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THE FUTURE OF SELF-DETERMINATION

By Shyamon Jayasinghe, writing from Melbourne

The ideal of self-determination, having once enjoyed considerable influence in world politics appears to have stumbled upon itself by overextension.

Originally popularised in the days of the American Declaration of Independence (1776) and the French Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizens (1789), the concept then articulated the inherent right of people (as opposed to their monarchs) to choose their own governments. This signalled the rise of modern parliamentary democracy in the West. After World War 2, self-determination inspired the demolition of empires and the formation of new sovereign states; the concept being thus extended to apply in the context of the decolonisation process. One observes the further extension of the principle today, as it inspires the surge of ethnic politics and threatens the break up of the established post-colonial order.

The global community has begun to frown on a doctrine that was once considered impregnable. The rise of the urban guerrilla terror phenomenon as seen in the fighting that takes place in locales like Ireland, Spain, Kashmir, Southern Philippines, Indonesia, and Sri Lanka is the latest factor to strengthen global prejudice toward self-determination. Contemporary urban guerrilla techniques aided by developments in technology and the emergence of the suicide bomber, have empowered minorities with the power of violence in ways unseen before.

Reacting to such hostility, ethnic terror movements have been trying hard to redefine their brand of terror by asserting that they are, in fact, 'fighters for self-determination'. This is also an attempt to give the necessary moral underpinning to their campaigns. However, the world community may demand: 'can the means justify the ends?' Big powers including the US, who would not have been traumatised in the past with such issues, have been too shaken by September 11th not to be concerned. Is not Al-Qaeda sticking to a'liberation' ideology?

There is a logical problem about the general claim for self-determination. Where does a given claim for self-determination end? "The logic of secession", says Viva Bartkus in her brilliant book, 'The Dynamic of Secession' (Cambridge University Press, 1999) "would be the infinite division of existing political entities." Suppose, for instance, the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), currently battling the Sri Lanka government for the 18th year, achieves its goal of setting up a new state of Eelam comprising the Northern and Eastern Provinces, would it disallow the Muslims living in the Eastern Province from subsequently seeking self-determination? Should not the Estate Tamils

The future of self-determination

inhabiting the central hill country also demand self-determination? And what about the Sinhalese minorities in these Provinces or even the socially repressed Tamil low caste.

Should they also ask for self-determination after Eelam? The bottom line is that at some reasonable point, a given minority will have to learn to live with the majority and the latter, equally, would have to reciprocate with the right understanding of its political dependence on good relations with the minorities. The life of the individual would have to take precedence over the reification of the group, and society must decide to get on with the fundamental task of living in a sustainable environment.

Clearly, the principle of self-determination clashes with the principle of territorial integrity and global leaders are increasingly seeing this angle to the problem. In fact, even the UN resolution 1514 of year1960 which elevated the status of self-determination, had also emphasized territorial integrity: "(6) any attempt aimed at the partial or total disruption of national unity and territorial integrity of a country is incompatible with the Purposes and Principles of the Charter of the United Nations". The international system was caught up in the contradiction and had exhibited some degree of ambivalence at least after the post- war decolonisation. The African states, however, never showed any prevarication and stood steadfast against any disruption of territorial integrity. The Organization of African unity (OAU) in its Charter emphasized "the absolute preservation of the territorial integrity of member states." Numerous resolutions have entrenched that position. It is interesting to note that President Sekou Toure of Guinea (early 1960s) stated: "in Africa it is the state that creates the nation." Bartkus points out that soon after 1960 the international system explicitly restricted the applicability of the doctrine of self-determination. During the Katangan secession crisis in 1960-1961 self-
determination was condemned by the UN, which admitted the Republic of Congo to UN membership as one entity. The same condemnation was witnessed during the Nigerian crisis with Biafra (1966-70). Part V111 of the Final Act of the 1975 Helsinki Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe also emphasized the primacy of territorial integrity over self-determination.

Another problem about the notion of self-determination that restricts its current applicability is its ambiguity. The idea of self-determination proposes that the basis of international legitimacy must depend on the desires of the people and not their ruling elites. Up to the dismantling of the colonial order the applicability of the concept did not result in many problems. On the other hand, the post-colonial scenario is different. The question now looms: which 'groups' should be eligible for self-determination? Rosalyn Higgins in her far ranging study captioned:' The Development of International Law Through the Political Organs of the United Nations' (Oxford University Press, 1963) seeks to identify the units to which self-determination applies as a right in contemporary international law. She argues that it has become restricted to the right

The future of self-determination

of the majority to exercise power within an internationally recognized political unit. As far as self-determination effects changes within boundaries it is allowed. Higgins utilizes the case of the Nagas residing within the internationally recognized state of India
to emphasize that small communities cannot claim self-determination as of right. The same would apply, for instance, to the Tamils of Sri Lanka, the Karens of Burma, the people of Aceh in Indonesia and the Muslims of southern Philippines.

Despite the negative connotations self-determination has acquired, there are signs that
a more restricted application of it would prevail in the future. In a recent study
published in International Relations Vol.xv, one writer (Wolfgang Danspeckgruber)
states: "there is a growing sense that self-determination and autonomy ought not
necessarily and automatically to cause the break up of sovereign states. Rather….there is
increasing interest in the introduction of self-governance-the maximization of autonomy-
and decentralization. It is hoped that in combination with the recognition of multiple
identities and (regional) integration, approaches of this kind might be developed to satisfy
the aspirations of communities for greater independence and protection while enabling
States to continue within existing sovereign boundaries." In this way, Danspeckgruber
argues that the concept of self-determination could develop into a more 'benign' one.



 


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