KRG.org recently interviewed the KRG Head of the Department of Foreign Relations (DFR), Falah Mustafa Bakir, regarding recent developments and the role of the DFR.
KRG.org: How is the Kurdistan Region represented abroad, and is this representation sanctioned by the Iraqi constitution
FMB: Yes, our activities through our KRG offices abroad are fully in accordance with the Iraqi Constitution (click here to see a list of KRG reps). The KRG has maintained representative offices in a number of significant countries since before the fall of the former regime in order to promote the political, economic, cultural and educational interests of the Kurdistan Region. The KRG has the right to maintain these types of offices as the standing institutions of the Kurdistan Region are constitutionally guaranteed the prerogative to continue operating. The constitution also stipulates that federal regions are entitled to have commercial and cultural offices within Iraq’s embassies.
Additionally, as members of a federal Iraq, a number of citizens of the Kurdistan Region work in the Iraqi Ministry of Foreign Affairs and in Iraqi embassies. The Iraqi Minister of Foreign Affairs, Mr. Hoshyar Zebari, and a number of Iraqi Ambassadors are from the Kurdistan Region.
KRG.org: How many foreign diplomatic missions are currently active in the Kurdistan Region, and do you envision an increase in this number?
FMB: There are currently 20 official foreign missions in the Kurdistan Region; most of these are consulates, some are commercial or representative offices and the rest are honorary consulates (click here to view the list of foreign missions currently operating in the Kurdistan Region). There are also a number of local representations of major international organisations and an official office of the United Nations Assistance Mission to Iraq (UNAMI) in the Region. We coordinate with these offices regarding the work of the various UN agencies and other organisations to help the KRG promote civil society programs, human rights, humanitarian projects, etc.
The Palestinian Authority, Italy, the United Arab Emirates, and Kuwait have all committed to opening consulates in the Region, and Hungary, Bulgaria, and Norway have all expressed plans to build consulates. Additionally, Poland has decided to establish a representative office, and Belarus, Lebanon and Georgia have all proposed honorary consuls. If the past couple of years and this list are any indicator then there will likely be many more representations opening here in the coming years.
KRG.org: What is the primary function of the KRG representative offices abroad, and what is their relationship with the federal Iraqi embassies abroad?
FMB: Some countries are particularly important to us because of our longstanding relationship with them, because of their political and economic status, or because a significant portion of the Kurdish diaspora resides within their borders. With this in mind, the primary responsibilities of our representative offices revolve around promoting international awareness and interest in Regional politics, culture, economics, business and investment opportunities, and education. Additionally, given the large number of Iraqi Kurds living abroad, the KRG representative offices also assist with some legal services such as granting power of attorney and helping to obtain legal counsel in the Region.
The KRG has a healthy and cordial relationship with the Iraqi embassies abroad, and we are working with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the federal government in Baghdad to finalise the official parameters of this relationship. Ultimately, while the KRG representative offices primarily focus on the interests of the Kurdistan Region, we believe that they serve the interests of Iraq as a whole as they encourage international awareness, investment and assistance.
KRG.org: How would you characterise the DFR’s relationship with the federal Iraqi Foreign Ministry?
FMB: As I mentioned, we enjoy very good and cooperative relations with the federal Iraqi Ministry of Foreign Affairs. However, in order to discuss this relationship, we have to first remember that Iraq has witnessed a major transformation. It has changed from a centralised authoritarian state to a federal, democratic and pluralistic state. This change is formalized in the Iraqi Constitution which was established by the majority of Iraq’s people in the 2005 referendum. The constitution states that Iraq is a federal state, and we understand this to mean that the federal regions share both power and wealth with the central federal government. Of course it is not easy to work out such a dramatic change, and it takes time, patience, coordination and cooperation.
With this in mind, we believe that this relationship is key to our long-term future as a federal state, and we believe that we are able to serve the interests of both the Kurdistan Region and Iraq as a whole through our coordination with the federal Ministry. Accordingly, we are committed to maintaining a positive and professional working relationship with the federal Ministry of Foreign Affairs. We maintain a directorate within DFR whose primary responsibility is to coordinate with the Foreign Ministry in Baghdad and with the Iraqi embassies abroad, and we continue working to strengthen this relationship. We cooperate in the areas of visiting foreign delegations, international training programmes for our diplomats, Iraqi activities at the United Nations and many other important projects.
KRG.org: How would you characterise the KRG’s relationships with its neighbours, in particular Iran and Turkey?
FMB: To begin with it is important to clarify that as part of Iraq, the KRG is committed to Iraq’s federal foreign policy. Accordingly, we aspire to have relationships based on mutual understanding, mutual respect, and mutual benefit. We pursue a policy of non-interference in the internal affairs of neighbouring countries, and we promote business, investment and trade relations and the security of our international borders.
That being said, our relationships with our neighbors are good. Turkey did more than $7 billion worth of business with Iraq last year, and $4.5 billion of that was within the Kurdistan Region. There are currently 35,000 Turkish workers in the Region performing jobs ranging from teaching in private schools to manning the huge construction projects that are developing throughout the Region. The Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdo?an recently made a historic visit to the Region which shows an important shift toward engagement in their policy regarding the Kurdistan Region. Both Turkey and Iran have opened consulates in Erbil (Iran has one in Suleimaniah also), and we frequently exchange official visits with senior representatives from both countries. We also conduct billions of dollars worth of trade with Iran every year, and we are committed to continuing to develop positive relations with all of our neighbours.
KRG.org: You stated that the Kurdistan Region is committed to developing positive relations with its neighbors; has Iran’s recent shelling of the Kurdish border regions affected the KRG’s relations with Iran?
FMB: The shelling by the Islamic Republic of Iran is unacceptable, and it is a violation of Iraq’s sovereignty. These actions have done a lot of damage to villages along the border, and they have forced a lot of people to evacuate. The Kurdistan Region’s President, Masoud Barzani, has condemned these attacks and called on Iran to work together to find a peaceful solution. The defense of Iraq’s borders is the responsibility of the Iraqi federal government, and we have seen steps in the last few days where the various political blocs have come together to condemn Iran’s actions as well. We believe that dialogue is the best way to resolve these types of disputes, and we hope the Iranian government will respect the sovereignty of Iraq’s borders; but these actions will have a negative effect on our relations if they do not end. We urge the Iranian government to put an end to these unwarranted acts which do not help bring about the goal of security and stability in the border areas and work against the development of normal relations between the Kurdistan Region and the Islamic Republic of Iran.
KRG.org: Do you see an increase of international companies and investors interested in coming to the Kurdistan Region?
FMB: Without a doubt; anyone who follows events in the Region can tell you that it has made tremendous political, economic, social and educational progress in recent years, and it has proven to be a consistently stable and secure environment in which this progress will easily be sustained. Combined with a generous foreign investment law, this environment has been key to the growth of foreign direct investment and to the increase in the number of countries and companies that participate in the Erbil International Trade Fair for many years now. The Erbil Fair is the largest general trade fair in Iraq. This year’s fair is due to take place from 24-27 October. It will cover a large variety of economic sectors, and it is supported by a large number of trade promotion agencies, chambers of commerce, trade associations, ministries and embassies. We anticipate that it will attract around 1000 exhibitors from over 30 countries around the world this year.
KRG.org: There are a significant number of Iraqi Kurdish asylum seekers in Europe and abroad that are supposed to be deported. Has the Kurdistan Regional Government been a part of any of the decisions regarding their forced repatriation, and is the KRG providing these asylum seekers with any help?
FMB: The KRG has always had a clear stance regarding this matter. We have always said that we welcome the return of these people by their own free will; those who are ready and willing to return are encouraged to come and be a part of the rebuilding process of their country. We understand that many of these people have lost everything that they own in order to start a new life abroad, and we have worked hard to communicate their situation to the countries involved. We have argued that this is a humanitarian issue before it is a political or any other kind of issue, and we have therefore asked that their suffering be considered when their host countries make policies that affect them. We have asked that these individuals be able to decide for themselves regarding their country of residence. We have not been, and we will not be, a part of any private or public agreement that will disadvantage our people whether they live here or abroad.
Having said this, it is important to recognise that each nation has its own laws and interests to protect regarding immigration, and they ultimately have to make their own decisions regarding those laws and interests. Furthermore, the Kurdistan Region is not an independent state, and as such, we are limited in our ability to dissuade the federal government in Baghdad from entering into these kinds of agreements.
However, we continue to ask for patience on all sides, and we ask for these nations to revisit this important issue once again and, considering its humanitarian nature, to find a satisfactory solution to it. In the end, whatever decisions are made, the KRG will do what it can to assist any forced returnees as they make the transition back into local society.
KRG.org: Recently, we have seen conflicting statements from the various political blocs in Baghdad about the withdrawal of US troops from Iraq. What is the KRG’s position regarding the planned withdrawal?
FMB: To begin with, it’s important for me to clarify that this question has to be decided by the collective groups of the federal government in Baghdad. However, it is essential that they be able to leave politics aside and determine whether the Iraqi security forces are ready and capable of maintaining security within Iraq while defending its international borders, its airspace and its navigable waterways. The safety and security of the people of Iraq should be paramount in answering this question, and the remaining vacancies of the federal government’s top security positions and the recent tensions between the different political groups in Baghdad raise doubts that the security forces are capable of these tasks.
There are also a number of unresolved issues in Iraq that should be taken into consideration, such as the status of the disputed territories, implementing a national census, as well as the passage of both revenue sharing and hydrocarbons laws. If these issues remain unresolved they are likely to lead to increased tensions and possibly to violence, and it is vital that these issues be addressed in order to show that Iraq has changed from a centralised authoritarian state to a democratic, federal and pluralistic one. The people of the Kurdistan Region would like for these issues to be resolved peacefully, and I think it’s safe to say that the presence of American troops could help ensure the security and stability of the country during this process.
KRG.org: As you know, South Sudan just became the newest member of the international community as an independent country. Do you have any comments regarding this historic development?
FMB: The KRG welcomes South Sudan as the newest nation-state in the world. Their struggle once again proves the historical truth that nothing can stop the will of the people to better their future and enjoy their full rights as free citizens. We congratulate them, and we wish them success in this huge endeavour. Building a country is not an easy task, and they will certainly face many challenges, but we stand with them in the belief that freedom will make these challenges worth facing. Additionally, I think that it is important to point out that after five decades of conflict, war was ultimately not able to solve this problem. Ultimately, it was only peace and negotiation that was able to bring about this permanent solution, and we commend the government of Sudan for having the courage to support this decision.