Monday, August 2, 2010

Should they be allowed to secede?


Firstly, many thanks for the response to the first of these musings; and so I’ll continue to scribble.

One of the great joys about being an international relations geek in London is that it is always possible to get a fix at Chatham House, where you’ll find fellow sufferers from this malign affliction. I was there last Friday night for Professor Abdi Ismail Samatar speaking on Somali Piracy: Alternative Approaches and Solutions. Professor Samatar’s speech was thought provoking and there will be write up on the CH website later this week. If you’re remotely interested in the politics of the Horn of Africa, it’ll be well worth a read.

Accepting the principal thrust of his argument that piracy off the Somali coast is a symptom of a lack of governance rather than something unique to Somalia that leads to acts which the naval lawyers describe as “Piratical Behaviour”, the solutions will be found on land. And in Somalia, this could involve redrawing the post-colonial boundaries in a way that violates a major taboo in African politics.

I should stress at this point that Professor Samatar himself made clear that he opposes secession, even though he is from north-western Somalia / Somaliland, and his point was that allowing Somaliland to secede would result in a precedent that would allow many Ethiopian groups to claim the same right, and would see Ethiopia implode.

I disagree.

I understand why newly-independent African countries accepted the artificial colonial borders, in order to avoid redrawing the entire map based on ethnicity, which, for better or worse, was expected to lead to chaos. The tragic experience of ethnic Germans at the end of WWII and of the population “transfers” at the birth of India / Pakistan, and Turkey / Greece underline the risks posed by basing boundaries on ethno-nationalism.

But are there cases where exceptions to this rule of the inviolability of pre-existing colonial boundaries should be made? I believe that there are, notably where a federal state exists, or where regions with a profoundly different colonial experience were not offered the choice of independent statehood at independence – in other words, things that Professor James Crawford would describe as “self determination units”.

This applies in at least three cases in Africa: Western Sahara, Cameroon and Somaliland, with South Sudan as the agreed outlier resulting from the 2004 Comprehensive Peace Agreement (the Naivasha Agreement). Of these, only Southern Sudan is unique (or sui generis in legalese) – Western Sahara was occupied by Morocco and Mauritania after Spain withdrew in 1975, French Cameroun and British Southern Cameroons were consolidated and as the Republic of Cameroon in 1961, and Somaliland which was independent for five days in June 1960 before union with Italian Somaliland as the Republic of Somalia on 1 July 1960.

Why does this matter? In my view, it is important to recognise that international law does provide for cessation by States, and the ICJ in the Kosovo Advisory Opinion underlines this. Indeed, Kosovo, as a non-autonomous province of a federal state at the time of cessation, arguably had less of a claim than Somaliland had in 1960 or today, after withdrawing from Somalia in June 1991.

So the point is that because Somaliland is in a different legal position to, for example, the Oromo region of Ethiopia, it could hold another independence referendum without rendering asunder the post-colonial settlement of not moving lines on a map. And we know from E. Izzard, Esq., quite how important maps and flags are.

Levity aside, it does suggest that the international community could plausibly claim that recognising Somaliland - if that's what the Somalilanders want - does not mean initiating a free-for-all in Africa. Indeed, the longer the policy of no change under any circumstances goes on, the more likely and completely it is to crumble under its own contradictions rather than a pragmatic recognition of the exceptional cases.

Oh, and there's a direct payoff in the Somali piracy problem, too: areas with a functioning government don't have piracy in anything like the same intensity - Somalia under the Union of Islamic Courts showed this during their time in power. So it is predictably unsurprising that Somaliland doesn't feature as a base for pirates off the Somali coast. Recognition means membership of the international system - and in this case, membership helps everyone.

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