Evîn Bagdu, international human rights expert, discusses Kurdish genocide claims

May 13, 2015

Rudaw is a Kurdish media network funded and supported by Rudaw Company. The network aims to impart news and information about Kurdistan and the Middle East in a professional manner.  Evîn Bagdu is  being interviewed about the issue of genocide and how the Kurdish case fits into this. A long but interesting read:

Evîn Bagdu, an international human rights  law expert.
Evîn Bagdu, an international human rights law expert.

“Rudaw: Why did the Halabja and Garmiyan mass murders not get the attention from the international community as much as the recently discovered Yezidi mass graves did?

Bagdu: In the history of the human rights movement, the issue of not getting enough attention for the suffering of victims of gross violations has always been a challenge, regardless of the character of the groups or scale of the suffering.  For instance, in Sierra Leone, the news items on the widely practiced mutilation of limbs by the child soldiers couldn’t make it to the big news agencies as it “was too difficult to watch.”

On the other hand, in many cases—historically speaking—while these gross violations and atrocities took place, the victims sometimes have been isolated from the rest of the world as the matter was considered an “internal issue.” So, the doctrine of state sovereignty is frequently used as a shield in such cases.  Examples include the Armenian case in 1915, Jewish case in 1940s, Kurdish case in the Saddam Era—all have this factor in common.

This was the case when the world was unaware of what was happening in these cases. Once a case does become known, the next challenge is how to get a reaction to stop the atrocities.  And, this is the part that is immensely frustrating not only to the human rights defenders alone, but to every human being with a clear conscience. The arguments often put forward are typically:

-The reaction would aggravate the situation and cause more severe suffering for the victims;

-It would be futile;

-It is not the right time for a reaction to the event in question;

-It is not in the national interest of state actors, or against the security of their people.

In fact, prior to the Nuremberg Trials, such systematic and purposeful killings did not even have the name “genocide,” let alone codification of it, as an international crime.

At this point, I believe it is necessary to see the difference between a couple concepts which are important to consider when discussing widespread human rights abuses.  Do the issues pose a moral, political or legal challenge?  As the nature of the issue is gravely inhumane, the first instinct is to approach the issue from the moral stand point.  This usually leads to a disappointment mentioned earlier.

In comparison of the Anfal campaign of 1986-89 to the recent atrocities of 2015 against the Yezidi population, we may also consider the political dimension.  There are undeniable political aspects at stake. But, when we think of other similar incidents of such massacres, the political environment surrounding the situations always differs.

In the Saddam era, there was an Iran/Iraq War, Saddam was a head of state enjoying certain immunities, and holding immense power to control any communication with the outside world.  Today, however, Iraq has a lot more international presence in the country, and media coverage is much more widespread. Therefore, flow of information regarding the facts of the case is easier.

In the Yezidi case, there is an international conflict carried out by a non-state actor against more than one state and the citizens thereof.  It is a conflict that many of the nations of the world see as a global threat to their common peace and security. So, the attention of the international community is more intense in the Yezidi case.  But this was the case in Srebrenica as well.

This brings us to the last concept; the legality.  There is a historic lesson for the Kurds too that needs to be taken from each one of the past gross human rights violations against civilian populations. Other nations have used international legal mechanisms to address the harm done in the past.  It of course is important to get political recognition by states, and in the Anfal case Iraq itself recognized the case as genocide.

But genocide is a crime under international law and such recognition must come from the international courts.  It needs to be investigated, evidence that could clearly substantiate the facts needs to be obtained and then utilized by the court.   But if not proven through the standard, fair, legal processes, by impartial courts, all these events will continue to be referred to as alleged “atrocities,” “campaigns,” and “gross human rights and humanitarian law violations.”  If not thoroughly dealt with, the perpetrators will go free and there will always be a lesson for them that they could get away with it.  The phrase “never again” will turn into “always possible.” This is important, because it relates to the rule of law commitments, it sheds unbiased light on history and more importantly it brings justice therefore some closure to the survivors of such horrible events.
   
Rudaw: Could these mass graves serve as something Kurds could use to get attention to their identity and issues revolving around recognition of their identity?

Bagdu: I will hold my criticism of the usage of terms such as “mass graves” or “martyrs” to refer to certain topics in Iraq for another time (I am saying in Iraq because such usage is not specific to the Kurds only).  What you are asking me is I believe, if Kurds could change the game in their favor by bringing these issues to international attention.  My answer is, absolutely yes! 

The reason there is such an emphasis on proving the genocide is that it is an internationally recognized form of a crime that could only be committed against a group because of the group’s identity.  It does provide a picture to the background of these identity issues, for example: 
 
-how difficult it is to have such identity under regimes which violate their citizens’ human rights (and especially minorities’ rights);

-how to properly observe rights based on group identity;

-to what degree safeguards are provided and needed for the protection and continuity of these identities, and so on and so forth.
 
The current conflict itself is telling so much about this.  While the whole world “absolutely again” is watching or passing resolutions, or in better cases “providing support” while this armed group was making advances into what is called “Iraqi cities,” in the north, it was the Peshmerga and the Kurdish fighters that were defending the civilians and the land. Other armed forces in Iraq simply fled, leaving even their arms behind.

When studying the subject of “indigenous populations’ rights,” the idea of attachment to the land was one element that captured my attention that differed from the ties citizens of modern states hold to the land they live on. To me, these things we have seen in the most recent conflict have demonstrated this phenomenon very well.

Rudaw: Jewish people were also the victims of the genocide by the Nazis and this helped them to get support from the world to help realize their cause.  Why couldn’t the Kurds turn these mass murders into an element to help their suffering get recognition?

Bagdu: To be fair to the Kurds, once there was an opportunity to act, they have done almost everything in their capacity to address their issues.  For instance, regarding Anfal and Halabja after the fall of Saddam, and the emergence of post-Saddam Iraq, Kurds have invested in every aspect of addressing the mass killings and the missing person issue throughout Iraq as a whole. At the time of the Coalition Provisional Authority, they assisted with reconnaissance and exhumation of mass graves and the identification of remains. 

There was a law necessary to address the issue, and they drafted a simpler version of the missing persons law (The Law on Protection of Mass Graves).  A ministry needed to serve as a leading institution, and they held two important ministry seats (namely, the human rights ministry and the foreign ministry) in the national parliament.  They worked with the leading international organization on missing persons issues to duplicate successful practices around the world, (a work still in progress as we speak).

But since you are making a comparison between the Kurdish efforts and the Jewish efforts in addressing the mass murders against their populations, allow me to highlight a couple differences. 

The Jewish Diaspora consisted of very well educated, very committed individuals who did everything in their personal capacity to inform the world of what happened to their people.  In fact, it was because of work done by a Jewish lawyer that genocide took a codified form in statutes.  Even the word genocide was pioneered by Raphael Lemkin. Also, after the atrocities ceased, many of the survivors personally got involved in the hunt for concentration camp guards, military commanders and decision makers in the Nazi army in order for them to be tried before national and international tribunals.

Kurds also have a diaspora scattered around the world.  So, in this sense I believe while the Kurds on the ground are fighting to stop the atrocities, the Kurdish diaspora must assume responsibility to inform the world of the wrong done to their people, as well as documenting and investigating the cases as much as possible.  In the Kurdish case it is worth noting that such efforts have been undermined in the past by states that oppressed their Kurdish populations, and neighboring countries where Kurds live in large numbers. This might remain the case for future attempts as well.”

Rudaw interview with Evîn Bagdu, an international human rights.

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