CAIN: Democratic Dialogue: New Order? International models of peace and reconciliation (Report No. 9)

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New Order?

International models of peace and reconciliation

Self-determination and sovereignty

Adrian Guelke

The concepts of self-determination and popular sovereignty share a common problem. How does one determine who the 'self' entitled to self-determination should be? Similarly, popular sovereignty-the idea that the people shall govern-begs the question 'who are the people?' or, if you like, 'who has the right to say who the people are?'

Both ideas came out of the democratic transformation of the late 18th century, associated with the French revolution and American independence. In practice, how these issues were addressed owed a great deal to the framework provided by the Treaty of Westphalia of 1648.

Westphalia established a number of important principles:

  • sovereignty - the idea that only sovereign states could negotiate treaties;
  • territoriality - the idea that territory was the basis of statehood; and
  • impermeability - the idea that external actors should not be able to dictate to groups within some other state.

Westphalia provided the basis for the rise of the modern state, the growth of bureaucracy and the frequency of wars in the 17th century, consolidating the growth of what became known as the nation-state.

Once the idea had taken root that the people, as citizens, were entitled to determine how they were ruled, the question quite naturally arose as to whether they wished to be part of a particular state, even if the latter idea had potentially massively disruptive implications.

An example of the acceptance, nevertheless, of that idea at an early date was the holding of a plebiscite in Savoy in 1792, on whether it should form part of France. But the principle of self-determination really came into its own much later - during the course of the first world war.

Thus, an Austrian note of January 1917 sourly recorded: "if the adversaries demand above all the restoration of invaded rights and liberties, the recognition of the principles of nationalities and of the free existence of small states, it will suffice to call to mind the tragic fate of the Irish and Finnish peoples, the obliteration of the freedom and independence of the Boer Republics, the subjection of North Africa by Great Britain, France and Italy, etc."

The person most closely associated with the principle of national self-determination, as it was then formulated, was the president of the United States, Woodrow Wilson. Wilson made implementation of the principle of national self-determination a fundamental part of the allies' war aims in his 14 points and four principles of January 1918.

The use of the term 'national' defined the people entitled to self-determination as the members of a nation. That, of course, begged the further question of what constituted a 'nation'. The tendency was to apply cultural and, particularly, linguistic criteria.

In practice, this proved lethal to the multi-national empires of eastern Europe: the Tsarist empire, the Austro-Hungarian empire of the Hapsburgs, the already sick Ottoman empire and, to a degree, the German empire. Given the complex ethnic mosaic in eastern Europe, the potential for sub-division was considerable. In practice, old-fashioned power considerations and strategic interests placed a brake on how far the process of disintegration went.

So the logic of cultural/linguistic criteria was not followed blindly in the forging of new states. Thus in the case of the German-speaking South Tyrol, Italian interest in control of the Brenner pass overrode other considerations and the area was included in Italy. Instead of two states, the Czechs and Slovaks forged one state - recognition of security interests and considerations of economic viability played a part in this.

Fear of Italy was a factor in the creation of the Kingdom of the Serbs, Croats and Slovenes, which became Yugoslavia. The language of Serbo-Croat was created to bind the country together - just as it has been deliberately disavowed to underline the divorce between Serbs and Croats today.

Inconveniently, however the cultural linguistic criteria were bent, people did riot live in neat homogeneous territories. The question of minorities within states - leading, in a few cases, to the redrawing of boundaries after plebiscites, to provide the best 'fit' with people's wishes-became a preoccupation of the League of Nations.

But the principal way the issue of minorities was dealt with at the time of the peace treaties was the insertion in the treaties of clauses on minority rights, so that, to quote Alfred Cobban, "in one way or another, every one of the lesser states of Central and Eastern Europe compulsorily or voluntarily undertook to guarantee certain rights to its minorities" - which, I should add, did not include any right of self-determination.

However, the imposition remained bitterly resented and even its limited commitments were poorly honoured. Weak states saw minorities as a security threat.

Kemalist Turkey, emerging out of the disintegration of the Ottoman empire, took hostility towards minorities towards its logical conclusion, with the genocide of Armenians, the non-recognition of Kurds (by labelling them simply mountain Turks) and-following a disastrous war with Greece - the transfer of population. I suppose it might be said in favour of the policy of transfer that it was a two-way process. What tends to stick out today is what the transfer left out because it was under British rule - namely, the island of Cyprus.

The implication of the principle of national self-determination - that members of a common cultural/linguistic grouping belonged in one polity - proved a potent weapon in Hitler's hands. There were German minorities scattered across eastern Europe, into the depths of the Soviet Union, for Hitler to champion.

The case that stands out is that of the Sudeten Germans in western Czechoslovakia. Poor democratic Czechoslovakia, constructed on the principle of national self-determination-on the eminently contestable basis that Czechs and Slovaks could be counted as one people - included within its boundaries substantial others making up more than a third of its population. Hitler was able to use the lever of the existing interpretation of the norm of national self-determination to destroy the country.

After the second world war, there was a determination that no great power should be allowed to use minority rights as an instrument for its own ambitions. The result was a de-emphasis on minority or group rights of any kind. Instead, the UN stressed individual human rights. The term minority does not appear in the UN Charter.

At the same time, the term 'national' in front of 'self-determination' was dropped and reference simply made to the principle of self-determination. Anew answer was provided to the question as to who was the 'self' entitled to self-determination, and that was 'the people'.

And who were 'the people'? They were the inhabitants of a particular territory: the criterion was no longer an ethnic, cultural or linguistic one, but territorial.

It was an appropriate criterion for the process of decolonisation, though the terms of the new norm were not universally accepted as that process evolved. The colonial powers weren't reconciled to giving up all their colonies, especially in cases where they had special interests of a strategic nature or where there were settlers.

So there was a contest for legitimacy between the colonial powers and the anti-colonial movement in a number of cases. The colonial powers invariably lost, eventually, but to prove their legitimacy anti-colonial movements had to demonstrate their capacity for mass mobilisation. Since colonial powers wishing to hang on to territory did not allow a free vote, rural guerrilla warfare was an attractive option for nationalist movements intent on establishing mass support.

More or less at the end of the process of decolonisation, the international community, through the UN General Assembly, set down the new interpretation of the principle of self-determination, in the 1970 Declaration of Principles of International Law Concerning Friendly Relations and Co-operation among States in Accordance with the Charter of the United Nations.

Let me emphasise. This was no ordinary resolution of the General Assembly It was the outcome of prolonged negotiations and passed by the General Assembly, without a vote, under a special consensus procedure indicating unanimity or near-unanimity among the members. It is worth quoting from the section on self-determination at some length:

The establishment of a sovereign and independent State, the free association or integration with an independent State or the emergence into any other political status freely determined by a people constitute modes of implementing the right of self-determination by that people.

Every State has the duty to refrain from any forcible action which deprives peoples referred to above in the elaboration of the present principle of their right to self-determination and freedom and independence. In their actions against, and resistance to, such forcible action in pursuit of the exercise of their right to self-determination, such people are entitled to seek and to receive support in accordance with the purposes and principles of the Charter.

The territory of a colony or other Non-Self-Governing Territory has, under the Charter, a status separate and distinct from the territory of the State administering it; and such separate and distinct status under the Charter shall exist until the people of the colony or Non-Self-Governing Territory have exercised their right of self-determination in accordance with the Charter, and particularly its purposes and principles.

Nothing in the foregoing paragraphs shall be construed as authorising or encouraging any action which would dismember or impair, totally or in part, the territorial integrity or political unity of sovereign and independent States conducting themselves in compliance with the principle of equal rights and self-determination and thus possessed of a government representing the whole people belonging to the territory without distinctions as to race, creed, or colour.

Every State shall refrain from any action aimed at the partial or total disruption of the national unity and territorial integrity of any other State or country.

Three aspects of this declaration may be taken to provide the definitive interpretation of the principles of self-determination for the post-colonial world. These are:
  • the anathema against secession
  • the kind of world the norm implied, and
  • the link between the norm and political violence.

There were two important tests of the international community's hostility towards secession during the 60s: the cases of Katanga in the Congo and Biafra in Nigeria.

The Belgian Congo became the independent state of the Congo at the end of June 1960. Eleven days later, the country's south-eastern province of Katanga proclaimed its independence, a secession that was to last 31 months (until January 1963). Secession was supported by a multi-ethnic alliance that included white settlers drawn to the region by the copper belt, which made Katanga by far the richest province of the country.

A mutiny in the Congolese army immediately after independence threatened to plunge the country into chaos, prompting Belgian military intervention and creating the opportunity for Katanga's secession. The UN responded to the breakdown of law and order in the Congo by embarking on its most ambitious exercise in peace-keeping, ONUC (Organisation des Nations Unies au Congo).

The question of what ONUC was entitled to do under its mandate became a source of major controversy A leading figure in the UN operation who took a very extensive view of ONUC s mandate, including upholding the Congo's territorial integrity, was Conor Cruise O'Brien. He wrote a book about his experiences, To Katanga and Back.

O'Brien's role in using UN troops to end Katangese secession made him into a figure of hate among right-wing whites in southern Africa, who supported the cause of Katanga as helpful to their own. The Katangan leader, Moise Tshombe, tried to mobilise international support for Katanga on the basis of its anti-communism and as a model for relations between whites and blacks. However, to much of the world, Katangese secession looked like an attempt to walk off with the country's riches.

Nigeria became an independent state shortly after the Congo in October 1960; it was a federal system. Its democratic institutions survived until January 1966, when there was a military coup. The coup leaders were associated with the eastern region, the homeland of the Ibos. When they made an attempt to impose a unitary system on the country, there was a second military coup, in July 1966, this time led by northern officers.

A number of Ibo officers were murdered during the coup. It was followed by more widespread mob violence against Ibos in the northern region. These circumstances understandably stimulated support for secession from Nigeria among Ibos in the eastern region; another factor was the eastern region's oil wealth.

Biafra declared its secession in May 1967; civil war followed. It ended with Biafra's capitulation in January 1970. Biafra was led by a charismatic figure, Col Ojukwu. It won most international sympathy during 1969, as starvation became an issue and NGOS presented the situation in the eastern region as a humanitarian emergency. An interesting aspect of the Nigerian conflict, however, was the support given to the federal authorities across the normal cold-war divide, with Britain and the Soviet Union supporting the federal government.

These two cases rammed home the international community's rejection of secession.

Yet, ironically, shortly after the world endorsed the 1970 declaration, an issue arose which undercut the anathema against secession. Elections in Pakistan that December represented a massive victory for the Awami League, which called for Pakistan to become a loose confederation.

The Awami League had overwhelming support in the east wing of the country and, in the face of this demand, the West Pakistan political élite decided to use the army to suppress it. At this point (April 1971), the league opted for secession. West Pakistan's resistance lasted until December, when it surrendered after Indian intervention in support of the creation of Bangladesh.

Three factors rationalised Bangladesh's secession as a special case:

  • Pakistan was the product of partition itself,
  • its east and west wings were separated by hundreds of miles, and
  • the people in the east wing actually comprised a majority

Let me briefly deal with the two other aspects of the post-colonial norm mentioned earlier. First, the kind of world it implied - a world comprised entirely of sovereign, independent states with permanent boundaries.

The emphasis on sovereignty was similar to Westphalia, but what was different was that states were not required to demonstrate their control of territory to secure recognition. The new norm provided international underpinning and legitimacy for weak states.

Moreover, those fighting for self-determination (not secession) were entitled to use violence and to get international support for their actions. In the context of 1970, this implied support for guerrilla movements in Angola, Mozambique, Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe), South West Africa (now Namibia) and, ultimately, South Africa itself.

Outside of Africa, the international community was reluctant to acknowledge 'unfinished business' from the colonial era. But movements all round the world latched on to the legitimacy of using violence in pursuit of self-determination by defining their aims in terms of 'national liberation'. Indeed, many movements included the term in their names.

Most of the small groups engaging in covert violence which appeared on the world stage in the late 60s represented their actions as part of the struggle against imperialism. Their labelling as 'terrorists' was a way of denying them any legitimacy. The absolutism of the condemnation reflected the threat they were seen to pose to the new world order. It was a way of emphatically drawing the line and saying that there was a limit to decolonisation.

The post-colonial interpretation of self-determination survived the challenge of the Bangladesh exception. But it did not survive the much greater challenge of the demise of communism in eastern Europe and the collapse of the Soviet Union.

The latter might conceivably have been treated as a special case itself-as the delayed deconstruction of the Tsarist empire. And the international community had a pre-existing commitment to recognise the independence of the Baltic states (Latvia, Lithuania and Lithuania) as they had been members of the League of Nations-in their case it was a matter of the restoration of their rightful independence.

But what of the rest of the USSR? An attempt was made to treat the remaining republics under the umbrella of the Commonwealth of Independent States - indeed, Georgia got short shrift from the west for trying to stay out. However, in the end, the framework of the CIS failed to be credible and what emerged were independent states.

A curious aspect of this transformation was that, before the break up of the Soviet Union, Byelorussia and Ukraine were already members of the UN General Assembly, thanks to the bargaining process at the end of the second world war. Stalin had wanted each of the union republics to have a vote to balance western numbers.

On top of the break-up of the USSR, which might somehow have been rationalised, two of the successor states from the first world war also disintegrated: Yugoslavia and Czechoslovakia. It could be said that the break-up of Czechoslovakia was by mutual agreement, and that there was precedent for that in Singapore's divorce from Malaysia. But Yugoslavia could not be presented as other than a shattering of the anathema against secession.

Yet if the post-colonial interpretation lies in ruins, it is far from clear what has taken its place. Certainly, there has been no declaration charting the change, which has to be inferred. But we can just about discern the principles of a new norm through the mists.

Its key elements can be described as follows:

1) The anathema against secession has gone, but secession is to be limited to the pre-existing units of states. Secessionist movements are not free to redraw the internal boundaries on which they rely. This, at any rate, is what the international community is attempting to uphold in Bosnia.

2) The rights of minorities have made a comeback. The old emphasis on majority rule has weakened, as has the norm of non-intervention (as seen in the case of the Iraqi Kurds).

3) The inadmissibility of the changing of borders by force is being given wider application as a restraint upon ethno-nationalist ambitions, such as the 'greater Serbia' ambition in the former Yugoslavia.

Elections are definitely the preferred route for legitimate secessionism. The problem remains: what if the government does not allow elections to be held? We can look at Kashmir in this context.

Even this tentative account raises more questions that it answers about the approach of the international community The truth is the latter has yet to resolve these issues on other than an ad hoc basis.

In conclusion, let me emphasise one aspect of the new situation. The weakening of the international community's anathema against secession has had important implications for minorities within entities created by secession. They can often feel disadvantaged by secession, especially as the emphasis given to ethnic mobilisation in the seceding entity tends to underscore that they are not members of the new national majority.

Examples of such problems or potential problems are:

  • the place of Shetland Islanders within an independent Scotland,
  • the place of 'first' (native) peoples in an independent Quebec, and
  • the position of the Hungarian minority in Slovakia.

Of course, while being sensitive to the grievances and fears of such minorities, it is also obviously the case that it suits the proponents of threatened unions to raise the issue of such minorities as a brake on secession. It is notable how in Canada there has been a 180-degree turn in the attitudes of English and French Canadians towards the rights of first peoples, on the basis of calculations of how recognition of such rights might affect the two settler communities.

That raises a further, final, question. How can the rights of minorities be protected in new entities, without the question of their rights becoming a gambit in the power politics of other states?


Finn Chemnitz of the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe began his reply by saying that territorial integrity was "almost a holy principle" for his organisation, given its 'security' focus. But he also stressed the other 'baskets' of OSCE work: economic co-operation and the 'human dimension'.

The latter entailed support for democratic institutions and the rule of law. In support of this, the OSCE had 17 missions around ex-Yugoslavia and the border regions of the former USSR. The focus was largely on preventive diplomacy - political rather than legal.

Its work was determined by its 55 member ambassadors meeting regularly in Vienna as a permanent council. But the OSCE high commissioner on national minorities could himself decide, as an early-warning mechanism, to send a commission to investigate a particular situation before it became violent.

Having been the only European security organisation, the OSCE was now just one part of the evolving security architecture and was uncertain of its role, even its survival. And in particular it had not found an answer to Prof Guelke's final question, of how to address the manipulation of minorities by big states.

The wider discussion explored the emergent norms Mr Guelke had identified. It was suggested that while the anathema against secession had gone, the presumption against it had not - witness the international community's favouring of autonomy, but no more, for Kosovo.

There was, after all, no 'right' to secession since this would be a collective right and there were no collective rights as such. States were guarantors of rights and to be legitimate had to grant those individual, if particular, rights - such as to education in the mother tongue, for example-attaching to members of minorities. 'Homeland' states for such minorities could and should legitimately press for such rights. Developing an intergovernmental régime was thus an avenue to explore.

A negative example in this regard was the situation of Hungarians in Slovakia. The minority there felt unwelcome in Slovakia yet also did not identify with the Hungarian state. The latter had taken an irredentist position in the early 90s, under the leadership of József Antall - who suggested that all Hungarians outside the borders of the state came under its purview-but that period was now over. The upshot of all this was that the Slovak Hungarians felt abandoned.

With respect to territorial integrity, it was pointed out that in ex-Yugoslavia the Badinter Commission of 1991 had in a way resolved the dilemma by saying that former Yugoslavia had ceased to exist and therefore territorial integrity no longer applied. This had legitimised the referendum in Bosnia-Hercegovina, but that in turn had led to the Serbian boycott and the Bosnian war. A difficulty of moving to rely on the integrity of internal borders was also that it offered a disincentive for centralised states to assuage minorities' concerns, before these became critical, through granting internal autonomy.

It was suggested that western Europe provided more encouraging examples of how sovereignty and self-determination had been reconciled. Signatories to the Scottish Claim of Right - an affirmation of self-determination - were after all now representing British sovereignty in the new Labour government. Similarly, Basque and Catalan rights had been reconciled with Spanish sovereignty. So these concepts were organic and evolving.

The unalterable fact remained, however, that two conflicting claims for self-determination could not be simultaneously recognised. In such situations - including Northern Ireland - what was required was institutional mechanisms to give space to different national identities. This would be assisted by a rethinking of identity - of what, in this context, 'Irishness' and 'Britishness' were - in less conflictual ways. Thus, for example, unionists could accept being culturally 'Irish' as long as that was not perceived to be a 'political cudgel'.

What was needed in such situations was a practical process. Both groups had to agree to seek accommodation. Civil society and the political class needed to have the collective capacity and courage to achieve it. And an absence of violence was necessary to reduce communal fears.

Both communities needed to be able to 'feel' their national identity, rather than a sense of abandonment, and the process had to ensure paranoid versions of what was entailed were undermined. The goal was for the two groups to share the same territory on a basis of mutual respect, with a sense of moving forward together.

More generally, a way forward was signalled by an attenuation of the idea of self-determination on the one hand, offset by a weakening of the impermeability of borders on the other. There had been an implicit redefinition of self-determination as about autonomy or cultural rights, rather than secession. But there had equally been an undermining of boundary impermeability through European integration, German unification and erosion of the concept of 'non-interference.

This created the possibility that the slipperiness of the notion of self-determination could be turned to positive advantage. Internal arrangements for autonomy or cultural rights, if allied to transfrontier relations with a perceived 'national home', could substitute for the classic sovereigntist - and separatist- concept of what self-determination entailed. Of course, states which were determined to play power games with scant regard to international law, exploiting minorities in the process, could still make mischief Hence the need for a new civility of international relations - of law and institutions - which would militate against such rogue behaviour.

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