Stephen Zunes: Along with right to self-determination comes principle of territorial integrity (2 of 2)
VOICE OF CARLO BASILONE, PRODUCER: Since the unilateral declaration of independence by the Serbian province of Kosovo on February 17, the international community has been divided, with many like the US, the UK, France, Germany, and others giving Kosovo almost immediate recognition, while others, starting with Serbia itself, Russia, China, and even Spain and Greece calling it illegal under international law. Many other questions have also arisen, such as: What is a nation? Do nations have a right to self-determination? And when can a nation declare independence? We spoke to Stephen Zunes, professor of politics and international studies at the University of San Francisco. Are the Kosovars a nation?
STEPHEN ZUNES, PROFESSOR OF INTERNATIONAL STUDIES, UCSF: Yes, in the sense that they identify as such. Ninety percent of them support the idea of an independent nation state. They never asked to be a part of Serbia back in 1912, and they have, you know, struggled for many years for independence. At the same time, it is not one of the six constituent republics of the old Yugoslavia, which had the right to secede; this is part of Serbia itself, and as a result there are some legal questions. I should quickly add there are situations where a country may have a moral right, such as Tibet, though they don’t have, strictly speaking, a clear legal right. But this is definitely a rather ambiguous kind of situation, and that’s why it’s so ironic that you have these western nations that have refused to support, say, western Sahara’s right to an independent nation state, even though that is clearly an occupied territory, which, according to the World Court and Security Council, has the right to self-determination, to independence. And in fact, France and the United States have quite openly been supporting Morocco’s plans to annex the territory as an autonomous region of Morocco. And given that they say, “No, Western Sahara can’t do that,” but Kosovo can, even though their legal case is a lot weaker, I think indicates that the decision to recognize Kosovo is much more a political decision, rather than a legally or morally based one.
BASILONE: Do nations have a right to self-determination?
ZUNES: In principle, yes. This indeed has been a principle of international law, you know, since Woodrow Wilson, you know, pushed this idea at the Versailles Conference back in 1919. It became codified to some degree with the establishment of the United Nations. However, there’s also the principle of territorial integrity of countries. So generally there’s a right of self-determination of what the United Nations recognizes, or the International Court of Justice, or some other international body sees as a non-self-governing territory. That would include all the various colonies of the European powers and include countries that are seen as being under foreign military occupation, such as Palestine, western Sahara. But if it’s a nation, even if they identify as a nation within the internationally recognized borders of another nation state, there it becomes a lot more questionable.
BASILONE: When is a nation allowed to make a unilateral declaration of independence, then?
ZUNES: It’s hard to say when a country should be allowed. There are a number of arguments in addition to the legal ones I just mentioned. It would depend on the perspectives of the people themselves. In this case they’re overwhelmingly in support of independence. Some people would argue issues of viability, and they point to the fact that the Kosovars have a 40 percent unemployment rate and they’re very dependent on the West and foreign aid. But you can say that about a number of full-member states of the United Nations. The situation I think is somewhat murky. They have set up alternative institutions. In fact, they had a parallel government running during the 1990s. This is not the first time they declared independence, actually. The problem is—and this should be another factor, frankly—is what’s the nature of the leadership of a new state? The independently declared Kosovar nation state in the 1990s, which did not get western support, was led by Ibrahim Rugova and others who were far more democratic and pluralistic in orientation and used Gandhian style non-violence to resist the Serb control, whereas the people in charge now are these hard-line militants affiliated with the Kosovo Liberation Army, which has been responsible for atrocities against the Serb minority and the like. And so that perhaps should be a factor to take into consideration as well. It’s quite ironic that the West chose to ignore the plight of the Kosovar Albanians when they were struggling non-violently, only came to their assistance when they took up arms under this, frankly, chauvinistic kind of group. It’s just the wrong kind of message the West should be giving, in my view, to those that are struggling for self-determination.
BASILONE: And why wasn’t it recognized in 1990 by anybody in the West?
ZUNES: It’s hard to say. At that point there was a fair amount of appeasement of Serbian and Milosevic. The Dayton Accords many people had hoped would in addition to stopping Serbian repression in Bosnia-Herzegovina would also end the oppression in Kosovo, but apparently Richard Holbrooke and the other Americans who were leading this peace process decided it wasn’t that important and that we needed to actually strengthen Milosevic, ’cause at that time he was seen as a peacemaker. So I think it had a lot to do with appeasing the Serbian regime at that time; whereas ironically now that Serbia’s under a democratic government, led by those who want better relations with the West, that want to be part of the EU in the not-too-distant future, that by throwing our weight to support Kosovo independence now, it is actually encouraging a very hard-line nationalist that the people of Serbia threw out in their non-violent uprising in October 2000. And the US, by doing this, and the other western nations, are encouraging the very hard-line Serbian nationalists that were responsible for such a human catastrophe in the former Yugoslavia during the 1990s.
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