When sovereignty and self-determination overlap in claims to statehood: The case of Iraqi Kurdistan

By Zeynep N. Kaya, London School of Economics

*This memo was prepared for the the “International Relations and a New Middle East” symposium.


The Arab uprisings that began in 2011 have brought unexpected and massive changes to the Middle East with their impact varying from context to context. While some states made a push for more accountable and democratic political rule, others became immersed in internal/regional conflict and instability. In addition, non-state actors, such as militant and non-militant Islamist groups and nationalist organizations, have also been an important component of these transformations. These actors’ efforts to seize power both at local and national levels have resulted in violent conflict, civil war, the emergence of new political entities and changes in political rule. The different outcomes of the uprisings in different states are largely related to the pre-existing political structures of the states, rulers’ authority, regime types, state-society relations and power constellations. Therefore, this process raises important political and theoretical questions about not only the internal political structures of the states, their future and regional and international politics, but also non-state political actors and their recognition and international legitimacy.

The principles of sovereignty and self-determination are crucially relevant in discussing the recognition and international legitimacy of non-state actors, such as the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG). Today, with the uncertainty of the future of two states that were formed during the World War I period, Iraq and Syria, and the Islamic State threat to existing defined borders, Iraqi Kurdish aspirations for statehood have been revitalized. Other Kurdish political actors in the Middle East also have enhanced their political prominence and demands for self-rule in this process, giving even greater volition to the resurgence of Iraqi Kurdish aspirations. Some scholars have gone so far as to label these developments the “Kurdish spring,” referring to peace talks between the government and the PKK (Kurdistan Workers’ Party) in Turkey and the formation of a de facto Kurdish autonomous region (Rojava) in Syria (Gunter 2013).[1]

In Iraq, Kurds have official autonomous rule over the Kurdistan Region of Iraq (Iraqi Kurdistan), since 2003; before that, they had de facto autonomy from 1991 until 2003. The Arab uprisings, the instability that ensued afterwards and the withdrawal of U.S. forces, further intensified conflict within Iraq that had been ongoing since 2003. Despite this, Iraqi Kurdistan has remained the most stable part of the country. The region’s stability and economic prosperity thanks to international aid and activation of Kurdish oil reserves has increased KRG’s confidence.

Poor relations with Baghdad and the relative stability of Iraqi Kurdistan fed into an already strong sense of Kurdish nationalism (Tahiri 2007). Issues over the national budget, a territorial dispute over Kirkuk and the use of oil reserves within Kurdish territories exacerbated the KRG’s dissatisfaction with the central government. As a result, the idea of remaining part of Iraq has become less appealing within the KRG. Indeed, Iraqi Kurds see the Baghdad government as an impediment for Iraqi Kurdistan’s progress and for reaching international standards in their rule of law and governance. The KRG has restated their desire for independence several times since the beginning of the Arab uprisings. Only recently, in mid-2014, it declared plans to hold a referendum to decide on independence. However, these plans were postponed partly due to the Islamic State’s advances in Iraq, but more importantly, due to a lack of support from the United States that wants to keep Iraq united.

Iraqi Kurdistan provides crucial insights into the question of what constitutes legitimate sovereignty because of its state-like but non-state status as well as its desire to secede from Iraq. Iraqi Kurdistan has been characterised as having “de facto statehood” (Voller 2013), being an “unrecognised state” (Voller 2015) and being a “quasi-state” (Natali 2010). The first two concepts emphasise the sovereignty the KRG enjoys domestically and to a certain degree internationally, but these characterisations underestimate the fact that Iraqi Kurdistan is still fairly economically dependent on the budget coming from the Baghdad government. Externally, even though the KRG holds some degree of diplomatic relations with external states, under the existing constitution it cannot take part in international negotiations as an independent entity. On the other hand, the concept of “quasi-state” refers to states that are “sovereign in name” (Erskine 2001) but dependent on international support due to underdevelopment, conflict or financial difficulties (Jackson 1993). This concept is useful in describing the political and economic position of Iraqi Kurdistan since 1991, but fails to fully correspond to its status conceptually.

This paper focuses on the KRG’s use of the self-determination principle in order to legitimize its claims to full sovereignty. The meaning of self-determination that it uses is intertwined with sovereignty, not simply in its most basic meaning as absolute control, but also in terms of demanding independence in arriving at decisions. The conceptual shifts in the meaning of self-determination and sovereignty in relation to separatist groups over the course of the 20th century allude to an overlap between the two principles, and the Iraqi Kurdish demands for statehood fit in this overlap. Non-recognition of the KRG as a state pushes the KRG to democratize in order to increase its international legitimacy (Voller 2015). Indeed, the KRG, through restating its relatively more democratic and stable status, tries to increase its international legitimacy and present itself as a political entity that deserves statehood. In furthering its domestic demands, it uses relevant international norms to advance its aspirations showing that the KRG aligns itself with the internationally accepted rules and norms.

Linking sovereignty and self-determination

The development of the Kurdish political movement in Iraq and the evolution of the way in which it has framed its claims to statehood align with the way the principles of self-determination and sovereignty have changed over time. The interpretations of the meaning of these two principles and the potential implications of their meanings have gone through substantial changes throughout the 20th century and early twenty-first century in line with the changes in world politics. Typically, in relation to separatist nationalism, self-determination and sovereignty are seen as conflicting principles. This is because secessionist demands that make a claim to self-determination threaten the sovereignty of the state. However, the transformation of the meanings of these two principles, especially in the context of new claims for statehood, has brought these principles together and now they can be seen as overlapping in many respects. The case of Iraqi Kurdistan and the way in which Iraqi Kurds have used the principles of self-determination and sovereignty to give them demands more credence show that there is a match between these two principles rather than conflict.

Conceptually, sovereignty has come to take meanings beyond its original dominant understanding of territorial control or supreme authority within a territory (Philpott 2001). It is now understood as having “more to do with the concept of independence in arriving at decisions rather than exclusive and absolute power in making them” (Castellino 2000). Independence in arriving at decisions is attributed to the people (or their representatives) as the sovereigns. This meaning of sovereignty and external self-determination, when legitimate, appear to be two sides of the same coin. When a secessionist group claims external self-determination it does not necessarily challenge the principle of sovereignty but challenges the sovereignty of an existing state. Such groups advance a particular understanding of sovereignty, namely sovereignty for their self-defined nation, which alludes to an overlap between self-determination and sovereignty.

Self-determination means “people’s right to freely determine their political status and freely pursue their economic, social and cultural development” (Article 1, 1966 UN International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights). Internal self-determination refers to accommodating the group’s claims within existing states, whereas external self-determination refers to secession, the creation of new states and changing boundaries in order to accommodate claims (Castellino 2000). An inability to fulfill internal self-determination is typically seen as a possible justification for claiming external self-determination. This is where the KRG’s claims to find its source of justification as it argues that the Baghdad government is inhibiting the Kurdish peoples’ ability to fulfill their internal self-determination and pursue their economic, political and social development.

Therefore, the KRG aligns itself with the international norms on legitimate rule and political behavior, such as self-determination and democratization, in order to maintain the support of international actors and to increase its international recognition (Voller 2015). Halliday’s concept of “international society as homogeneity” is useful in explaining such alignments. This concept incorporates shared values and the diffusion of ideas with the direct or indirect imposition of ideas and values by great powers, states, media, international organisations and government institutions. It implies totality, meaning that domestic structures are directly connected to international society. As a result of the totality between domestic and international spheres, states and other non-state actors are under pressure to organise their political and social structure in a way that is similar to each other (Halliday 1992; Halliday 1994). Iraqi Kurdish nationalists align themselves with norms and principles relevant to territorial rights and sovereignty and communicate their goals using the international normative discourse. They do this either because they genuinely adhere to those principles or because they aim to instrumentalize them for their own purposes.

Self-determination and Iraqi Kurds

In their claims for self-rule, Iraqi Kurds have aligned themselves with the international norms of the period when they made their appeals. Self-determination has always been the key principle and Kurds’ use of this principle has changed based on the way in which the meaning of the principle and its relation to other international norms have changed. However, the recognition or non-recognition of their appeals for self-determination, either in the form of statehood or autonomous sovereignty, depended on the political, economic and geostrategic realities of the era. Their appeals to the right to self-determination were overlooked until Iraqi Kurds faced mass killings in the late 1980s and early 1990s, a period proceeded by long-term human rights’ abuse, pressure and Arabization policies. The Iraq Kurds began to de facto enjoy internal self-determination after the creation of safe haven in northern Iraq in 1991, which turned into a de facto Kurdish autonomous region. Today, the U.S. and other states do not support the KRG’s plans for full secession, because keeping Iraq united is their priority.

The implementation of self-determination for Kurds in Iraq first came to the agenda during the post-WWI period. The international circumstances of the era led Kurdish leaders in the ex-Ottoman territories to raise their hopes for statehood. Not long after the proceedings of the Paris Peace Conference of 1919 ended, the Treaty of Sevres was signed in August 1920. Despite its limited provisions for a Kurdish state, modern Kurdish nationalist historiography claims that the Sevres treaty legally provided for the implementation of self-determination for Kurds and the establishment of a Kurdish state. According to this view, if it were not for the 1923 Lausanne Treaty signed between the new Turkish state and Western powers, the Kurdish state would have been established. Therefore, for Kurdish nationalists, the WWI period, during which the map of the Middle East (Levant) was drawn, was a missed opportunity.

The meaning of the principle, as defined by Wilson, during the WWI period was “people’s right to govern.” Wilson’s self-rule for peoples meant self-governance or peoples’ sovereignty. This is because, by definition, the democratic enterprise has always been based on a defined group of people, who are understood to be the nation. For the democratic enterprise, sovereignty belongs to the nation: popular sovereignty. Therefore, differentiating the meaning of sovereignty from self-determination in this period is not a straightforward task. Many aspiring nations of the time, including the Kurds, used self-determination in the context of claiming statehood as a nation and therefore creating a new sovereignty, seeing self-determination as a right to statehood or right to sovereignty.

The WWI period and the rise in Kurdish aspirations for statehood coincided with the internationalization of the principle of self-determination. Wilson propagated the principle as one of the key norms for the post-war international order and oversaw the dissemination of this principle across the world. However, cautious measures were introduced later in the implementation of the principle. The Paris Peace Conference limited the application of self-determination to territories and peoples in Europe, Turkish possessions in Anatolia and the Middle East, and the German and Italian colonial possessions (Manela 2007). For claims outside these territories in the future, Wilson suggested the formation of an international mechanism, which would be dealt with by the League of Nations.

Even though the territories that the Paris Peace Conference decided to deal with encompassed the Kurds, Kurdish demands were overlooked, as were those of other small nations (e.g. the Irish) whose claims were in conflict with the ally powers. Indeed, the implementation of the principle in the WWI period is an example of balancing idealist and realist considerations. When the idea of creating a Kurdistan did not correspond with the political, economic and geostrategic considerations of the time, it was disregarded. Moreover, despite the very generous idea behind Wilsonian self-determination, which recognized “a people’s right to govern,” in practice it was very difficult to apply because of the difficulty in defining who should constitute the “people.” Even though the British initially saw the Kurds as a potential people to self-govern, gradually they became less interested in the idea. This is often attributed to the fragmented status and inconsistent attitude of the Kurdish leadership, which the British perceived as a drawback for the formation of Kurdish state (McDowall 1996).

The multi-ethnic and multi-religious composition of the population in east Anatolia (eastern Turkey) and north Mesopotamia (south-eastern Turkey and part of northern Syria and northern Iraq) also rendered it difficult to implement self-determination and to draw boundaries to create viable political entities. Moreover, the British were concerned about the overlapping territorial claims of the Kurds, Armenians, Assyrians and Turks (McDowall 1996; O’Shea 2004). In the end, the only area where self-determination for Kurds was implemented, albeit in quite a procedural form, was the Sulaimaniyah district of today’s Iraqi Kurdistan, where a semi-autonomous regional administration headed by Kurdish tribal leaders was established in 1918 (ending in 1932). This was done so as to nominally comply with the League of Nation’s expectations, but it was made clear that this area was actually Iraqi territory.

In this period, Iraqi Kurds aligned their goals with the key international norm of the time: self-determination. The Barzanis, a leading Kurdish tribe in Iraq, revolted against Iraq and the British in a bid to expand their leadership. They refused to accept the status quo and asserted that the Kurds of Sulaimaniyah were entitled to implement their right to self-determination and to a state of their own (Natali 2005). Although their distinct ethnic identity underpinned these attempts, the nationalistic and culturalist dimensions of their self-determination claims were less prominent and appeared more as a power struggle than liberation. These rebellions were fully suppressed by 1932 and after that, the British sent a memorandum to the Council of the League of Nations that rejected the Kurdish right to self-determination and justified the British denial of this right.

Another period when Iraqi Kurds’ self-determination claims came to the agenda was the 1940s. In this period, cultural and democratic rights became more explicit in the rhetoric of self-determination claims by Kurdish nationalists. This change in rhetoric coincided with the enshrinement of the principle of self-determination as a right in the U.N. Charter. In this period, Iraqi Kurdish nationalists made several appeals to international society to claim their right to self-determination and form a free Kurdistan. For instance, on March 22, 1945, they submitted a Memorandum on the Kurdish Question to the American Legation in Baghdad. This memorandum defined the ethnographic boundaries of Kurdistan and requested that the Kurds be given “their place among free nations.”

In the 1970s, the Kurdish demands for self-determination had more nationalistic underpinnings than before. Kurdish leaders declared that they aimed to attain a Kurdish autonomous region for Kurdish populations to exercise Kurdish national rights and autonomy. This was happening in the context of activities led by Kurdish intellectuals and elites to generate a cultural and linguistic project to raise national awareness (Aziz 2011). Kurdish revolts against the Iraqi regime continued, and eventually a Kurdish administrative region was formed in 1974. However, it didn’t last long. Despite the continuing official existence of an autonomous administrative region, in practice the Iraqi government applied suppressive policies in this region to limit autonomy.

The creation of a de facto autonomous region in order to protect of Iraqi Kurds’ right to self-determination happened as a result of international intervention after the Gulf War. During the 1980-88 Iran-Iraq war, the Iraqi government destroyed many villages in the Kurdish areas. The 1988 Anfal Campaign, carried out by the Iraqi government, killed tens of thousands of people (Van Bruinessen 1994). After the 1991 Kuwait War, Kurdish nationalist militant groups, with U.S. encouragement, tried to increase their control again, however, this led to another major attack by the government. Huge numbers of Kurds were pushed to the borders of neighbouring countries, leading to a humanitarian disaster. The creation of a “safe haven” by the United States led to a de facto autonomous Kurdish authority in northern Iraq, which became official after 2003.

Today, Iraq is the only country where Kurds have their own officially recognized government within a federal system. Therefore, it could be argued that they have achieved the fulfillment of their right to internal self-determination. However, the KRG has not discarded the idea of Kurdish statehood. Today, with the turmoil going on in the region, the KRG have often expressed the possibility of a referendum to decide on independence. This shows that the KRG sees self-determination as a right to sovereignty. Its status as an autonomous region with state-like characteristics makes it an interesting case to study the principles of sovereignty and self-determination and their implications for entities aspiring to statehood.


Iraqi Kurdish claims for independence through self-determination present a conflation between external self-determination and the principle of sovereignty. However, their status as a semi-sovereign entity has already provided them with a high degree of internal self-determination, even if they are not fully satisfied with this. In order to justify their desire for external self-determination, they have consistently aligned themselves with international norms since the end of WWI, most notably democratic and liberal rights through self-determination. Kurdish nationalists have argued that Kurdish people will be more able to realize these rights and develop in economic, social and political terms when they are independent from Iraq. The meaning of self-determination they use is a form of sovereignty, meaning independence in arriving at decisions. This shows that actors in international society, including non-state and state-like actors, such as the KRG, also align themselves with internationally accepted rules and norms to further their domestic demands. The domestic structures of state or state-like entities are thus intrinsically linked to the international society.


Zeynep N. Kaya is a research fellow at the London School of Economics Middle East Centre.



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[1] Kurds in the Middle East constitute a large community with huge social, political, linguistic and cultural heterogeneities. Dispersed in the peripheries of four states, Turkey, Iraq, Iran and Syria, Kurds are represented by several political organizations in each country. Their political activism has been met with differing degrees of suppression in each state. Kurdish nationalism is considered a late nationalism.

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