Self-Determination of Peoples? Which Self?

Commentary No. 297, Jan. 15, 2011

One of the guiding mantras of the twentieth century was the self-determination of peoples, of nations. It was a piety to which everyone assented in theory. But in practice, it was a very thorny, very murky subject. The key difficulty is how to determine which was the self, the people, the nation that would be entitled to determine its own destiny.

There was never any accord on this subject. In the case of colonies, it was a relatively simple question. But in the case of a state already recognized as a sovereign state, opinion was very divided, usually violently divided. The issue is in the headlines at the moment because of the referendum in southern Sudan where the “people” are voting on whether they wish to remain part of the state called Sudan or to constitute a new state separate from Sudan.

In every state, without exception, there are people in state power who argue what we have come to call a “Jacobin” position. They assert that all the citizens of that state constitute a nation, one that has already determined its destiny. We talk of nation-states as though the Jacobin principle were a reality rather than a political aspiration. Jacobins say that the state should be reinforced and strengthened by refusing to recognize the right, the legitimacy of any so-called intermediate group to stand between the state and the citizens. All rights to the individual; no rights to groups.

At the same time, in every state, again without exception, there are others – often called “minorities” – who contest this idea. They say that the Jacobin position hides the interest of some “dominant” group which maintains its privileges at the expense of all those who belong to groups other than the dominant group. The minorities (who often, but not always, comprise in fact the numerical majority of the population) argue that, unless the rights of groups are recognized, they are denied equal participation in the state.

What “rights” do these minorities feel are being denied to them? Sometimes it is linguistic rights, the right to conduct legal, educational, and media business in a language other than the “official” language. Sometimes, it is religious rights, the right to practice openly a religion other than an officially recognized religion, and to conduct their civil affairs under the religious laws that are part of their own religion. Sometimes it is land rights, the rights of groups that hold land under traditional rules that are different from the current rules enacted by the state.

There are two strategies to secure the rights of minority groups. One is to seek officially-recognized autonomy in various spheres of social and legal life. The second, if the group occupies a relatively compact geographical zone, is to seek secession, that is, to create a new state. For many groups, these are alternatives between which they might move. Having failed to achieve autonomy, they might seek secession. Or having had their aspirations to secession defeated politically and/or militarily, they might settle for autonomy.

The Kurds in Turkey as well as those in Iraq, having sought secession, seem now ready to settle for autonomy. So, it seems, will the francophones in Quebec. The people of the southern Sudan have moved in the other direction, as did the Kosovars in Serbia.

The crucial point is that this is not, ever, a question merely internal to a given state. To be a sovereign state, one must be recognized by other sovereign states as a legitimate entity. Today, the Turkish Republic of North Cyprus is recognized by only one other state. It cannot therefore join international organizations, even if de facto it continues to control its territory.

When Kosovo proclaimed its independence, it was recognized only by less than half of the members of the United Nations. We then have to ask why, and by which states? There were some states in Europe but also elsewhere (notably China and Russia) who feared the precedent. They said that, if the Kosovars could declare unilaterally independence, similar groups in their countries might take this as a precedent. The United States and certain states in western Europe thought however that Kosovar independence from Serbia served their geopolitical interest and encouraged the Kosovars to proclaim their independence, which they immediately recognized, and to which they give material and political assistance.

When Biafra sought to secede from Nigeria several decades ago, almost all African states supported the efforts of the Nigerian government to suppress the rebellion militarily. The main argument for doing this is that secession of Biafra would set a terrible precedent in Africa where almost all state boundaries were constituted arbitrarily by former colonial powers and in fact traverse ethnic lines. The African states wanted to preserve existing boundaries, however “artificial” they seemed, as the only guarantee of collective order.

Now, it seems that the referendum in southern Sudan will produce an overwhelming vote for secession. And the African states that wouldn’t recognize Biafra, plus China that won’t recognize Kosovo, will almost certainly recognize the new state that is now being created. Indeed, even the state from which the secession is taking place seems to be ready to recognize the new state.

Why? The answer is simple. There are geopolitical reasons for doing this. China is interested in good future relations with the new state, which will be a big oil exporter. Interest in buying oil seems to be taking priority over worrying about a precedent for secessionist groups in China. The Sudan seems ready to recognize the new state because the United States has promised specific changes in its own policies vis-a-vis Sudan if they permit the secession to proceed peacefully. The African states are overwhelmed by the de facto accord between the two sides in this controversy. And in addition, many of them sympathize with the groups in southern Sudan who are Nilotic peoples faced with a government dominated by Arab peoples.

In the twenty-first century, the Jacobin option is in retreat in most countries. The real question is autonomy versus secession for the so-called minorities. Is one better than the other? There is no general answer to that question. Each case is different in two ways. The actual demography and history of each state is different and therefore what is logically best and maximally just is different. In any case, any new state resulting from secession will immediately discover “minorities” within its boundaries. The debate never ends.

But there is a second consideration. Autonomy versus secession has geopolitical consequences. And these are crucial in terms of the ongoing struggles within the world-system as a whole. All parties pursue, rather cynically, their self-interest as states. How they act can be quite opposite from one situation to the other. This is because outside powers are primarily concerned with the geopolitical impact of the decision. But it is the role of these outside powers that is often decisive.