Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Future Imperfect

This post is dedicated to Jay and Carlos who've prompted it in an FB discussion* last night.

So, for whom or what is it "Future Imperfect"?

Probably many things, but in this little column I want to look at the existing borders the world's nation states. In essence, when and how should a region be allowed to secede from a country - and crucially, what qualifies as the "regions" that are allowed to secede? And yes, this has been prompted by yesterday being the sesquicentennial of South Carolina Legislature's attempt to secede that would lead in April 1861 to the first shots of the US Civil War being fired at Fort Sumter. But the modern relevance is underscored by the ICJ's decision on whether Kosovo had the legal capacity to declare independence, and on the Jan 9th, 2011 referendum on the independence of South Sudan, and the on-going refusal of the international community to recognise Somaliland.

First the "Why?"

Though not exclusively an African problem, the right of secession is especially stark in Africa, given the wholly arbitrary borders drawn by European states in the 19th Century "scramble for Africa". Whether or not borders were drawn specifically to divide existing indigenous political units, it is clear that existing ethnic and religious divisions were irrelevant to modern Europeans divvying up the "Dark Continent"; after all, competing colonial claims had a dangerous habit of threatening to start wars in Europe which was tiresome (and expensive). But the key point is that the permanence and inviolability of lines on maps is a curiously modern - and western - notion.

What was interesting was the post-colonial settlement in Africa: everyone agreed that whatever else they did, States would never reopen the questions of borders because once one border was up for negotiation on ethnic, historical or any other lines then the whole edifice would crash down, with the result that the continent would descend into chaos. And broadly, that's what happened through to the end of the Cold War; there are obvious exceptions - e.g. Siad Barre's Somalia's invasion and then proxy war with Mengistu Haile Mariam's Ethiopia in the Ogaden, but largely elites focussed on promoting a nationalism within their borders and in some sense creating a supra-national identity loyal to the newly independent state. Indeed, it can be argued that it was the failure of this project to replace existing ethnic and religious loyalties with the new nationalism that has resulted in social cleavages lines that have been exploited to such negative ends in Africa since 1960.

That having been said, my inclinations are that if a territory wants to secede, shows this through an internationally supervised free and fair expression of the will of the territory's people, is not under military occupation, agrees to respect the rights of minorities, and abide by the rules of the club that is the international community, then the default setting should be to allow it. This is higher bar than it looks: it means no irredentist claims, no puppet states and no racist regimes. And it demands that those in whom sovereignty is vested - the people - are the ones making the decision.

Why is this a good idea? Partly because it allows a safety relief valve for unhappy minorities to escape a political construct that doesn't work for them; again, based on the popular sovereignty argument, this is about the rights of the individual writ large. Second, stemming from the first, is that this is in the long a measure for stability rather chaos, as the record of peaceful development in unhappy countries is not great.

However, the challenge lies in the "Who"?

In his treatise on the subject, Professor James Crawford SC talks about "self-determination units", or SDUs (note to Middkids: not a far-flung dining hall with dubious pizza).

What constitutes one of these mystic SDUs? It is clear that States within Federations do - Singapore's 1965 independence attests to this - and State practice has extended this to formerly Federal entities - e.g. Kosovo. Under this basis, Somaliland should be recognised. The fact that Somaliland isn't appears to be largely due to African Union (AU) reluctance / refusal / terror at the notion of fiddling with existing African boundaries should resisted at all costs - the classic bureaucratic "floodgates" argument (ie, it may be right in this case, but if we do it here, we open the floodgates to having to do it elsewhere).

It is also invidious to force a territory to remain under the rule of a government which has allowed - or indeed facilitated - acts of oppression or genocide against a minority. Under this criteria, Darfur could not be forced to remain under Sudanese rule if it elected to go its own way under the rules outlined above.

But it these examples are all based on territorial constructs. What would happen if a government oppressed a national minority that was evenly spread, rather than one which had a clearly defined "homeland" that could be spun off? In other words, how does this help Jews, Communists and Christians in Nazi Germany?

The short answer is that it doesn't, and can't. It would be madness to incentivise the creation of ethnic laagers in order to allow them to declare independence; the communal blood-letting of the 1947 Partition of India which cost roughly 500,000 lives as 15 million people moved to be in the "right" country is an instructive lesson in what to avoid.

Hence, secession is in my view a last resort, and one which emphasises the importance of human rights law in protecting minorities within existing states. This is where the Universal Declaration on Human Rights (UDHR), International Convention on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), the Genocide Convention and UN Convention on the Rights of Child (UNCRC) come into their own - the requirement on governments to treat their populations humanely.

The good news is that once the "Who" is sorted out, the "How" is comparatively straightforward: internationally supervised referenda, an internationally-brokered panel to oversee the process, in particular in managing the technical aspects of this sort of divorce - power grids, water supplies, citizenship, and an international presence to support the new state and report on the rights of minorities.

Not perfect, but designing and implementing an international mechanism to allow for States to peacefully divorce is every bit as important as a tool for letting them go bust.

Thoughts most welcome!


* I've no idea whether this works or not, but here it is - http://www.facebook.com/notes/jay-robison/thoughts-on-the-decline-of-empire-and-the-neo-secessionists/471840697700?notif_t=note_reply

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