Recognise genocide against Kurds

17 March 2008

Recognise genocide against Kurds

On Sunday it will be just twenty years ago that Saddam Hussein attacked the Kurdish town of Halabja with chemical weapons. This attack formed part of the Anfal Campaign, which was aimed at driving out or destroying the population of Iraqi Kurdistan. Members of Parliament Harry van Bommel and Fred Teeven recently attended the international conference on this subject in Erbil, Iraq. They have since together taken up the cause of international recognition of the genocide committed against the Kurds and of the establishment of a commemorative monument in the Netherlands.

In the 1980s Europe and the Netherlands did a great deal of business with Saddam Hussein's Iraq. Iraq enjoyed the support of the west in its war against fundamentalist Iran, and blind eyes were turned. Only in the second half of that decade did it become clear that major risks were attached to the furnishing of certain materials. Saddam Hussein was employing chemical weapons against his enemies both inside and outside the country. On 16th March 1988 this reached a tragic climax with the poison gas attack on the town of Halabja and other places in the vicinity, which left at least 5,000 people dead. Others were physically or mentally mutilated, continuing to suffer to this day. This gas attack followed an intensive ethnic cleansing which had gone on for several years, the Anfal Campaign, which is estimated to have killed 182,000 Kurds. Much is known about this genocide, but unfortunately international recognition has not yet materialised. The conference which we attended had as its goal the promotion of such recognition as well as the bringing of those who share responsibility for it to justice.

That recognition of genocide is far from straightforward is demonstrated by the problematic discussion of the crimes committed against the Armenians under the Ottoman Empire in 1915. The concept of genocide is emotionally charged, but since the realisation, in 1948, of the UN Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide, it has been narrowly defined as the systematic extermination of a particular ethnic group according to a specific premeditated plan with the involvement or foreknowledge of governmental authorities. There is persuasive evidence for the presence of all of these aspects in Saddam Hussein's Anfal Campaign. The Netherlands should, we are strongly convinced, recognise therefore the genocidal character of this mass murder committed against the Kurds. We will be putting questions to the government on this as well as initiating a debate on the issue in Parliament. Recognition by the Netherlands will make it easier for other European countries and the EU to take the same course.

That the Netherlands should extend such recognition is for a variety of reasons clear. Firstly, there is in the person of the convicted Dutch poison gas dealer Frans van Anraat a direct relation between our country and these tragic events. In 2006 the judge considered it proven that Van Anraat had supplied the chemicals needed by Iraq to produce the poison gasses. In addition, the judge in the first instance explicitly declared that the regime's crimes could be defined as genocide. Van Anraat's condemnation, in a higher court, to seventeen years in prison increased, in the Netherlands, the awareness of and attention to the genocide against the Kurds. Until 1985 it was, moreover, legally permitted to supply substances which could be used to produce chemical weapons. According to the Dutch UN arms inspector, not less than 45% of all poison gas chemicals supplied to Iraq during these years came from Dutch persons or Dutch companies. As the seat of many international judicial institutions it should be possible to expect the Netherlands to offer leadership when it comes to the detection and prosecution of war crimes and human rights abuses. A solitary reference to the role of international tribunals is in this respect utterly insufficient.

In addition to recognition of the genocide we are urging the establishment of an international enquiry into the medical, social, economic and legal consequences of the Anfal Campaign. This is needed if we are to offer justice to the campaign's victims, especially to those who continue daily to contend with its results. As a first step on the way to recognition of the suffering of the Kurds we propose the establishment of a monument in memory of the victims and as a warning to ensure that nothing so terrible should ever happen again. The placing of a memorial for the suffering of a specific group would be unusual in our country. One example, which can be found at the Church of Moses and Aaron in Amsterdam, is the monument memorialising the fifteen Surinamese people shot dead by the military regime in December, 1982, known as the 'Decembermoorden'. In consultation with a range of organisations of Kurds, it seems to us that The Hague, as a town associated with justice and peace, would be the place to put a Kurdish monument. This year will see in a number of places commemorations of the Kurdish sorrow. Let us hope that in the future there will be one single place where Kurdish people and others can pause in an expression of the grief which has touched so many.

Harry van Bommel and Fred Teeven are Members of the Dutch National Parliament, for the SP and VVD respectively. On Sunday they will speak at 1 p.m. at memorial ceremonies in Delft and Amsterdam.

This article was published in Trouw, Thursday 13th of March 2008.

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