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Harriett Baldwin responds to debate on Kurdistan region in Iraq

6th March 2019

Harriett Baldwin responds on behalf of the Government to a debate on bilateral relations with the Kurdistan region in Iraq.

The Minister for Africa (Harriett Baldwin)

It is an honour to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Henry. I add my congratulations to my hon. Friend the Member for Filton and Bradley Stoke (Jack Lopresti) on securing this debate and on his long-standing passion and interest in this area. I am probably the only person to speak in the debate who has not had the pleasure of visiting the Iraqi region of Kurdistan. Obviously, my colleague the Minister for the Middle East would usually have responded to such a debate, but he is travelling. He sends his apologies for not being able to take part.

We have heard a range of really interesting and enlightening speeches. I will start by trying to address some of the common points that were raised before recapping the UK’s long-standing partnership with the Kurdistan region of Iraq.

Some important issues have been raised. We heard questions about the UK’s position on the 2017 referendum for independence. Colleagues will want to know that we continue to support the unity, sovereignty and territorial integrity of Iraq. That is why we did not support the Kurdistan region’s referendum and do not recognise the results of the referendum. We believe that any referendum or political process towards independence must be taken as a result of an agreement with Baghdad and in line with the Iraqi constitution. We continue to help Iraq to build a more stable, prosperous and inclusive Iraq in which all Iraqis, including Iraq’s Kurds, have the security, jobs and opportunities they want and deserve.

The UK continues to encourage the Iraqi Government to resolve outstanding disputes with the Kurdistan Regional Government, and we continue to encourage the Kurdistan Regional Government to respect the Iraqi federal court ruling that the referendum was unconstitutional. At the right time, when both parties are ready, we would want both sides to return to substantial negotiations to resolve all outstanding issues, in line with the Iraqi constitution, including making further progress on oil and revenue sharing and the status of the disputed territories, so the Baghdad-Irbil relationship is placed on a more sustainable footing within a unified Iraq.

Turning to the specific question of Kirkuk, as my hon. Friend the Member for Filton and Bradley Stoke noted, in 2014 Daesh captured large swathes of territory in northern Iraq that were disputed between Baghdad and Irbil. As the Kurds pushed Daesh back, they controlled many of those disputed territories, including the oil-rich city of Kirkuk. Following the referendum on 25 September 2017, the federal Government of Baghdad reasserted control over those areas. The UK wants to see a long-term, peaceful and sustainable solution to the governance of those territories, in line with article 140 of the Iraqi constitution.

A number of colleagues raised the question of flights. Of course, individual airlines will want to make their own commercial decisions. I certainly thought that a range of colleagues made some powerful points in support of direct flights. The Foreign Office, the Home Office and the Department for Transport keep the issue ​under constant review, as indeed we at the Foreign Office keep travel advice for the Kurdistan region of Iraq under constant review.

My hon. Friend also raised the question of visas. He may want to raise that question more directly with colleagues from the Home Office, but the Foreign Office can commit that we will continue to work with Home Office colleagues to ensure that the requirements for visas to the UK are clearly, simply and effectively communicated to those applying for them.

My hon. Friend raised important issues to do with the atrocities committed during the conflict. The UK took action in 2017 to secure United Nations Security Council resolution 2379, which established an investigative team to gather evidence of Daesh’s crimes in Iraq. That team has now deployed. It has the full support of this Government, and we continue to encourage the UN to make rapid progress on that important work.

My hon. Friend raised the question of an inward visit from Kurdistan to the UK. He will know that the Prime Minister herself visited Iraq in 2017, and he will appreciate that she had a bilateral meeting with President Salih last week in Sharm El Sheikh. We would be very glad, at the appropriate moment, to welcome a delegation from the Kurdistan region of Iraq to the UK.

The UK has long and historic links with the Kurdistan region of Iraq, which colleagues alluded to. My hon. Friend the Member for Henley (John Howell) raised the important work we have been doing on the humanitarian side through the Department for International Development. I did not realise that he had such an interesting experience of archaeology. I think he will be very interested in the British Museum’s Iraq scheme, which is funded by the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport and trains Iraqi archaeologists. It brings them to London for two months and then gives hands-on training in Iraq for a further two months. I think we can all agree wholeheartedly how important that is.

Successive British Governments have enjoyed a close working relationship with the Kurdistan Regional Government since its formation in Iraq in 1992. As a number of colleagues noted, we stood by the Kurdish people in 1991. We introduced safe havens, we policed no-fly zones, we protected thousands of lives in the Kurdistan region and we provided a refuge from the brutality of the dictatorship of Saddam Hussein for many years. We also stood by the Iraqi people in their fight against Daesh, and I take this opportunity to pay particular tribute to the courage and tenacity of the Kurdish peshmerga and the Iraqi security forces in the face of the barbaric assault by Daesh on their livelihoods and their cultural identity.

I pay tribute to the incredible generosity of Iraqis from across the country, including the Kurdistan region of Iraq, in supporting millions of people displaced from their homes by the brutality of Daesh in Syria and Iraq. As an integral part of Iraq, the Kurdistan region is a natural partner for the UK. We share many strategic interests. We respect the Kurdish people and our relationship is strong.

The strength of our partnership was evident during the recent visit to Iraq, to which the hon. Member for Leeds North East (Fabian Hamilton) alluded. During the visit, the Minister for the Middle East met senior politicians and leaders in Baghdad, as well as the Kurdish ​Prime Minister, Nechirvan Barzani, and Chancellor Masrour Barzani. He reiterated the United Kingdom’s deep and unwavering support to all Iraq. He also met representatives from Christian and Yazidi communities, and stressed that all groups, regardless of religion or ethnicity, should be treated equally. We continue to emphasise to our partners the importance of upholding and protecting the human rights and fundamental freedoms of all minority communities in Iraq.

It is clear that Iraq, including the Kurdistan region, continues to face significant challenges. The UK remains committed to working in partnership with the Kurdistan Regional Government to ensure a successful Kurdistan inside a thriving, multicultural, multi-ethnic and multi-religious Iraq.

As colleagues have noted, since 2014 the UK Government have committed over a quarter of a billion pounds-worth of humanitarian support to Iraq, including to the Kurdistan region. That money has provided vital food, shelter, medicines and clean water to millions of people. In addition, we have committed over £110 million to Iraq since 2015 to help to stabilise the liberated areas and to enable internally displaced persons to return to repaired homes, with rebuilt water supplies and restored electricity networks. To be sustainable, that infrastructure support needs to be underpinned by an ongoing commitment to reconciliation and security. That is why we are supporting community-level reconciliation in the liberated areas of Iraq through our conflict, stability and security fund, which we believe will play a vital role in building long-term stability.

While Daesh no longer holds territory in Iraq, it continues to pose a security threat to the Kurdistan region of Iraq, and to other parts of the country. The UK is committed to working with the Iraqi Government and Kurdistan Regional Government to counter this security threat, through our ongoing support to the Iraqi security forces and to the Kurdish peshmerga. The success of the Kurdistan region of Iraq requires much more than security capabilities. It also needs political and economic stability. We are encouraged by some early signs of a rapprochement between Baghdad and Irbil, and we will continue to support the strengthening of this critical relationship.

The formation of a Government in the Kurdistan region is crucial. The people of the Kurdistan region need a stable and functioning Government who can attract business and investment, grow the economy and provide much-needed jobs. Reform will be important too—not only to strengthen the economy, but to improve public services. The current leadership recognises that and we stand ready to support it in its efforts. We will continue to urge the political parties to conclude their negotiations as soon as possible, and set a forward-thinking programme of government focused on building prosperity and security for the people.

The UK’s commitment to the Kurdistan region of Iraq is long term, and we will continue to work with the Government of Iraq and the Kurdistan Regional Government to strengthen our partnership. Our defence and security support is helping to strengthen and reform the peshmerga; our humanitarian and stabilisation efforts are helping to rebuild communities; and our political support is helping to bring politicians closer together, ​so that trade and investment can grow the economy and bring the prosperity that the people of the Kurdistan region of Iraq want and deserve.


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