For almost a decade, I’ve been working with women in the Kurdish region of Turkey who are opposing the building of large dams which would flood their villages, destroying their communities, cultural heritage and environment. The Il?su dam is the most familiar name in Europe as a result of successful campaigns to stop it in 2001; now a new consortium of multi-nationals is launched to build it. These dams, highly profitable projects for US and European multi-nationals, are deeply connected to the US-led war on the Middle East. With Turkey’s recent bombing and now land invasion (both backed by the US) of the villages in Northern Iraq, and the power struggles over who will control Kurdistan, the Turkish, US and international dam-building hand is strengthened.
Kurdistan has become pivotal because Kurdistan has oil. And so the two main Iraqi Kurdish parties and the Kurdistan Regional Government have made their deal with the devil: backing the US occupation in order to gain ‘independence’; that is, enough ‘control’ of the oil to bargain with the US. For their part, the US has poured dollars into the region while ignoring (some might say encouraging) the use of torture, rape, extreme poverty (first of all of women and children), heavy censorship, corruption and other repression which maintains those friendly parties in power. There is occasional mention of human rights victims but usually this is explained away by racist formulations such as teething problems in a new democracy or the result of ‘external pressures’.1
Protests by grassroots Kurdish people and other opposition to this ‘democracy’ are rarely reported. In recent coverage of Turkey’s bombing in northern Iraq, much of the media doesn’t distinguish between the corrupt Kurdish parties and villagers under attack.
The US holds the cards for a (not too) independent Kurdistan. For the US, the terms of Kurdish autonomy are US control of the oil. They also hold the cards for Turkish dams upstream and the ever-present possibility that NATO can withhold water to Kurdistan (Turkey has used this threat in the past). The Turkish military (on its northern border) is another threat in US hands to squeeze more out of the Kurdish parties or should a future Kurdish state offer any resistance. And so it seems the US has gained great control of the oil from the illegal deals the Kurdistan Regional Government has made with various companies (at least one with connections to Bush), undermining the struggles of oil workers and others to maintain Iraqi control of the resource.
With such life-threatening consequences for so many what we do not need from organisations working in the region are ambiguous statements casting the US as innocent by-stander. But this is what we are often getting. Important work documents how many NGOs are funded by the US State Department and its National Endowment for Democracy (NED). Thus it is becoming widely known that the US fights its wars not only by military might or by proxy, but by using ‘human rights and democracy’ programmes and ‘development projects’ to undermine governments, elected or not, that do not suit them. People in the region are up against NGOs which take NED funding, support and/or rewards. (For example, the US took large numbers of NGOs into Iraq when it invaded, many of them focusing on women; millions of dollars in State Department, NED and private foundation money is going to ‘women’s human rights and democracy training’.) Recently Kurdish academic Shahrzad Mojab found that funding claiming to help victims of domestic violence or to support women’s participation had weakened the women’s movement in the Kurdish region, turning every struggle into ‘projects’ providing careers but no change. Thus the work of women fighting for everyone’s survival in Iraq is hidden and undermined.
There is growing clarity that the US ‘spreading democracy’ is war by other means. Working with Kurdish and other friends in Turkey, my colleagues and I have researched the frightening extent of US funding and other support for NGOs and parties in Turkey and Kurdistan and even the supposed ‘Kurdish peace process’ in Turkey. But among professionals who have a genuine concern to contribute to humanitarian relief, truthful media reporting or legal assistance, there is often a lack of realisation of how dangerous this is. Philip Agee, a former insider who died recently, devoted his life to exposing the activities of the CIA, but it seems that today this work must be undertaken all over again.
Voices speaking for the US are often local, a classic case of the medium hiding the message: the Kurds are a victimised people who have been waging a determined and relentless struggle against repression; so a Kurdish voice can politely mystify and thus justify murder and occupation in Iraq to the well-intentioned people who are sympathetic to the Kurdish case.
Recently Kerim Yildiz, director of the Kurdish Human Rights Project, a UK-based charity, wrote that the violence in Iraq was the result not of the invasion but of the insurgency (The Kurds in Iraq 2nd edition, Pluto, 2007). There was no mention of crimes committed by the occupation forces or, indeed, any condemnation of the Iraq war. Rather, he offers advice to the US on counter-insurgency; while he says that ‘the use of force is inevitable’ he is not more specific. He praises the US coalition’s women’s rights programmes: ‘The CPA was praised by many Iraqis for promoting new organisations such as those aimed at the protection of women’s rights; it provided funding for women’s centres throughout the country which offered vocational training and educational opportunities to women.’
In another co-authored book on the Kurds in Iran (Pluto, 2007) he allows that ‘an American military intervention’ there may be ‘an increasingly necessary option’ though cautions against it and advises the US on regime change by other means – unless a military invasion were to be ‘extremely thoughtful and based on the actual promotion of human rights rather than pretence’. Referring back to Iraq he says ‘[i]n regards to the Kurds specifically, it is evident that they have benefited in the short term, as there now exists a de facto Kurdish state in Iraq. . .’ Yes, a de facto friend of the Iraqi occupation – how independent is this? More recently Mr Yildiz discussed Turkey’s bombing in northern Iraq on the website of the UK’s Guardian newspaper. Adopting US language of ‘rogue states’ and ‘terror’, he advised that Turkey being given the go-ahead to bomb was ‘extremely damaging to the US and EU’.
When Kurdish ‘human rights’ professionals judge events on the basis of what is helpful or damaging to the US, then they no longer represent Kurdish people.
Maggie Ronayne is Lecturer in Archaeology at the National University of Ireland, Galway, and part of the grassroots network Global Women’s Strike. Her writing on cultural destruction in war and by large development projects is translated, among other languages, into Kurdish and Turkish.
1 Kurdish Human Rights Project Newsline 37 (1), 2.