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State rights vs human rights?

Robin Lustig | 09:47 UK time, Wednesday, 22 April 2009

Why did many major powers back independence for the Kosovo Albanians but not for the Sri Lankan Tamils? Why did Russia back independence for Abhkazia and South Ossetia, but not for Kosovo?

Who decides when a group of people who want to break away from the country of which they are a part can do so? If Kosovo, why not Tibet? If Abkhazia, why not Chechnya?

These are more than merely academic questions. Thousands of people have died because we seem to have no clear answers. So at the London-based foreign policy think-tank Chatham House on Monday, The World Tonight, together with the journal International Affairs, organised a conference to try to work out what the rules say about when a country can be dismembered against its will.

The keynote speaker was the Foreign Minister of Slovakia, Miroslav Lajcak, who in a previous life represented the EU in both Montenegro and Bosnia-Herzogovina. So he knows quite a bit about the many different ways in which countries can fall apart or be split up. Here's how he categorised them:

 The Czechoslovak way when it split in two: peaceful, by mutual agreement, in accordance with international law and without any assistance from the international community.
 The Montenegrin way when it separated from Serbia: peaceful, constitutional, by mutual agreement, in accordance with international law, but also with decisive assistance from the international community.
 The Slovene, Croatian, Bosnian way: on the basis of a democratic referendum but without mutual agreement, leading to war. Their independence was recognised internationally and they were accepted as members of the United Nations.
 The Kosovan way: a unilateral parliamentary declaration of independence without the agreement of Serbia and in conflict with certain principles of international law. Independence recognised so far by 57 countries; not accepted as a member of the UN.
 The Abkhaz and South Ossetian way: declarations of independence with no agreement of Georgia, in "gross violation of the right to respect for sovereignty and integrity of a state" and recognised only by Russia, Nicaragua and each other.

So why the differences? And what does international law say about when it is legal for a people to break away, thus contravening the principle that all existing, recognised states are entitled to have their territorial integrity respected? Among our speakers was the international lawyer Ralph Wilde of University College, London, whom I spoke to for last night's programme. Click below to hear the interview.

The reality seems to be that for a claim to self-determination to be successful, it needs to be backed by a powerful external state (eg the US in Kosovo; or Russia in Abkhazia and South Ossetia). So it's bad luck for the Tamils, the Tibetans, the Sahrawis of Western Sahara and the Kurds. The working assumption among governments in the developed world is in favour of the status quo. One speaker at our conference called it "strategic hypocrisy" - we'll back your right to self-determination only if it suits us (or if the violations of human rights are so egregious that they simply cannot be ignored).

But self-determination need not - indeed does not - always imply full independence. A recognition of minority rights, with substantial autonomy where appropriate, may often be sufficient to guarantee a minority's right to decide its own political status.

Among other speakers at our conference were the former US ambassador William Montgomery, Oksana Antonenko of the International Institute for Strategic Studies and David Clark of the Russia Foundation. Although the conference itself was off the record, they agreed to reconvene at the end of the day to record a discussion for broadcast. Click below to hear it, and then I'd be interested in your thoughts.

(broadcast on The World Tonight, BBC Radio 4, 21 April 2009)


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