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Holocaust, Halabja and Recognising Genocide

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The untold story of the Kurdish genocide was the subject last week of a major international conference organised, just a stone's throw from Parliament, by the Kurdistan Regional Government in the UK.

It attracted nearly 300 campaigners, academics, experts, Kurds and Brits to hear 40 speakers, including former French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner, the Deputy Speaker of the Norwegian Parliament and the leader of the Kurdish caucus in the Swedish Parliament as well as KRG Ministers for Foreign Relations and the Anfal.

This year sees several milestone anniversaries - ten year since Iraq's liberation, 25 years since Halabja and 30 years since the murder of 8,000 Barzanis.

The conference was itself on the anniversary of the start of Operation Desert Storm which liberated Kuwait and began a series of events that stopped Saddam Hussein from finishing off his genocidal campaign against the Kurds.

The Kurds and the Shia responded to American calls to rebel but were mercilessly crushed, thanks to the inexplicable decision to allow Saddam's murderous jets and helicopters to fly.

However, the scenes of the Kurds seeking safety in the freezing mountains and dying in large numbers triggered a wave of public revulsion. One woman collected tons of blankets and food and then asked the MP I worked for to persuade Iranian Airlines to transport these offerings. Such outrage and action created the momentum for the no-fly zone which sheltered Kurdistan until Hussein was finally ousted.

The whole conference will soon be on YouTube but several themes stand out. First, few outside Kurdistan yet understand the meticulous and industrial organization of what Dr Mahmoud Osman called "Saddam's killing machine." The eye-witness statements of survivors moved the conference and empathy can drive solidarity. Hundreds of thousands of Kurdish stories need telling.

Second, public understanding of genocide can incubate for decades. Next week's official Holocaust Memorial Day sees events in schools and communities across Britain. School students regularly visit Auschwitz. All this nurtures a continuing understanding of the Holocaust and also aims to combat contemporary racism and connect to new genocides.

But it's all fairly recent. Initially, Holocaust survivors were traumatised into silence by survivors' guilt and wanting to protect their children from their nightmares. The modern Holocaust movement took 20 years to take off. This is happening with the Anfal.

Thirdly, we heard of the cynical Cold War machinations of the great powers. Kouchner slammed France for being a friend of Hussein, although many like him and Danielle Mitterand were early friends of the Kurds. Former American diplomat Peter Galbraith, an eye-witness to Anfal, detailed extraordinary American efforts to blame Iran for using chemical weapons to appease Hussein. Such self-serving fictions fuelled what Tom Hardie Forsyth, a former British Army Captain who served in Kurdistan in the early 90s, called "collective selective amnesia."

Galbraith insisted that recognizing genocide is not just a moral matter for "bleeding heart liberals" but a "strategic necessity." Unchecked crimes only embolden tyrants whose actions endanger security and stability. Kouchner also told the conference that human rights should be enforced in real-time not just after the fact. This is the basis of the UN's often invisible doctrine of the 'responsibility to protect' which hasn't stopped 60,000 deaths in Syria nor the possible use of chemical weapons, which if not already deployed, would be a frightening reminder of Halabja where 5,000 people died in just a few hours.

Finally, the conference coincided with the formal British Government response to the e petition. It recognizes that Hussein systematically persecuted and oppressed ethnic and religious groups, especially the Kurds. It highlights British friendship and partnership with Iraqi Kurds and the British diaspora.

But the fly in the ointment is its assertion that "it is not for governments to decide whether a genocide has been committed in this case, as this is a complex legal question. Where an international judicial body finds a crime to have been a genocide, however, this will often play an important part in whether we will recognise one as such." This needlessly evades the issue and kicks it into the long grass.

KRG High Representative Bayan Sami Abdul Rahman described it as a "a frankly disappointing and weak view that the UK should wait for an international judicial body to act before it decides to define long-running efforts to eliminate the Kurds as a genocide, although the Iraqi High Tribunal, the Iraqi Presidential Council and the Iraqi Parliament have endorsed its definition as genocide. We will continue to urge the UK Government to pull out all the stops and go the whole hog by taking a moral stand in defining our suffering as genocide so it becomes harder for it to happen again in Iraq or elsewhere."

There may yet be a debate in the British Parliament. The year-long campaign and this important conference have done much to increase awareness of the Kurdish genocide and create a positive momentum. Its nearly 30,000 supporters puts it in the top 20 of 16,000 e petitions and has done much to lift the veil on the genocide. You can sign here.

It is a long haul but the conference showed that there is a good and growing base in Britain. A continuing cross-party campaign should encourage Britain to follow the example of Iraqi courts and parliament in recognising this genocide and help mark it similarly to the Holocaust.