Many have heard that the Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein was responsible for killing hundreds of thousands of people. Only some will understand what was involved in the slaughter, and fewer still will know he systematically targeted the Kurdish people living in northern Iraq to remove any possibility of opposition. During the period from 1963 to the late 1980s tens of thousands of Kurdish men, women and children were murdered.
It was only in 2003 after Saddam Hussein was captured that the first of hundreds of mass graves were discovered, and the true scale of the horror revealed. Nine years later, expert forensic teams are excavating these graves and identifying the bodies so they can at last be returned home to their families for burial. Recently a petition backed by MPs and peers was launched in parliament calling on the British government to recognise that this mass murder of Iraqi Kurds was an act of genocide.
The dropping of chemical weapons in 1988 on the town of Halabja is probably the best known single atrocity committed upon the Kurdish people. Survivor Kamaran Haider, who now lives in Portsmouth, was 11 years old when the chemical weapons were dropped. As many as 5,000 men, women and children were killed, and tens of thousands of people injured in the attack. His four brothers, sister and both his parents died.
He said: ‘I lost my whole family. I watched them die in front of me. My skin was burning and I couldn’t see or move. After three days in a bomb shelter surrounded by dead bodies, I was rescued. Please sign this petition to help win justice for my family and for the thousands of people who died during the genocide.’
It’s over 60 years since the second world war but we do not forget the victims of that genocide. It was the Labour government that first ensured funding for the Holocaust Education Trust to work with schools, colleges and communities to educate people about genocide and its contemporary relevance. It ensures that each new generation learns what happened. This government has continued that commitment.
In Israel the Holocaust Memorial Museum Yad Vashem chronicles not only the murder of millions but Jewish life before the Holocaust. There is a memorial to those killed and a database of the victims. Just as happened to Jewish families at the end of the war, today many Kurdish families don’t know the fate of their loved ones.
But some say ‘why does it matter? Why not move on?’ There is the rebuilding of society to get on with – and this is important. Not just building the economy, but re-establishing the thousands of villages that were destroyed and re-establishing the essence of Kurdish life around agriculture.
But genocide is one of the worst crimes that can be committed. Think of it – the systematic killing of all the people from a national, ethnic, or religious group, or an attempt to do so. We have a duty to remember and honour the victims. The recognition of the genocide by the British government is a crucial part in ensuring that such crimes never happen again.
You can sign the e-petition here
Meg Munn MP is a former minister at the Foreign and Commonwealth Office