The Commons, for the second time in a year, returned last week to debating the Kurdistan Region and, specifically, British relations with it. This is very unusual given that Kurdistan is a faraway place of which most British people are unaware. Such debates can change that.
All-party parliamentary group members were there in quantity with quality contributions. They argued that Britain is highly regarded with a role for companies, universities and others in helping rebuild a generally peaceful, pluralistic and dynamic society.
Comment on progress was qualified by observations that Kurdistan is in transition. Liberal Democrat MP, Martin Horwood cited "some real causes for concern, which have been highlighted by Reporters without Borders" about freedom of expression and rightly referred to the murder of Kawa Garmiyani in Kalar. The Minister urged the authorities to pursue those who carried out this vile murder.
Horwood added that it was unfortunate that the President's nephew is Prime Minister. This is unfair because, while the Barzanis are influential, it would be wrong were being a Barzani a barrier to involvement.
Others referred to the barbaric practice of FGM but acknowledged that Kurdish leaders are seeking to curb it. Labour's Meg Munn highlighted the invisibility of Kurdistan's embrace of 250,000 Syrian refugees. The Foreign Secretary had previously listed Lebanon, Turkey and Jordan but oddly omitted Kurdistan - an oversight that probably won't be repeated.
Horwood concluded that Kurdistan "is now an example of what many nations and communities in the middle east could achieve, given peace, democracy, and self-determination." The picture painted by MPs was passionate, detailed and realistic which shows the importance of fact-finding visits.
MPs also presented several demands to ensure that Britain maximises its standing in Kurdistan. The requests are on the record and stand more chance of acceptance. Such debates are answered by a minister. The Middle East minister was abroad but his place was taken by another Foreign Minister, Hugo Swire who expressed the Government's position.
Swire praised the MPs' "knowledge and insight," their work over many years to build
relations with Kurdistan, and "the great efforts made by the all-party group." He added that he would love to visit Kurdistan where there have been "great changes" and which is "now a stable and prosperous area within a volatile region."
He announced that the "we have only just begun to realise the commercial potential for the UK and the Kurdistan region, and we cannot take success for granted" which is why the Government has increased staffing at the consulate general in Erbil, which moves to a new permanent building in 2015.
The group has long campaigned for improved visa facilities having heard so many describe the difficulties in going to Amman for weeks of waiting. The UK now processes visas at the new application centre at the "Sheraton" although Swire accepted that "it is still relatively expensive to submit applications."
Direct flights have also been a longstanding demand. Swire indicated that good progress on security assessments could mean that "Erbil airport, designed by a British architect, will welcome British carriers in the near future."
As for the supply of non-lethal security equipment to combat Al Qaeda, he was circumspect but the point was made and he acknowledged that "Iraqi Kurds have a vital role in the stability of Iraq". On the controversy over oil exports to Turkey he was diplomatic in urging both sides to find agreement on administering energy resources and sharing revenues.
On the call for the UK Government to recognise the genocide, he reiterated its "long-standing position of following a legal process to ascertain whether such atrocities should be designated as an act of genocide" but confirmed that ministers "will work with the Kurdistan Regional Government and its London representative here on how we can mark Anfal day on 14 April in an appropriate way."
Robert Halfon MP urged him to "do everything that they can to bring to justice the
perpetrators of the genocide if they are living in Europe" as well as companies that supplied chemical weapons to Saddam Hussein. Swire agreed "we should and will do everything we can to bring to justice perpetrators of any atrocities anywhere in the world, and the companies that have been supplying them illegally."
As for an official Presidential trip to London, he replied that he did not "run the Foreign Secretary's diary" but welcomed "the idea that we should invite President Barzani to the UK, and we will factor that in." He added that the demand for a UK trade envoy for Iraqi Kurdistan is "probably under consideration" by the British Premier who "is aware of the opportunities in Iraqi Kurdistan." The debate has lifted the profile of Iraqi Kurdistan.
The debate transcript is online at http://www.publications.parliament.uk/pa/cm201314/cmhansrd/cm140115/halltext/140115h0001.htm#14011551000086 The APPG report is at http://www.appgkurdistan.org.uk/?p=341