THE current heartbreak in the Middle East stems from the collapse of Empire and the days when civil servants in far off European capitals drew lines on maps that had little relation to the reality on the ground and even less respect for the local populations.

In Iraq the situation was compounded by the more recent folly of an illegal war for oil that tipped an already fragile region into an abyss, creating a power vacuum into which violent men with violent ideologies expanded. The problems of the Middle East were largely created by our foreign policy, recent and historic.

Be it Iraq, Yemen, Syria or Saudi, we can be judged by our actions. Our governments are more interested in arms and oil sales than dialogue or the rights, hopes and indeed lives of the locals. I hope an independent Scotland will do better, but that’s another discussion. I’m here in Erbil as a member of the European parliament’s Foreign Affairs Committee to do what decades of Empire did not – listen to the locals and see what we can do to help find a peaceful solution. I’m not here to support the referendum, I’m here to see for myself how things actually are and see what the EU can do to help. As a Scot, I’m here to support and respect the legitimate right to self-determination, with our own recent experience to respectfully share. With that right comes responsibilities, to respect and protect minorities, and to be sensitive and pragmatic to the neighbours.

The referendum has been a long time coming. Kurds are the world’s largest unrepresented nation, around 30 million people spread across south east Turkey, Iraq, Syria and Iran. For decades under Saddam Hussein’s pan-Arab dictatorship, the Kurdish people were marginalised and oppressed, with the Hussein regime using chemical weapons en masse to quell a Kurdish uprising. The 1990s saw a de-facto autonomous Kurdish region emerge under the internationally enforced no-fly zone. The present Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG), formally one of the three federal parts of post-Saddam Iraq, has achieved a degree of stability, remaining united beyond sectarian lines where much of Iraq has descended into violence. Kurds are mostly Sunni, but also Shiite, Alevi, Christian Assyrian, Jewish, Yazidi and Zoroastrian. This stability and co-existence matters, and the KRG deserves much credit for providing a safe haven to refugees – according to the UN 95 per cent of Syrian refugees in Iraq are in KRG territory. The KRG military forces, the Peshmerga, have also been at the forefront in the fight against the so-called Islamic State, a conflict that at long last shows some signs of turning.

It has been far from smooth sailing, and the KRG is far from perfect. There are serious shortcomings of the Kurdish government, critical voices in the media have been silenced and political opposition is fragile. More worryingly, some Kurdish forces have been accused of serious war crimes, such as ethnic cleansing against Arab populations in the territories that the so-called Islamic State briefly held. Investigations and accountability must follow, but, by the standards of the region, the Kurds in Iraq are the closest thing to a success story you’ll find.

Dealings with Baghdad have always been fraught, but it is now clear that the Baghdad regime has comprehensively failed to observe by the various agreements on sharing of resources, notably oil revenues, and defence and security co-operation and further devolution of powers.

Kurdish frustration at the lack of progress in talks with Baghdad has led them to bring forward a referendum on independence, with the question: “Do you want the Kurdistan region and the Kurdistani areas outside the region's administration to become an independent state?” set to be posed to the population tomorrow. This despite opposition from Baghdad, Tehran, Ankara and indeed Washington and Brussels over concern that the vote may well inflame tensions. It may well. One concern is that this referendum discusses territory not presently part of the KRG in a region not short of territorial disputes with powerful neighbours.

Over recent years when I have met Iraqi Kurdistan’s leaders, they have all committed to respecting democratic values despite the regional context, to guarantee minorities’ rights and protect them, and to support the path to independence peacefully, through the ballot box. Historically, closer to home as well, borders usually only change with bayonets, bombs and bullets. Any commitment to a democratic process is surely to be encouraged, not suppressed.

There is little doubt over the result of tomorrow’s referendum and the expectations it will create. In 2005, 98.5 per cent of Kurds voted in favour of independence, yet the regional government decided instead to keep on negotiating with the central government of Baghdad to expand their devolution settlement. It is that lack of progress that has brought us to tomorrow’s referendum. And this is where the international community needs to step up, and protect democracy and international law. As the old Empire-era borders – be they British, Ottoman or French – chaotically unravel, the international community must do more to manage that process. Be it in Catalonia or Kurdistan, rights to self-determination must be allowed free and democratic expression – suppression can only incentivise unrest. These are not just internal matters, in our interconnected world we need a new mechanism to help manage these processes. Sadly, I don’t see much of a willingness in the UN to be that honest broker, but maybe the EU could be. An independent Scotland could encourage that discussion in a time when the world needs cool heads and clear voices.