You cannot read the news about what’s happening in Syria right now without also reading about the Kurds. For many in the west, the Kurds don’t often pop up on the radar—you might have last heard about them when former Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein launched chemical weapons attacks against them in the 80s. Today, Kurdish fighters—in particular, the People’s Protection Units (YPG) and the Women’s Protection Units (YPJ)—have made significant incursions against Daesh, also known as the Islamic State, in Syria. At the same time, their efforts have been hampered by Turkey. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has been a very vocal opponent of the Kurds, and his military incursions and human rights abuses against Kurds in both Turkey and Syria are well documented.
Which brings us to Iceland. Like Turkey, Iceland is a member of NATO. Last month, Iceland’s Foreign Affairs Committee, called together by Left-Green MP Steinunn Þóra Árnadóttir, came together to discuss Turkey’s human rights abuses against academics, journalists, and the Kurds. Minister of Foreign Affairs Lilja D. Alfreðsdóttir was reportedly in attendance, saying that she finds these developments “troubling,” adding that “from here forward, we will place stronger emphasis on human rights violations committed against Kurds and other minorities in Turkey.” She would later make similar sentiments in parliament.
But what does this mean in any practical sense? In the course of our investigations, we found that it doesn’t mean much. Most members of Parliament have shown zero interest in the subject, despite Kurds in Iceland urging them to take action, and the Icelandic government has been all but silent when it comes to their partners in NATO.
All about politics
Salah Karim is a Kurd who has been living in Iceland for twenty years. Last week, he hosted a symposium on Kurdistan at Fundur Fólksins (A Meeting of the People), an open seminar hosted by the University of Iceland where the general public can listen to and exchange ideas with each other, and with Icelandic political leaders.
Salah held a lengthy discussion about the recent history of the Kurds, one of the largest stateless ethnic groups on the planet. As their homeland overlaps Iran, Iraq, Syria and Turkey—nations which have been decidedly hostile towards the Kurds—they have often sought help from the rest of the world in their struggle. Salah is no exception. He told us that he sent a letter to all 63 members of Iceland’s Parliament on the matter, urging them to do something. A grand total of four have responded. That was two years ago.
Two Left-Green MPs and one Social Democrat MP responded to Salah’s letter. One of them, Salah told us, responded positively but apologetically, telling him, “I understand this is serious, but unfortunately the Foreign Minister is in the Progressive Party.” As with many countries in the world, Iceland’s Parliament is divided between opposition parties and ruling parties; proposals from the former are almost never considered by the latter.
But even Salah’s appeals to ruling coalition members fell on deaf ears. He told us that one of the people who got back to him was Jóhannes Þór Skúlason, assistant to former Prime Minister and Progressive Party chairperson Sigmundur Davíð Gunnlaugsson. Jóhannes, Salah told us, told him that he would be contacted soon on the matter. He has yet to receive any word.
The elephant in the room
One MP who did respond swiftly was Steinunn; Salah told us she got back to him within “a couple weeks” of the letter being sent. As she led the initiative in the Foreign Affairs Committee on the matter, we asked her how exactly Iceland will be showing support for the Kurds.
“Unfortunately, there has been no formal step taken on behalf of the Icelandic government,” she told us. “The Foreign Minister has let a public statement to the Turks calling upon them to respect human rights suffice.” She added that she and other opposition members have put forward a proposal encouraging the Icelandic government to demand that Turkey respect democracy, freedom of the press, and the rights of minorities, including the Kurds.
“One of the things I discovered in my work as an MP is that not many politicians have a great interest in foreign affairs, especially foreign affairs that don’t directly pertain to Iceland,” Steinunn said. “I suppose the situation is the same in other countries.”
Because NATO, That’s Why
There’s more to the lack of interest in the Kurdish situation than just plain apathy, though. Steinunn believes Iceland, like other countries, has been reluctant at best to condemn Turkey for one simple reason.
“The elephant in the room is NATO; in particular, Iceland and Turkey’s membership in NATO,” she said. “NATO has expressed full support for Turkey in their campaign against the Kurds. The reason for this is that the West sees Turkey as an important military ally, and are willing to sacrifice the Kurds. The silence of the international community makes it easier for the Turkish government to persecute the Kurds.”
Iceland has, however, stood up to major powers before, especially in defense of smaller, often oppressed, peoples. For example, they recognised Palestine as a state in 2011, a step that the majority of Western nations haven’t even taken. When Iceland will apply this policy to the Kurds, unfortunately, still remains unknown.