The Rt. Hon. Sir John Major KG CH

Prime Minister of Great Britain and Northern Ireland 1990-1997


Sir John Major’s Speech at The Kurdistan National Assembly – 29 May 2011

The text of Sir John Major’s speech to The Kurdistan National Assembly on Sunday 29th May 2011.


I am immensely grateful to President Barzani for his kind invitation for me to visit Kurdistan. His invitation was issued a long time ago but alas, for various reasons, I have not been able to accept until now. The President – and the people of Kurdistan – have lived up to their reputation of being the warmest of hosts, with the most generous of welcomes, and I would like to thank you, Mr Speaker, for affording me the great privilege of addressing this Assembly today.

It is a great honour for me to be here. I stand here with a sense of pride and pleasure. Pride in the role Britain has played in supporting Iraqi Kurdistan. And pleasure at seeing the progress you have made in developing a democracy, in building your economy, and in helping to stabilise Iraq as a whole.

For me, this visit brings back powerful memories.

At the end of the first Gulf War, when Saddam Hussein was committing genocide on the Kurdish people I looked on – we in Britain looked on – with horror, and pressed a plan to establish “safe havens” for the brave Kurds who were being attacked. The European Union, and then the whole international community, accepted our ideas. The “safe havens” were established, and a human tragedy of enormous proportions was avoided.

The recent street demonstrations across the Middle East and North Africa have shown the world that millions of people in this region want democracy. It is a demand for freedom and accountable Government. They want to influence how they are governed. Since the fall of Saddam, Iraqi Kurdistan – and Iraq as a whole – has led the way in taking steps towards democracy. You have confronted many of the challenges that others will now face.

Every country is different and has the right to develop in its own way, with its own culture and traditions. It is not for the West to dictate the terms of change in the region. This is an Arab revolution, not a Western one. The United Kingdom’s approach is built on our longstanding respect for the dignity and aspirations of the Arab peoples.

The Iraqi experience can guide the region. It shows that reform is not a threat to stability, but the guarantor of it. A repressive response by Governments only reinforces the calls for change, and the need for it. Libya and Syria have not learned this, and are brutally repressing protests. They must understand that the international community will not accept their abuses of power.

The demonstrations, uprisings and demands for reform that have swept across the Middle East have, tragically, led to deaths. Sadly, that is also true in Iraqi Kurdistan: but here the circumstances surrounding those deaths are different: first, they are being investigated; and second, Kurdistan is in the process of passionate political debate about how to reform. The United Kingdom fully supports that debate – we welcome it – and we congratulate President Barzani and Prime Minister Saleh on the work they are doing to develop a reform agenda.

The political upheaval in Egypt and Tunisia is the preface to an immense economic task. It will not be easy. There is bound to be tension between people’s hopes and expectations of immediate benefit, and the need for painful measures to open undeveloped economies to greater opportunity. The West cannot stand aside: it must do all it can to help entrench a better future across the Middle East and North Africa – MENA.

The United Kingdom can help.

– Through international organisations, in particular the G8

– Through the European Union

– And bilaterally – in 19 countries of the region – through our Arab Partnership.

The route we choose to help does not matter: but the fact that we do help matters a great deal.

The challenges ahead are huge, but so are the potential benefits. Prime Minister Cameron compared the Arab Spring to the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991. I agree: as Prime Minister, I saw that revolution at close quarters. It was one of the most dramatic events of the last century, as the Soviet Union shook off 70 years of tyranny. When I visited Moscow soon afterwards, there was a tremendous sense of euphoria, a feeling that oppression had had its last desperate throw. There was real belief that democracy was taking root. As it may be now – across the MENA region.

The Arab Spring has affected countries with very different political and social systems. No single response is appropriate to them all. There is no easy transition from tyranny to freedom – or from an inefficient command economy to a free market. But the Kurdistan Regional

Government and the Government of Iraq can take a leading role in this on-going revolution. You can set an example to your near neighbours. And the very fact that you are in a position to do that is a great tribute to all you have achieved in recent years.

Of course, there is more to be done. The national debate on reform will succeed or fail in laws made here – in the National Assembly. You are the guarantor of popular will. That is a tremendous responsibility. As someone who served as a Member of the British Parliament, it is a burden and responsibility I know well.

In any democratic political system, it is the majority that finally decides on policy. And that must be so. But the minority must also have its say. Democratic Opposition is a vital role. It holds governments to account: the best laws are those that benefit from a wide range of views. No-one has a monopoly of wisdom.

That concept of a loyal Opposition is central to a democracy. The House of Commons is at its best when it is united: but it is at its most vibrant when members debate opposing visions of the nation’s future.

As Iraqi Kurdistan fashions its own distinctive democratic system, I am delighted to learn that it is working with the Westminster Foundation for Democracy.

The first joint work was on the role of the Opposition. How can it be defined? How can parties work together in the national interest? Such questions are the real meat of a vibrant, representative Parliamentary system. I understand that, over the coming year, the Foundation program will be looking at strengthening the links between electors and the elected; how to get Parliamentary messages out to the broader public; and how to strengthen Parliament’s ability to hold the executive to account. This is vital work that underlines how far Iraqi Kurdistan has come in such a very short time.

I also know, from my discussions with the British Consul General, that – even prior to the Arab Spring – there was an on-going and vibrant debate in Iraqi Kurdistan about how best to develop democracy, and the UK will continue to support you in that endeavour. I can assure you that our support did not end with military operations in Iraq – it is there for the long-term.

This was evidenced yesterday, when I officially opened the newly elevated Consulate General in Erbil. This Consulate represents a settled relationship. One based on political engagement, cultural exchanges, educational links and bilateral trade. You see evidence of this in the presence of British universities. You saw it last year when Sir Andrew Cahn led a high-level delegation of UK companies to the Erbil International Trade Fair, which was a great success. This year, I expect an even larger delegation to attend.

This increased UK business activity can be seen across Erbil. It’s not only with respect to oil exploration, but across all sectors.

The Erbil International Airport was designed by British architects, Scotts Wilson. They are now working on a master-plan for Suleymaniya airport.

The most striking car showroom in Erbil displays Land Rover, Range Rover and now the latest Jaguar models: classic British designs, with represent the best of British tradition, innovation and engineering.

British companies such as Jones Lang Lasalle and BTW Shiells are providing the property management advice that are making Erbil’s shopping malls the envy of the rest of Iraq.

Parsons Brinkerhoff is working on a master-plan for electricity supply and generation.

Heritage, Gulf Keystone and Sterling have made significant investments in hydrocarbons. The only two global banks in Iraqi Kurdistan – HSBC and Standard Chartered – are both British-based and are both increasing their activity.

All of these are investments of strategic importance to both Iraqi Kurdistan and Iraq as a whole. But there is still much more to be done to develop our bilateral trade.

For our part, Britain will work harder at encouraging UK companies to invest in Iraqi Kurdistan. For your part, you must continue to improve the investment environment. President Barzani has spoken of the need to tackle corruption. That is vital in order to attract companies.

You will need a stronger legislative framework to protect businesses; transparent processes to resolve contractual disputes in the courts; a banking sector to provide the kind of services offered by HSBC and Standard Chartered; and it is also important that you press the Government of Iraq to pass the Hydrocarbons and Revenue Sharing Laws.

These improvements will allow British companies to access insurance guarantees, attract finance, meet legal obligations under UK law and permit exports in the hydrocarbons sector. Generally, it will allow International Oil Companies to invest across the whole of Iraq.

It is self-evident that relations with Baghdad are crucial if you are to achieve all these aims. I believe you can engage more with the Central government, and – as a result – gain more from that relationship. The quality of democracy in Baghdad matters to you; so does the building of institutions; and establishing a dialogue on outstanding problems.

I hope you will continue to see Britain as an ally. We are ready to help in this process of democratic and economic development. During difficult times, we were a friend of Kurdistan. During more peaceful times – as you move forward into a more prosperous future – we remain a committed friend.

And we can help in practical ways, too. After the tragic Soma Hotel fire in Suleymaniya in which 33 people died, the KRG asked for international assistance. Our Chief Fire and Rescue Adviser was able to help. He toured the region and wrote a detailed report setting out his recommendations for improvement.

As a result, your top fire rescue/civil defence officials have just returned from the UK where they have seen for themselves the training, organisation and equipment we can offer. There are many areas where similar co-operation can flourish.

Let me return to politics. I have been enormously impressed by the brave and laudable progress Kurdistan has made on women’s rights. Kurdistan is one of the few places in the wider region where men are not allowed to cite so-called “honour” as a reason to kill their wife or daughter. I applaud this Assembly for passing that law which has led the way for the rest of the region.

I was delighted to see that the report on improving implementation was written jointly by Kurdish experts and by Bristol University, and that the UK has deployed a prominent expert on human rights and women’s issues to work with key Ministries on reducing violence against women. I understand this Assembly has legislation before it that is aimed at providing appropriate punishment for domestic violence. I do hope you approve this new law: it is yet another opportunity for this Assembly to take the lead in forward-thinking within the region.
I mentioned Bristol University – just one of the many UK universities reaching out to Iraqi Kurdistan.

I have been struck by the appetite in Kurdistan to engage with the outside world. This is wonderful to see. The most visible demonstration of that is in the field of education. The Prime Minister’s Human Capacity Development Programme -which finances Master’s and doctoral scholars to study abroad – is far-sighted. So are the plans to make your universities independent and for doctoral programmes to include mandatory study abroad. Naturally, I am delighted that so many of your scholars have chosen to study at UK universities, and proud that the United Kingdom is helping educate the next generation of Kurdish leaders. I hope and expect these scholars to return home bursting with new ideas.

I would like to conclude with remembering those who suffered under Saddam’s regime. I can think of few words or thoughts that could possibly offer any comfort to the survivors, and the families of those who did not survive. It was a truly terrible time in your history, and one which will never be forgotten.

But, today, as I see all that has been achieved by the people of Iraqi Kurdistan – despite the heart-breaking sacrifices of the past – I am left with one very clear view: you should be enormously proud of what you have already achieved, and look forward – with great optimism – to all the exciting opportunities that lie ahead for your future.

Thank you.