The Kurds are the largest ethnic group without their own state. Perceived as posing a separatist threat and without any formal representation on the world stage, they have been subject to genocide, crimes against humanity and a host of other human rights abuses.
Many of the Kurds’ problems emerged from the aftermath of the First World War. Following the collapse of the Ottoman Empire, the regional powers signed a peace treaty – the Treaty of Sèvres – envisaging, among other provisions, the future establishment of an independent Kurdish state. However, following the Turkish war of independence under Mustafa ‘Kemal’ Atatürk and his followers, the Treaty of Lausanne was enacted instead. That treaty sidelined the Kurdish question altogether and finalised the division of the Kurdish regions between modern-day Turkey, Iraq, Iran and Syria. Kurdish culture stems back to the migration of indo-European tribes some 4,000 years ago to the Zagros Mountains, now the heart of the Kurdish region. Although no formal censuses exist, there are estimated to be between 25 and 30 million Kurds originating from the mountainous region bordering modern Turkey, Iraq, Iran and Syria. Despite their cross-border spread and the large number of different languages and religions, Kurds share a strong overarching sense of identity.
The geopolitical importance of the region combined with significant oil and water resources there always appears to have hindered, not helped, the Kurds. The issues faced by Kurds in each country vary in nature and intensity, but there are undeniably common threads. In almost all regions, Kurds face suspicion of harbouring separatist sympathies simply by virtue of their ethnic origin. Ethnic cleansing programmes, ‘Arabisation’ and ‘Turkification’, have been implemented, accompanied by mass killings, displacement and prohibitions on Kurdish culture and language. Over the last twenty years, the Kurdish regions have been the scenes of genocide, crimes against humanity, extra-judicial killings, torture, mass displacement and censorship, among other abuses of international law.
Today, millions of Kurds live as internally displaced persons within state borders – physically prevented from returning to their former land and livelihoods following armed conflict. Millions more live as migrants, refugees and asylum seekers across the world.