Sweeter the second time around? Self-determination gets another chance

by Rhodri C. Williams

In reading Barack Obama’s now-famous May 19 speech on the Arab Spring, I was struck by his repeated use of the term ‘self-determination’ . Technically speaking, the right to self-determination was meant to be a one-off. When the two core global human rights conventions were adopted in 1966, self-determination was placed front and center in each with the goal of making good on the promise of decolonization set out in the UN Charter. As such, the right to self-determination was an unusual right – it was more overtly political than the rest, it was to be exercised collectively (by ‘peoples’) rather than individually, and it was implicitly a single-use right: if you were a people entrapped by colonialism, you exercised your right to self-determination, became an independent nation and never looked back.

So why are we talking about self-determination again? All the ‘peoples’ in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region punched their ticket once already right? Well, maybe not.

In the case of the Palestinians, for instance, everyone agrees that the right should be exercised but can’t quite decide when or how. In the case of the South Sudanese, much of the world failed to notice that they were a ‘people’ until they elected themselves through force of arms and hard negotiations. And in the case of the Tuareg and many other minorities in the countries now roiled by the Arab Spring, it remains their word against the majority, in a dynamic in which ordinary winner-takes-all democratic processes may not be well-suited to provide a mutually satisfactory resolution.

All of this underscores the fact that we are living in a time of extraordinary flux, almost something of a second decolonization process. If the first round of decolonization after World War II ended arbitrary foreign domination by colonizing powers, what we are witnessing now is the end of a period of arbitrary domestic domination of most post-colonial states by whatever ethnic groups, elites or dynasties managed to scramble to the top of the heap and get themselves properly aligned in the Cold War’s politically stultifying stasis. In analyzing Barack Obama’s foreign policy difficulties, for instance, Thomas Friedman comes to the conclusion that diplomacy is almost impossible in an era in which getting to representative government means jettisoning familiar, reliable, and deeply unrepresentative interlocutors of the past:

Making history through diplomacy “depends on making deals with other governments,” says Michael Mandelbaum, the Johns Hopkins University foreign policy expert (and co-author with me on “That Used to Be Us”). “But now, to make such deals, we actually have to build the governments we want to negotiate with — and we can’t do that.” Indeed, in so many hot spots today, we have to do nation-building before we can do diplomacy. So many states propped up by the cold war are failing.

Of course, this process carries many risks beyond simply complicating diplomatic negotiations. Perhaps the most profound of these worries is the looming question posed by some wag (or warlord) during the disintegration of the former Yugoslavia, namely “why should I be a minority in your country when you can be a minority in mine?” If we are talking seriously about self-determination, then it may be difficult to keep matters such as borders and populations from coming up for negotiation alongside political systems. As Ross Douthat noted in a comment on the plight of the Coptic Christians in Egypt, even minorities that have not threatened the unity of the countries they inhabit historically tend to become victims of political transitions:

…the developing world’s worst outbreaks of ethno-religious violence — in post-Saddam Iraq, or the Indian subcontinent after the demise of the British Raj — are often associated with transitions from dictatorships or monarchies to some sort of popular rule. And from Kashmir to the West Bank, Kurdistan to Congo, the globe’s enduring trouble spots are usually places where ethno-religious communities and political borders can’t be made to line up.

While there is no denying the historical trend Douthat describes, I would take issue with his conclusion that a democratic Middle East can only come at the cost of ” decades of sectarian violence and ethnic cleansing.” We do have access to political and legal models now for accommodating minorities that were not nearly as well-understood previously. For instance, indigenous cultures have struggled for decades to be recognized as “peoples” in order to be able to exercise the right of self-determination. This eventually led to an uneasy but not unpromising compromise around the concept of ‘internal self-determination’, or territorial autonomy regimes allowing broad self-government powers in lieu of secession.

Statements like the 2007 UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples and precedents like the recent decision by the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights in the ‘Endorois Case’ are helping to anchor the concept of ‘internal self-determination’ in international and regional law. However, in order to have any hope of arriving at such solutions in places like Libya, we need to move past the view that talking about the problem will only make it worse. The genie has left the bottle.

7 responses to “Sweeter the second time around? Self-determination gets another chance

  1. Sebastian Albuja

    Hi Rhodri, brilliant post. I didn’t know that was the origin and history of the right to self determination. I always understood it more narrowly, in the sense that you mention towards the end of the post, as the right of indigenous peoples (or other ethnic minorities) to govern themselves in any way they prefer within their territories within nation states. I reckon there are also some decisions by the Inter-American Court of Human Rights interpreting the right to self determination in that way.

  2. Thanks Sebastian! Self-determination is really confusing, in part because it is defined so vaguely in the human rights conventions but was meant to be applied in such a specific and limited sense. And yes, the Endorois decision is actually something of a readers guide to the amazing IACtHR jurisprudence on this point.

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