The Kurdish Conflict: International Humanitarian Law and Post-Conflict Mechanisms

September 16, 2010

The world's 40 million or so Kurds are routinely referred to as "the largest group of stateless people in the world". Their homeland straddles one of the most explosive geopolitical regions - the triangle between Turkey, Iran, Iraq and Syria - and yet their fate and struggle for self-determination evoked little international attention until the 1991 Gulf War. Since then, and since the stability and territorial integrity of Iraq has become indissolubly tied to the status of the autonomous (and oil-rich) Kurdish quasi-state in its north, the number of books on the Kurds has mushroomed. With few exceptions, though, reading one of these works on Kurdish nationalism is like having read them all - too often, the reader is left with a been-there-heard-that impression. This is not quite the case, however, with The Kurdish Conflict by Kerim Yildiz and Susan Breau, who approach the issue from a road less taken: the localisation of the conflict in international and human rights law.

Yildiz, a prolific Kurdish human rights campaigner based in London, and Breau, a professor in international law at Flinders University in Australia, can speak on the subject with authority and, in the case of Yildiz, with lifelong on-the-ground expertise.

Moreover, to the book's unquestionable gain, the duo wisely chose to confine themselves geographically while thematically going beyond the narrow focus on a people's right to self-determination and its grounding (or lack of grounding) in international law. This allows them to discuss the legal dimension of the very issue that is most pressing for the international community at some (if ultimately not satisfactory) depth: the civil war in south-eastern Turkey between Turkish security forces and the PKK (Kurdistan Workers' Party) and how this conflict spills over into and destabilises neighbouring Iraq.

To many readers, this may seem at first a moot point of discussion, for if truth is the first casualty of war, law surely is the second. No doubt the dirty war raging in eastern Anatolia since 1984 - which has cost more than 40,000 lives - defies all notions of jus in bello, and the Turkish military in its approximately 60 incursions into northern Iraq operates on a very peculiar interpretation of jus ad bellum.

Yet Yildiz and Breau make a compelling case for why a legal perspective matters. For example, they demonstrate how the designation of the PKK as a terrorist organisation by the European Union and the US complicates their possible role as mediators. They also unmask the hypocrisy in Turkey's treatment of the PKK as an internal security threat on the international stage, consequently denying any interference from international bodies, while internationalising the conflict by routinely attacking PKK bases in northern Iraq.

Yet a legal perspective alone is not enough. At this complex stage it becomes apparent that the authors' chosen lens is not sufficient to understand the Kurdish conflict in Turkey and its escalation into Iraq. It needs to be supported by a critical analysis of the political realities on the ground, such as the ambivalent relationships between the Kurdish parties in northern Iraq and the PKK, and that between the Kurdish quasi-state and Turkey (which happens to be the former's biggest foreign investor). Also required is a discussion of the status of the Kurdish quasi-state within Iraq beyond what is written in the constitution.

This takes on even further importance when discussing, as the authors do in the second part, possible scenarios for conflict resolution. Yet Yildiz and Breau's work only marginally addresses these issues, leaving their legal analysis and prescriptions if not somewhat suspended in mid-air then at least insufficiently put into context. This deficit weighs heavier than their clear pro-Kurdish bias and attenuates a theoretically worthwhile contribution.

The Kurdish Conflict: International Humanitarian Law and Post-Conflict Mechanisms

By Kerim Yildiz and Susan Breau. Routledge, 354pp, £29.99. ISBN 97804155637. Published 14 July 2010

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