The right of self-determination, a cardinal principle of international law binding on all countries, has been in the news again recently following the events in Crimea, where the population exercised this right by choosing in a free vote to declare the region’s independence from Ukraine and apply for membership of the Russian Federation. As this move was not popular with the West, we are told that the right has been misused by Russia for its own purposes, regardless of what the law may say.
The right of self-determination in its modern form is enshrined in United Nations General Assembly Resolution 1514 (XV) of 14 December 1960. The date is significant. This was the period when the UN was pushing the policy of decolonisation, demanding that the counries with overseas possessions to grant them independence. The resolution therefore assumed that every distinct territory or national group wanted to be independent, because the UN said so, and that a specific vote on the subject, on a specific date, will be the people’s definitive opinion on the matter. But has that principle ever been respected?
Two case studies
Nigeria was one of the colonies, in this case British, which became independent as a result of the international decolonisation move, when the “Winds of Change” blown by world opinion happened to agree with what its independence movement had long said. Like the others, it was declared independent within its colonial boundaries, drawn up by the British to suit themelves, which only made sense when the opinions of those living there had no effect on policy.
Obviously, Nigeria was founded as a parliamentary democracy in order to be taken seriously. Equally obviously, its people voted along ethnic lines in order to make sure that “their people” obtained the best deal in the new state. This happens everywhere when a new political entity is formed.
In this case however it created a situation where one ethnic group, the more populous Muslims of the north, would hold power indefinitely over the Christian peoples of the south, who were considered even by northerners to be better educated and the new nation’s movers and shakers. They also had the country’s oil, so controlled its destiny regardless of parliament.
Ultimately, after coup and counter-coup, the predominantly Igbo Eastern Region of the country exercised its right to self-determination and declared itself independent as Biafra, citing the Igbo killed following the second coup. But only a handful of countries recognised it, and after three years of war, and a Nigerian blockade which killed millions through starvation, it surrendered to the Nigerian Army.
Significantly, Nigeria was supported by the United Kingdom in this conflict. Nigeria had been given self-determination, so the result of one vote on one day would have to stand for all time. Its individual peoples would never again be given that right, regardless of international law.
Compare this with Yugoslavia.
The original Kingdom of Serbs, Croats and Slovenes was established after World War I because the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand by those demanding such a state had been one of the causes of that war. It was the product of self-determination, a principle US President Woodrow Wilson continually supported at the various summits which redrew the map of Europe after the defeat of the Triple Alliance.
From the beginning, the various constituent peoples of the Yugoslav state felt their national independence was being compromised in the multi-ethnic state, but most were prepared to live with it. The Croatian separatist state of World War II allied itself with Fascist Germany, thus eroding any international support for secession from Yugoslavia after the war was over, although the Atlantic Charter of 1941, whose principles formed the basis of the 1960 UN resolution, gave the Croats the same right to self-determination as other peoples.
Tito, the common enemy, then steered the clever political course of remaining a totalitarian communist but breaking with Moscow, thus making the West feel that he was alright really, there was no need to attack hs state. But what happened as soon as Tito was dead? The smaller nations of Yugoslavia were given a SECOND “right of self-determination”. They could pull out of the state they had determined for themselves in 1918 within whatever borders they chose, although the Serbian populations of these areas, often substantial, were given no equivalent right to secede from the newly created countries.
The “right of self-determination” is thus violated again and again. Russia is now being condemned for granting the Crimean people, who regard themselves as ethnic Russians, the right to join the country of their choice and creating a mechanism for them to express that choice. There is no equivalent international condemnation of the countries which deny that right to their own peoples, often within their constitutions, even though self’determination is guaranteed by international law.
Another objection to the events in Crimea is that the 1960 UN Declaration refers to countries exercising the right to self-determination “without outside interference”. It is said that Russia, by organising a referendum in which people could vote the way Russia wanted then to, has breached this element of the self-determination principle.
The modern state of Austria claims to have been founded in 1919. In fact the first Vienna-based successor state to the defunct Austro-Hungarian Empire was the Republic of German Austria, so called because it wanted to unite with Germany. Its constitution expressly stated that it was part of Germany, and whenever votes were held on the subject an overwhelming majority of German Austria’s citizens voted for unification with Germany.
But the victorious allies were having none of it. Self-determination did not mean that people had the right to make a decision the winners didn’t like. The following year the President of German Austria was obliged to sign the Treaty of Saint Germain, which stated that “the independence of Austria is inalienable otherwise than with the consent of the Council of the League of Nations“. The subsequent Treaty of Versailles also forbade Germany from allowing any territory outside its new borders from joining it, even if the people living in those territories asked it to.
All this is clearly outside interference in the self-determination process and invalidates the whole existence of modern Austria, which still abides by this principle. But when did you last see a comment on this in an international affairs journal?
Atlantic Charter or UN Resolution 1514
It can be argued that this took place before the Atlantic Charter or UN Resolution 1514. There have however been numerous examples of such outside interference determining when and how people exercise the right to self-determination and whether the results are abided by or not. Apart from the obvious Yugoslavia example quoted above, there is Dutch New Guinea. In 1969 the UN mandated Indonesia to organise a referendum on the colony’s future. It organised a vote of handpicked individuals, by show of hands, which passed a resolution to unite with Indonesia, which promptly annexed it.
This is perhaps the least respected and most dubious of all national referendums. It forms a marked contrast to the well organised and monitored Crimean referendum. But Indonesia still owns the former Dutch New Guinea, and you won’t find any official map saying otherwise, even though there are calls for a new vote. No one has declared that this farce, foisted on the people by outside interference, is invalid, simply because no one really cares what happens in that part of the world.
Every national referendum everywhere is organised with outside interference, as the people voting do not have a recognised political structure of their own which could organise such a vote and gain recognition of its results. However self-determination is a right, whilst ignoring or denying it is not.
Russia may potentially have problems with its own national minorities by its actions in Crimea. But it has acted legally, whereas may of its critics have failed to do so in their own countries. Once again Russia has called the bluff of those with blood on their own hands, which is exactly why the Western backed government is now seeking to hide that blood behind howls of protest and the rhetoric of American politicians. Double standards double the problem, and always have.
Seth Ferris, investigative journalist and political scientist, expert on Middle Eastern affairs, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.