Kurdistan Region of Iraq — [Hannah Bardell in the Chair]

– in Westminster Hall at 9:30 am on 7 February 2024.

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Photo of Jack Lopresti Jack Lopresti Conservative, Filton and Bradley Stoke 9:30, 7 February 2024

I beg to move,

That this House
has considered the relationship between the UK and the Kurdistan Region of Iraq.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Bardell. The relationship between Iraqi Kurdistanis and the UK—people and Governments—goes back many decades but has emerged as a more enduring and vital alliance in the last third of a century, for great mutual benefit. Before that, Kurdistanis, as they prefer to be called, were long demonised in Iraq as second-class citizens. That developed into genocide in the 1980s, which was formally recognised by the House of Commons on the 25th anniversary of the tragic gassing in 1988 by Saddam Hussein’s air force of the town of Halabja, with the instant death of 5,000 people and many maimed for life. Overall, nearly 200,000 people were murdered in a systematic genocide that also razed thousands of villages to the ground and destroyed the backbone of the rural economy.

Many Kurdistanis were exiled here before returning. That drives a great affinity with the UK and the widespread use of English. That living link was boosted when Saddam, defeated in Kuwait in 1991, turned on the Kurdistanis with genocidal intent. They revolted, and about 2 million people fled to the freezing mountains to escape Saddam’s revenge. I am immensely proud that Sir John Major showed fantastic leadership and moral courage by establishing with America and France a no-fly zone. I am delighted that the Kurdistan Regional Government agreed to name a major thoroughfare in Irbil after Sir John, and very much hope that they do the same for Sir Tony Blair.

The creation of the safe haven, in which my hon. Friend Jason McCartney participated as an RAF officer, averted further genocide and helped to usher in an autonomous region. Kurdistanis elected their first Parliament in 1992 and, despite harsh Iraq and UN sanctions, laid the basis of a new society that bettered Saddam’s Iraq in, for instance, one key area: infant mortality. Sadly, civil war marred that fresh start.

Iraqi Kurdistan won a place at the forefront of our foreign policy, which was a great advantage when Iraq was liberated in 2003. Kurdistani leaders stabilised the new Iraq with peaceful elections and a landmark constitution in 2005, based on federalism and rights for the officially recognised autonomous region. Kurdistan enjoyed a golden decade in which new oil, long denied by Saddam, boosted living standards and infrastructure in “the Other Iraq”. However, there were difficult challenges; most important was Baghdad’s refusal to implement a settlement by 2007 in which the people of Kirkuk and other disputed territories could choose to join Iraq or the autonomous region. That is unfinished business and requires greater attention, and I ask the Minister to comment on it in his remarks.

Worse was to come with the complete and unilateral suspension of budget payments from Baghdad to Irbil in early 2014, the sudden seizure by ISIS of Mosul in June 2014 and its broader attack on Kurdistan. The Kurdistanis took the brunt of the defence of Iraq by saving Kirkuk and, with a refreshed Iraqi army and coalition forces, by helping to liberate Mosul in 2017. I saw the Kurdistani army—the peshmerga, which means “those who defy death”—in action in Kirkuk and Mosul. The peshmerga were valiant allies in fighting a foul fascism, with British help, especially from the RAF. Kurdistani action reduced a serious threat to our own people in the United Kingdom.

It was deeply disappointing that the Iraqi Prime Minister “forgot” to thank the peshmerga at the UN, and that his reaction to a peaceful referendum in 2017 on the principle of independence, which I observed in three cities, was to violently seize Kirkuk, killing peshmerga. Baghdad closed international flights and even tried, unsuccessfully, to invade the autonomous region. All of that was a tragic indictment and demonstration of the very dysfunctional nature of the relationship between Baghdad and the KRG at the time, to say the least.

The all-party group on the Kurdistan region in Iraq returned in 2018 to Kurdistan and for the first time visited Baghdad, where there was a stated desire to seek reconciliation. Sadly, the momentum has stalled due to the undue influence of Iran and its proxy militias and terrorist organisations.

Warfare and lawfare via a supreme court that has not been constitutionally established is destabilising and suffocating Kurdistan, and Shi’a militia attacks have targeted British and American military facilities at the main airport in Irbil.

Photo of Gregory Campbell Gregory Campbell Shadow DUP Spokesperson (International Development), Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Cabinet Office)

Does the hon. Gentleman agree that we must not allow those elements, particularly in Iraq and in other locations, to replace what most of us want to see, which is democratic accountability in each of these regions and nations? They try to make it seem as though these are western values, thereby devaluing the independence of regions such as Kurdistan.

Photo of Jack Lopresti Jack Lopresti Conservative, Filton and Bradley Stoke

I absolutely agree. We have to look only across the broader middle east, where we have seen in recent and historical events the malign influence of Iran, with its wish to diminish and extinguish any country or region that exemplifies the western values of freedom and democracy.

Photo of Chris Stephens Chris Stephens Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Justice), Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Immigration)

The hon. Gentleman’s expertise in and knowledge of the area of Kurdistan is always a joy to listen to. He has mentioned Iran and recent attacks. Does he agree that we, as a House, should show full solidarity with the Kurdish people against those attacks from Iran? Does he also agree that we need to start showing solidarity with a people who did more than anything else and had boots on the ground to take on Daesh and roll it back?

Photo of Jack Lopresti Jack Lopresti Conservative, Filton and Bradley Stoke

Again, I completely agree. As we speak, we are seeing action being taken against Iran and its proxies. I will continue to elaborate on the fact that we must continue to support our Kurdish friends and allies.

Iran has attacked Iranian Kurdish camps and, more recently, the houses of two prominent businessmen on the laughable grounds that they were Mossad bases. In January, Iranian missiles killed Peshraw Dizayee, whose skyscrapers in Irbil symbolise his ambition to emulate Dubai. His baby daughter was killed, and more than two dozen were killed or injured. Iran is the main menace, so let us hope for regime change from below in Iran. I will come back to Iran at the end.

It does not help that the PKK terror group is taking actions to kill peshmerga, scupper good governance in key areas and attract Turkish military action. It would be better—and I think this is crucial—if British, American and other international allies stayed in Iraq with a military footprint of some measure, with Baghdad’s agreement, clearly, which would help to counter and deter ISIS and stabilise the country. We could also further train the peshmerga, as we are doing, and underpin the confidence of external investors. Negotiations on that began last year.

Baghdad is also drip-feeding budget payments to Kurdistan below the amounts stipulated by a clear political agreement. Its vital oil pipeline to Turkey remains closed after nearly a year, with the loss of billions. Teachers, police officers, nurses and the peshmerga are not being paid.

The UK supports a strong KRG within Iraq. Our excellent diplomatic mission has gone from strength to strength, with senior appointments and more staff, which makes it bigger than in many sovereign countries. Our Army and others are seeking to professionalise and unify the peshmerga so that it is completely controlled by the KRG and not by the two main political parties, which is a hangover from the civil war. Government control over the military and security apparatus is essential.

Bilateral relationships depend on people who are active over many years. Kurdistan’s high representatives in London, Bayan Sami Abdul Rahman and now Karwan Jamal Tahir, who is here today, have helped to inform us. Our now-voluntary APPG secretary Gary Kent has been active on this for nearly 20 years, and I pay tribute to his excellent work and fantastic contribution to UK-Kurdistan relations.

The diaspora is an asset, as are Anglo-Kurdistani activities such as those of the Gulan charity on culture. Trade bodies have encouraged investments in areas where our companies can add niche value. The University of London is set to establish a campus in Irbil and join three universities that teach in English, in a testament to the soft power of our language, history and higher education.

The Kurdistan region is only 32 years old and has further to go in overcoming the economic and political pathologies of its past and of the wider middle east. For more than half its existence, we have closely observed the ebbs and flows in Kurdistan’s fortune. It is too small to go it alone and too big to be ignored, but it operates in what its leaders call a tough neighbourhood, and even as a landlocked nation surrounded by sharks. It has previously overcome chauvinism towards it as a square peg in the round hole of Iraq, many of whose leaders do not accept the concept of a binational and federal state but prefer centralisation. For now, the centralisers, buttressed and supported by the malign Iranian regime, have the upper hand, but they need not triumph. That depends on Kurdistani diplomacy, crucial western support and internal reforms so that Kurdistan can be a subject rather than an object of history. However, we should not, and must not, put Kurdistan on an impossible pedestal where vice and virtue do not co-exist; we should be candid friends.

I will start with the pros. First, given its experience of exile and oppression, Kurdistan is open to those who flee from neighbouring areas. In 2014, its population soared by a third to accommodate 2 million displaced people from Mosul as well as Syrian refugees. One million remain in Kurdistan, whose generous care is exemplary. Secondly, Kurdistan upholds peaceful co-existence for people of all faiths, including Muslims, Christians, Yazidis and others. Its state institutions are secular and its religious faith moderate. Thirdly, Kurdistan is in the vanguard of women’s rights in the middle east. Firm action was taken to stamp out female genital mutilation and domestic violence, but it still often looks like a man’s world, which should change faster if Kurdistan is to unleash its fantastic potential. Fourthly, there is its modernised road network and digital highway. A railway from the Gulf to Turkey could one day boost jobs, trade and peacebuilding.

The cons apply across the middle east, where Kurdistan fares better in reality, but these defects are drag anchors on making Kurdistan match fit. First, the youth, as a majority of the population, seem disaffected, judging by falling electoral turnout. They have to be part of a patriotic renewal. Better higher and vocational education can prepare them for jobs that do not currently exist and opportunities that are coming. Secondly, the economy is dangerously dependent, for more than 80% of revenues, on oil and gas reserves and a bloated and unproductive public sector. The energy reserves are of strategic interest to the UK and the west generally, and I hope the Minister will comment on that. Thirdly, reliance on a volatile commodity crowds out a dynamic private sector, which can complement democracy and a thriving civil society. Fourthly, the scourge of corruption, in a region less industrial than the south, must be eliminated. The judicial system and dispute resolution—important for foreign investors—are immature, and there is an authoritarian approach to dissent and the media. That needs to be more professional and reliable. Britain could provide Kurdistan with more judicial, media, policing and commercial training.

The crisis in relations with Baghdad and the material basis of public services are driving more determined reform. The KRG seek to diversify their economy through more agriculture, tourism and light industry. Visitors marvel at the beautiful vast plains, rivers and mountains in the Iraqi breadbasket, plus the vibrant, growing cities. Kurdistanis say that they have “no friends but the mountains”. The APPG has sought to disprove that through 15 delegations with 50 parliamentarians and others. This is about not just solidarity, but a pragmatic calculation of the allies we need and who share our values. Kurdistan could have sided with Iran but has stuck with us in these very difficult and dangerous times.

Reform requires peace and stability, which Kurdistan lacks. I must end with a blunt warning about its current perilous plight. Kurdistan is completely defenceless, with no means of detecting or deterring missile and drone attacks or even of evacuating target areas. Iran and its proxies are victimising and attacking Kurdistan. The UK should help to stand up for and protect our dear friends, so that we have a strong KRG within a peaceful, stable, federal Iraq.

Photo of John Martin McDonnell John Martin McDonnell Labour, Hayes and Harlington 9:44, 7 February 2024

We are here as friends of Kurdistan, but candid friends of Kurdistan. Over the years, I have worked with the International Federation of Iraqi Refugees—Dashty Jamal, in particular, as we are naming people. In my area, the Kurdish community stems from the 1980s, and particularly a group of Kurdish students who were at Brunel University when Halabja was gassed and we lost thousands of lives. Many remained and settled in the local community, making a major contribution to it. I have to say that, at the time that Halabja occurred, my Conservative predecessor supported Saddam Hussein—a disgrace to this Parliament.

As a candid friend and as a trade unionist, I raise two issues. The first relates to the teachers’ strike that is taking place. The second, because I am the secretary of the NUJNational Union of Journalists—group in Parliament, is the treatment of journalists. Jack Lopresti was straightforward about the suppression of dissent, the corruption and the lack of adequate judicial enforcement of the law at the moment, and we have to be straight with people.

I will briefly read from the letter that has come out from the Nationwide Council of Protesting Teachers in Kurdistan. The dispute has gone on for months and is causing immense concern and suffering for teachers and their families. The first paragraph is this:

“We, the Nationwide Council of Protesting Teachers, comprised of representatives from the 13 protesting border cities and towns, wish to inform you that after 130 days of civil struggle, boycotts, demonstrations, and the loss of an academic season, the KRG authorities, instead of meeting our basic demands…which include” the return of fair

“promotion, recruitment of teachers, payment of salaries every 30 days, determining the fate of” what they describe as “44 stolen” salary months

“are currently engaging in illegal, inhuman, and violent pressure and threats against teachers in general, and members leading protests in particular.”

What is happening in this dispute? It is a straightforward dispute about payment of wages. The teachers have not been paid for four months and, as a result, their families are on the edge of destitution in many instances. All they are asking for is payment of salaries on a monthly basis, resumption of the promotion of teachers and other employees in the education sector, and an end to the casual contracts that many have been forced to take recently.

I also have to comment on the politics—we have to be straight about that, too. The teachers want to stop what they describe as the meddling by the dominant parties in the affairs and work of Government institutions and particularly in the education system. Those are fair demands, which we should support, and I urge the authorities to come to a speedy resolution of the dispute, because it is infecting other areas of civil society and political life.

I raise the second issue on behalf of journalists. I am afraid that, for a long period—over the past five years in particular—there has been an issue with the treatment of journalists who have sought to report accurately and fairly on not only the activities of political institutions within Kurdistan but civil society affairs generally. According to the reports we are getting back, the crackdown has been fairly ruthless since 2020. It intensified about then because protests were taking place and journalists were trying to report those protests. We received reports through the union about arbitrary arrests and the forcible disappearing of a number of journalists.

It was not just the union; Amnesty did a report as well, and I found it deeply worrying. At the time, Amnesty said:

“The authorities in the Kurdistan Region of Iraq have launched a chilling crackdown in their efforts to silence critics over the past year”— this was 2020. The report went on to say:

“They have rounded up activists and journalists, prosecuting them on trumped-up charges in unfair trials and harassing or intimidating family members who were kept in the dark about the status of their loved ones.”

That was from the then deputy director of Amnesty International for the middle east and north Africa.

These things have gone on. Amnesty investigated the case of 14 people from Badinan who were arbitrarily arrested between March and October 2020 by the KRG security and intelligence and Kurdish Democratic Party intelligence. That case was specifically connected to their reporting of the protests and to criticism from local authorities of their journalistic work. At that point—I am afraid that further evidence has now come to light—there was evidence of torture and ill treatment during detention in cells and of a number of confessions being extracted under duress. In fact, the Paris-based Reporters Without Borders published the world press freedom index on World Press Freedom Day—which is on 3 May each year—and Iraq is ranked 167th for press freedom out of 180 countries. That is worrying in itself, but Iraq also ranks fifth out of those 180 countries for countries where journalists are killed and the killers escape punishment—that was from the renowned and respected report of the Committee to Protect Journalists.

Iraq, including Kurdistan, is still one of the most dangerous areas for journalists to work in. Recently, alarms have been sounded about the renewal of the sentencing of journalists—with some sentences of up to six years in prison—and the renewal of sentences. I want briefly to highlight the cases of a number of individuals. Reporters Without Borders sounded the alarm about increased violations of press freedom and particularly about the renewal of the sentence of Sherwan Sherwani, which was described in the media in this country as being cruel and outrageous punishment. On 1 October 2023, the Irbil court sentenced journalist Gohdar Zibari to another six months in prison. The practice seems to be that six-month sentences are renewed fairly regularly; for him, that was the third time that his sentence had been renewed. Roj News reporter, Sulaiman Ahmad, whose lawyer and relatives are still not allowed to see him, was arrested in late October last year on charges of having links with the Kurdistan Workers Party—the PKK. That case was brought forward without any evidence. The relatives are asking for access and greater transparency about what evidence is being used to justify the arrest.

Arrests of journalists peak when demonstrations are taking place or when there are industrial disputes, such as the teachers’ dispute that is taking place at the moment. The targeting of journalists who are campaigning around those issues has been interpreted, by people locally and within the journalistic community globally, as another regime seeking to silence the voice of the people, as reported by those journalists.

There appears to be a lack of accountability through the judicial system. The hon. Member for Filton and Bradley Stoke made reference to the improvements that are needed to ensure that there is a fair and independent judicial system. I am afraid that, when it comes to journalists and trade unionists, there is a feeling that the judicial system is not independent or fair and that, in fact, it becomes a tool of politicians aiming to silence critics of their activities.

As has been said, the British Government have a particular relationship with Kurdistan and the Kurdish people because of our history and the activities that have taken place, particularly over recent years, to establish some form of Kurdistan and encourage its development as a democratic state that is accountable to its people. Unfortunately, some of the foundation stones of the democratic state we are hoping for, particularly with regard to the freedom of trade unions and journalists, are being undermined by the current regimes. As a result, I think the UK Government have a responsibility—in fact, I think it behoves us all—to make sure that we voice our concerns to the current Administrations and do all we can to put pressure on them to abide by certain basic democratic standards: the recognition of the freedom of trade unions and of the freedom of journalists to report without hazard, particularly to their physical security.

I urge the Government to make an honest reproach to the Kurdistan Administrations—to express our support for Kurds and for Kurdistan, but also to say very clearly that the standards at the moment are not good enough. One action that could be taken fairly quickly to reassure people that there is faith in the democratic process is the settlement of the teachers’ dispute and the protection of journalists.

Photo of Jim Shannon Jim Shannon Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Human Rights), Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Health) 9:55, 7 February 2024

Yesterday, Ms Bardell, you and I were side by side in Westminster Hall supporting a cause we both have great interest in—funnily enough, the same Minister is in his place today. It is a real pleasure to serve under your chairship now, and I give special thanks to Jack Lopresti for highlighting the concerns he so rightly holds. It is also a real pleasure to follow John McDonnell, who always speaks up for journalists and freedom of expression in these debates, for which we commend him.

The discussion about the UK’s relationship with the Kurdistan region of Iraq is of great importance. The importance of our relationship with that region cannot be overstated, either diplomatically or—this will probably not be a surprise to many—in terms of freedom of religion or belief, and I will give some examples of that, because it is the core issue of my speech.

A few years ago, I had the opportunity to visit Iraq with Aid to the Church in Need. I did not go to Kurdistan, but I did go to Irbil and other parts. I have some understanding of what happens there, but I have a fairly big understanding of freedom of religious belief. I very much look forward to the contributions from the Minister, who is always helpful, and from the SNP spokesperson, my good friend Brendan O’Hara, who I know is on the same page as me on this subject. I also very much look forward to the shadow Minister’s contribution.

With the current military strikes in the region by both Turkey and Iran-backed groups, UK support grows in importance. The area is unfortunately not new to armed conflicts, but it has also been a safe haven for religious minorities fleeing armed conflict in nearby areas and countries. Christians, Yazidis and Sunni Muslims have arrived in the region for protection from persecution in their previous homelands, but these minorities still lack legal protections and face persecution from authorities and society at large in the region. For instance, the Kurdistan Regional Government failed to substantially carry out the provisions of the 2020 United Nations-brokered Sinjar agreement to help stabilise the area and enable the return of Yazidis displaced by the ISIS genocide—it was genocide, and the hon. Member for Argyll and Bute has spoken about that many times through his all-party parliamentary group for the prevention of genocide.

There continue to be territorial and jurisdictional disputes between the Iraqi federal Government and the KRG, which has resulted in the seizure of land and businesses from Christians, but there seems to be no action whatever to address that. Additionally, targeted harassment has deterred many displaced Christians from returning to the area and has increased emigration. My question to the Minister is, how has the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland attempted to broach these displacements of religious minorities in Kurdistan? Over the past few years, Iraqi military forces have targeted religious minorities, displacing some 3,000 Yazidis who had already been displaced by recurrent Turkey airstrikes. Wherever they go, the Yazidis seem to be persecuted or under pressure, and I have to speak up for them today.

Have the United Kingdom Government or the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office attempted to broach discussions between Turkey and the KRG? If not, how will the Minister do that? Have the Government had further discussions with the Iraqi federal Government regarding the protection of religious minorities from rising conflicts and territorial disputes? We would all be keen to understand what has taken place and what more could be done.

The KRG has rightfully attempted to promote religious cohesion for more than 2 million members of religious minorities displaced from Iraq and Syria by conflicts with ISIS. However, some Christian groups indigenous to the plains of Nineveh—which I had the pleasure and privilege to visit some years ago—raised concerns over the KRG’s failure to resolve long-standing grievances, such as lack of KRG funding and other support for Assyrian-run schools; discrimination in employment and municipal services; and unresolved KRG-tolerated or initiated misappropriation of Christians’ land, businesses and other property. I say that again because it is important, and my job in this House is to raise these matters, to which I hope our Minister and Government can respond.

This issue must be addressed. Christian residents have cited their lack of security and threats from ISIS, the popular mobilisation forces and the KRG as the main drivers of emigration from the area, bringing their ancient communities almost to the point of extinction. This cannot go on.

What efforts has the UK has made to provide to the KRG aid and other support specifically for religious minorities? If we have not provided such aid, we need to. In August 2023, the Prime Minister of the Kurdistan region, Masrour Barzani, reaffirmed the KRG’s commitment to supporting the rights of the Yazidis and emphasised the importance of the Sinjar agreement, so there is a willingness among some in Iraq and the area, and I encourage more of that. He also stressed that the Iraq federal Government need to meet the Kurdistan region’s financial entitlements. For instance, disputes over oil and gas are one way that religious minorities are suffering. Is aid going to the KRG to help with internally displaced people, and is it equally distributed among religious minorities? If it is not, it needs to be and should be. That is my plea on behalf of those people.

The Israeli-Hamas war has begun to spill over into the Kurdistan region because of Iranian missiles, and the individuals most vulnerable to increased violence and attacks are displaced religious minorities, as many Yazidis remain in internally displaced people’s camps. We have to reach out and help those people. I am proud of our representative Lord Ahmad and what he does around the world. He is a great spokesperson for the United Kingdom Government, because he believes in these things in his heart. On a recent visit, he emphasised the need to protect freedom of religion or belief and the importance of inter-faith dialogue. That is important anywhere in the world, but even more so here. I ask the Minister, how do we accomplish that in reality?

The United Kingdom has supported Kurdistan autonomy, and perhaps that is still the best route to ensuring the protection of religious individuals and the right to FORB. In February 2021, an early-day motion on FORB in the Kurdistan region of Iraq was tabled. It stated that

“religious leaders are frequently consulted by ministers and government officials” of the KRG, but have those actions continued? I would appreciate the Minister’s response, if not today then in the usual fashion.

The KRG’s Ministry of Endowment and Religious Affairs focuses on:

“Establishing, managing and supervising mosques and religious sites and meeting their needs…Supervising, monitoring and investing in Waqf properties to grow their revenues…Supervising annual pilgrimages…to Mecca for citizens of the Kurdistan Region… Preparing a new generation of religious scholars with a modern, national education…Supporting and reviving various religious events”.

That is what the Ministry committed to back in 2021, and that is what it needs to re-commit to now. What communications has the UK had with the Ministry of Endowment and Religious Affairs about developing UK policies and relations in the area and protecting the rights of religious minorities? This is my plea on behalf of those who are subjected to persecution because of their beliefs—those with Christian faiths, with other faiths and, indeed, with no faith: they should all have equal opportunities, fair and equitable treatment, and opportunities in the region.

The UK’s close ties with the Kurdistan region place us in a unique position to help religious minorities, and we can and must do more diplomatically and practically. There is a twin goal: we can help them practically and physically with aid, but we need also to help them diplomatically and ensure that there is a core focus on human rights and the right of religious expression. I look to the Minister to outline how we can better engage and support minorities who are most at risk and most in need. I know the Minister is open to the idea of additional support, so I look forward to his response.

In conclusion, we have a responsibility. I believe there is scope for enhancing our success in achieving the aim of providing help and support. Perhaps we can look to the movement today as another step in the journey we are all on together. We might have different opinions, but we are all on the same journey of life. In this world we have a responsibility to speak up for others around the world. We have a great platform as elected representatives, so let us speak up on behalf of all those people. I know the Minister is always accommodating; we all appreciate that. When it comes to moving forward together, we can do good to all men and women across the region.

Photo of Brendan O'Hara Brendan O'Hara Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Foreign Affairs) 10:06, 7 February 2024

It is a pleasure to see you in the Chair, Ms Bardell. I, too, thank Jack Lopresti for securing the debate and for the way he opened it. I also thank John McDonnell and Jim Shannon for contributing to what has been a well-informed and thoughtful debate on an important strategic relationship.

Although I reply on behalf of the SNP, I should point out that since 2016 I have been chair of the all-party parliamentary group on the Yazidis. Like many others, I have had the privilege of visiting the region. Indeed, it was exactly a year ago that I flew into Irbil and visited Duhok, Shekhan, the holy site of Lalish and several of the Yazidi IDP camps—a subject I will return to later. I put on the record my sincere thanks to the hon. Member for Strangford for raising the plight of Christians, Yazidis and other religious minorities in Kurdistan. As soon as I saw him in his place this morning, I never doubted for a moment that he would.

The hon. Member for Filton and Bradley Stoke spoke movingly of the hideous genocide of the 1980s in which tens of thousands died at the hands of Saddam Hussein. He was right to highlight the crucial role played by Sir John Major. Since 1992 the Kurdish people have enjoyed a democratically elected Government of their own, giving freedoms and rights to people that would have been unimaginable under the dictatorship of Saddam Hussein.

Notwithstanding the very real concerns raised by the right hon. Member for Hayes and Harlington about the current situation in respect of journalistic freedom and the freedom of trade unions, rights and freedoms have been strengthened through the emergence of a raft of civic society organisations, non-governmental organisations and women’s groups, alongside an institutionalised tolerance for religious, ethnic and linguistic minorities. Following the fall of Saddam Hussein, the first independence referendum in 2005 saw 99% support for the creation of an independent Kurdish state.

Photo of Chris Stephens Chris Stephens Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Justice), Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Immigration)

As John McDonnell mentioned, it was the actions of the Saddam Hussein regime that allowed a thriving Kurdish community to develop in Scotland—in Glasgow and Edinburgh, for example—and that is best celebrated by the election of Councillor Roza Salih, Scotland’s first refugee councillor and a woman of very proud Kurdish roots, and we are equally as proud of her.

Photo of Brendan O'Hara Brendan O'Hara Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Foreign Affairs)

I thank and agree with my hon. Friend. Councillor Salih is a shining example of a young refugee woman who has recognised that she has a contribution to make. We are very grateful that she has made and continues to make that contribution to Scotland.

Of course, the 2005 referendum did not lead to an independent Kurdistan, because of threats from neighbouring countries, but it did enshrine the autonomy of the Kurdistan region in the new Iraqi constitution, which promised the protections of autonomy and citizenship based on a federal, ethnically diverse and inclusive model with strong minority rights and guarantees against discrimination.

It will come as no surprise to anyone present that, like the hon. Member for Filton and Bradley Stoke, the SNP supports Kurds’ right to self-determination and to decide their own constitutional future. We fully understand why, despite having a degree of autonomy, the people of Kurdistan still want their independence. That desire was expressed again in no uncertain terms in 2017, with another referendum, in which 92% backed independence on a turnout of 72%. It would be foolish in the extreme for anyone to assume that that desire has gone away.

To quote the words of the hon. Member for Filton and Bradley Stoke ahead of the 2017 referendum, he sympathised with the Kurdish position and understood

“why the Kurds feel that federalism has failed and their belief that it cannot be revived.”

It is therefore essential that, in building a healthy, co-operative, mutually respectful relationship with the Kurdistan region of Iraq, the United Kingdom never loses sight of Kurds’ fierce desire for their own independent nation state. There is no doubt that today the UK Government have a key role in facilitating the development of a good relationship between the Kurdistan region and the rest of Iraq—one that helps to realise the economic potential of both and strengthens security and democratic Governments not just in Iraq but in the region as a whole.

We have seen in recent weeks that these are extremely worrying and volatile times for the whole region. Tension between the KRG and the federal Government in Baghdad has not gone away, and is currently being exacerbated by a fiercely contested dispute over the status of the province of Kirkuk and control of its oil fields. The hon. Member for Filton and Bradley Stoke was right when he said that against that backdrop, and the unfolding catastrophe in Gaza, there was a missile attack last month by an Iran-affiliated group that claimed to have hit an Israeli spy base near Irbil. It was a blatant and flagrant breach of sovereignty, which was rightly condemned by both the KRG and the federal Government. Of course, Iran has form, having already attacked Kurdistan in 2022 in response to protests following the death of a young Iranian Kurdish women, Mahsa Amini. Those attacks killed 20 people, including civilian women, refugees and children.

The long-running conflict between Turkey and the outlawed Kurdistan Workers Party, which has seen tens of thousands killed in the last four decades, has never been resolved. I thank the hon. Member for Strangford again for raising the question of what exactly the UK can do to help to facilitate a deal between the PKK and Turkey. Anything the UK and its partners can do to bring stability, dial down tension, and crucially avoid any escalation would be extremely welcome right now.

Of course, Kurdistan is not just having to cope with external pressures. Internally, it is having to cope with the consequences of the war on Daesh and a mass influx of people fleeing that barbaric onslaught. In the attack on Sinjar and the appalling genocide of the Yazidis that followed, Daesh fighters killed thousands of men and boys, abducted male children to fight as child soldiers, and kidnapped and sold into sexual slavery Yazidi women and girls, 2,700 of whom are still missing today and whose fate we cannot ever allow to be forgotten.

Those who could fled, many to Kurdistan. They never expected to stay and have always yearned to return to their home in Sinjar to rebuild their lives, but that has not happened because of a lack of security and an all too real fear that although Daesh has been defeated militarily, the ideology that fuelled them is still very much alive. That has resulted in a refugee crisis in Kurdistan, with more than 120,000 Yazidis still living in dire poverty and makeshift camps almost a decade after fleeing their homes in Sinjar when Daesh attacked.

Just this time last year, I visited several of the internally displaced people’s camps with the humanitarian NGO Bellwether International, to see the conditions in which the Yazidi people are forced to live. It was a harrowing experience to see thousands of families living in row after row of plastic-sheet tents, and to see children born into those camps who know nothing else but growing up in those conditions—where their parents, and particularly their mothers, still live through the trauma they went through at the hands of Daesh.

The camps are desperate places in which people who want to return home are losing hope. I cannot escape the conclusion that the international community has completely abandoned these poor people and no longer regards their situation as an emergency, leaving it to the Kurdish Regional Government, NGOs and charities to look after them. In addition to all the other issues that have been raised by right hon. and hon. Members, I ask this of the Government: please do not forget or turn your back on the Yazidis stuck in IDP camps, and please be part of the search for a long-term solution that will allow them to return home, to rebuild their lives in security and safety.

Photo of Wayne David Wayne David Shadow Minister (Middle East and North Africa) 10:15, 7 February 2024

It is a pleasure to serve under you today, Ms Bardell. I congratulate Jack Lopresti on securing this debate. He has been to Kurdistan on a number of occasions and is chair of the all-party parliamentary group on the Kurdistan region in Iraq. I am one of the vice-chairs of the APPG, and I know that its members have a great deal of knowledge about the region and have visited Kurdistan several times. I hope to go there before too long. As I would expect, the hon. Member gave a truly comprehensive overview of the region, referring to its recent history and the good things that have occurred in Kurdistan, as well as outlining what needs to be addressed in the future.

We have heard from my right hon. Friend John McDonnell about the situation for teachers and journalists. I am certain that the Minister will have taken note of his comments and will respond to them.

We have also heard from Jim Shannon, who spoke eloquently about the importance of religious toleration and freedom, and spoke in particular about the situation facing Christians and Yazidis, which was also referred to by the SNP spokesperson, Brendan O’Hara.

Although I have not been to Kurdistan, as the Member for a south Wales constituency, I have felt on occasions that I know Kurdistan quite well. I say that not because of its spectacular scenery, including its wonderful mountains, but because I was a good friend of the late Anne Clwyd, the former Member for Cynon Valley, who passed away last year. I knew Anne very well and I know she had a great affection for Kurdistan, and was well respected in the region. Indeed, her memorial service in Aberdare last autumn, which I attended, was also attended by Karwan Jamal Tahir and a senior Minister from the Iraqi Government. It was really important to have such a high representative of Kurdistan as well as a member of the Iraqi Government present at Anne’s memorial service.

The Kurdistan region in Iraq is known as the beloved north, because of its spectacular landscapes and relatively temperate climate. The region has tremendous potential, and the hon. Member for Filton and Bradley Stoke correctly highlighted the importance of developing the bilateral relationship between our two countries. Indeed, that was a common theme throughout all the contributions this morning.

There are around 200 British companies currently operating in the Kurdistan region, and I know that the British Government are keen to promote UK investment as best they can. As the hon. Member said in introducing the debate, educational links are also vitally important. The University of London is in the process of establishing a campus in Irbil, the capital of Kurdistan, which will join three other universities that already teach in English.

However, that is not to suggest that Kurdistan does not face significant challenges, because it does. The relationship with Baghdad could be much better. Oil exports from Iraqi Kurdistan to Turkey have been paused since late March 2023, and arbitration on this issue has been taking place. This is a vital issue, as oil accounts for 80% of the region’s income, and it is part of an ongoing dispute about finance. The constitutional position linked to it needs to be clarified as a matter of urgency.

A crucial part of the Irbil-Baghdad argument concerns disputed territories such as Kirkuk. The Kurdish governor of Kirkuk called on Kurdish forces to urgently reinforce their military presence, to save Kirkuk from ISIS in 2014, and then control its oil fields. After the disputed 2017 independence referendum in Kurdistan, those disputed regions and oil fields were retaken by Iraqi Government forces. I understand that there were violent protests in Kirkuk in the autumn of only last year, but the dispute is unresolved.

Another large and important issue is corruption. Corruption in the regional government’s administration and elsewhere in the county is a huge problem, although that must be kept in perspective, because it is suggested that corruption in other parts of Iraq is far more deep-seated. Nevertheless, corruption needs to be addressed and rooted out in a determined way.

As we have heard this morning, security is also an issue. Since the 1980s, Turkey has been engaged in military action against the PKK, formerly the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, a proscribed terrorist organisation in the UK. In October last year, Turkey launched a number of attacks, which have continued into this year. Although I appreciate that the Government recognise Turkey’s legitimate security interests in Iraq, I am concerned about regional instability. I ask to Minister to say a few words about the Government’s position on that.

There is also the issue of recent Iranian missile attacks. Only last month, Iran launched a missile attack targeting what it called an “Israeli spy base”. At least four civilians were killed and six injured in the strikes, according to the Kurdistan Government. Among the dead were a multimillionaire Kurdish businessman, members of his family and a senior Kurdish intelligence officer. I would appreciate it if the Minister provided us with an update on that attack and on relations with Iran.

In conclusion, I think we all agree that links between the UK and Kurdistan are strong and positive. We have a large Kurdish diaspora in the United Kingdom that makes a huge and positive contribution to our economy and culture. We also have an important relationship with the autonomous region of Kurdistan, as we have heard this morning. The important thing now is to develop and take forward that relationship, which will certainly be to our mutual benefit. I look forward to hearing from the Minister how the Government intend to develop that relationship further, in line with their stated policy of supporting a strong Kurdistan region in a strong and unified Iraq.

Photo of Leo Docherty Leo Docherty Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office) 10:23, 7 February 2024

I am grateful to my hon. Friend Jack Lopresti for securing this important debate. All colleagues will pay tribute to his long-standing interest in the Kurdistan region of Iraq and his work as chair of the all-party parliamentary group. I am here in place of the noble Lord Ahmad, who is the lead Minister, but who, being in the other place, cannot be here this morning, although he will take note of this debate.

I am grateful for the points raised across the House. We are all pleased to have in the Gallery His Excellency Karwan Jamal Tahir, who does such energetic and effective work to foster relations between the Kurdistan region and the UK. My hon. Friend the Member for Filton and Bradley Stoke rightly paid tribute to the excellent work over two decades of Gary Kent, who also joins us here. He has tirelessly promoted relations between the Kurdistan region and the UK over that time. It is very good to see him here.

Of course, the UK’s connection to the Kurdistan region dates back more than a century. It is of both tremendous historical weight and modern relevance. We continue to work closely together towards our shared aspiration for a secure, stable and thriving Kurdistan region of Iraq within a peaceful and prosperous Iraq. To respond to the comments of my hon. Friend the Member for Filton and Bradley Stoke, I must start by extending my deepest condolences to those affected by the outrageous strikes on Irbil on 15 January, including the family of Karam Mikhael, a UK-Iraqi dual national. In the immediate aftermath of the attack, the Foreign Secretary condemned it as callous and reckless. This was a callous and reckless attack by the Iranian regime; we are very clear about that. There is no justification for targeting innocent civilians, and these strikes were an unacceptable violation of Iraq’s sovereignty and territorial integrity. The Foreign Secretary made this very clear to his Iranian counterpart when they spoke.

The Khor Mor gas field was also attacked on 25 January. The attack undermined efforts to build a more stable and prosperous future for the people of the KRI. As my hon. Friend the Member for Filton and Bradley Stoke laid out, we have seen an increase in regional attacks in recent months. Iran-aligned militia groups have targeted coalition forces across Iraq and Syria more than 160 times since 7 October. This is a trend that we are very concerned about and focused on. Iran bears responsibility for the actions of groups that it has long supported, and it must use its influence to curb these attacks and de-escalate regional tensions.

As my hon. Friend mentioned, democracy in the Kurdistan region of Iraq has been hard won in the face of adversity, and it should be celebrated and protected. Elections are a vital part of a thriving democratic process, and it is therefore disappointing that they have been delayed. We hope that everyone, including the relevant institutions in Baghdad, will work hard to ensure they can happen as soon as possible—indeed, before the Independent High Electoral Commission mandate expires on 7 July. The KRI’s semi-autonomy has been eroded since the unilateral referendum in 2017 failed to progress the region towards independence. The breakdown in relations between the two main political parties in the KRI, the Kurdistan Democratic party and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, has had a negative impact on the region’s prosperity, security and stability. We therefore believe that Iraq is stronger and more stable when the Kurdish parties work together to play a constructive role in broader Iraqi politics.

The points that John McDonnell made about media freedom are well received. I can confirm to him that the Prime Minister and the Minister for the Middle East have raised our concerns about restrictions on media freedom with the Prime Minister of the Kurdistan Regional Government. During Lord Ahmad’s visit to the KRI in March, he raised concerns about restrictions on media freedom with senior figures in the KRG. Our ambassador in Baghdad and our consul general in Irbil regularly meet Kurdish journalists, human rights activists and members of civil society to discuss their concerns and continue to underline the UK’s enduring commitment to human rights and freedom of expression. We are aware of the context, and we will continue to advocate for greater media freedom in the KRI in the context of Iraq as a whole.

Let me turn to oil exports—which Wayne David raised—and in particular exports through the Iraq-Turkey pipeline. We hope to see a sustainable and satisfactory resolution. The political and economic implications are grave and significant, and are therefore a source of deep concern to us. We hope to see things improve in the context of an improvement in Turkish-Kurdistan relations, and that is something that we will continue to advocate for in our diplomacy with both sides. We continue to encourage co-operation between Baghdad and Irbil, and to emphasise both to the Federal Government and regional government the importance of a stable constitutional arrangement that preserves the level of autonomy for the KRI that is laid out in the Iraqi constitution. We are clear about the constitutional obligations of the Federal Government.

As a leading member of the global coalition against Daesh, we have continued to support the Iraqi security forces and the Peshmerga, which was described by my hon. Friend the Member for Filton and Bradley Stoke. We have worked with the Peshmerga to help it to tackle the threat from Daesh and build its institutional capacity. The coalition’s platform in Iraq is vital for its operations against Daesh in Syria as well, and as the threat evolves, it remains committed to ensuring the group’s enduring defeat, with an expanded NATO mission in Iraq and increasingly capable Iraqi security forces conducting effective and independent counter-Daesh operations. That independence is so very important. The UK welcomes the start of the higher military commission process, led by the US and Iraq, and we look forward to contributing meaningfully to it.

Our support for the development of the Iraqi security forces is in addition to the UK’s contribution to the NATO mission in Iraq. The training we provide to more than 110,000 members of the Iraqi security forces, including more than 20,000 members of the peshmerga, is hugely important. We should rightly be proud of that. The UK, alongside the US, Germany and the Netherlands, continues to support and advise the KRI’s Ministry of Peshmerga Affairs on its reform agenda. That agenda and the generation of an apolitical peshmerga are important and visible symbols of Kurdish unity, and it was encouraging that Minister Shoresh returned to office to lead the Ministry in November. We value that relationship.

Daesh atrocities over the past decade have left a grave and lasting legacy right across Iraq and in the KRI. The UK played a leading role in the establishment of the UN investigative team to promote accountability for crimes committed by Daesh, and we are committed to working closely with the Government of Iraq and the UN to support its work. Last year the UK formally recognised that Daesh committed acts of genocide against the Yazidis, an indigenous Kurdish minority mentioned at length by Brendan O’Hara—that mention was welcome. Following that recognition, we continue to advocate for the full implementation of the Yazidi survivors’ law, which is crucial in securing justice for survivors and helping them to rebuild their lives. We are providing a further £100,000 this year to support the implementation of the law and a total of £300,000 over three years.

The funding will provide survivors with access to mental health and psychological support through local NGOs, so I am pleased to confirm for the hon. Member for Argyll and Bute that HMG have not forgotten about the Yazidis and will continue on that path. That is also important in the context of religious freedom, which I am grateful to Jim Shannon for raising. It is important that Christians have the freedom of worship that is their constitutional right, and I am pleased to confirm that I will ask my noble friend Lord Ahmad to write with a full update, because he continues to advance that agenda actively and, as the hon. Gentleman knows, has a deep and sincere interest in the subject.

On aid, the UK has committed more than £400 million to Iraq since 2014, including supporting displaced communities in the KRI. It has provided food for more than 200,000 people and healthcare services for more than 6 million, so it is significant. Our flagship “Women’s Voices First” programme is helping to promote and support the role of women in preventing and resolving conflicts as well as playing more powerful roles in their communities in Iraq. There are terrific examples of female leadership in the political and civic space, particularly in Kurdistan.

The UK will build the capacity of the Government of Iraq and the Kurdistan Regional Government to mitigate and adapt to the effects of climate change, such as increasing water scarcity. That is of keen interest to the agricultural sector in Kurdistan. Over the past 12 months, high-profile visits by my colleague Lord Ahmad, the Minister of State for the Middle East, by Her Royal Highness the Duchess of Edinburgh and by my right hon. Friend the Security Minister have helped to strengthen our partnerships and advance that important work.

The UK’s deep connection to the Kurdistan region means that we continue to argue for Kurdish unity and democracy. We call on Iran to use its influence to curb regional attacks and de-escalate tensions that risk further destabilising the KRI. Meanwhile, we continue to encourage co-operation between Baghdad and Irbil. We continue to support efforts to counter terrorism and to hold Daesh accountable for its atrocities, and we continue to build our efforts to advance progress towards a more secure, peaceful and prosperous future for the KRI, including through support for women, for peace and security and for measures to counter climate change, as I mentioned. It is clear from the tone of the debate and my comments we can be proud that the UK is committed to continuing our strong relationship with the KRI to ensure that its people can look forward to a more stable and prosperous future. I am grateful for the contributions to the debate.

Photo of Jack Lopresti Jack Lopresti Conservative, Filton and Bradley Stoke 10:36, 7 February 2024

I thank all colleagues who made thoughtful, well-informed contributions. I am also grateful to both Front Benchers, Wayne David and my hon. Friend the Minister, and for the Government’s continued reiteration of their support for the Kurdish region of Iraq, our bilateral relationship and all the assistance in the fields mentioned by the Minister.

We have been candid friends and we are hugely supportive of and loyal to our Kurdish friends. Somebody once said to me, “Your best friends are not always the people who tell you what you want to hear”—people have said that to me more than once—but, in fairness to the Kurdish Government and the Kurdish people in northern Iraq, they are aware of the issues that they have and of where development and work are needed. We not only point that out, but we help and continue to provide help and support.

Finally, I implore the Government to maintain and enhance our military and security presence in the region. Too often in recent years, we have seen what happens when security and stability are not maintained through the rise of ISIS in 2014 and the return of the Taliban in Afghanistan, which, I believe, encouraged Putin to attack Ukraine.

Question put and agreed to.

Resolved,

That this House
has considered the relationship between the UK and the Kurdistan Region of Iraq.

Sitting suspended.