Humanitarian disaster in Northern Iraq


Nobody can fail to have been affected by the TV images that we have seen of Yazidis stranded without shelter on Mount Sinjar in Northern Iraq. The brutal persecution of Yezidis, Christians, Shia Turkmen and other minorities by The Islamic State Group (formerly known as ISIS) is nothing short of horrific. So too is the totalitarian rule they are imposing on the areas they currently control.

A humanitarian disaster is unfolding in and around Northern Iraq and the international community has been too slow to respond to it. We cannot turn the clock back on that but it is vital that international efforts are ramped up. I therefore support UK participation in those efforts, and through our role in the United Nations and other organisations, we should urgently identify what more can be done.

Labour’s Shadow Foreign Secretary, Douglas Alexander MP has been active in urging the Government to act on all these areas. He has called on the UN Human Rights Council to build a consensus for action on religious freedom at the highest international level and for the UK Government work with the UN to provide help and shelter to refugees fleeing the region. Reports that the UK Government is refusing asylum to Iraqis who have fled the country are very concerning, and I have tabled parliamentary questions to the Home Secretary on this.

Churches and international charities in Britain have played a key role in raising the profile of the brutality going on in Iraq. As a former member of Parliament’s International Development Committee I have seen for myself some of the consequences of war on civilians in both central Africa and the Middle East. I have been to refugee camps in Jordan and Turkey for people fleeing the civil war in Syria and I am in direct contact with some of those working on the ground to provide humanitarian relief in Northern Iraq today. There is no doubt in my mind about the scale of the crisis unfolding and about the importance of the international community, including the UK, facing up to our responsibilities. Given the scale of the crisis, it’s not surprising that there are growing demands for Parliament to be recalled to debate these issues.

For the humanitarian relief to be able to get to those suffering in Iraq however, IS also has to be kept away from them. I opposed the US/UK invasion of Iraq in 2003 and I believe that some of the chaos we now see in that part of the world today is, at least partly a legacy of that action. However, that does not affect the urgency of the situation in Iraq right now. As a new MP in the mid-90s, I remember being horrified by the way the international community allowed so many to be butchered in Bosnia and about the genocide which took place in Rwanda. Those massacres led to the United Nations taking on a new mandate called the “Responsibility to Protect” where crimes like these are committed.

There are important differences between Iraq today both Bosnia and Rwanda in the 1990s. But there are parallels too. That is why I believe that military action is necessary to keep IS at bay while the humanitarian relief efforts go on. In the past week, in practical terms it probably had to be the USA who had to do this in the time available. However, it could easily make this worse not better if action to protect people from massacre in Northern Iraq came to be perceived or promoted in the Middle East as some sort of continuation of the 2003 US/UK invasion. So it is also urgent that everything possible is done through the UN and other international agencies to help the people of the area themselves. There are obviously calls for the UK to become directly engaged in air strikes on IS. My view is that what is going to be effective and command legitimacy is more important than whether individual countries’ decide to concentrate their forces’ efforts on humanitarian relief, military strikes or both.

Going forward it is important for the long term that we understand that the plight of persecuted minorities in Iraq is part of a wider crisis engulfing the Middle East. As I say, I believe the invasion of Iraq in 2003 – and the way it was carried out – helped lead to years of sectarianism and growing radicalisation in Iraq. It split the international community’s response to extremism, weakened the United Nations, and made intervention in line with the “Responsibility to Protect”, more difficult, not less. It also reinforced the perception of that the USA – and too often the UK too – display double standards when it comes to upholding the rule of law internationally. Those allegations have particular force on the Israel-Palestine issue. That is one of the reasons I am one of those who speak out for more assertive condemnation of Israel’s attack on Gaza, for an end to the blockade there and for a lasting solution to the Israel/Palestine conflict in which Israelis and Palestinians have equal rights.

Unfortunately, taken as a whole, there is now no coherent, evidence-based international strategy to assess and respond to the epidemic of crises currently in the Middle East – whether that be in Gaza, Syria or Iraq. It’s time for the UK Government to face up to that too.

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Richard Burden

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I was Labour Member of Parliament for Birmingham Northfield between 1992 and 2019 and a former Shadow Transport Minister. I now chair Healthwatch in Birmingham and Solihull, and the West Midlands Board of Remembering Srebrenica. I also work as a public affairs consultant. I am an effective community advocate and stakeholder alliance builder with a passion for human rights. I am a trustee of the Balfour Project charity and of Citizens Advice Birmingham, and a former Chair of Medical Aid for Palestinians.

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