
During my recent visit, I had the pleasure of meeting both President Barzani and Deputy Prime Minister Imad Ahmad. I toured the British-designed airport with the Minister for the Interior, Karim Sinjari, and met several other Cabinet Ministers. With Minister of Planning Dr Ali Sindi, I attended the signing of a contract to expand a major national school of government from London to an international capacity building programme with the KRG.
In October, my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary announced that our consulate-general in Irbil should be maintained on a permanent footing. The KRG have generously donated land where a new UK consulate-general will be built. The Head of the Department of Foreign Relations, Falah Bakir, presented me with a letter confirming the donation during my visit.
My visit was rounded off with a tour of the 7,000-year-old citadel, Irbil’s premier tourist location, which claims to be the longest continuously occupied place in the world. I was pleased to note the involvement of British archaeologists in the ongoing programme to restore the citadel—that is another example of the UK’s long-standing ties with the Kurdistan region. Any colleagues looking for tips on being re-elected should simply go around Irbil with the governor. We paid a visit to the market, where the response to him was terrific. I wanted a piece of it to take back to Biggleswade to help me in my next election campaign. It was a genuine and spontaneous outburst of affection for the gentleman as we toured the market, and I thought, “This chap knows what he’s doing.”
Visits are not all one way. Members of the KRG frequently visit the United Kingdom. Earlier this month, President Barzani made his first official visit to Belfast, and had discussions with, among others, Northern Ireland’s First and Deputy First Ministers, as well as the Speaker of the Assembly.
Even as we rightly remember those who lost their lives 25 years ago, we should also think about how far the KRG has come. Those returning to Irbil years later see real changes, and are struck by its relative security and burgeoning economy. My hon. Friend the Member for Harlow (Robert Halfon), who made yet another impressive contribution, reflected on how those fleeing persecution as Christians from other parts of Iraq were able to find a home in Irbil and in the Kurdish region. It is a proper distinction to make. As we reflect on Christian flight across the middle east—and the persecution of any religious minority other than the majority in the locality at the time—we realise how important it is that people’s rights are recognised and protected, and that others are prepared to acknowledge them. Tragically, across the region this evening, there are many families camped out in the homes of others, seeking refuge from the conflicts that rage about them. It is not inappropriate to recognise the generosity of the KRG and the Kurdish region in this regard.
Among EU countries, the UK has the largest number of companies registered and operating within the Kurdistan region, while 61 British delegates, representing 39 companies, participated in the Irbil trade fair in October last year. My hon. Friend the Member for South Basildon and East Thurrock (Stephen Metcalfe) made particular reference to the importance of that trade relationship, and he was right to do so as it provides opportunities for many.
Although the oil and gas sector understandably accounts for significant UK investment in the Kurdish region, it is not the only sector where our companies are actively engaged. We know that more can be done, which is why we are strengthening our commercial team in Irbil to help British companies do business in the region.
I will happily do so. I thought that it might be helpful to set the region in context before turning to some of the tougher parts that were described. If I may attempt to relate my remarks to Iraq in general, not forgetting the Kurdish region, we should also take a moment to remember, as the 10th anniversary of the start of the Iraq war approaches, those who died during the war, including 178 British service personnel, and of course many Iraqis and other nationals. That sacrifice has contributed to the relative peace of the region now and our ability to look back and evaluate the circumstances of the time.
The anniversary is also a time to reflect on Iraq’s present, and its future. During my recent visit, I saw both the challenges and the opportunities that Iraq faces. Fundamental political issues remain unresolved. Human rights standards are low, and public services, infrastructure and employment opportunities are inadequate. But Iraq has the chance to be one of the success stories of the coming decade as a stable democracy, with the patient work being done on democracy building throughout the rest of Iraq, the engagements we have with Ministers there, and the efforts they are making to confront some of the very difficult political challenges—I met a range of Ministers, including my good friend Foreign Minister Zebari, who chaired a ministerial trade council with me—and improve the future for all in Iraq. As we remember the past, and consider the challenges of the present, I hope we can also look forward to a future for Iraq that is more stable, democratic and prosperous, and that the UK can play a role in making that a reality in the years ahead.
Turning to today’s motion, I shall set out the Government’s position on whether we should recognise the terrible events of the Anfal campaign as an act of genocide. I am aware of the commendable support of my hon. Friend the Member for Stratford-on-Avon for the victims of Saddam’s dreadful campaign against the Kurds and his call for Saddam’s crimes to be recognised as genocide by the international community. I have heard today, as we all have, that this view is shared by many other hon. Members, some of whom could not be present today, and by many members of the public who signed a petition that was submitted to Parliament by my hon. Friend.
My hon. Friend and other Members will be aware of the Government’s position on the principle of genocide recognition—indeed, he and the hon. Member for Wrexham stated it. I am greatly sympathetic to the motion. The Government do not in any way oppose it and I have no doubt that Parliament will respond to the views expressed in the motion by my hon. Friend. It is currently the Government’s view, as we stated in responding to my hon. Friend’s e-petition, that it is not for Governments to decide whether genocide has been committed in this case, as there is a complex legal position. The hon. Member for Wrexham was quite right: it has implications for both today and yesterday. An international judicial body finding a crime to have been genocide often plays an important part in whether the United Kingdom recognises one as such. Whether or not the term “genocide” is applicable in this case, it is clear that appalling atrocities were perpetrated under Saddam Hussein against the Iraqi Kurds. His final conviction by the Iraq tribunal was for his crimes against humanity.
I am grateful to the Minister for giving way, and I genuinely call him an hon. Friend in this and in many other circumstances. I understand the issues he is raising, and he will have heard the point that I made to my hon. Friend the Member for Wrexham (Ian Lucas). In taking this issue seriously, will he and the Foreign and Commonwealth Office commit to campaigning on this issue and raising it with other people, including international bodies? He knows just how strongly hon. Members feel.
Let me get a little further.
So many suffered as a result of Saddam’s criminal activities, and we should remember all the victims of the regime. I reiterated that view in my foreword to the programme for the KRG’s recent conference on the issue. It is also a reminder that any use of chemical or biological weapons is abhorrent and that responsible countries consider their ongoing production, stockpiling or use to be completely unacceptable. It is our moral duty to join the international community in its efforts to prevent future atrocities. We will continue to call, at every opportunity, for all countries to respect minority rights and for the full implementation of the chemical weapons conventions.
Of course, these issues form a part of our dialogue with the Kurdistan Regional Government, in particular with the Minister for Martyrs and Anfal Affairs. In May last year, our then consul-general spoke at a ceremony alongside the Minister to mark the reburial of 730 Kurds killed in 1988 by Saddam’s forces as part of the Anfal campaign. More recently, our consul-general in Irbil discussed Saddam’s Anfal campaign with the Minister for Martyrs and Anfal Affairs in November. He will represent the UK at future ceremonies and express the UK’s remembrance of these tragic events. I had the opportunity to speak to the Minister myself when I was there recently.
The Government’s position is therefore clear, but it is not necessarily comfortable or sufficient. To the horror, no doubt, of officials, I have listened very carefully to the debate. In line with the hon. Member for Wrexham, I am sure our briefs said exactly the same thing: be very careful. There are implications and I make no bones about that. This is not a casual decision to be made at the Dispatch Box while listening to a debate with an understandable emotional undertone with all the horrors spelled out, and I am not going to do that. However, I have listened very carefully and I do not think that I would be respecting the mood of the House and the way in which this issue has been debated if I were simply to say, “Look, this is our position, which you all know very well, and that is where we are.” I do not think that that is what the hon. Member for Wrexham said either. I think we both know the implications, but I think we both recognise that we would like to go a bit further.
I have listened carefully, with whatever compassion I may possess, to the case that has been made. I do not doubt that the Foreign Secretary will read the debate with exactly the same sense. I am sure the Government will find the vote of Parliament helpful when further representations are made, as they will be.
The hon. Member for Wrexham resisted an easy hit: he could have simply responded to the motion and said, “This must be done.” Conscious of the obligations on the Opposition, he could not go that far, and neither can I. However, I take on board his view that if there is not an easy way to bring this matter to international judicial tribunals—and there may not be at the moment —we need to consider what more we might be able to do, taking into account the other things that have been said. The hon. Member for Islington North made it clear that others have similar things to consider, so we are dealing with a lot of implications.
Listening to and understanding the case gives one a sense that there might be more we collectively ought to be able to do to recognise the horror and severity of what was done, which was clearly targeted on a group of people just because of who they were. If I may, I will accept the hon. Gentleman’s offer to think collectively about how the United Kingdom might be able to take things forward. There is no change in our policy for now, and we are correct in taking that approach, but the issues that have been mentioned will be raised again, so we may have to think more about them. We will certainly have to talk to other Parliaments and Governments about how things have been done and be fully aware of the concerns. That is a reasonable way for us to respond.
If I may, I will take a couple of minutes to address one or two of the particular points that have been made. It is important that other Parliaments have recognised these events as genocide, but that is a matter of principle for them and, understandably, such decisions cannot be internationally binding. However, we will try to investigate what is behind them. As has been said, we have not been able to recognise the Iraqi criminal tribunal’s decision to see these events as genocide. The Government consider legal judgments by appropriate courts in deciding whether such atrocities should be designated as an act of genocide, but the judgment of the Iraqi criminal tribunal was that of a national tribunal.
My hon. Friends the Members for Stratford-on-Avon and for Harlow both referred to the Dutch court. We have examined this issue carefully and we are happy to look again at the Dutch court of appeal’s decision in the van Anraat case, but we understand that although the court considered the question, it concluded that there was not a genocide. We understand that Mr van Anraat was convicted for complicity in war crimes. In a sense, that is a detail; the point is made and we need to look at how these matters might be dealt with.
In conclusion, a debate such as this is particularly painful, as we all know that even as we speak someone, somewhere in the world, is being killed, not because of anything that they may have done but simply because of who they are. They are being killed on the basis of their clan, their faith or their ethnicity; above all, this is happening simply because of their otherness. The ability of people to stamp some grotesque caricature of power or superiority over others through violence and torture is an unsated appetite. All too often that is made still worse by the inability of others ever to do enough, or even to do anything, to prevent it.
We may differ on our view of how atrocities such as those visited upon Iraq’s Kurds come to be designated, but I made it clear that I share the view of all hon. Members that Iraq’s Kurds suffered a terrible and prolonged injustice under the previous Iraqi regime. Accordingly, as we approach the 25th anniversary of the appalling atrocities perpetrated against the Kurds at Halabja and elsewhere, it is important that we take a minute to reflect on the suffering caused and to reflect with some shame on that phrase “Never again”. However, we need to find, somewhere in our remembrance and recognition of the past, a more meaningful way to confront the horrors that form the raw material of the senseless killing that occurs throughout the world all too regularly.
With the leave of the House, Mr Deputy Speaker, may I say that I feel like a bit of an imposter standing here today, because so many colleagues, both in this Chamber and in the other place, have done so much more for the Kurdish cause, not least the right hon. Member for Cynon Valley (Ann Clwyd)? I recall that when I was a student at University college London she attended one of the Campaign Against Repression and for Democratic Rights in Iraq protests on behalf of the Kurdish and Iraqi people. That was a time that aroused my passion to do something about what was taking place in Iraq and in Kurdistan.
We heard a powerful speech from the hon. Member for Islington North (Jeremy Corbyn). Indeed, it is a real privilege to be a Member in this Chamber when such speeches are delivered, and to be able to listen to them live. He spoke eloquently about the plight of the Kurdish people all over the region, and especially about those in Turkey. I attended the AK party congress in Turkey as a representative of my own party, and it was extraordinary when Prime Minister Erdogan invited the President of the Kurdish Regional Government, Massoud Barzani, to address the congress in Kurdish, live on Turkish television. That was an extraordinary moment, but there is more to do in that country to bring peace to the Kurdish people there. I am pleased to hear that the talks with Abdullah Öcalan are proceeding with pace.
We have heard from my colleague, the hon. Member for Blaydon (Mr Anderson), who sits on the Backbench Business Committee and who declared an interest because of his passion for the Kurdish people. He told the House about his work with the trade union movement, and I know that he and my hon. Friend the Member for Harlow (Robert Halfon) are both passionate about trade unionism. Indeed, my hon. Friend and I visited the Kurdish United Workers union together on one of our trips to Kurdistan, and we could see how the union movement was flourishing in Irbil.
My hon. Friend the Member for South Basildon and East Thurrock (Stephen Metcalfe) told the House about the psyche of the Kurdish people, saying they were a proud nation, not a nation of victims. He told us about the diaspora of Kurdish people around the world who are watching us having this debate here today. He also described how the Kurdish Regional Government were pressing the Baghdad Government to join the International Criminal Court, to ensure that such atrocities never happen again.
My partner in crime is the co-chairman of the all-party parliamentary group on the Kurdistan region in Iraq, the hon. Member for Sheffield, Heeley (Meg Munn). She and I led a delegation of more than 90 British businesses to Kurdistan last year. I had to be recalled to Parliament by my Whips to vote on a European matter here, but she stood in for me and proudly opened a fair with the president of Kurdistan and the then Prime Minister, Barham Salih. The hon. Lady spoke powerfully and eloquently today about the video of the Kurdish and Iraqi people selling their consciences to Saddam Hussein because they were living in fear, and about the children who were living with cancer through no fault of their own.
I spoke in my opening remarks about the town of Halabja. Survivors of the crimes that took place there are here in the Gallery today—men, women and children who lived through the terrible attacks. We owe it to them to declare those events to be what they truly were: a genocide.
One thing I will never forget is my visit with Lord Archer in 1991 to the Barzani town of Qush Tappa. When we entered the town, we were met by 8,000 women—wives, mothers, sisters and grandmothers. All wore black; all were in mourning for the disappearance of every male in the town.
Today, the Foreign Secretary is in Rome attempting to save the Syrian people from indiscriminate killing by another Ba’athist regime, that of Bashar al-Assad. What a message it would send to the world if, while our nation was seeking to protect those who were still suffering, we were also able to recognise those who have suffered already. This Parliament is approaching its 750th birthday. What a message it would send if the mother of all Parliaments were to recognise and endorse the motion. That is why I am here today to call for this motion to be passed.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House formally recognises the genocide against the people of Iraqi Kurdistan; encourages governments, the EU and UN to do likewise; believes that this will enable Kurdish people, many in the UK, to achieve justice for their considerable loss; and further believes that it would enable the UK, the home of democracy and freedom, to send out a message of support for international conventions and human rights, which is made even more pressing by the slaughter in Syria and the possible use of chemical arsenals.