The Iraq-Kuwait Border Issue: A Step in the Right Direction or More Empty Rhetoric?

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By Lillian Frost – Iraqi government spokesman Ali Al-Dabbagh claimed last month that “Iraq recognizes its land borders with Kuwait and every Iraqi government which follows will be committed to this.” His statement is significant because it indicates Iraq’s willingness to resolve one of its ongoing issues with the international community.  Until Iraq recognizes the inviolability of its internationally-sanctioned border with Kuwait, as one of several issues mandated in United Nations (UN) Resolution 833, it will remain subject to the penalties accompanying its Chapter VII status under the UN Charter.  (Chapter VII of the UN charter allows UN members to take various measures when a situation threatens peace and security; it has been invoked since the 1990s in the Iraq case for sanctions, weapons inspections and border monitoring.) 

Most of the coercive measures against Iraq were removed when Saddam’s regime collapsed; Iraq’s new status is encoded in UN Security Council Resolutions 1483, 1546, and 1790.  Yet several unsettled Chapter VII mandates persist, and have become a political burden for Iraq.  These unresolved disputes include paying war reparations to Kuwait, settling Saddam’s debts, repatriating the human remains of Kuwaiti nationals missing since 1990, dismantling Iraq’s capacity to build Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMDs), and officially recognizing the land border between Iraq and Kuwait.  

There are signs of  progress.  The 2008 US-Iraq agreement on the withdrawal of US Forces from Iraq (sometimes inaccurately called a “status of forces agreement”) recognizes that the Iraqi threats to international peace no longer exist under the new regime and agrees to:  take “measures to terminate the application of Chapter VII to Iraq,” help “Iraq to obtain forgiveness of international debt” and “achieve a comprehensive and final resolution of outstanding reparation claims” inherited from Saddam’s regime.  The United States is politically committed to helping Iraq come out from Chapter VII status, and the legal basis of US military presence in the country no longer derives from Chapter VII.

Iraq has already taken significant steps toward reconciliation with its neighbors and the international community.  It has formally denounced the proliferation, development, production, and use of nuclear, chemical, and biological weapons in Article 9 of the Iraqi Constitution. It became a member state of the Chemical Weapons Convention in 2009 and signed the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) Additional Protocol in 2008.  Furthermore, the Iraqi Human Rights Ministry published the names and pictures of missing persons on its website to advance the search for missing Kuwaiti nationals from the 1990 Gulf War.  Iraq has also paid about 27.1 billion US dollars (USD) in reparations to Kuwait, but still owes about 24 billion USD; these substantial reparations are a point of frustration for the new Iraqi state which desperately needs funds for development and resents its accountability for the actions of Saddam Hussein. 

The Iraq-Kuwait border dispute can also be an area of progress, but political sensitivities remain.   The border issue resurfaced in July 2010 when the Iraqi representative to the Arab League, Qays Al-Azzawi, made statements rejecting the UN’s demarcation of the Iraq-Kuwait border.  Azzawi’s words prompted Kuwait to issue a memo of protest in which the foreign ministry condemned the statements and requested clarification from the Iraqi government.  Iraq responded that Al-Azzawi was misquoted and denied any intention to discredit the official Iraq-Kuwait border.  

Amidst these tensions, both countries have displayed both warm and cool relations.  Of great symbolic importance, Iraq and Kuwait have each named ambassadors to each other’s countries for the first time since 1990.  Kuwait provided initial approval of a special border crossing for international oil firms as well as an agreement to share border oil fields with Iraq.  At the same time, Kuwait continues to demand five percent of Iraqi oil revenue as a form of reparation payments.  Iraq has likewise sent mixed signals as demonstrated by damaging official Iraqi remarks claiming Iraq does not need Kuwait and hostile Iraqi protests near the Kuwait border, along with encouraging remarks by Iraqi Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari, who said that Iraq is committed to all UN resolutions, and that the border issue with Kuwait is settled.  

The trajectory of Iraq-Kuwait relations is uncertain and only time will tell where they are headed.  Ali Al-Dabbagh’s statements on August 4, 2010 are a positive signal that Iraq is willing to mend relations with its neighbor by recognizing their land border.  The timing of this statement may be a response to the Chief of the UN mission in Iraq (UNAMI) Ed Melkert, who wrote in an August report to the UN Security Council: “I regret to report that the Government of Iraq has as yet not responded to repeated requests to convey its readiness to continue the Iraq-Kuwait Boundary Maintenance Project, mandated by Security Council resolution 833 (1993), and to contribute its share of the additional funding in the amount of…600,000 [USD].” 

Both Iraq and Kuwait will need to take steps to resolve the outstanding issues.  Once a new government is in place in Baghdad, it could get the process moving by demonstrating its commitment to the inviolability of its internationally-recognized border with Kuwait.  Likewise, Kuwait could make important gestures on the issues of debt and reparations, and could activate its earlier efforts to invest in the Iraqi economy.  The history of Iraqi claims to Kuwaiti territory and the recent grievances of Kuwaitis about their treatment by Saddam Hussein’s regime will continue to cast a shadow on Iraq-Kuwait relations, but there are modest signs of pragmatism that could lead to a successful resolution of the Chapter VII issues.   

Photo Credit: wsfurlan via iStockphoto #3150261



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