Greater Surbiton

The perfect is the enemy of the good

Greenland moves toward independence – who’s afraid of ‘separatism’ ?

greenland-flagYesterday, Kalaallit Nunaat – Greenland – moved a step closer toward independence from Denmark. The Arctic country has become a subject in its own right under international law; its language, Kalaallisut, has become the sole official language; and it is taking over control of its own police and judiciary, as well as greater control over its natural resources. This move was based on a referendum that took place in November, in which 75% of Greenlandic voters opted in favour.

The festivities in the Greenlandic capital of Nuuk marking yesterday’s event were attended by Denmark’s Queen Margrethe and its prime minister, Lars Loekke Rasmussen. For the Greenlanders are fortunate in having, in Denmark, one of the world’s most enlightened imperial overlords. This is the same Denmark that has proven a staunch member of the allied coalition in Iraq and Afghanistan, and the object of Islamist hatred over the Danish cartoon controversy. We may compared Denmark’s enlightened readiness to permit the peaceful secession of one of its territories and its sterling record as a member of the Western alliance, with the sorry record of Spain, Slovakia and Romania. These countries’ exaggerated fears of ‘separatism’ have led them, despite being members of NATO, to break ranks with most of the rest of the alliance to oppose Kosova’s independence from Serbia, and to align themselves instead with hostile Russia. Denmark, the more enlightened country on the issue of national self-determination, is the better member of the Western alliance.


Denmark’s ready acceptance of Greenland’s right to secede is in keeping with a proud Nordic tradition of enlightened resolution of national questions. Norway seceded peacefully from Sweden in 1905, as did Iceland from Denmark in 1944. Territorial disputes between Sweden and Finland over the Aland Islands in the 1920s and between Denmark and Norway over eastern Greenland in the 1930s were peacefully resolved by international arbitration. Finland granted autonomy to the Aland Islands in 1920; Denmark to Greenland in 1979, allowing the latter to secede from the EU in 1985. 

The contrast between the enlightened Nordic acceptance of the right of nations to self-determination on the one hand, and the nationalist resistance to ‘separatism’ on the part of Spain, Slovakia and Romania on the other, is not unrelated to the fact that, whereas Denmark has a long history of liberal constitutional government, Spain was still a dictatorship less than thirty-five years ago; Slovakia and Romania twenty years ago. Spain’s continued refusal to recognise the right of the Basque Country and Catalonia to self-determination is a continuation, in softer form, of the repression of these countries by the fascist dictatorship of Francisco Franco. For their part, Slovakia and Romania have been among the most unreconstructed of the former Eastern bloc countries to join NATO and the EU.

Further still from the Danish ideal of tolerance of secession are repressive states with ruling ideologies hostile to liberal democratic Western values, such as Russia, Iran and China. These states rely on massive violence or forced assimilation to crush subject peoples. They are able to do this precisely because they reject Western values. Equally, as they are unconstrained by concern for human rights, they are ready to support other states that brutally suppress subject peoples. Thus, on 27 May of this year, Russia and China were among those members of the United Nations Human Rights Council that voted for a resolution in praise of Sri Lanka’s brutal campaign against the Tamil Tigers, who are fighting for a separate Tamil state, while Britain, France, Germany and other democratic states voted against. Other states that voted for the resolution included Saudi Arabia, Cuba, Egypt, Nigeria, the degree of whose concern for human rights is suggested by their alignment on this question.

The reality is that, by and large, the more enlightened and democratic a state is, the more ready it will be to accept the secession of a constituent territory or subject people. Conversely, the more repressive and undemocratic a state is, the less willing it will be to countenance such a move, and the more ready it will be to support the brutal suppression of such a move by another such state. It is very possible that Scotland will eventually secede from the United Kingdom; conceivable that Wales will do so, or that Puerto Rico will secede from the US. But while we Britons and Americans may or may not hope against such acts of secession, few of us are enraged by the prospect.

This being so, it is not in the interests of the Western alliance rigidly to uphold the principle that subject peoples should not be allowed to secede unilaterally from existing independent states. Western respect for human rights means that Western states will never be able to support acts of repression by other states against subject peoples as unequivocally as our undemocratic enemies, while even moderate Western expressions of concern at human rights abuses committed during such acts of repression will earn us the ire of the states in question. Western support for Russia against Chechen rebels during the 1990s did not earn us any Russian gratitude, but Western criticism of Russian human-rights abuses in Chechnya certainly earned us Russian ire. Meanwhile, Russia’s crushing of Chechnya strengthened its grip on the Caucasus region, making possible the assault on our Georgian ally last summer. Simply put, Western support for Russia against Chechnya was a blunder; the democratic world should have recognised Chechnya’s independence in 1991, alongside the Soviet republics that declared independence at the same time. Equally, in the event that democratic Taiwan should declare independence from Communist China, while we may regret the clash with the latter that this will inevitably occasion, support for Taiwan would be the only honourable policy. In supporting Kosova’s secession from Serbia, Western statesmen have erred in pretending that this instance of secession is unique. Erred both because it is factually untrue that Kosovo is a unique case, and because pretending that it is will only tie our hands in the future, when dealing with states ruled by hostile, repressive regimes carrying out acts of mass violence against subject peoples.

Genuine democracies have nothing to fear from ‘separatism’; dictatorships and other repressive states do. It is time to accept the principle that, in certain circumstances, subject peoples should be permitted to secede unilaterally from a parent state. Such circumstances might include those where the subject people in question has suffered particularly extreme persecution, or conversely where it has proved itself worthy through practising good, democratic governance. Should they ever choose to exercise this right, the people of Darfur would qualify under the first condition; the Taiwanese under the second. Other conditions or combinations thereof might also warrant qualification. Kosova, for example, qualified not only because of the extreme persecution its people had suffered under Serbian rule, but also because of the constitutional status the territory had enjoyed in the former Yugoslavia. The question of whether a subject people has earned the right to secede should ultimately be decided in the court of public opinion in the democratic world.

But this does not mean that every secessionist movement or act should be supported indiscriminately – far from it. For the right of nations to self-determination is open to abuse. There are cases where an expansionist, predatory state conquers part of a neighbour’s territory, using the pretext of support for a national minority; the predatory state then ethnically cleanses the unwanted population from the conquered territory, creates an artificial demographic majority in favour of ‘independence’, then declares that this artificial majority has the right to ‘self-determination’. This is what Serbia did in Bosnia, Turkey in Cyprus and Russia in Abkhazia. There are cases where the population of a territory is split relatively evenly between supporters and opponents of secession, or where the secessionists are in the minority.

Clearly, in such cases, support for the right to secede should not be the default position. Rather, each demand for secession has to be judged individually, on its own merits – like a case in court. The example most often cited by opponents of national self-determination is that of the southern US states’ attempted secession in the 1860s; as this secession was motivated by the desire to preserve the barbaric institution of slavery, it is not an example that can be used to deny the right to secede to secessionist peoples with more legitimate motives.

The very real possibility that the democratic world might intervene to support a secessionist movement on its territory would act as an incentive for repressive states, both to improve their treatment of their subject peoples and to lessen their hostility to the democratic world. The possibility of losing Darfur would be likely to act as a greater deterrent to Khartoum’s genocidal policies there than the toothless indictments of the International Criminal Court. Conversely, where it is a case of a repressive state allied to the West, pressure to reform would take a different form. Because Turkey is a member of NATO and an EU candidate country, there is no possibility that the Western alliance will intervene militarily to end Turkey’s rule over its Kurdish-inhabited regions; Turkey’s territorial integrity is therefore secure. But the ‘price’ that Turkey pays for this is that it is required to improve its treatment of its Kurds and its human-rights’ record generally – something that, over the past decade, it has actually done. So long as Turkey continues to democratise, Kurdish support for secession is likely to wane, or at least to be increasingly channelled away from support for violent insurgency to support for peaceful, constitutional nationalist parties.

As surely as night follows day, more peoples that today are unfree will join the ranks of the Eritreans, Croatians, Kosovars and others which have already seceded in recent decades after fighting bitter wars of independence. There is no point regretting this, or attempting to halt the process. The Western alliance should be on the right side of history.

This article was published today on the website of the Henry Jackson Society.


Monday, 22 June 2009 Posted by | Denmark, Greenland | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

It is a mistake to pretend that Kosova is unique

JasamKosovoMost of us can probably remember, at least once in our lives, asking some apparatchik something along the lines of ‘Couldn’t you please, please make an exception, just this once ?’ and getting the reply: ‘I can’t do that ! If I made an exception for you, I’d have to make an exception for everybody. It’d be more than my job’s worth.’ You and the apparatchik both know that he could perfectly well make an exception for you if he wanted to. But you also both know that he is right in saying that there is nothing special about you, and that you are not uniquely worthy of being treated as an exception. The question is: does he like you or doesn’t he ?

Similarly, trying to pretend that recognising Kosova’s unilateral secession from Serbia is legitimate on the grounds that it is wholly unique and without precedent in international relations is unconvincing, firstly because it isn’t true, and secondly because it begs the question: if it can happen once, can it not happen twice or multiple times ? To which the only reasonable answer is: yes. There may very well be occasions in the future when the Western alliance will be forced to recognise an act of unilateral secession by a subject people and territory from the state that rules them. Everybody knows this is entirely possible, and pretending it isn’t simply destroys the credibility of those who do.

Of course, the reason our officials and statesmen are pretending that Kosova is a unique case is in order to avoid scaring away other countries from recognising Kosova’s independence; countries they fear might otherwise worry a precedent were being established that could be applied to a secessionist region or nationality of their own. But this calculation, too, is misguided, because a) it rests upon a fallacy, and b) it represents a bad geopolitical tactic. We shall briefly explain the fallacy, before focusing on the bigger question of why the tactic is a bad one.

a) It is fallacy to point to Kosova as a precedent, because if a precedent has been established, it was established long before Kosova’s independence was recognised. It was certainly established by the early 1990s, when all the members of the former multinational federations of the Soviet Union, Yugoslavia and Czechoslovakia who wanted independence were granted it – except Kosova. This was despite the fact that in the case of Yugoslavia, the federal members that declared independence had done so unilaterally, without the consent of either the federal centre, or of all other members of the federation. There is absolutely no reason why the recognition of Kosova’s independence should not be treated as essentially the same as that of Croatia, Slovenia, Bosnia-Hercegovina and Macedonia. In contrast to Abkhazia and South Ossetia, for example, which were not members of the Soviet Union but simply autonomous entities within Georgia, Kosova was a full member of the Yugoslav federation in its own right, independently of the fact that it was also an entity within Serbia. As a member of the defunct Yugoslav federation, Kosova was entitled to self-determination after the dissolution of that federation had been internationally recognised, and after other members of the federation had been accorded that right.

More generally, the former Yugoslav states are far from the first unilaterally seceding entities to be accorded international recognition – think of France’s recognition of the US in 1778 and Britain’s recognition of Bangladesh in 1972.

b) There is no need to pretend that Kosova is a unique case to avoid scaring other states away from recognising its independence, for the simple reason that, when all is said and done, other states’ policies on whether or not to recognise Kosova are really not determined by fear of Kosova becoming a precedent – even if these states are faced with separatist threats of their own. Turkey, faced with a very real Kurdish separatist insurgency and bitterly opposed to the secession of Nagorno Karabakh from its traditional ally, Azerbaijan, was nevertheless one of the first states to recognise Kosova’s independence. Turkey has also promoted the break-up of Cyprus, via the unilateral secession of the self-proclaimed ‘Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus’. Russia, which vocally opposes the independence of Kosova, which is faced with secessionist movements within its own borders and which brutally crushed Chechnya’s bid for independence, has nevertheless simultaneously promoted the unilateral secession of Abkhazia and South Ossetia from Georgia. India, which likewise opposes Kosova’s independence and likewise faces secessionist movements within its own borders, was instrumental in achieving Bangladesh’s unilateral secession from Pakistan. In other words, states which might be seen as having as much reason as most to fear a ‘Kosovo precedent’ being established are quite ready to support unilateral acts of secession when they feel it is in their interests to do so.

It might be objected that the states in question are all powerful enough to feel confident that they can crush any secessionist movement they face. Yet fragile Macedonia, which fought an armed conflict with Albanian separatists earlier this decade, and which might have more reason than almost any state to fear a ‘Kosovo precedent’, has recognised Kosova. Fear of the ‘Kosovo precedent’ is not, therefore, a decisive factor in a state’s decision on whether or not to recognise Kosova’s independence (we can make an exception here for states such as Georgia, Azerbaijan and Moldova that are currently in a state of  territorial dismemberment, and that, were they to recognise Kosova, might conceivably suffer retaliation in kind from Belgrade or Moscow)

It may be that, all things being equal, a state faced with a secessionist movement of its own is more likely to sympathise with Belgrade than with Pristina. In one or two cases, such as Spain’s, this sympathy may be electorally significant enough to sway the course of its foreign policy. But so far as almost all non-recognisers are concerned, other factors count for more: a state is likely to oppose Kosova’s independence if it is hostile to the West (Russia, Iran, Venezuela); if it has traditionally enjoyed good relations with Belgrade (Greece, Egypt, Indonesia); or if it simply sees no particular interest in recognising it. All these factors are reasons why it is not only pointless, but actually counter-productive to pander to the opponents of recognition by reassuring them that Kosova is a unique case and will not become a precedent.

As things stand, rogue states have no reason to fear that the international community will ever grant independence to secessionist territories. They therefore enjoy a virtual carte blanche to suppress secessionist movements or other rebellions as brutally as they wish. None of the forms of deterrent threatened against or exerted on the Sudanese regime, from sanctions to international war-crimes indictments, appears to have cooled its bloodlust with regard to Darfur. But were Khartoum to fear that its genocidal actions might potentially result in the loss of territory, it might be less inclined to pursue them. The Western alliance would enjoy that much more leeway in exerting pressure over a rogue state such as Sudan.

Conversely, a close ally such as Turkey, which faces a genuine secessionist insurgency, knows very well that the Western states will never make it the victim of such a precedent: everyone knows that Turkish Kurdistan is not going to be liberated by NATO, as Kosova was; a ‘Kosovo precedent’ will not frighten states like Turkey. But this does not mean that such states can get away with indiscriminate brutality with impunity. Turkey’s treatment of its Kurdish population has dramatically improved over the last ten years, as Ankara’s goal of EU membership has required it to improve its human rights record. Just as NATO acted as the bad cop over Serbia and Kosova, so the EU has acted as the good cop over Turkey and the Kurds. Western allies can be guided toward ending repression and discrimination against national minorities, reducing the appeal of violent separatist movements. Rogue states, on the other hand, should have reason to fear that their brutality may potentially result in a loss of territory. For all states that abuse the human rights of their national minorities, this is a healthy choice to be faced with.

This does not, of course, mean that the Western alliance should indiscriminately threaten states that abuse human rights with territorial penalties. Rather, the ‘Kosovo precedent’ could function rather like the nuclear deterrent, i.e. deter more by its potential than by its actual application, and by its occasional application against only the worst offenders: as was Milosevic’s Serbia; as is Bashir’s Sudan. Nor would a ‘Kosovo precedent’ mean a free-for-all for all secessionist movements. There is a lot of space between the untenable pretense that Kosova is ‘unique’ and the rather comic nightmare-scenario threatened by Kosova’s enemies: of innumerable separatist territories all over the world responding to Kosova’s independence by trying to become Kosovas themselves. Kosova itself, after all, was scarcely given red-carpet treatment by the Western alliance in its move to independence: a decade elapsed between Milosevic’s brutal suppression of its autonomy and its liberation by NATO; almost another decade elapsed between liberation and the recognition of its independence, during which time it was forced to endure international administration and engage in exhaustive negotiations with its former oppressor. Even now, Kosova  is still faced with a very real threat of permanent territorial partition, as the Serbs maintain their hold on the north of the country. The Kosova model may not prove as straightforwardly attractive for other potential secessionists as the Cassandras claim.

Kosova’s independence was recognised as the result of a confluence of multiple factors: its existence as an entity in its own right within the Yugoslav federation; its overwhelmingly non-Serb, ethnic-Albanian population; the brutality of Belgrade’s treatment of this population; the unwillingness of the Milosevic regime to reach an accommodation with the Western alliance over the issue, following on from its years of trouble-making in Croatia and Bosnia; the unwillingness or inability of post-Milosevic Serbia in the 2000s to reach agreement with the Kosovars; and the simple lack of any workable alternative to independence. These were an exceptional set of circumstances. The truth is, that it is possible to envisage a similar set of circumstances leading the Western alliance to recognise the independence of another secessionist territory in the future. Sometimes it is better to tell the truth.

This article was published today on the website of the Henry Jackson Society.

Sunday, 31 May 2009 Posted by | Balkans, Former Yugoslavia, Kosovo, Serbia | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment