University of Kurdistan - Wednesday 19 May 2021
Excellencies, Ladies and gentlemen, Distinguished guests,
Let me start by thanking the University of Kurdistan for inviting me to participate in today’s event. A great honour, and I am very pleased to be here.
If you allow me, I will speak candidly today. My comments aim to be at once challenging and thought-provoking, so that we can attempt - honestly and constructively - to tackle some of the problems and systemic concerns.
In other words: some of you might consider my points to be quite frank, perhaps excessively so. But as the Kurdish saying goes “Dost Aw Kasaya et Grini” - your friend can make you cry…
And let’s face it, in my many conversations in the Kurdistan Region, views expressed are in general very outspoken - whether I like it or not. At the same time, this is one of the things I appreciate most. Not to exchange views just for the sake of making conversation, but to go into the essence of things - in an effort to find solutions.
Ladies and gentlemen, to control one’s destiny is a permanent struggle - in and of itself. For anyone. And looking at the history and geography of this region, I think it is safe to say that this is particularly the case for the peoples of the Kurdistan Region. The past is telling. So, is the present. And the future, is full of uncertainty.
What we do know is that it has taken a long, long time to achieve today’s level of autonomy. And not only time. The price was high - with many people paying the ultimate price. But like anywhere else in the world, today’s rights and freedoms are not a given. Never.
What I am saying is: do not take today’s autonomy for granted. In order to sustain it, unity will prove essential.
Indeed, and as I remarked to the Security Council just last week, a federal system is only as strong as the bonds between its components - and these bonds are strengthened by community reconciliation and cohesion.
In the case of Iraq, this means that the country is as strong as the ties that unite its diverse peoples. And very often, these diverse peoples are in need of intra-community reconciliation as well.
Now, the Kurdistan Region is inherently diverse. It is home to a vast array of peoples, languages and religions. And its embrace of this diversity was recently and remarkably exemplified during the landmark visit of Pope Francis.
One could say that the remarkable strength and resilience of the Kurdistan Region arises from this diversity.
One could even say that “unity in diversity” is the foundational recipe that allowed the Kurdistan Region to come into being. It is certainly the principle that will guarantee its future.
And yes, political diversity exists as well in in the Kurdistan Region. As is the case in many, many other countries. While many of these diverse democracies appear strong and stable today, their history was also marked by bloody wars and suffering.
Needless to say: a strong Kurdistan Region is best equipped to protect its interests. Conversely, with disunity comes weakness.
A strong, united Kurdistan Region also strengthens federal Iraq, not only domestically but also internationally. Strength abroad begins with strength at home.
Ladies and gentlemen, as a former European and national politician, I can tell you from experience that democracy, especially democracy with several levels of governance, is painstaking business.
And very true, sustainable democratic societies are the opposite of overnight miracles - they require immense patience and an unwavering willingness to compromise.
Impatience is, of course, understandable. I know all about it. It can even be desirable to move things in the direction of the greater common good.
But inevitably, the democratic process must be given time to take root.
And as this happens, the healthy interplay of opposition and government, the formation of parties and coalitions, must be allowed to function - at the local, regional and national levels.
Throughout all this, the ultimate concern of the political leadership must be: service to its citizens. The focus must be on solutions that represent the interests of all peoples living in the Kurdistan Region. Solutions that only speak to the majority are untenable in the long run.
Now, as I said: even once achieved, unity can never be taken for granted - lest it be lost. It must constantly be tended to.
This ‘maintenance work’ includes constant grassroots outreach, dialogue and concrete actions which demonstrate that communities and components are listened to at all times.
When unity risks fracturing, it is the responsibility of the leadership to guide and lead outreach, to unify opposing interests.
At the same time, it is the responsibility of every citizen to recognize and accept the fact that balancing multiple different opinions and interests requires constant compromise, as is the case in any diverse society.
Politics is also described as ‘the art of the possible’. Whether we like it or not, making concessions is the way to settle differences. I do not deny that a compromise can suddenly taste like disappointment. But the seemingly bitter pill of a concession ultimately opens the door to lasting success.
And since all politics is ultimately local, it is imperative that the spirit of unity and partnership be practiced first and foremost at that level. A balanced system is one in which service delivery is fully assured in all areas at all times – and regardless of which political formation may be in power.
Having said all this, it is critical to distinguish unity from uniformity.
Just because a group can stand united as one, does not mean that vibrant and healthy internal debate cannot take place, or that a plethora of different voices cannot be heard. On the contrary. Diversity of opinions is a source of strength and enrichment, not a threat.
Equally important: actions speak louder than words. Beautiful declarations and speeches have their place, but at the end of the day it is all about getting things done.
From combatting corruption and leaving aside narrow party interests to moving seriously ahead with the Peshmerga unification and reforms. And yes, the Peshmerga Vision 2025 is one of the best and most concrete examples. It sparks the imagination. The Kurdistan Region should not remain divided between “green” and “yellow”. Or any other colour definitions for that matter. It is high time for genuine reconciliation, for political stability to prevail.
Turning to national sovereignty, it is painfully apparent that geography does not always play out to Iraq’s advantage, and the Kurdistan Region is certainly no exception. In other words: you are facing unique geopolitical circumstances. That fact alone should be enough to make one think twice.
Ladies and gentlemen, with elections to take place on October 10, Iraq is at a crossroads. A trusted electoral process, with free and wide-ranging participation, can help steer the country towards a safer and more prosperous future. And of course, the outcome of these elections is also of great importance for the vital Baghdad-Erbil relationship.
Meanwhile, the Kurdistan Region has a choice. It can unite, further strengthen its respect for fundamental rights and freedoms, make meaningful progress on long-awaited security and economic reform, and engage in dialogue despite internal differences that at times (I admit) seem insurmountable.
Or…or it can fail to put its house in order, putting at risk what it has achieved.
Ladies and gentlemen, recently - discussion re-emerged on the possibility of a regional constitution. Now, most people will not dispute the added value of such a constitution.
If I am not mistaken, a first draft was presented in 2009. Several attempts followed but were stranded at different stages due to a lack of political consensus.
Now, let me be clear: political leadership is all about the people. And so is a constitution. It is about the people, about their rights and how their rights are protected. It sets limits on the power of authorities. A constitution is a social contract. And yes, a reactivation of the process would certainly provide an important opportunity for all components and communities in the Kurdistan Region to come together.
It could help bridge differences and grievances, to accept others and - where needed - to apologize to others, to respect each other’s unique history. It could help overcome political rivalry, partisanship as well as the deadlock between ruling elites.
It could provide a wonderful opportunity to forge a sense of forward-looking pride and confidence.
It is also an opportunity to clearly define institutional powers and responsibilities. Legal ambiguity is as harmful at the federal level as it would be within the Kurdistan Region.
So: if you do it, a reactivation of the process, do it right. Political will is a precondition. Empty or broken promises will only further erode public trust. And do not underestimate the ease with which simmering anger can swell.
Political infighting and factionalism are toxic – and yet, they are found at every turn. Is it any surprise that the people do not believe that the political process serves them, or that it can bring about change?
Again, if you do this – do it right.
And needless to say: the outcome document will have to fit hand-in-glove with Iraq’s federal constitution.
This represents another challenge, as the federal constitution lacks clear guidance. At the time the federal constitution was drafted, general principles were enshrined in the text, with their implementation left to be specified by subsequent supporting legislation.
Sixteen years later, however, this lack of specificity continues to shape the debate between the federal and Kurdistan Regional governments. Lasting solutions are urgent. I am certain we can all agree that it is past time for Iraq to become more than the sum of its components.
Ladies and gentlemen, in closing, let me emphasize once again the significance of what has been achieved by the peoples of the Kurdistan Region in the past centuries.
The question now is: how to sustain and consolidate these achievements?!
While the United Nations stands by your side, it is important to realize that - first and foremost - all of you are in this together.
Unity in diversity. The key is in your hands.