Erbil, Iraq – Twenty-six years have passed since Saddam Hussein's campaign of mass killings against the Kurds in northern Iraq. Yet to date, no governments except for Iraq's have officially recognised the campaign as constituting a genocide.
Saddam systematically killed more than 100,000 Iraqi Kurds in the al-Anfal ("the spoils of war") campaign, which lasted from February to September 1988, towards the end of Saddam's war against neighbouring Iran – in which the Iraqi leader was supported by many Western countries. In March 1988, Saddam also ordered the chemical bombing of Halabja, where 5,000 Kurds – including women, children and entire families – were murdered.
Some of Iraq's largest military operations against the Kurds took place on April 14, 1988 – which is now the official day of remembrance for those killed in al-Anfal.
While British, Swedish, Norwegian and South Korean parliaments have all recognised the al-Anfal campaign as constituting genocide, no governments have done so – except for that of Iraq. That allows them to avoid legal liability for supporting and arming Saddam during this time.
Iraqi Kurds have been especially critical of the UK, given its support and arms shipments to Saddam during the 1980s.
"It is disappointing that Britain, which has led on upholding human rights globally and which helped to liberate Kurdistan, is not taking this step," said Bayan Sami Abdul Rahman, the Kurdistan Regional Government's (KRG) High Representative to the UK. The KRG controls an autonomous northern region of Iraq, where ethnic Kurds are a majority.
"For Western governments to recognise the systematic persecution of the Kurds as genocide… will help the Kurdish people achieve justice for the overwhelming suffering they experienced at the hands of Saddam Hussein," said Kurdish-British MP Nadhim Zahawi, who in 2012 launched an online petition that ultimately prompted the debate in the British parliament to recognise the al-Anfal campaign as genocide.
The extent to which Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher's Britain was responsible for arming Saddam's Iraq was revealed in 2011, when secret government files from 1981 were made public. The documents show Thatcher's approval of large military contracts with Iraq and her turning a blind eye to ongoing private sales of allegedly "non-lethal" military equipment. According to the documents, she sought to "exploit Iraq's potentialities as a promising market for the sale of defence equipment".
By the end of the 1980s, Baghdad had acquired a massive arsenal – enabling it to hold its own against Iran and launch offensive operations such as al-Anfal. "Tragically, governments from all around the world turned a blind eye to the heinous acts that Saddam was committing against the Kurds," said Zahawi.
The systematic and targeted mass murder of Iraq's Kurds falls under the definition of genocide according to the UN Genocide Convention. But the current British government argues that proclaiming events like al-Anfal to be a genocide must take place in the courts, and cannot be recognised by a political body.
"In the UK we all agree that Saddam's Anfal campaign was an appalling crime, and we all acknowledge the suffering of the Iraqi Kurds. But the recognition of a genocide can only be done by a judicial body. It is not up to a government to say what is or is not a crime," explained John Mitchell, the British deputy consul general to the KRG. "There has not been an international tribunal that has ruled that Anfal was an act of genocide."
Similarly, Hugh Robertson – the UK minister for the Middle East – said in a press release that, while acknowledging "our revulsion and condemnation of the attacks against Iraq's Kurds […] governments are not qualified to decide on the complex legal question of whether genocide – a very specific crime – was committed in such instances. This must instead be a decision for judicial bodies."
But many Kurdish politicians disagree. "It is highly unlikely that an international judicial process would take place now, 26 years after Anfal and Halabja," said Rahman – suggesting that governments must act to declare it a genocide.
Government recognition of a genocide would not necessarily make it legally liable for its own past actions, but it would weaken a government's case if it were sued, explained Gavriel Mairone, founder and managing partner of MM-LAW LLC, a law firm representing victims of genocide. "The government would then have difficulty in court trying to deny that it was genocide," said Mairone.
What's in a name?
The argument over whether genocide took place could seem to be a matter of semantics. But for many Kurds, an official ruling declaring what happened in 1988 to be a genocide could help healing on both an individual and collective basis.
"Some people may think that it's about compensation. But for us, it's important because it could prevent it from happening again," said Falah Mustafa, head of KRG's department of foreign relations. "It would be a moral and psychological relief for all of us [Kurds] if the international community was committed and took a firm stance to not allow such a thing to happen again."
Thirty-seven-year-old Haider was 11 when his hometown of Halabja suffered a five-hour chemical attack, during which he witnessed his family die. Today he lives in the UK and campaigns for the UK to recognise al-Anfal as genocide. This, he said, would help assure "that those who committed the crime be punished. Recognition will also encourage other countries to not repeat such an action."
Mairone, who works with victims of genocide, torture and terrorism, explained that "the pain inflicted upon my clients is magnified multifold by the failure of all those complicit to apologise or be held accountable.
"If these events are recognised as genocide, every country that could have done something to prevent genocide could be held legally liable, including their own leaders and companies who may have aided Saddam," said Mairone.
Rahman, who was born in Iraqi Kurdistan but raised in the UK, said: "We consider Britain a friend and an ally."
Nevertheless, she added, "If our friends are to understand us – understand our people, our policies and decisions – they need to understand and recognise our tragic past."