MP Henry Smith: UK to Face New Realities If Kurds Vote for Independence

ERBIL — UK parliament member Henry Smith, who is also a vice-chair of the All-Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) on Kurdistan, stated that there is “logic and justice” in an independent Kurdistan and that Kurds have the right to negotiate statehood with Baghdad.

Ahead of Kurdistan Region’s independence referendum scheduled for 25th September, Smith said in an exclusive interview with BasNews that the UK’s formal position is that it desires Kurdistan to remain as part of a federal Iraq, but UK has to deal with “new realities” if the Kurds vote "Yes" to independence.


BasNews: You are a vice-chair of the All-Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) on Kurdistan. Could you explain the goal of this group?

Smith: The APPG promotes good relations between the peoples and representatives of the UK and Kurdistan Region. It is ten years old and has sent a dozen fact-finding delegations to the Kurdistan Region, issued reports on those visits and encouraged ministers to increase and improve British links with the Kurdistan Region. It has achieved several specific goals. It secured the first official trade mission to Kurdistan and once matters have settled after the Daesh nightmare and the economy starts growing again, I hope more British businesses will see Kurdistan as a place to do business for our mutual benefit. It helped improve the visa system although I know more is needed. It persuaded Top Gear to film a programme in Kurdistan which reached millions. It persuaded the House of Commons to formally recognise the Anfal as a genocide and this led the government to formally mark Anfal Day every year. We work with the KRG High Representation in the UK and regularly see the main parties in Kurdistan as part of our seeking to increase understanding of Kurdistani politics and helping put Kurdistan on the map


BasNews: Kurdistan Region, as part of the Middle East, is now going through a situation which is, in some ways, similar to the post-WWI. Do you think the current situation brings the necessity of re-drawing the political borders in this region?

Smith: Personally, I see the logic and justice of an independent (Iraqi) Kurdistan but that is a matter for the Kurds and the APPG accepts the right of the Kurds to exercise their self-determination and to negotiate independence with Baghdad.


BasNews: After a century, the instability in parts of the Middle East is said to be the result of the Sykes–Picot Agreement which was made by the UK and France. Do you think that the accord has failed to guarantee the rights of key components in the region, including the rights of Kurds?

Smith: Sykes-Picot is always used as a short-hand term for the great powers deciding on borders that suited them. It is true that the Kurds were essentially forced into Iraq and spent decades trying to achieve autonomy and then federalism but both failed and they suffered hugely from discrimination and genocide. The desire for new and better relations with Iraq as a close neighbour and partner on common economic, security and other matters is very responsible and in the interests of Iraqis and Kurds.


BasNews: What is the general position of the UK on the aspiration of Kurds for independence?

Smith: The formal position of the UK government is that it understands Kurdish aspirations, prefers Kurdistan to be part of a federal Iraq, and is worried about the timing of the referendum and possible independence. That is entirely expected and if the Kurds vote yes in September then our ministers and diplomats will have to deal with new realities. It is also essential that the Kurds do more to unite and further reform their politics and the economy so they are able to cope with independence or the possibility of staying in a genuinely reformed Iraq, as well as helping Sunnis in neighbouring provinces with the political, economic and psychological reconstruction necessary to eradicate the roots of extremism. The Commons motion supporting the right to hold the referendum attracted support from MPs in the major parties in the Commons.


BasNews: The Kurdistan Region is now preparing for an independence referendum scheduled for 25th September of this year. How do you see this plan with the overall situation taken into consideration the effectiveness of Kurds in the political balance and the role of it’s Peshmerga forces?

Smith: When the APPG began its work, few people even knew where Kurdistan was. That has changed, in large part, thanks to the tremendous and brave work of the Peshmerga who most people see as having been essential allies in the common fight against fascism. I have seen them on the frontline in Kirkuk and commend them very highly. I also think that people appreciate the way in which the KRG has selflessly looked after so many people who have fled from Syria and Mosul, as I have seen for myself in refugee and IDP camps. I also recognise that the KRG has achieved major changes such as developing the energy sector from scratch and a rapprochement with Turkey which illustrate its resilience and augur well for the future.


BasNews: Are you, as a members of the APPG, going to discuss Kurdistan Region’s independence referendum in the UK Parliament?

Smith: We have. Our new Chairman, Jack Lopresti MP secured a major debate in the Commons on 4 July. Your readers can find it here.

They will find a detailed appreciation of the arguments about the failure of federalism, independence, boosting the provision of psychologists in what we call a 'Marshall Plan of the mind' for the thousands who have witnessed horrific events or have been the victims, and the need for increased assistance to the Peshmerga. We are urging the British government to follow the example of other countries and provide hospital care in the UK for the most seriously wounded Peshmerga. One MP, herself a former well-known actress, also advocated the need for the British to help build a film industry which would earn money and enable Kurds to tell their stories to the outside world.

They can also see the APPG report on its last delegation to Kurdistan and Mosul here.


BasNews: There was an independence referendum in Scotland last year, and we are expecting similar moves elsewhere in the near future. But the international community’s reaction towards the independence referendum in the Kurdistan Region is more noticeable with most of them insisting on postponing the plan. Why do you think the Kurds are being, in some ways, deprived from this right which is eligible for every nation but not for Kurds?

Smith: Foreign powers are understandably nervous about instability and conflict over disputed territories such as Kirkuk. I think the KRG is doing much to reassure them that independence will be negotiated with Baghdad over a longer period but it is up to the Kurds to make convincing arguments for why statehood can enable them to better defend themselves and develop their democracy, pluralism and a sturdy economy that is much more diversified and efficient.


BasNews: The Kurdish Peshmerga forces took in and protected everyone against the Islamic State (IS) atrocities during the past three years. And the Kurds have shown a unique face of their culture of tolerance and coexistence with Yezidis, Christians, Shi’ite and Sunni Arab Muslims etc… Do you think this spirit proves that they are able to establish a democratic and peaceful state within a tough neighbour if they are helped with the independence process?

Smith: I think this is a very strong point. What I have seen myself is a deep and wide embrace of religious pluralism based on secularism in state institutions, moderation in religion and good efforts to increase equality for women.


BasNews: The UK generally insists on the unity of Iraq; but the facts on the ground indicate that different components of Iraq can no longer stay within one Iraq and the decades-long violence and conflicts have proven that. Don’t you think the West’s one-Iraq policy may result in further bloodshed in the country?

Smith: The UK government prefers the established policy of One Iraq, as do most major powers. Again, that is not surprising but note that APPG members are generally more open to arguments for independence and, in a landmark report in 2015, the House of Commons Foreign Affairs Committee, after a year-long enquiry, accepted that independence was a medium term possibility and should in the right conditions be accepted and respected by the UK and its international partners. In the meantime, the KRG has made it very clear that it wants any change to be peaceful and I trust that friends of Kurdistan and of Iraq will help ensure that is the case. The Kurds often say they have no friends but the mountains but they have more recently found friends who look out for their interests and the APPG is one such friend which will do its best to win support for the Kurds who have suffered enormously and deserve better.