Last week, a delegation from the German Bundestag paid a visit to Erbil in the Kurdish autonomous region of northern Iraq. The visit came one week after German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier opened a German consulate in Erbil. The parliamentary delegation was headed by the chair of the Human Rights Committee of the Bundestag, Herta Däubler-Gmelin. If the name sounds familiar, that is because this is the same Herta Däubler-Gmelin who in September 2002 famously compared George W. Bush to Adolf Hitler. At the time, Däubler-Gmelin was the Minister of Justice in the government of then Chancellor Gerhard Schröder and Schröder had made opposition to an American-led military intervention to topple Saddam Hussein into the central plank of his re-election campaign.
While in Erbil, Däubler-Gmelin criticized the human rights situation in northern Iraq. In light of the source, the criticism was not universally appreciated – as the following commentary by the Iraqi Kurdish human rights activist Falah Muradkhin Shakaram makes clear.
- John Rosenthal
I must admit that I was astonished when I recently read in the newspaper that a German parliamentary delegation was visiting Iraqi Kurdistan and that the head of the delegation, Herta Däubler-Gmelin, had made critical remarks about the situation of human rights in the region. I was equally astonished that our Kurdish politicians accepted this criticism without protest.
As someone who survived the Iraqi army’s poison gas attack on Halabja and who has been working for a German aid organization for the last eleven years, I may be permitted to make some comments on Ms. Däubler-Gmelin’s visit.
As a human rights activist, I welcome practically all foreign criticism dealing with issues like the situation of women or of prisoners or the media. I am convinced that such criticism is important and helps our society to develop in a positive direction. But we should also be aware of just who is criticizing us. Are they persons who support our efforts, who are truly concerned about the human rights situation and feel sympathy for the victims of political persecution: persons, then, who rejoiced with us at the overthrow of a brutal dictatorship and the birth of a new Iraq?
If Ms. Däubler-Gmelin had had her way, Saddam would still be sitting safe and sound in one of his palaces in Baghdad and no changes would have been possible in this country. For the woman who led the German parliamentary delegation is the very same person who as the then German Minister of Justice in September 2002 sharply attacked the later liberator of Iraq, George W. Bush, and even compared him to Hitler. The object of Ms. Däubler-Gmelin’s criticism was Bush’s plans to intervene in Iraq. Her remarks even led to an international scandal at the time.
When this episode occurred, the Baath Party was still in power and the Iraqi population was suffering terribly under the dictatorship of Saddam Hussein. But Ms. Däubler-Gmelin evidently did not think for a second of the liberation of Iraq from this dictatorship. And after 2003, it was people like her – and so many others in Europe – that showed no concern for the changes and developments underway in Iraq. We did not have the impression that the terror unleashed by Al-Qaeda upon the people of Iraq gave them any sleepless nights either. On the contrary, for years they seemed to welcome the suffering of the Iraqis as proof that the overthrow of Saddam Hussein had been a mistake.
Despite all this we say to such people: Welcome to the new, democratic Iraq! We are glad if your views have changed somewhat. But we would still like an apology for your earlier stance. At the very least, we would have expected that you pay a visit to Halabja, as, for instance, Colin Powell did in 2003.
Since you did not, we have to wonder: How can you claim the right to criticize our present situation without saying anything about our past? We have not forgotten that Germany helped Saddam Hussein to build the chemical weapons that were used against us in Halabja and elsewhere. For many years now, Kurdish organizations have been demanding that Germany at least offer an official apology for this crime. No such apology has been forthcoming.
Our politicians ought then to insist that such visitors pay their respects to all the victims of the poison gas attacks on Halabja, Balisan, Goptapa, Saussanan and elsewhere, to all the persons who went missing during the Iraqi army’s Anfal campaign, to all those who were tortured and killed. Instead they allow someone like Ms. Däubler-Gmelin to come to our country without making her first stop at Halabja.
I am convinced that if Ms. Däubler-Gmelin had travelled to Israel under similar circumstances, she would have been required to visit Yad Vashem. Only after commemorating the victims and the German crime against them would she have been allowed to express her criticisms. We should learn from the Israelis: we should learn also to respect our victims. Instead, our politicians have sold them out and at a very low price at that.
I would like therefore to say to the people of Iraqi Kurdistan that the comments of Ms. Däubler-Gmelin should not be regarded as criticism, but rather as one last dose of poison administered by people who evidently have still not come to terms with the new situation in Iraq.
Falah Muradkhin Shakaram is a project coordinator in Iraq for the aid organization WADI. The above commentary is forthcoming in Kurdish in the magazine Hawlati and has appeared in German on the WADI blog here. The English translation (from German) is by John Rosenthal.