Olympic Meddles

The curtain has been raised on ‘the Greatest Show on Earth’ thanks to Danny Boyle’s spectacular opening ceremony – a paean to the Best of British ‘soft power’: Shakespeare, the Industrial Revolution, the Beatles, the Internet etc and, of course, a sky-diving head of state.  The games may have just begun, but playing politics with the Olympics never really stops…

Any concerns Britons may have harboured about security, transport and ticketing arrangements at the XXX Olympiad have been (momentarily) overshadowed by the umbrage taken at remarks made by Mitt Romney during his pre-Games visit to Downing Street. The Republican Presidential nominee, with all the bluster of a corporate titan rather than the measured calculation of a politico, stumbled from blunder to blunder and appeared to diss London 2012. Romney’s gaffes drew sharp rebukes from both PM David Cameron and London mayor Boris Johnson, worryingly revealed the Oval Office aspirant’s foreign policy myopia (Britain should be ‘an easy date’ for an American politician) and demonstrated that IR can always claim a place on the podium when it comes to the Olympics.

So far, Iran has threatened to boycott the Games because it thinks the Olympic logo spells ‘Zion’ (bizarrely, the Iranians kinda have a point…) A miffed North Korean women’s football team walked off the field, delaying the start to their match against Colombia, when they were introduced along with the South Korean taegukgi. There have been protests in India at the Games’ sponsorship by Dow Chemical – still considered to have liabilities for the 1984 Bhopal chemical plant disaster. And Algeria has been warned by the IOC after speculation that some its athletes may refuse to compete against Israeli opponents. Further IR grudge matches await but, by Olympian standards, these contretemps pale in comparison to the past controversies that have attended this most global of events.

The Olympic Games have been loci for political expressions of power and influence since their Ancient Greek city-state origins. Baron Pierre de Coubertin’s revival of the Olympic Movement was explicitly infused with internationalist aspirations: international peace and cooperation could be attained through the mutual celebration of sporting excellence. Coubertin hoped that sport could directly influence politics, but the obverse is also true as political intervention has been a feature of the modern Olympic Games. From fascist grandstanding in Berlin (1936) to the tragedy of ‘Black September’ in Munich (1972) to Cold War-inspired abstention (Moscow 1980, Los Angeles 1984) to Beijing’s ‘coming out’ in 2008, the Olympics have always been ideologically-loaded occasions.  NZ has played its part in the political gamesmanship – in 1976, 25 African countries boycotted the Montreal Games because the IOC refused to exclude NZ after the All Blacks’ tour of Olympics-banned, apartheid South Africa.

Alongside the weight of their political history, the Games have divided opinion between those who see them as cultivating a sense of international communitas or alternatively perpetuating international animosity through the binary either-or logic of sport. In addition, the administering body, the IOC, has been dogged by persistent allegations of corruption and bias – charges which tarnish the Olympic Movement’s reputation and internationalist goals. With former leaders like Nazi sympathiser ‘Slavery Avery’ Brundage (infamous for furiously denouncing the ‘Black Power’ salute of 1968) and scandal-ridden João Havelange (currently embroiled in bribery allegations relating to his tenure at FIFA), the IOC has not been best-served by its top brass.

It’s early days but worth considering what legacy London 2012 will leave behind. There has already been criticism of the punitive cost of the Games in times of austerity (the opening ceremony alone cost £27 million) and the corporatisation of this ‘five-ringed circus’. As well as public discontent at the escalating securitisation and militaritisation.

Will ‘maior, ditiores, communistarum’ (‘bigger, richer, communist’) win out as the Olympic motto with China out-medalling the US? What other Olympic/IR angles are making the headlines?


An Arms Treaty? You’re Joking!









Photo copyright: RJ SANGOSTI/AFP/GettyImages – the Telegraph.co.uk

Being far from a wild-eyed, look-over-your-shoulder-to-see-if-that-car-is-still-there conspiracy theorist, I do however enjoy the occasional tipple of the crazy – especially if it involves the US and its (ir)rational policies and perspectives on the international community (you may have heard the one that argued the 9-11 planes were infact holograms?)

The recent cinema shooting spree, which killed 12 (including a six-year-old girl) and wounded 58 other movie-goers at the opening of the latest instalment of Batman in Aurora, Colorado, has seeded a flourishing garden-bed of debates amongst armchair/ late night coffee and internet theorists. The purported shooter – James Holmes – was until recently studying a PhD in neuroscience at the University of Colorado School of Medicine, and although of late more details have come to light regarding his mental health and eccentricisms, many are claiming that the wild shooting spree by the red haired, self-styled ‘Joker’ was either the unfortunate test patient in his own mind-altering research, or more diabolically – that he was a pawn in a greater plot by the government (or government agencies) to bring to a head the debate on arms in the US.

“Holmes was clearly provided with exotic gear (and bomb-making skills)”, it is claimed. The Colorado Joker certainly had amassed a formidable arsenal – including a shotgun, an AR-15 assault rifle, two Glock handguns and more than 6,000 rounds of ammunition, as well as a 100-round drum magazine thatis capable of firing between 50 and 60 rounds a minute, gas masks and body armor. He also rigged his apartment with extensive booby traps, bombs and incendiary devices, including over 30 improvised grenades. The size and capablities of his personal army, the degree of complexity and technical know-how that was required to wire the apartment with such an assortment of sophisticated explosive devices, and the cost (which some estimate could have costed upwards of US $10- 20,000), is admittedly fairly astonishing.

While I stop (at a reasonable distance) short of agreeing that this “carefully planned, heavily funded and technically advanced attack” was an elaborate plot by the US government and the FBI, as a means of rallying public acquiesence for the US to sign up to the (then) up-and-coming vote on the UN Arms Trade Treaty, it is not beyond the realms of possibility. This would not be the first time that the US government or agencies have been accused of being involved (whether complicit or actively supporting or even masterminding) events that have shaped public opinion and allowed the realisation of more far-reaching US policies and initiatives. One may remember the the spectacular debacle that was the ‘Fast and Furious’ operation in 2009-10, conducted by the The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, in which an estimated 1,608 guns were knowingly and illegally leached across the border into the hands of Mexican drug cartels in the hope of tracing them across the complex gang networks. However, many of the guns promptly disappeared, and were used in multiple gang shootings, and finally bringing the whole affair into the publc eye, in the killing of Border Patrol Agent Brian Terry.

And what of the Mohamed Osman Mohamud case – in which the young Somali would-be Jihadist attempted to detonate a bomb in Portland, Oregon during a public Christmas event. He was supported throughout the failed attempt by undercover FBI agents – raising questions of entrapment, and whether the man would indeed have followed through on his plans had it not been for the facilitation of the FBI.

While these examples are incredibly worrying – and raise questions as to what degree state governments can go to ensure a) the monopoly of force and ultimately legitimacy of rule, and b) covertly influence public opinion and thereby policy in order to further ‘its’ own interests, it is not the main point I wish to raise. What is of more interest is that in the Colorado shooting incident described above, the (accused) gunmen was able to purchase four powerful and specialised weapons, and more than 6,000 rounds of ammunition – legally – in the 60 days preceding the shooting. Whether or not the ‘Joker’ was drugged, under mind-control, orthe pawn in some diabolical plot by government agencies with alterior motives to instigate (or at least be complicit to) the dramatic and horrific events that occured, what is alarming is the continued beligerent invocation of the Second Amendment – the right to bear arms – and the wider debate surrounding the $60 billion global arms trade.

On Friday, following a month of deliberation by 170 countries, and six years of hard advocacy from international humanitarian agencies, the UN Arms Trade Treaty failed to materialise.  The treaty would require all states to regulate the transfer of  ‘conventional’ arms, to control the trade of arms brokers, as well as prohibit countries from supplying arms to countries who break international humanitarian law – inclduing acts of genocide, crimes against humanity or war crimes. While countries such as Syria, North Korea, Iran and Algeria can be expected to, and did, loudly protest any global control of arms trade, the US stood as a key obstacle to any agreement. Its position as the biggest arms dealer (with a 40% share of the world’s arms trade) is seen as pivotal in its decision to avert any agreement – along with the powerful lobbying by the US Rifle Association and within the Senate.

As the tragic events in Colorado reveal, while a treaty may emerge from further considerations planned for later in the year (the looming US election adds only fuel to the fire, however), it would appear that the US arms industry, government bodies, and citizenry have some way to go before they will release their firm grip on the Second Amendment, their wallets, and their guns. Yet if they remain immune to the international suffering caused by small arms, and the needless death of fellow moviegoers hoping to escape to a world where the good-guy prevails over the diabolical masked villain, what will it take to swing the tide of opinion?

Regional Actorness: The EU as a role model for ASEAN


After our discussion on Tuesday I came across an interesting journal article (Wunderlich 2012) about regional actorness and the potentials of the EU and ASEAN regarding the respective criteria. Most of the studies and concepts on international/global actorness are actually based on the EU as this organisation “sui generis” has been the first of its kind and shows a unique development. The debate about the EU as an international actor rose with the Treaty of Maastricht an the introduction og the Common Security and Defence Policy (Wunderlich 2012: 656).

One of the most well-known concepts was introduced by Bretherton/Vogler (2006) who suggest a framework to evaluate actorness using presence (relationship between international development and external expectations), opportunity (external dynamics that foster/hinder the construction of EU actorness) and capacity (capability to respond to opportunities and external expectations) (ibid.).   dFurthermore, they identify four requirements for actorness: shared values and principles, the ability to formulate coherent policies, policy instruments and legitimacy of decisions (ibid.).

Based on this concept, the EU is often criticised for not being an effective international actor. Moreover, the concept itself is challenged for its limitations to be generalised and used for other regional organisations. It also does not take into account the importance of norms and indentity. Wunderlich therefore suggests a different approach that looks at levels of regional actorness and takes into account three criteria:

1. Internal self-understanding/ self-image

2. Recognition and presence

3. Institutionalisation and decision-making structure (Wunderlich 2012).

Regarding self-understanding, there are clear differences between the EU and ASEAN. The EU’s norms are influenced by lessons learned from history, the danger of nationalism and war.  The EU is therefore built on values such as democracy, free trade, transnational cooperation, rule of law, and human rights (Wunderlich 658f). These norms are also reflected in the EU’s foreign policy.

In contrast to that stands ASEAN. One of the most striking points of Wunderlich’s article is that he acknowledges the lack of a mature Westphalian state system in Southeast Asia (Wunderlich 2012: 659). The Westphalian state system has been introduced by colonial powers and the indigineous elite used it effectively in their struggles against the colonisers. In contrast to Europe, nationalism has been a tool of choice in the Asian state-building process (ibis.). Looking at the historical development, it is understandable that one of ASEAN’s purposes is to strengthen state sovereignty. Further norms of the organisation are non-interference and regional autonomy. It becomes clear their historical backgrounds are reflected in the self-understanding of both organisations.

Regarding recognition and presence, both organisations have various agreements with other countries/regions/organisations and even work together with each other. So both can be seen as recognised organisations (Wunderlich 2012: 660.f.). Both even have a legal personality (EU -> Treaty of Lisbon, ASEAN: ASEAN Charter) that improves their recognition.

However, the differences that became obvious in the organisations’ self-understanding become even more obvious regarding institutionalisation and the decision-making structure. The EU has a clear preference for formal and legal institutions, and uses both the community method and intergovernmental agreements (661f.). ASEAN rather uses its own, so-called ASEAN approach that is rather unofficial, consisting of consultation and consensus (Wunderlich 2012: 662). And it is this need for consensus that sets clear limits for potential regional actorness and leaves ASEAN unable to address several challenges (Vietnam’s invasion to Cambodia, East Timor crisis, reaction to 9/11, etc.) (Wunderlich 2012: 663). Taking into account Hill’s capability-expectation gap (Hill 1993), ASEAN might be partly recognised as a regional actor but not capable of fulfilling the expectations (Wunderlich 2012: 663). Therefore, more institutionalisation and commitment is clearly needed. However, attempts to improve that gap are clearly there. ASEAN is about to incorporate whole parts of the EU’s structure, so one could wonder if the EU even serves as some kind of a role model. The creation of ASEAN community, a legal personality, and a summit structure and chairmanship is very similar to the European Council and EU Presidency. There are no supranational institutions (yet), however, there are clear attempts to go beyond the informal structure (ibid.).

It becomes that regional actorness depends very much on the social-historic background and the organisation’s self-understanding. European integration required a pooling of sovereignty, and an institutionalised structure. ASEAN member states are developmental states in political and economic terms and their late independence serves as an explanation for the avoidance of supranationality. But moving towards a more formal structure enhances its regional actorness and the re-structuring of ASEA might develop into a good example for successful policy learning.


Bretherton, Charlotte/ Vogler, John (2006): The European Union as a Global Actor (2nd edition). London:  Routledge.

Hill, Christopher (1993): The Capability-Expectation Gap, or Conceptualising Europe’s International Role.  Journal of Common Market Studies, 31 (3), pp. 305-328.

Wunderlich, Jens-Uwe (2012): The EU an Actor Sui Generis? A comparison of EU and ASEAN Actorness. Journal of Common Market Studies, 50 (4), pp. 653-669.


The UNWTO, Santa and Zumba


Yesterday’s world section of the Dominion Post[1] contained an article that caught my eye: The World Santa Claus Congress, which is currently on in a small Danish town north of Copenhagen, has Santas sweating in zumba classes. While a number of disquieting images crossed my mind, including that of a room full of red, over-dressed, over-weight men swinging their hips to the tunes of ‘Let It Rain Over Me’ by Marc Anthony, what really intrigued me was the existence of a potential international body specialising in the trade of Noël. After all, an international institution representing the interests of Father Christmas & Co sounds as plausible as the World Tourism Organisation naming Robert Mugabe as the ‘UN leader for tourism’.[2]

Formerly established in 1957 (the UNWTO was created in 1975), the Congress is a very loose organisation, with no permanent secretariat, nor any standing committee. It revolves around a three-day summit that brings together Santas from every continent every year in summer. For obvious reasons the international conference cannot be held in winter since ‘Santa Claus has a lot of work to do to give out presents’ as was pointed out by Russian Santa Alexei Gavrilov.[3]

During the course of the event not only do a number of Christmas-oriented activities take place, but hot topics are also debated, including weight regulations and health issues (hence Marc Anthony and the zumba classes or the compulsory bike rides), international taxation rules on presents, the standardisation of chimneys, and the contentious issue of when presents should be delivered (at midnight or in the morning of the 25th of December, or even on the 7th of January? – the lack of consensus is quite striking but does not prevent the organisation from functioning).

Contrary to the UNWTO (where travel-bans and human rights violations are apparently no hindrance), requirements to attend are strict and quite straight-forward: You must be a member of a Santa Claus organisation or work as a professional Santa, Christmas pixie or elf. You might be asked to provide evidence of your professional status, such as pictures of you working as Santa, references, and/or recommendations.

Last but not least, the congress is a festive event, where good-humoured spectators of all ages are welcome – a chorus of Santa nations that aims at recreating the magic of Christmas in the middle of summer.

For more information on the WSCC and the magic, please visit www.worldsantaclauscongress.com. You could also go to the UNWTO’s website (www.unwto.org), but it wouldn’t be as fun.

[1] ‘Santa to Zumba’, Dominion Post, 24/07/2012.

[2] David Smith, ‘Robert Mugabe asked to be UN leader for tourism’, http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2012/may/29/robert-mugabe-un-international-envoy-tourism (accessed on 25/07/2012).

[3] Martin Burlund, ‘World Santa Claus congress kicks off in Copenhagen’, http://in.reuters.com/article/2008/07/23/idINIndia-34645320080723 (accessed on 25/07/2012).

You gotta have faith?

As everyone knows, religion and politics are a combination so combustible that their mere mention can scuttle polite conversation (except with opinionated taxi drivers). But should the role of religion in IR be similarly marginalised?

Elizabeth Shakman Hurd says that the study of religion in IR has been framed by the forces of secularism that define ‘the terms of the debate in such a way that religion is understood as (at best) irrelevant to politics and (at worst) an existential threat to rational public order’. As Hurd describes it, IR theory has tended to: reduce religion to a binary construct (either ‘good’ or ‘bad’ religion), regard religion as a cover for more fundamental material variables (e.g. power politics, class) and make fixed assumptions about the place of the ‘religious’ and the ‘secular’ in global politics. The secular consensus, a foundational principle of modern (Western) politics, effectively ‘privatises’ religion by depriving it of ‘practical, political effects’ and relegating it to the margins of the public sphere. In Hurd’s view, IR theorists have been captured (or at least influenced) by this secularist paradigm and accordingly have given scant scholarly attention to religion. (Elizabeth Shakman Hurd. ‘Religion and Secularism’ in Richard Devetak, Anthony Burke and Jim George (eds.) An Introduction to International Relations. New York, Cambridge University Press, 2012 pp. 322-335)

But ignoring the interplay between the two ‘co-constitutive concepts’ of religion and secularisation should now no longer be an option for IR academics. The events of the Arab Spring illustrated how both religious and secular forces actively contest the political space. As it stands, Islamists have taken over in Tunisia (which under Habib Bourguiba (1957-87) was probably the only Arab state to ever experience truly secular rule) and Libya and look poised to do the same in Egypt. So is Arab secularism a spent force? Nasser Rabat argues in favour of its ongoing relevance, despite recent setbacks that saw secularist movements, like the 6th of April movement in Egypt, fail to grasp the nettle and compete for power in the region’s post-revolutionary governments. Rabat views the immediate place of the secularists as embodying a robust, lawful opposition – a role that is vital to the stability of these states as they look to move beyond the repressive regimes of Ben Ali, Gaddafi and Mubarak.

The Middle East (‘the Holy Lands’) really is the crucible of the religion vs. secularism debate. The Iranian revolution of 1978-79 is perhaps the definitive example – the US-backed Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, who had taken Iran down an unpopular, pro-Western, modernising path of secularisation, was overthrown by the clergy headed by Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini. Tehran’s foreign policy has been inextricably linked to Islamism ever since – a position that has brought it into conflict with Israel (‘the Zionist regime’ or ‘the Little Satan’), the United States (‘the Great Satan’) and, most aggressively, Shia-majority Iraq (ruled by the secular Ba’aths until the US invasion in 2003). Further, Iran’s links to radical Islam are overt – the theocracy has supported Hamas and Hizbollah as well as engaged with al-Qaeda and allies itself (and its nuclear ambitions) to nuclearised Muslim Pakistan. Of course, Pakistan, was founded on the basis of religion as the Partition of India created both an Islamic republic (Pakistan) and a secular, Hindu-majority India, currently led by a Sikh, Manmohan Singh.

Even the EU’s ongoing financial ructions have been cast in a religious light. Europe is no stranger to wars of religion but could religious difference really underlie the eurozone meltdown? The (Protestant) push for austerity driven by Merkel (the daughter of a Protestant pastor) has been met with opposition by the ‘Latin Alliance’ of Catholic Spain and Italy, backed by France. Fiscal continence (a.k.a Protestant thrift) is important to Germany – having learnt harsh (even diabolical) economic lessons from Goethe’s Faust and the hyperinflation of the Weimar Republic. The debate about whether Germany should continue to subsidise the loose-spending Catholic states (and Orthodox Greeks) rumbles on. With 2017 marking 500 years since Luther sparked the Reformation, could Europe divide itself along religious lines again – with a Protestant economic order of financially like-minded Germans, (Calvinist) Dutch and (Lutheran) Finns aligning in a ‘northern eurozone’?

And where does the world’s hegemon stand on religion and IR? The US, for many outside observers, represents the polar extremes of religion and secularism – the God-fearing Bible Belt, the Amish, a Mormon Presidential candidate, Scientologists et al coexisting in a land that is the prime exporter of secular cultural imperialism (democracy, Hollywood, Coca-Cola and ESPN etc.) Interestingly, the US is one of the few high-income countries that ranks highly on Gallup’s religiosity scale – about 65% of Americans think religion plays an important role in their daily lives. According to the poll, poor countries (with a per capita GDP of less than US$5,000) were far more likely to be religious than wealthy economies with Muslim nations, Bangladesh and Niger, topping the rankings. Is there a link between religion and poverty? Stateside, Barber suggests that Republicans are able to exploit the religious propensity of poor voters despite the GOP’s natural constituency being the affluent. For the Christian Right, social conservatism occurs at both ends of the income spectrum.

Does religion play a greater role in more trying circumstances? What do religion and secularism have to say about IR?

The more the better? Iran and the nuclear peace

Kenneth Waltz, in a recent Foreign Affairs article, makes the case for the ‘most compelling realist argument of all’,[1] suggesting that an Iran possessing nuclear weapons capabilities would lead to a more stable Middle East.[2] John Mearsheimer recently cautiously supported Waltz’ argument on PBS News Hour, going so far as to suggest that nuclear weapons are ‘weapons of peace’.

If, as Waltz had suggested earlier, “peace has become the privilege of states having nuclear weapons, while wars are fought by those who lack them”,[3] shouldn’t all states be allowed to have nuclear weapons? Ultimately, a nuclear world would have to be a world without wars, if we go by his logic.

He might have a point, though, in arguing that sanctions are not necessarily effective in dissuading Iran – see North Korea – and might in effect be counter-productive, moreover as they entail ramifications far beyond their intended target.

But his argument makes me wonder how serious he actually is, and how big or small a realist community actually believes in the tenets of the nuclear peace!?

As the authors of the 2009/10 Human Security Report suggest, major powers still were engaged in wars despite their nuclear capabilities, though not directly with other nuclear powers, but in proxy wars. Dov Zakheim on the PBS News Hour disagrees, pointing out that India and Pakistan went to war even after they acquired nuclear weapons. Still, if Iran had the bomb, could we see the Mullahs engage in proxy wars elsewhere in the region? Or would the Ayatollahs prevail?

As Mack et al. suggest the nuclear deterrent is not only effective against potential adversaries, but equally against those possessing nuclear arsenals. No state would want to be singled out for having started a nuclear war, even against an adversary that neither possesses nuclear weapons nor has allies that do – the nuclear taboo.[4]

But how about the possibility of a limited Iranian nuclear programme? Would Teheran be less inclined to pursue its nuclear weapons programme if the P5 +1 lift the sanctions and recognise Iran’s right for a peaceful nuclear programme, as suggested by Loren White?[5] Would this dissuade Teheran from further pursuing nuclear weaponization? Would Kenneth Waltz consider this sufficiently conducive to peace in the Middle East?

The impression that lingers from the current debate is that (neo-) realists are alive and kickin’, and aspiring nuclear powers should love them for that!

[1] Andrew  Mack et al., “Human Security Report 2009/10: The Causes of Peace and the Shrinking Costs of War and Peace in the 21st Century,” ed. Human Security Report Project/Simon Fraser University (Vancouver 2010).

[2] Kenneth Waltz, “Why Iran Should Get the Bomb: Nuclear Balancing Would Mean Stability,” Foreign Affairs 91, no. 4 (2012).

[3] Kenneth Waltz, “Peace, Stability, and Nuclear Weapons,” in Policy Papers (Institute on Global Conflict and Cooperation, UC Berkeley, 1995).

[4] Mack et al., “Human Security Report 2009/10: The Causes of Peace and the Shrinking Costs of War and Peace in the 21st Century.”

[5] Loren White, “The case for recognising a limited Iranian nuke programme ” Al Jazeera, 13 July 2012.

“The Kurds, the Kurds, the hapless Kurds”


UN special envoy Kofi Annan acknowledged last weekend that efforts to find a political solution to the Syria conflict have failed. Russia, meanwhile, is circulating a draft resolution that seeks to extend the UNSMIS mission for another 3 months, which to some (Russia & China) means one more shot at finding a political solution, while others (US, France, UK) would see this as prolonging the crisis at the cost of the civilian population – for them, a resolution under Chapter 7 of the UN Charter, allowing for diplomatic/economic sanctions and/or military intervention, is the way to go.

Another Libya-style intervention might help remove Assad from power and accelerate regime change. A compromise might see a transitional government made up of representatives of the opposition and members of the Assad administration, though neither side seems to favour that option. The opposition is by no means unified, which would make any future discussions on a transitional government with or without Assad’s representatives all the more daunting.

Last week, at a meeting of opposition groups in Cairo, Kurdish delegates walked out, claiming that without official recognition of the Syrian Kurds, they would only continue to be marginalised. At a conference in Iraq earlier this year, overseas Syrian Kurds had called for self-determination.[1]

The Kurds represent approximately 9% of the population in Syria. Kurdish minorities further live in Turkey (app. 18-20%), Iran (app. 7%) and Iraq (app. 17%), totalling between 25 and 40 million people across the Middle East. They refer to themselves as “the largest people without a nation”.[2] Kurds share a culture, history and language, though even here differences exist and the narrative of a Kurdish identity is not representative of historical realities.[3]

Kurdish groups have long advocated for their own autonomous territory, Kurdistan. A Kurdish state was within reach after the Ottoman Empire faltered, but subsequent regional power plays overrode the opportunity. Iraq’s autonomous province Kurdistan nowadays comes closest to a Kurdish homeland, even allowing for some degree of foreign relations independent of Bagdad. In Iran and Turkey, the Kurdish minority is still subject to ongoing repression and discrimination. Also in Syria, where the Kurds experienced repression under subsequent administrations, the relationship with the Arab majority is unlikely to improve overnight due to historical antagonism.[4]

The question of Kurdish political rights seems unique in that the Kurds cover a territory that includes four sovereign states, where one’s sovereignty was arguably infringed not too long ago, another’s is currently up for discussion at the UNSC, and yet another might be subject for renegotiation if US hardliners get it their way. Turkey has no reason to worry about foreign interference, yet Ankara might still be concerned about any Kurdish assertiveness in a future Syria. The Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) has been a threat to Turkey’s security for some time. Yet one man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter and the Kurdish struggle for self-determination in Turkey also takes many non-violent forms.

According to Avineri, national movements need geopolitical allies, else they fail.[5] He suggests that every war for national liberation is intertwined with realpolitik. Since the Kurds lack powerful allies, the ongoing political reshuffling in the Middle East might leave them out in the cold. Iraqi Kurds have achieved some level of success. As unlikely as it may be, a consolidation of Kurdish political rights in Syria might provide a boost to Kurdish dreams of independence in Turkey and Iran. Time for a Kurdish Spring, maybe?

An independent Kurdistan encompassing the Kurdish territory across national boundaries seems out of the question – this is not Timor or Sudan, too many voices and interests are involved. Moreover, the Kurds are everything but united. But if a future Syrian government does not concede some level of self-governance to Syrian Kurds, this could sow the seeds of future ethnic conflict. The Kurds are well aware of this ‘historic opportunity’, but the divisions within the Syrian opposition, and even within the Syrian Kurdish minority according to one writer have “all the hallmarks of an Iraq”.[6]

What role, if any, should the international community play in matters of minority rights? In view of current Middle East political reshuffling the ‘Kurdish question’ seems a good place to start. Surely there’s no straight answer, as the 2000 documentary Good Kurds Bad Kurds – No Friends but the Mountains shows. Is it, as Avineri claims, all realpolitik in the end? Why has the UN been so consistently silent on the plight of the Kurdish people? Is it plain ignorance or part of an organisational hypocrisy that runs through the institutions that we like to believe can make the world a better place?

[1] “Syrian Kurds in Iraqi meeting call for self-determination,” BBC Monitoring International Reports 2012.

[2] Michael Rubin, “Are Kurds a pariah minority?,” Social Research 70, no. 1 (2003).

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Shlomo Avineri, “Self-Determination and Realpolitik,” Dissent 52, no. 3 (2005).

[6] Bashdar Pusho Ismaeel, “Syrian Kurds dare not waste historical opportunity ” The Kurdish Globe, 10 July 2012 2012.

Title: Mike Moore. “The Hapless Kurds.” Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists 55, no. 2 (1999)