Iraq and Kuwait: Repairing Relations After Years of Rupture
Amid the turbulence currently roiling the Middle East, a growing rapprochement between Iraq and Kuwait, embittered since Iraq’s invasion in 1990, stands as a welcome development in contrast.
The thaw in relations between the two has picked up momentum since 2012, reflecting renewed political will from the leadership of both countries and the active encouragement of the United Nations, including Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, the United Nations Assistance Mission for Iraq (UNAMI), the Security Council and key states.
Recent developments mark major progress toward the full normalization of the Iraq-Kuwait relations and the restoration of Iraq’s international standing prior its 1990 invasion.
The shift has been sudden. For many years, thorny issues and grievances emanating from the Iraqi occupation of Kuwait were left unresolved due to the non-cooperation of Saddam Hussein’s regime. These included the non-recognition by Iraq of the UN-demarcated Iraq-Kuwait border, as well as the fate of missing Kuwaiti persons and property.
Iraq began making efforts to address these outstanding issues in 2003, while resenting paying the price for mistakes of the former regime which have kept the country subject to obligations under Chapter VII of the UN charter. But with Iraq facing significant post-conflict political and security challenges, and mistrust running deep between Iraq and Kuwait, many attempts proved short-lived.
The tone began to change visibly last year, when in March 2012, Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki visited Kuwait to extend a personal invitation to the Emir, Sheikh Sabah al-Ahmad al-Sabah, to visit Baghdad, for the first time since 1990, and to attend the Summit of the League of Arab States later that month.
While attending that summit, and during a second visit to both countries later in the year, Secretary- General Ban Ki-moon urged both sides to keep up the positive momentum.
The UN envoy to Iraq until July 2013, Martin Kobler, increased the pace of his shuttle diplomacy, following on the efforts of a number of his predecessors to bring solutions. The United States and other members of the Security Council also stepped up their encouragement on the two sides. Kobler’s efforts were particularly instrumental in assisting both countries to reach a settlement on the withdrawal of Kuwaiti lawsuits against Iraqi Airways, which had prevented the airline from operating worldwide since 1990.
Iraq stood accused for years of having illegally confiscated aircraft from Kuwait during the occupation. In one dramatic incident in the long-running dispute, an Iraqi Airways plane was seized on an airport tarmac in London. As a sign of the times, Iraqi Airways has now resumed its flights to Kuwait after a 22-year hiatus.
Movement forward on the airline issue helped create an environment conducive for the United Nations, under the leadership of the Department of Political Affairs, to complete the long overdue Iraq- Kuwait Boundary Maintenance Project (IKBMP) that had been stalled in its efforts to maintain the physical representation of the UN-demarcated border between the two countries.
In May of this year, Iraq and Kuwait established a bilateral committee for the future joint maintenance of their common boundary. On a related issue, Iraq also accepted to receive the funds set aside with the United Nations since the mid-1990s to compensate Iraqi farmers who were relocated from Kuwait following the demarcation of the border. Both developments marked the end of the United Nations responsibility on these files. In June, the Prime Minister of Kuwait visited Baghdad to sign six Memoranda of Understanding in the social, economic and cultural areas.
There is still some distance to go in this process.
Some bilateral issues, including navigation in the narrow channel of Khor Abdallah — Iraq’s only access to the sea — could still become divisive. Political commitment and a spirit of reconciliation on both sides will still be needed. The Department of Political Affairs, together with UNAMI, will continue to assist, giving space to the parties while pressing them to move even closer.
More will also have to be done on the sensitive issue of missing Kuwaiti persons and property. The fate of more than 600 Kuwaitis and other third-country nationals stemming from Iraq’s invasion and occupation has yet to be established, along with the whereabouts of Kuwait’s national archives. But the Security Council decided in June of this year to task UNAMI for follow-up under Chapter VI in place of a High-Level Coordinator who had been previously handling the issue under a Chapter VII resolution of the Council.
At this writing, Iraq also still owes Kuwait some $11.2 billion in war reparations which it has been steadily paying down through a United Nations Compensation Commission that makes regular payments to Kuwait from a fund receiving 5% of Iraq’s oil revenues.
With continued steady progress, a historic opportunity is now at hand for Iraq and Kuwait to fully normalize their relations in a “win-win” relationship for both neighbors. The United Nations is committed to keep up its support until they reach that long-elusive goal.