North Carolina Journal of International Law

"Connecting North Carolina to the World of International Law"

Barriers to Self Determination: Regional Powers Oppose Kurdish Referendum

By: Michael Hutcherson










On September 25th, 2017, a referendum was held in the Kurdish region of Northern Iraq on the subject of independence.[1]  Voting took place in Kurdish provinces as well as disputed areas like the city of Kirkuk, which has significant oil resources.[2]  Kurdish troops were responsible for liberating the city from ISIS, but it has a mutli-ethnic population that includes Arabs and Turkmen.[3]

The Kurds’ push for independence is in keeping with the idea the self-determination is a right shared by all peoples.  This principle has been enshrined in Article 1 of the United Nations Charter[4], as well as Article 1 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR).[5]  It seems the Kurds hold self-determination in high esteem as well because the referendum was a rousing success with 92% voting in favor of independence.[6]

Why Independence?

Prior to the referendum, the Kurds already held a great deal of autonomy.[7]

They “control the land borders with neighboring countries, elect their own parliament, maintain their own security forces (known as peshmerga) and draft their own laws.”[8]

Despite this, many Iraqi Kurds feel they would be better off as an independent state.[9]  They remember chemical attacks suffered at the hands of Saddam Hussein and, more recently, how Iraqi troops fled in the face of advancing ISIS forces.[10]  The Kurdish government has also accused Baghdad of refusing to share oil revenues, which underscores the economic incentive for independence.[11]

International Opposition

On the international stage the Kurds have found little support.[12]  The Iraqi government has come out against the referendum as have the United States, Turkey and Iran.[13] Only Israel has expressed support for the referendum.[14]  In the days prior to the vote, President Erdogan of Turkey threatened sanctions against the Kurds and directed Turkish forces to conduct military exercises near the border.[15]  Additionally, he threatened to shut down the pipeline that brings Kurdish oil into Turkey, which could devastate the Kurdish economy.[16]

Though Turkey, Iraq and Iran all have Kurdish populations,[17] Turkey’s relationship with the Kurds has been notably contentious.[18]  The Kurdistan Worker’s Party (PKK) has been waging an insurgency against Turkey for decades so the Turkish government views other Kurdish groups through the lens of this experience.[19]  Turkish forces also clashed with the Kurdish YPG militia in Syria, which the Turkish government sees as an extension of the PKK.[20]


The aspirations of the Kurdish people exist now at a crossroads of ethnic strife and economic uncertainty.  Though the United Nations has offered to help mediate the dispute,[21] support for the Kurds ambitions seems scarce.   The Iraqi Rusafa investigation court has even ordered the arrest of the referendum’s organizers.[22]  The U.N. Charter and the ICCPR unequivocally declare the right to self-determination. However, without support from major players in the region and around the world, this foundational tenant of international law will fall by the wayside and leave the Kurds unable to realize their dream.


[1] Merrit Kennedy, Iraq’s Kurdish Region Votes in Controversial Election, NPR (Sept. 25, 2017, 2:45 PM), [] [hereinafter Kennedy].

[2] Id.

[3] Id.

[4] United Nations Charter Art. 1(2), Jun. 26, 1945.

[5] International Convention on Civil and Political Rights Art. 1, Dec. 16, 1966.

[6] Tamara Qiblawi, Kurds vote overwhelmingly in favor of independence from Iraq, CNN (Sept. 27, 2017, 12:09 PM), [] [hereinafter Qiblawi].

[7] Kennedy, supra note 1.

[8] Id.

[9] Jane Arraf, What To Know About The Independence Referendum In Iraqi Kurdistan, NPR (Sept. 22, 2017, 9:11 AM), [] [hereinafter Arraf].

[10] Id.

[11] Id.

[12] Id.

[13] Id.

[14] Qiblawi, supra note 6.

[15] Turkey, Iran, Iraq consider Counter-measures over Kurdish referendum, Reuters (Sept. 21, 2017 6:37 AM), [].

[16] Turkey raises oil threat after Iraqi Kurds referendum, Reuters (Sept. 29, 2017) [].

[17] Arraf, supra note 9.

[18] Rodi Said and Dominic Evans, Exclusive: Kurdish YPG militia expects conflict with Turkey in northern Syria, Reuters (July 5, 2017, 4:00 PM), [].

[19] Id.

[20] Id.

[21] Id.

[22] Samuel Osborne, Kurdistan: Iraqi court orders arrest of organizers of Kurdish independence vote, The Independent (Oct. 11, 2017) [].

Post navigation

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *