Daily Archives: January 10, 2011

Revisiting uti possidetis: Is Southern Sudan’s referendum scarier if it succeeds?

by Rhodri C. Williams

On day three, all signs indicate that the referendum on the separation of Southern Sudan from Khartoum is going shockingly well. Continued high turnout bodes well for achievement of the key threshold of 60% of registered voters and the mood appears to be nigh on festive at many polling stations. Violence has flared in the contested Abyei region, but it remains to be seen whether this dispute will join the ranks of the intractable (along with Jerusalem, Kirkuk and Nagorno Karabakh) or can eventually be arbitrated into submission (a la Bosnia’s Brcko District). So why are there still some long faces in the world of diplomacy?

In looking at land issues in conflict, it is helpful to recall that various individuals’ and groups’ asserted property rights are not the only relevant claims. States have traditionally had rather an important vote as well. Indeed, until recently states were relatively unfettered in their ability to regulate and expropriate property rights and forcibly remove people from their homes and lands when they deemed it necessary. Sovereignty-related concerns related to development, national security and territorial integrity were paramount.

Since the end of Cold War, greater attention to both regional and global human rights standards and the assertion of doctrines such as human security and responsibility to protect (R2P) have altered this balance. As a result, while states continue to enjoy  broad discretion over the use of their land resources, they have come under increasing pressure to recognize that their ‘territory’ is co-terminous with the homes, homelands, property and possessions of their citizens, and to respect the rights accruing to affected individuals and groups as a result.

The resulting situation should in theory ensure that the costs of necessary government action that infringes on private property interests are not externalized solely onto those directly affected. As I blogged on earlier here, both development and human rights standards are converging on this understanding. In situations where these rights are egregiously violated in the context of war and ethnic cleansing, legal remedies such as restitution have come to the fore, both in practice and in standards such as the Pinheiro Principles.

However, as many commentators have pointed out, the current exercise of self-determination by the people of southern Sudan hearkens back to older understandings of the primacy of state territorial control and threatens the integrity of a longstanding legal consensus of such age and fixity that it has been anointed with a Latin phrase. “Uti possidetis” or “as you possessed” is a sort of interstate rule of adverse possession that originally ratified territorial conquests in warfare and later shaped the process of liberation of former colonies.

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