Sunday, February 20, 2011

KRG, a model for the Middle East

By Chris Bowers, British Consul General in Erbil

It has been an interesting few weeks in Kurdistan – though I think I could have safely written that each week that I have been here so far – as society and politicians have been discussing, in public and private, the boundaries of legitimate opposition in the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG).

This is a common thread in Kurdish politics but has come into sharper focus following the uprisings across the Middle East. That said, it is clear that Tunisia and Egypt are not like KRG in many ways. Iraqi Kurds for one thing enjoy more freedom. If this is the ‘Arab Spring’ then the Kurds have already had theirs – a Kurdish Newroz? - and moved on some time ago.

But it is striking the extent to which events across the Middle East have prompted Kurdish society to look at itself. That can only be a good thing. The consensus seems to be that further reforms in governance and public services in the KRG are needed. The most encouraging aspect for an outsider is that this is being done through dialogue and debate.
The United Kingdom stands ready to help the reform process. A good, current example: the UK’s chief fire officer, Sir Ken Knight, is currently in the KRG advising the Ministry of Interior and Civil Defence teams on how to reduce fire deaths.
Watching from afar, it seems to me that people in Tunisia and Egypt are demanding accountability, fairness and the rule of law.

And that leads me to an issue of rule of law from the British perspective, and an issue that has proved controversial in the KRG, unnecessarily so, in my view: the return of failed asylum-seekers, criminals and others living illegally in the UK, to the KRG.

The first thing I want to get across is that living illegally in Britain is not an option. If the authorities in Britain find someone living illegally in Britain – be they Kurdish, Chinese, African or from wherever – the police will deal with them, but that is not the end of the matter. That person gets their day in court, the court hears them, they can appeal and then, finally, the court decides.

For us in Britain a decision by a court is final – it is a central feature of our social, political and economic life: it is the cornerstone of Britain. And so, if the court decides the person can stay, they stay. End of story. But if the court decides that they cannot stay, then the UK expects that person, again, whatever their nationality, to leave the country. Our preference is that the person does so voluntarily. And the UK helps them to do so.

But what if they refuse to leave voluntarily? Let me put it another way. What if someone came to your own house illegally and then refused to leave? Most people would be hospitable but in the end, their patience would wear thin and they would ask the authorities to remove them. That is all the UK is seeking to do.

This is particularly so with people who have been convicted of criminal offences in Britain. Are we really to think that people of whatever nationality who live illegally in the UK and then are convicted of crimes should be allowed out of prison and put back on the street, free? Would any government or citizens of any state accept that?

No, and that is why returning to their country of origin is a regular and routine part of inter-governmental relations. It happens on a daily basis throughout the world and is a standard part of international law.

But what about asylum? People have a right to claim asylum, and during the Saddam era the UK was generous and proud to give asylum and nationality to Kurds fleeing barbarity. Many have made outstanding contributions to life in the UK; they are an asset to both nations and a bridge between the KRG and UK.

But, today is a far, far cry from those days. An Iraqi Kurd who claims asylum in the UK is going to have a pretty hard time proving that they are being persecuted and in need of protection. Because, as I wrote at the beginning, the KRG is a mature society that looks at itself carefully, has a vibrant and growing economy, debates its future in public with a freedom that is a model for the rest of the Middle East, and comes to sensible conclusions. And then delivers on them.

Chris Bowers is British consul general in Erbil.

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