Kox: Jaw-jaw is always better than war-war

30 November 2017

Kox: Jaw-jaw is always better than war-war

Issues of autonomy and independence must be settled by peaceful dialogue, not violent repression.

by Tiny Kox

Issues of autonomy and independence, which have been raised once more by recent events in Catalonia, are of long vintage. Over four hundred years ago, in 1581, the Netherlands unilaterally seceded from the Spanish empire. Only after decades of war, in 1648, was our country's independence accepted and internationally recognized. In 1830, the southern provinces split from the Kingdom of the Netherlands – with the support of the then major powers - and formed the state of Belgium. Now both neighbours live in peace and prosperity with open borders, sharing our sovereignty to a certain extent, in the Benelux, the European Union and the Council of Europe. End of history? By no means. Belgium has a rather strong secessionist movement in Flanders, and in an effort to preserve national unity in the face of this, powers have been devolved to the three Belgian regions and language communities.

I recall these events simply to give an example of how the history of states is long and ongoing, with in some cases repeated annexations, secessions, unification and disintegration. At times such things can occur peacefully, but often they are achieved, or fail, in the face of brutal disrespect of fundamental rights and of bloody wars. We are talking about one of the major problems of our history - and most probably, of our future as well. That's why a democratic approach to secession and the right to self-determination is so badly needed.

Yet no such agreed approach exists. In an attempt to remedy this, at a recent meeting of the Council of Europe Standing Committee held in Copenhagen, we discussed the importance of developing a democratic solution to problems surrounding the secession of regions from their states and the question of self-determination. A thorny subject, on which both the EU and the Council of Europe are anxious not to prick their fingers.

Jean Claude Juncker, president of the European Commission, doesn't want anything to do with secessionist regions. This was his response to the chaotic developments in Catalonia. For his part, Thorbjorn Jagland, Secretary-General of the Council of Europe, tells us that it's up to the nation states themselves to deal with this sort of conflict. Both the European Union and the Council of Europe seem to be averting their eyes from what's going on, in fear that saying anything about the situation will be seen as external intervention.

In the quarter century since the end of the Cold War the map of Europe has changed drastically. The Soviet Union collapsed into fifteen different states. Yugoslavia disappeared, giving way to seven new countries, including Kosovo. In the Caucasus, South Ossetia and Abkhazia split away from Georgia, while Nagorno-Karabakh is demanding its independence from Azerbaijan. The implosion of the Soviet Union and Yugoslavia was accompanied by incredible violence and brutal violation of human rights. Czechoslovakia divided itself – fortunately without violence - into the Czech Republic and Slovakia, while East and West Germany peacefully reunited into a single nation, with the support of Russia, the United States, France and Great Britain. Scotland has sought to secede from the United Kingdom, but when the referendum came a narrow majority voted to maintain their country's links with England, Wales and Northern Ireland, finding complete independence a step too far, at least for the time being At the same time Greenland and the Faroes, autonomous regions of Denmark which are nevertheless outside the European Union (Greenland due to a referendum), are involved in a rather harmonious consultation process aimed at loosening their ties with the Danish mainland.

Meanwhile the European Union has grown bigger and bigger, by accession of former fascist Southern and former communist Eastern European states, so that it stretches by now all the way to the borders of Russia and Turkey. Yet the opposite is currently happening as well, with the British voting to quit the EU, a process which it has now been decided should be achieved by the spring of 2019. Overtures to the EU by the government in Kiev, which came to power following a coup d'état, convinced Ukraine’s eastern regions that they should secede, while the inhabitants of one such region, the Crimea, voted in a – internationally not recognized - referendum to rejoin its powerful neighbour, Russia.

Closing one's eyes to what is happening is never an intelligent response. And that international law has so far not succeeded in determining rules governing separation and reunification, should make us even more vigilant instead of casting a blind eye to what is and might be happening in this respect. On one side we have the United Nations' recognition of the right of peoples to self-determination (1945), on the other is the EU and the Council of Europe, in which the principle of territorial integrity prevails.

Whatever it takes, we should do our utmost to prevent violent acts becoming part of secessionist and unification processes, as we have witnessed in the recent past. Dialogue between parties in conflicts should be encouraged by all states and alliances. As Winston Churchill famously said, 'To jaw-jaw is always better than to war-war.' It's always better to listen and reflect than to look the other way. The EU, which as things stands still has twenty-eight member states, and the Council of Europe, with forty-seven, each forms an obvious international forum in which we can listen, reflect, discuss and debate in a true democratic spirit.

At the end of the First World War US President Woodrow Wilson sought to have the right to self-determination of peoples enshrined for the first time in international law. His idea was to have it included in the Treaty of Versailles, which ended the war, but he failed to have his proposal accepted. New states and new borders created new conflicts and resulted in new wars, and by the time of the next world war, in 1939, the map of Europe had been transformed.

At the end of the Second World War, the Charter of the United Nations included the international obligation to respect the self-determination of peoples, specifically directed at the remaining colonial powers. In 2005 the United Nations reaffirmed this right, though it has never been clear whether it refers to all nations, or only those which have been colonised or occupied by a foreign power. In reality, most international experts are rather reluctant to accept the right to secede unless the act of secession has the agreement of the central power.

The right of self-determination may be respected in ways which stop short of actual independence. Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales are recognised by the UK as constituent nations, and control many of their domestic policies. Flanders has gained ever-greater autonomy, as have some of the places mentioned above.

What this survey of recent and not-so-recent developments unfortunately confirms is that there are no unchanging international laws regarding states and their borders. Each case is sui generis, and depends on unique aspects of the situation from which it has arisen.

The priority in every one of these unique situations, however, must be to exercise the greatest possible respect for human rights and freedoms, as enshrined in the European Convention on Human Rights. When large numbers of people in a region wish to secede, there must be peaceful, democratic dialogue between central and regional authorities. The same applies when elements in neighbouring countries seek to unite, or reunite, as happened in Germany at the end of the Cold War. Unilateral declarations should be avoided, and everything possible done to prevent violence of any kind, up to and including war. Though international law does not adequately confront these problems, there is a role for international bodies such as the Council of Europe which have the resources to identify where and when conflicts may arise and take action to encourage peaceful resolutions of conflict.

I disagree with those who argue that these questions are purely internal matters which should be dealt with by the state involved and none other. The international community cannot ignore the growing pressure on the integrity of states, and should act to ensure that the conflicts arising from this do not run out of control. The issue of self-determination in Europe in the 21st century is far from academic. It represents an immediate threat to continued peace and renewed prosperity, and must be addressed urgently and seriously.

Tiny Kox is leader of the SP group in the Senate, and chair of the United Left Group in the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe.


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