DC dispatch: Kurds make pitch for support and recognition at Georgetown panel

Marissa Zupancic is JURIST’s Washington DC Correspondent, a JURIST Senior Editor and a 3L at the University of Pittsburgh School of Law. She’s stationed in Washington during her Semester in DC.

This week I attended a talk hosted by Georgetown University entitled “Kurds in Iraq, Iran, Syria and Türkiye: At the Epicenter of Conflict in the Middle East.”

The event was a panel discussion about the landscape facing the Middle East amid ongoing conflicts, such as the Israel-Hamas war, and the situation facing the Kurdish people. The Kurds are an indigenous ethnic group residing along the borders of Iraq, Iran, Syria and Türkiye. There are an estimated 30 million Kurds in the region, with the bulk of the group identifying as Sunni Muslims. The Kurds are a stateless group, meaning that they do not belong to any country, nor do they have citizenship in a country. Consequently, this means that the Kurdish people do not have any of the rights enshrined in the laws and/or constitutions of any country. According to the panel, they are the largest stateless group in the world. In the 1920s, the Kurdish people were slated to have a country set up known as Kurdistan, but subsequent treaties did not allocate formal measures to set up the country. Still to this day, the Kurdish people lack a country. Now, Kurdistan is used to refer to the group of settlements along the various countries across the Middle East.

In Iraq, the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) is the official governmental body of the Kurdistan Region, located in northern Iraq. The KRG is an autonomous area, meaning they are partially self-governing and separate from the government of Iraq. However, the KRG does rely on the Iraqi Ministry of Finance (MOF) to provide money for payment of the KRG’s employees. Recently, the KRG announced that it only received about 60 percent of the needed funding for its employees from Iraq’s MOF. Thus, the KRG and Kurdish people have a unique place in global governance.

The first speaker, Treefa Aziz, emphasized the US government and Congress need to understand the reality of what has been happening to the Kurds on the ground to help fix the issues before it is too late. Aziz is currently the KRG Higher Representative to the US. She is the first Kurdish American to hold this role.

Sinam Sherkany Mohamad, the representative of the Syrian Democratic Council (SDC) mission in the US, also spoke. The SDC mission focuses on establishing and stabilizing democracy in Syria, stemming from Syria’s fight for release from ISIS rule in the 2010s. She explained that currently, there are about 3 million Kurdish people living in Syria who are facing immense challenges, but they are “surviving.” Recent developments in the region include shelling and airstrikes in Syria allegedly deployed by Türkiye, with one human rights lawyer claiming that an investigation is needed to look into claims of war crimes and crimes against humanity by Turkish-backed militias in Syria. Further, she stressed that the Kurdish people need rights enshrined in the Syrian constitution because they are a stateless group and currently have no rights. She also stated that “we want to be included in the peace talks” for post-war solutions, and, “We paid the price. We deserve our rights.”

Giran Ozcan, the Executive Director of the Kurdish Peace Institute (KPI), spoke about the hardships facing Kurdish people in Türkiye. The KPI strives to create a global understanding of the unique challenges facing the Kurds in the Middle East to spur positive policy reform. Ozcan provided an abridged history of the political efforts of the Kurds in Türkiye. Specifically, he explained the Kurds have been able to establish political parties that have challenged election results in Türkiye, but the Constitutional Court of Türkiye (the country’s highest court of review), has often gone against the interests of Kurdish parties. Notably, Kurdish parties have won local elections in areas where there is a majority-Kurdish population, such as southeastern Türkiye. He ended on a somber note when he stated, “Kurdish independence is something the international community is unwilling to support. Kurdish reconciliation in Türkiye is probably the furthest it’s been in decades, which endangers Kurdish lives inside Türkiye and Syria.” Ultimately, most of the panel agreed with Ozcan that the international community does not want to give the Kurdish people their own independent state, so they are exploring other options to provide rights to the Kurds in this region.

Finally, Arash Saleh, the Representative of the Democratic Party of Iranian Kurdistan (PDKI) in the US, talked about the state of the Kurdish people in Iran. The party describes itself as a social democratic party that was founded “for the purpose of creating a modern, well-organized and popular party with an explicit commitment to democracy, liberty, social justice and gender equality.” It also co-founded the Congress of Nationalities for a Federal Iran, which believes Iran must establish a federal government system, rather than the current Islamic republic system, to support democracy and the rights of different nationalities in the area. Saleh stated that Iran is facing a high number of executions in 2024, with 10 Kurdish prisoners executed in the last month alone. In January of this year, Amnesty International (AI) reported that Iran executed a Kurdish man, Mohammad Ghobadlou, who had a mental disability, even after he was ordered to have a retrial. Ghobadlou was charged with murder due to his participation in the “Woman Life Freedom” protests in Iran in 2022. He faced accusations that he ran over an official with a car during the protests and was ultimately found guilty in what AI deemed “unfair proceedings.” Additionally, Saleh pointed out that Kurdish women have faced more hardships in Iran than other ethnic groups. The Kurdish Project reports that Kurdish women in Iran still face “sexual violence, honor killings, and disproportionate rates of suicide.”

The panelists all emphasized they came to this talk to raise awareness about the unique hardships facing the Kurdish people in an effort to encourage new policy changes or international agreements to provide rights to the Kurds. As they face violence and a lack of recognition, they agree that is imperative that policymakers learn about the ongoing struggle of the Kurds in the Middle East to prevent further harm from falling upon this population.