Minorities Without Rights
Ever since the question of the colonies was settled more or less throughout the world, a particular problem has increasingly come to the fore, especially in the Afro-Asian countries: the problem of oppressed minorities. Ethnic, linguistic or religious minorities are demanding the right to be themselves and to control their own destiny. They insist on reminding us that they form a majority in their own territories, or when they are scattered over a wider area, demand the right to preserve their own identity.1
In international assemblies the "right of people to self-determination" is frequently invoked, but always rather vaguely. In principle this right is guaranteed by international law,2 but its content is actually non-existent and it is well known to depend more often than not on a balance of forces measured in terms of armed strength. Paradoxically, human beings as groups turn out to have fewer rights than individuals — unless they form a state. It is from this absence of their own states that the minorities of the world are suffering today, in that sovereign states, particularly in the Third World, are denying them even cultural rights.
Nations, in the full sense of the word, first appeared during the 18th and 19th centuries in the West, as historic communities politically and economically cemented by a national state and a national market. This model of the nation-state came to be adopted everywhere once the colonial empires of the 19th and 20th centuries had collapsed in Latin America, in Central Europe, in Asia, in North Africa and even in places where the nation had no real existence, as in Tropical Africa. The majority group's nationalism and im¬pulse to centralize resulted more or less everywhere in the oppression of minority groups, a feature accentuated by the fact that the newly independent countries assimilated the modern state's repressive methods more easily than any stress on citizens' rights.
Throughout the world the oppression of minorities manifests itself to varying extents and in a wide variety of forms, including:
Discrimination: rejection of those who belong to a given group.
Cultural oppression: deprivation of the minority's right to use its own lan-guage in schools, in publications and in dealings with the administration.
Economic oppression: a systematic bias against the interests of the minority.
Physical oppression: massive implantation of the majority ethnic group or occupation of the minority's territory by means of population transfer.
Genocide: the attempt to eliminate the minority community as a whole.
The diversity of the problem implies that solutions must also be wide ranging, from independence or autonomy to simple preservation of the minority's identity. Yet even cultural rights, which should constitute an inalienable minimum, are denied to minorities in several states, notably the ex-colonial ones. The fact is that during the last three decades it has been far easier for a country to achieve formal independence from an ex-colonial power than for a minority to obtain a measure of (effective) autonomy within a Third World state. The reaction to demands of every kind has been almost universally negative.
Tens of millions of people are still being denied the right to use their own language and to have an identity of their own.3 Leaving aside the right to self-determination, which remains largely hypothetical in practical terms, it would seem that there is an urgent need to define a body of minimal rights, which would be defensible in international law.4 These rights should include:
Non-discrimination: the right to equality, to identity, or to assimilation (if that is what is wanted).
Inalienable cultural rights: the right to study in one's own language at school, and to use it on broadcasts, in publications and in dealings with the administration.
The right to an equitable share of the country's national wealth.
The right of extra-territorial minorities to preserve their identity within the confines of sovereign states.
International institutions are still incomplete and ineffective when it comes to dealing with matters which come under the heading of"internal affairs." It is essential that international legislation be reinforced, stipulating the rights of minority peoples and groups, notably in cultural matters, and ensuring that the movements representing such minorities are at last assured of a hearing before the various international assemblies. The current tendency is very much in the opposite direction: at the moment the most elementary human rights are denied to combatants or victims involved in domestic armed conflicts.5
Nationalism is an ideology which claims to represent the supreme value for the state, and sometimes for its citizens; it can thus justify any injustice, however extreme. The proposition is inadmissible in general, and becomes intolerably so when the majority group's nationalism invokes "reasons of state" (or even "the revolution" and "socialism") to justify denying a minority people the right to transmit and enrich their culture.
Whatever injustices the bourgeois democracies perpetrate upon their minorities, they do allow for a margin of action and for possible improvements which are left largely up to the minorities concerned to campaign for. The "socialist" countries admitted the principle of cultural rights and, in general, applied it, which was already something, although it did not eliminate the fact that the effective status of many minorities in these countries was inequitable, notably in the USSR, where the scale of the issue became apparent when one considered that one Soviet citizen in two was not Russian. Most Afro-Asian states have now achieved independence; unfortunately there has been an increasing tendency for these states to be despotic ones, in the sense that shifts in power are invariably achieved by violence, and political criticism is usually dealt with by repression. This way of doing things is based on an inherited conception which presents hierarchy as an essential ingredient in human reality. Citizens remain subjects, and conceive of themselves as such.
The minorities, which were tolerated by the authorities in the past as long as they gave their allegiance to the weakly centralized states and empires which prevailed at the time, have now become an obstacle to the more extensive form of control which the new states are seeking to impose. This is heightened by the fact that the very notion of minorities having rights is alien to a tradition in which the normal practice has been for the despot to distribute favors amongst the leaders of the minorities he used or tolerated. Indeed it is difficult to see how the rights of minorities could be recognized when the mass of the people in the majority are themselves treated like children and addressed only in the hocus-pocus language of nationalist rhetoric.
Public Opinion and the Minorities
In the West, left and liberal-minded people in general, especially in the Scandinavian and Anglo-Saxon countries, have usually supported or at least expressed some sympathy with struggles against both European colonialism and U.S. policies in such places as Vietnam. But as soon as the problem shifted to Biafra, Southern Sudan, Kurdistan or Eritrea — in short, whenever the national question was raised within a Third World country — this section of public opinion has tended to remain silent and confused. The reasons for such hesitation include a lack of knowledge of the historical context, a shortage of information, and the effectiveness of the established state's pro¬paganda, especially when it is a state which claims to be pursuing the revolu¬tion. Some westerners are opposed to any form of balkanization, for strategic reasons; others fall back on conformism and are content to judge an issue according to who is supporting whom (which often leads to further confu¬sion); there are also those whose support for a state or a group of states is assured in advance, and who will assess a situation accordingly (for some people Arabism is revolutionary by definition, just as any opposition to the policies of the Israeli government seems inherently anti-semitic to others). Finally, most people are wary of giving their support to an insufficiently radical or even conservative minority movement struggling against a state which claims to be anti-imperialist or revolutionary. Such caution ignores the basic issues, which are that a minority is being oppressed, even if it is in the name of socialism; that its right to preserve its cultural identity is absolute; and that its right to self-determination has usually been denied for so long that armed struggle has become the only form of freedom left to it.
It is quite true that some of the minority movements in conflict with established states seem more reactionary in their alliances and more conserva¬tive in their social policies and ideology than the states which oppress them — although appearances are sometimes deceptive. Nonetheless, these move¬ments' demands for self-determination and cultural rights are nearly always fully justified. During the 1960s, in Southern Sudan, an armed movement struggling against the ethnic, religious, economic and cultural oppression practiced by a central state which was leftist in orientation at that time, was supported by Haile Selassie's Ethiopia, Israel, a few European mercenaries and the funds of the Catholic Church. But this does not change the fact that Southern Sudan was oppressed and that it was only after a prolonged armed struggle that the Sudanese government very grudgingly granted it a minimum of autonomy. So one should always examine the relationship between a state and its minorities before applying ideological criteria, since such relations are oppressive more often than not.
The History of the Kurdish Movement
In this context, the Kurdish people have the unfortunate distinction of being probably the only community of over 15 million persons which has not achieved some form of national statehood, despite a struggle extending back over several decades. The Kurdish national question has constantly been on the agenda ever since the collapse of the Ottoman Empire after the First World War and the ensuing colonial repartition of the Middle East. Since then the Kurdish people have been divided amongst four separate states, namely Turkey, Iran, Iraq and Syria. (There is also a Kurdish minority in the former Soviet Union.) In Turkey, Iran and Syria, they are deprived of the most elementary rights, including the rights to learn their own language at school and to safeguard their cultural identity. In Iraq, population transfers affecting certain oil-rich or frontier areas have considerably reduced the "autonomous region." However, the Kurds are recognized as an entity and do enjoy certain cultural rights.
The Kurds are a mountain people whose economy is mainly based on agriculture and pastoralism. Since antiquity they have occupied a vast area known as Kurdistan, although this geographical term, which designates a mountainous zone reaching from south-eastern Turkey through the north¬ernmost areas of Iraq and well into eastern Iran only covers a part of the regions peopled by Kurds. There are Kurds from the Taurus mountains to the western plateaus of Iran and from Mount Ararat to the foothills adjoining the Mesopotamian plain.
The Kurds speak an Indo-European language which, like Afghan and Persian, is part of the Iranian group of languages. Unlike the Persians, the Kurds are Sunni Muslims. The first recorded text in Kurdish goes back to the 7th century; ensuing literary works were both abundant and of high quality, notably Ehmed Khani's 17th century masterpiece, Memozin.6 From the 11th century onwards, following a decline in the power of the Caliphs, several Kurdish principalities emerged. Although the Kurdish contribution to Mus¬lim culture has not been a major force, it has by no means been negligible. At the beginning of the 16th century, when the Ottoman Empire sought to resist the rising power of the Shiite Persia, it secured the support of the Kurdish principalities. The Persian armies were defeated and the Kurdish princes continued to reign over the territory of Kurdistan in accordance with the pact established with the Sublime Porte, thereby shoring up the eastern frontiers of the Empire. Indeed the Kurdish principalities maintained their prerogatives right up until the beginning of the 19th century.
During the last century, the Sublime Porte became anxious to centralize its threatened and decadent Empire. In an effort to ensure the fullest possible control over its domains, it sought to subjugate the Kurdish principalities. The reaction to the Sultan's encroachments was a series of revolts led by the traditional chieftains (1826, 1834, 1853-55, 1880). These insurrections kept to the traditional pattern: they were struggles against a state authority which was encroaching upon established rights. There was no parallel with the movements inspired by that great European 19th century ideology, nationalism. The traditional chieftains were defending their prerogatives against a central authority, and whilst they certainly did rely on specific local characteristics, they had no wider demands and no modern political vision.
The Kurdish press first emerged in 1898. Following the Young Turk Revolution of 1908, this press began to develop, and in Constantinople it contributed to the debate on national problems. But the Kurdish moderniz¬ing elite made up of urbanized elements was still very small. After the defeat and collapse (on October 30, 1918) of the Ottoman Empire, which had sided with the Central Powers, President Woodrow Wilson, in his "Program for World Peace" (Point 12), declared that the non-Turkish minorities of the Ottoman Empire should be granted the right of"autonomous development." Section III, Article 62-63 (Kurdistan) of the Treaty of Sevres, signed by the Allies and the Turkish government on August 10, 1920, specifically stipu¬lated that the Kurds were to be allowed "local autonomy." The Treaty, which was actually very unfair towards Turkey, was never applied because the subsequent War of Independence (waged with Kurdish support) changed the whole situation and enabled Mustafa Kemal to impose different terms at the Treaty of Lausanne, signed in 1923. Meanwhile, Britain had detached the overwhelmingly Kurdish vilayet (province) of Mosul from Turkey and attached it to Iraq, which was then a British mandate, in order to seize control of the Mosul oilfields. When the frontiers between Turkey and Syria were drawn up, three areas settled by Kurds were integrated into Syria under French mandate. The division of the Kurdish people was complete.
As early as 1924, Kemalist Turkey passed a law forbidding the teaching of Kurdish in school. Later, Article 89 of the Turkish law concerning political parties and associations stipulated that such organizations "must not claim that there are any minorities in the territory of the Turkish Republic, as this would undermine national unity." The regime crushed three major national insurrections, in 1925, 1930 and 1935, deprived the Kurds of all rights, and imposed on them the euphemistic reference "mountain Turks." In the mean¬time, several hundred thousand Kurds were deported to central and western Anatolia. From 1925 to 1965 Kurdistan was a "military area" to which foreigners were denied access. In the years 1960 to 1980, despite periods of relative political liberalism, the Kurdish national problem, which involves more than 20% of the population, was mentioned publicly only once. This was in 1970, when the Turkish Workers Party passed a resolution recogniz¬ing the existence(!) of the Kurdish people and the legitimacy of its democratic demands. The Party was banned as a result.
In Iran, the Kurds manifested their opposition to Reza Shah's centralizing policies by a series of revolts during the 20s and 30s. In 1941, the British and the Soviets invaded Iran to prevent Reza Shah's pro-Axis sympathies turning into a military alliance. Free from central control, the Azerbaijanis and the Kurds each began to organize, and in December 1945 the Kurds proclaimed the Mahabad Republic. It lasted for a year, until the Shah's troops overran it and executed its leaders. Mustafa Barzani and a hundred followers managed to escape to the Soviet Union.
The Shah's policy (until his overthrow in 1979) was somewhat more flexible than the Turkish one, but still granted practically no rights to the Kurds — or to any other minority. It is worth remembering that the Persians are far from being the majority in Iran, even though they dominate it.
The Franco-Turkish Treaty of 1921 incorporated three Kurdish areas — Djezira, Kurd-Dagh and Arab-Pinar — into Syrian territory. In 1963 a plan to Arabize parts of Djezira was launched. It was revived in 1967. Officially the project of creating an "Arab belt" all along the frontier was dropped in 1976, but the Kurds still have no rights at all in Syria.
In terms of cultural rights, the position of the Kurds would seem to be better in Soviet Armenia than anywhere else.
Iraq (the old vilayets of Baghdad and Basra) was detached from the Ottoman Empire at the end of the First World War. Britain, the mandate power, eventually annexed the oil-rich Kurdish vilayet of Mosul. In 1922, a joint Iraqi-British declaration recognized the Kurds' right to "form a Kurdish government within the Iraqi frontiers." Despite Kurdish uprisings in 1919 and 1923, the League of Nations allocated the province to the new state for 25 years in 1925, with the recommendation that the Kurds should be granted a degree of autonomy and various cultural rights. These cultural rights were, in fact, granted by the British occupying authorities. The Kingdom of Iraq became nominally independent in 1931 but remained under British influence until the July 1958 Revolution.
Once the mandate had come to an end, the Iraqi government sought to establish its control over the northernmost areas of the province; the Barza¬nis, led by Mustafa Barzani, revolted in 1922 and were crushed by the British Royal Air Force. They rose up again in 1943 and eventually moved into Iran, at the time of the Mahabad Republic (1945).
The 1958 Revolution defined Iraq as a country made up of "two peoples," the Arabs and the Kurds. Mustafa Barzani returned from the USSR. But relations with the Qasim government deteriorated very quickly and in 1961 the Kurds launched a war of liberation to secure autonomy within the framework of the Republic. Between 1961 and 1968 the armed struggle waged by the Kurds caused the fall of four Iraqi regimes, until the presently dominant wing of the Baath came to power in July 1968. In March 1970, the new regime signed an agreement with the Kurdish leaders promising autonomy for Kurdistan in all areas of Iraq which a projected census would establish as having a mainly Kurdish population. This census, which would have been decisive in the oil-rich Kirkuk area, was never carried out. Conflict broke out once more when, in March 1974, the Baghdad government decided to implement unilaterally a restricted form of autonomy. The war, in which the Kurdish movement enjoyed the tactical support of the Iranian regime — and the covert support of the U.S. — came to an end with the March 1975 Algiers agreements between Iran and Iraq. A prisoner of its own alliances, the Kurdish movement, led by Barzani, opted for surrender.
Right from the mid-1960s, the Kurdish national movement received aid from Iran, as part of an attempt by that country to weaken Iraq, its opponent in various border disputes and litigation over navigation rights. In exchange for this aid, Barzani contributed to freezing the situation in Iranian Kurdis¬tan, and even went so far as to execute or hand over to the Shah some Iranian Kurdish cadres who also favored insurrection against the Iranian state. According to the CIA,' the Shah had informed Baghdad as early as Decem¬ber 1972 that he was prepared to cut off all aid to the Kurds if Iraq would consent to negotiate. The Pike Report to the U.S. Congress reveals that the Kurdish leadership received secret Washington funds amounting to $16 million between 1972 and 1975. Indeed, even the State Department was not informed of these high level dealings conducted by Nixon and Kissinger through the intermediary of the CIA. For the Americans, the point of these operations was not to contribute to the setting up of an autonomous Kurdish state, but to weaken Iraq, an ally of the USSR from 1972 until the late 1980s. The report indicates that Barzani had made it known that he had absolutely no faith in the Shah, but that the U.S. had guaranteed that the flow of Iranian aid would not be interrupted abruptly.
The March 6, 1975 Algiers agreement between Iraq and Iran put an end to the struggle led by Mustafa Barzani, a struggle in which the Kurdish forces were organized in classical military units and were thus heavily dependent on the logistics and supplies provided by Iran.
Shortly afterwards, and for more than a year, the Iraqi government pro¬ceeded to implement a policy of Arabization in the oil-rich and the frontier Kurdish areas such as Kirkuk, Khanaqin and Sindjar. Hundreds of thousands of Kurds, at a conservative estimate, were deported to the south or to the shrunken "autonomous region" which the Baghdad government had allo¬cated to them. Kurdish officials were transferred to Arab Iraq and replaced by Arab officials faithful to the government. Towns and villages in parts of Kurdistan were renamed. Kirkuk became El-Taamin. The autonomy of the Kurdish area was restricted to the operations of an executive body appointed by Baghdad and a legislative body following government guidelines. But at least cultural rights were maintained. Limited and spontaneous guerrilla activity broke out again in the summer of 1976. However, the Iraqi Army remained in control, and even built several strategic hamlets to enable it to patrol the Kurdish areas more effectively. In parallel, some effort was made towards reconstruction and the implantation of a few small industrial plants.
After this disaster, the Kurdish national movement inevitably underwent a profound crisis, which took the form of a split into three factions, each of which has published more or less radical critiques of the events which led up to the present situation. The three groups are the Democratic Party of Kurdistan, "provisional leadership"; the Kurdistan Patriotic Union; and the Democratic Party of Kurdistan, "preparatory committee."
The Weaknesses of the Kurdish National Movement
The Kurdish movement collapsed in the 1970s and 1980s not because it had established "unnatural" affiances but because it did not take the ambiguity of these alliances sufficiently into account and seek to ensure its own military and political autonomy. Its weakness stemmed from the limitations of the movement itself. Although a genuinely national movement, it has never been able (or attempted) to radicalize itself in order to develop an organic link between the masses and a people's army fired with a revolutionary national ideology. On the contrary, an increasingly orthodox army failed to establish real contact with a largely passive population of refugees. The deadweight of a tribal mentality, of the notables and of the corruption of various military cadres contributed to the perpetuation of the traditional relations. True, other movements suffering from these disadvantages have succeeded in other contexts, but the exceptionally difficult geopolitical conditions under which the Kurdish movement labored called for something very different. A revolutionary ideology and a degree of modernity were lacking in the Kurdish leadership, and this may well have had something to do with the generation to which its main leader belonged.
Through the centuries, the Kurdish national movement has consistently manifested itself somewhat belatedly compared to the movements of the majority peoples of the surrounding areas. This is attributable to the economic, social, political and cultural level attained by Kurdish society. A mountain people, and, like nearly all mountain peoples, relatively backward, with a very small elite, the Kurds have historically been overtaken and crushed by the old, well-established statist tradition of the Persians and, to an even greater extent, by that of the Turks. At the time of the First World War, the Kurds were clearly well behind in development as compared to the other national movements within the Ottoman Empire, notably in the Balkans and eastern Anatolia. Kendal' correctly highlights the Kurdish movement's po¬litical inability to seize the historic opportunity which presented itself during the brief period of political vacuum from 1918 to 1920, following the collapse of the Empire. Throughout the first half of this century, the Kurdish revolts remained largely traditional uprisings.
Conditions were different in Iraq, a newly formed state in which, until 1968-70, the Kurds faced a state apparatus which was not yet firmly estab¬lished. But this ceased to be the case under the government of Saddam Hussein, who, with the British, can in some senses be called the architect of the Iraqi state. Furthermore, it is in Iraq that the proportion of Kurds in the population is most favorable to their cause (1 in 3 as opposed to 1 in 4 or 5 in Turkey and 1 in 6 in Iran).
The second wave of nationalism in the Orient came after the Second World War. Despite its considerable failings, the Mahabad Republic was an expression of this wave, in that it concretized a national project, albeit one without very clearly defined perspectives. Its ideology remained traditional¬ist, especially in matters of social class. In the end, for a variety of reasons, the Republic collapsed without a fight.
The Kurdish movement in Iraq from 1958 to 1975 continued to reflect the backwardness of Kurdish society. The leadership never managed to set itself the goal of rising above its own society, carrying the masses with it, as other revolutionary leaderships succeeded in doing elsewhere.9 Combined with the severe geopolitical handicaps, this is the crucial point which underlies the main weaknesses of the Kurdish national movement: its elites were backward, and this historical inheritance has perpetuated the crisis of Kurdish society and weighed heavily on the course of its national destiny. A traditionalism in values, mentality and behavior has still not been replaced by an alternative conception of things. Instead there has been merely a degree of adaptation to the codes of modernity; however the knowledge and use of this ritual modernity engenders no real change. The fundamental values are still those of yesterday: tactical cunning instead of political analysis, clientist maneuver¬ings instead of political mobilization, and a few revolutionary slogans instead of a real radical practice.
What the Kurdish movement in the second half of this century has lacked, both quantitatively and qualitatively, is a mainly petty-bourgeois modernist intelligentsia. Even when they were present, such elements remained powerless. But if they can find a way of establishing links with the masses, they should be able to play a decisive role in the next phase of the national movement.
It is up to the Kurdish national movement to define and articulate a double strategy: on the regional and international levels, in the pursuit of cultural rights and recognition of a Kurdish entity; on the level of each of the four states concerned, in association with local democratic forces, to bring about a change in the status quo.
After an introduction covering the history of the Kurdish people under the Ottoman Empire, which provides the overall historical context, the texts in this work deal with every aspect of the Kurdish question from the end of the First World War to the collapse of the armed struggle led by Mustafa Barzani in Iraq (1975). The book's originality lies partly in the fact that it covers the Kurdish communities in Turkey, Iran and Iraq, as well as the Kurds of Syria and the USSR, and partly in that these questions are dealt with by Kurdish intellectuals who provide a critical examination of the national movement's heritage.
1. Cf. ideas expressed in "Les Kurds et le droit des peuples minoritaires," Le Monde, March 17, 1976 and in "Des minorites encombrantes," Le Nouvel Observateur, July 12-18, 1976.
2. As in the United Nations Charter, Articles 1 and 55; the right to self-determination is recognized by the UN General Assembly's Resolution 2625/xxv, October 24, 1970.
3. "Certain ethnic groups are well treated by the dominant nations only to the extent that these groups accept abandoning their culture, their mother tongue, their history and their literature, in other words to the extent that they accept assimilation. We have a duty to encourage these ethnic groups to oppose assimilation, to develop and enrich their mother tongue, their literature and their culture. Only in this way can world culture develop, enrich itself and serve humanity" (Article 18 of the Statutes of the Human Rights Commission).
4. Cf. Declaration universelle des droits des peuples. July 4, 1976 (Section vi on Minority Rights, Articles 19-21), Maspero (Paris; 1977).
5. Except under a colonial administration, a foreign occupation or a racist regime; minorities are thereby excluded from the scope of the law. Cf. the International Red Cross's diplomatic conference on human rights in war time, Geneva, April—May 1977; details in Le Monde, June 9, 1977.
6. Roger Lescot, Mame Alan, a collection of oriental writings. Institut Francais de Beyrouth, Texts Kurdes, Vol. II, 1942.
7. The Pike Report reproduced in The Village Voice, New York, February 23, 1976.
8. Cf. "Kurdistan in Turkey" in this volume.
9. Vietminh or NLF in Vietnam, Amilcar Cabral's PAIGC, the Eritrean PLF, etc.