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The Biopolitics of the Genocide of the Kurds in Saddam's Iraq

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The full text of a speech delivered by Dr A R Sriskanda Rajah at the Genocide to Life Conference in Erbil, March 2024.


Ladies and gentlemen,

As you commemorate the Anfal genocide campaigns in which over 182,000 Kurdish people were brutally massacred by Saddam Hussein’s regime, I join you, on behalf of World Tamil Co-ordinating Committee in paying tribute to our Kurdish brothers and sisters who lost their lives, or to be more precise, whose lives were forcibly taken away.

I join you not only as an international relations scholar and a representative of World Tamil Co-ordinating Committee, but also as a survivor of Tamil genocide perpetrated by the Sri Lankan state.

The Kurds and Tamils are the world’s two largest nations without states of their own. Your struggle for self-determination and sovereignty in Kurdistan has been almost as long as our struggle for self-determination in the Tamil homeland, Tamil Eelam.

We are also two nations that have been subjected to genocide — although there are many other nations like us who faced and continue to face genocide. We are also two nations that face an arduous journey in our efforts to achieve justice — and once again we are not alone.

Perhaps it is no coincidence that we both faced genocide around the same months. The Anfal campaigns against the Kurdish people commenced in the month of February 1988. And the genocide of Tamils reached its catastrophic proportion in the months of February 2009, culminating in the genocide of 147,000 Tamils by May.

We the Tamils and you the Kurds made our homes in two different corners of the world. Yet, the motive for the genocide of the Kurds and the motive for the genocide of Tamils are the same.

The perpetrators were different. The victims were different. Yet, the objectives of the perpetrators were rooted in a biopolitics that sought to create a specific order within Iraq and Sri Lanka, or specifically Kurdistan and the Tamil homeland, Tamil Eelam, respectively. It was rooted in the biopolitics of transforming the populations of Iraq and Sri Lanka into a specific type of human species.

At this point, you may be wondering: “What is biopolitics?”

Biopolitics is a relatively new term in politics and international relations. Yet, every state that exists today functions in a biopolitical mode. Every power complex that exists today functions in a biopolitical mode.

On the one level, biopolitics deals with populations as a species that needs to be fostered, disciplined and made to function in a productive way. On another level, it deals with other populations that are considered to be inimical to the type of human species that are fostered. Initially it is done through disciplinary power, and at the extreme end genocide. That is why, Michel Foucault, the French philosopher who first coined the term biopolitics stated: “If genocide is indeed the dream of powers, that is because power is exercised today in a biopolitical mode. That is, the human species must live according to a specific biopolitical order, and any categories of human species that pose a threat or are deemed to pose a threat to this order, this form of fostering populations becomes targets for elimination.

Simply put, Saddam Hussein was not only a madman or a tyrant who simply relished on the massacres of the Kurdish people. As you all know, he and the Baathist Party sought to create a specific Baathist biopolitical order in Iraq, and the Kurds were seen as being inimical to this biopolitical order; the biopolitics of Baathism.

The Kurds are a distinct nation in the Middle East. You have a rich language, a rich culture, a long history — and this land, Kurdistan, where I stand today, is the historical homeland of the Kurdish people. It is these characteristics that made you seem a threat to the Baathist biopolitical order Saddam and the Baathist party tried to create in Iraq.

But you did not face this fate alone. We the Tamils are also like you. Our historical homeland, Tamil Eelam, in the island of Sri Lanka, has been our home for thousands of years. Like the Kurdish people, we have a rich language and culture, and a long history. And the predominantly Sinhala Buddhist Sri Lankan state and the other power complexes that collaborate to create a Sinhala Buddhist biopolitical order, saw and continue to see, the Tamils as a threat to this order.

At this point, I would like to share with you, as a survivor of Tamil genocide, some similarities between the genocide of Kurds in Iraq, and Tamils in Sri Lanka.  

I have had the opportunity to read through some of the decrees issued by Saddam Hussein and other leading figures in his regime, before, during and after the Anfal campaigns. Some of these resemble in many respects the orders issued by the former Sri Lankan President Gotabaya Rajapaksa.

For example, a top-secret decree issued by Ali Hassan al-Majid on 6 March 1987 stated that “The presence of people” was “completely prohibited” in the Kurdish areas and that “the armed forces must kill any human being or animal present within these areas”.

It was very clear that Saddam’s regime believed any Kurdish people whom it deemed to be a challenge to the Baathist biopolitical order it was trying to create must be eliminated — and on a mass scale.

We the Tamils also faced a similar fate in 2009. The former Sri Lankan President Gotabaya Rajapaksa, who was then the defence secretary and the de-facto defence minister created so called no fire zones in the Vanni region in Northern Tamil Eelam and announced the Tamil people must move into these zones. Tamil villages, towns, hospitals, schools, temples and refugee camps outside these so called no fire zones were then shelled and bombed. When asked by the media, at one point, Gotabaya Rajapaksa said: nothing must exist outside the no fire zones. You can now see how the genocidaires think in a similar way. It was similar to the decree issued by Saddam’s henchman, Ali Hassan al-Majid.

As thousands of Tamils who lived outside the so called no fire zones were massacred, many who thought they would be at least safe in the so called no fire zones moved into them. But were they safe in those no fire zones? Of course not.

The Sri Lankan government then bombed and shelled Tamil settlements in these so called no fire zones.

The events I have briefly recounted to you occurred over fifteen years ago. And our struggle for international justice continues to remain a long and arduous one.

We the Tamils and you the Kurdish people have faced genocide for almost a century now. There was no justice done for the countless number of Kurdish and Tamil victims of genocide. It is not just the Anfal campaigns in which the Kurdish people were massacred en masse. Nor is it only in 2009 in Mullivaikal the Tamils were subjected to genocide.

But Anfal in Kurdistan and and Mullivaikal in Tamil Eelam remain two major instances of genocide in which the Kurdish people and the Tamil people were massacred on a mass scale. In the Anfal campaigns it was the death and disappearance of 182,000 Kurds. In Mullivaikal it was the death and disappearance of 147,000 Tamils.

In the UK where I live, and other parts of the world where human rights are respected, people are placed into two categories: the living; and the dead. But in Sri Lanka and Iraq, or in Tamil Eelam and Kurdistan, and of course in other parts of the world where people are subjected to genocide and other forms of atrocities, there is another category — the disappeared.

They are said to be missing. We know that they did not disappear. We know they have most likely been massacred. We know that they are most likely to not return alive. We know they did not vanish into thin air. Yet, tens of thousands of people are classified as missing; conveniently categorised as the disappeared.

The international community said ‘Never again’ when 6 million Jewish people were massacred by Hitler. But we the Tamils and the Kurds bear testimony to very fact that our people — the Kurdish and Tamil people — have been subjected to genocide again and again.

The international community is too weak and too slow when it comes to preventing genocide and punishing the perpetrators of genocide. That is why we faced genocide; and that is why our path to justice remains an arduous one.

The international community must show the will to stop genocide when early signs appear, and swiftly punish the perpetrators.

And for nations that have been subjected to genocide, the only way to prevent another genocide is to have in place strong national and international mechanisms to prevent them from recurring.

Neither the Tamils nor the Kurds have been provided with strong national and international mechanisms to guarantee that another genocide will not occur in their respective homelands.

And I think, we, all nations that faced genocide or continue to face genocide, must work together to have strong national and international mechanisms to prevent the recurrence of genocides.

We are both resilient nations. Despite the carnage Saddam’s regime brought on the Kurdish people, you have rebuilt yourself and today you stand as a beacon of hope for many survivors of genocide. It is the survivors of genocide who lead your struggle for justice. And the Tamil nation is also an example of a resilient nation. The Tamil political struggle for justice, peace and the right to self-determination is led by a survivor of Tamil genocide, Dr Thuvaraka Pirapaharan.

On behalf of World Tamil Co-ordinating Committee, and behalf of the Tamil people, I can assure you that the Tamil people will always stand by the side of the Kurdish people in your efforts to not only gain justice create conditions for the prevention of another genocide occcurring.Thank you.


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