Monday, August 20, 2007
Self-Determination, Secession and Nationalism
Article 1 (1) of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights adopted by the General Assembly on December 16, 1966 states:
All peoples have the right of self-determination...
Subsection 3 adds:
The States Parties to the present Covenant shall promote the realization of the right to self-determination and shall respect that right, in conformity with the provisions of the Charter of the UN.
Article 4 (1) furthermore states:
In times of public emergency which threatens the life of the nation and the existence of which is officially proclaimed...
derogation from Article 1 is allowed.
The right to self-determination is recognized in conformity with the Charter of the UN. Let us look at the Charter (here)
All Members shall refrain in their international relations from the threat or use of force against the territorial integrity, or political independence of any state, or in any other manner inconsistent with the purposes of the UN.
Article 1 (2) where the purposes are stated:
To develop friendly relations among nations based on respect for the principle of equal rights and self-determination of peoples.
In short, the right to self-determination is recognized with a caveat-- that its enforcement is in conformity with the Charter of the UN. Use of force and aggression against the territorial integiry of a UN member is prohibited. Looking back at history, almost every movement for self-determination and secession was accompanied with use of force fueled by nationalism, religious fervor or ethnic antagonism. Therefore, it is also well-known that throughout its existence the UN also sought to promote the status quo and in fact had a difficulty of recognizing secessionist newly-formed states. The case of Somalia is vivid. The break-up of that country into pieces has not even been updated on the map.
It makes me think, if we encourage the right of self-determination of peoples, which leads to use of force most of the time, aren't we also then encouraging use of force. Chechnya and the Western criticism of the way Russia has been handling it is an example. While it is indubitable that Russia has crossed many boundaries of human rights in that area, Chechen extremists and nationalists were not devoid of fault. They sought secession not by peaceful means but by use of force that invited cyclical reaction from Russia. While the right to self-determination is an important political right, in the real world it has become a source of much devastation. It is enough to examine the case of Yugoslavia.
It is also true, that the basis for the right of self-determination is freedom and independence of a nation. How could India not fight for its independence from the British? How could the US not do the same? Often, the oppression of the minority ethnic group by the majority is the precursor of the secessionist movement. But non-violent resistance stressed by Gandhi is the aspiration. This is the dilemma for the gatekeepers of international security: how to recognize the right to self-determination of peoples and not encourage use of force. Moreover, if we acknowledge the dangerous effects of nationalism for peace in the world, we must also acknowledge that often calls for self-determination veil precisely that-- nationalism.