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 University of Kurdistan-Hawler – 29 May 2011

The text of Sir John Major’s speech at the University of Kurdistan-Hawler, given on Sunday 29th May 2011.


Thank you, Sarah, Vice-Chancellor, for hosting me in this wonderful auditorium, and for inviting students from the Universities of Kurdistan-Hawler and Salahadeen.

I am delighted to be here.

From my own country – a long way away – I witnessed the bravery of the Kurdish people following the end of the first Gulf War. Many Kurds were being brutally murdered by Saddam. In the United Kingdom we were horrified at what we saw, and led the way in establishing “safe havens” in the Kurdistan Region. Seeing all of you here today proves how worthwhile that action was, and that the sacrifices made were not in vain. I feel honoured to be here, with you, today.

I meet today against a backdrop of momentous events right across the Middle East and North Africa. Young people – just like you – have led demonstrations, uprisings and demands for reform. They are demanding the same freedoms and rights for which Iraqi Kurdistan has already fought – and that you want for yourselves.

This is a moment of opportunity and risk. The British Prime Minister, David Cameron, has spoken of his cautious optimism at this “precious moment of opportunity” for the entire region. And our Foreign Secretary, William Hague, has described the eruption of this democracy movement as the most important development of the early 21st century. He is right, for it has potential long-term consequences greater than either the terrorist attacks in America on 9/11 or the global financial crisis of 2008.

You have already had your Kurdish Newroz. It is striking the extent to which I hear echoes of that in the Arab Spring. The events across the MENA have also prompted Kurdish society to look at itself. That is a healthy thing to do. The consensus seems to be that further reforms in governance and public services in Iraqi Kurdistan are needed. I am sure that is right.

The history of my own Country means we British understand how challenging it is to build and develop political systems. But it is crucial to enable Governments to meet the aspirations of their people: the future of your country depends upon it. The most encouraging aspect for me is that this is being achieved through dialogue and debate.

We, the United Kingdom, were with you at the birth of a democratic Iraqi Kurdistan. We remember – as your parents will do – that it didn’t happen overnight. Nor will it in other countries now starting along the same road you travelled two decades ago. We’ve been with you as the process has matured, and will continue to support you as you take Iraqi democracy forward.

The demands across the region for open government, for action against corruption and for greater political participation are the natural aspirations of all people – and they are right to expect them to be conceded.

There are risks. Governments should respond to such protests with reform. That is the only way that long-term stability can be achieved. A repressive response to peaceful protest is foolish and wrong: it merely reinforces the case for change.

The Governments of Libya and Syria have violently repressed such protests. They are wrong: and they will learn that the international community will not accept such abuses of power. Nor should anyone. The Criminal Court at The Hague awaits those who murder and repress.

Some governments have tried to use the threat of Al Qaeda as an excuse for the repression of their people. This excuse doesn’t hold true. The recent death of Osama Bin Laden has struck a powerful blow against Al Qaeda and that is welcome; but the eventual defeat of its ideology will be by the Muslim people. As the Foreign Secretary has said, “The true expression of the Muslim people want was seen in Tahrir Square in 2011, not at Ground Zero in 2001”.

The United Kingdom supports the reform movements, but we know there are many paths to Democracy. We believe that freedom and the rule of law are the right of every citizen. We believe also that it is the best way to guarantee human progress and economic success. Modern economies will only thrive with open societies, in which economic and political progress go hand in hand.

Let me turn to the future.

Many of you here today are English students. You are a rare asset. Over the last 20 years there has been a dramatic fall in the level of English language teaching in Kurdistan and across Iraq. This needs to change: a lack of English will hold back Kurdistan’s participation in the global community. The grow, you must trade. To trade, you must communicate. And English is the language of commerce.

I hope that, one day, many of you will study in the UK, where you will find a very warm welcome.

Education is one of the most important areas to which we provide support to Iraqi Kurdistan and – to ease the way – staff in the Consulate-General in Erbil work hard to prioritise visas to successful scholars.

[indistinct, but as follows]

WIDER WORLD. Very exciting. To look at the future we must understand the past:

EUROPE – after WWII, EU;

RISE OF ASIA – 20 years ago and now;

LATIN AMERICA – 20 years ago and now.

What they have done – you can do.

You will do things, say… know … be things your parents never dreamed of. Ambition. Aim high.

With luck … ambition … study … work there is nothing you cannot achieve.