Tag Archives: partition

How quickly a year goes when the international architecture is coming down around your ears

by Rhodri C. Williams

Its not really the twelve months since Maidan that counts. Sure, that was heady, scary stuff, a slightly compressed version of the astonishments of Tahrir, but with every reason to be aware this time of just how quickly the other shoe was likely to drop. The anniversary of real note will come in March, at one year since we realised the magnitude of that other shoe. To wit – a permanent, nuclear-armed member of the UN Security Council engages in aggression against a neighbouring country. Thump.

I was probably less surprised than some. Before moving to Stockholm in 2009, I’d lived in Finland for five years, where I grew used to neighbourly behaviour ranging from aerial incursions to shock increases in finished wood duties that doubled the cost of a house extension. So when the Swedes suddenly woke up to Russian submarine raids, simulated bombing runs and other anti-social behaviour, it felt a bit like deja-vu.

The difference between then and now is of course Crimea. An aerial incursion on its own is a misdemeanour. But a pattern of incursions by the country that just jettisoned the taboo against aggression is in a different category. And, without justifying Iraq in 2003 for a moment, there really is no comparison. If Bush had formally annexed Saskatchewan to punish Canada for withdrawing from NAFTA, maybe then we could talk.

The silver lining in all this is that Putin’s regime is exposing itself as a rogue government rather than actually rolling back the non-aggression norm. For a sense of what the world would look like if Russia was the rule not the exception, one needs to look to earlier anniversaries. In my research on the Åland Islands of Finland, for instance, I came across a 77-year old article from the Spectator setting out a far more unruly Baltic in which the centrally-located archipelago constituted “the most important strategical issue in Northern Europe.”

At the time, various groupings involving Sweden, Germany, Russia and forces in Finland actively considered occupying and re-militarizing Åland in order to pre-empt the damage that could result from others doing it first. In effect, security was to be won at the expense of your neighbours rather than achieved in cooperation with them. Tensions around Åland never fully went away as indicated by recent revelations (here in Swedish) that Sweden maintained a secret occupation force in case the Soviet Union were to invade Finland.

But we truly are living in a different world now than in 1938, and one in which collective security is being tested as rarely before, but remains an article of faith. A striking example comes from Ben Judah’s recent reportage in Politico on the long lead-up to the annexation of Crimea. Former Polish foreign minister Radek Sikorski describes attempts in 2013 by Russia to offer Poland a stake in the partition of Ukraine – an offer that fell entirely flat in a democratic country that had long since oriented itself toward European integration:

Russia has attempted to involve Poland in the invasion of Ukraine, just as if it were a post-modern re-run of the historic partitions of Poland. “He wanted us to become participants in this partition of Ukraine,” says Sikorski. … This was one of the first things that Putin said to my prime minister, Donald Tusk, [soon to be President of the European Council] when he visited Moscow. He went on to say Ukraine is an artificial country and that Lwow is a Polish city and why don’t we just sort it out together. Luckily Tusk didn’t answer. He knew he was being recorded.”

The fact that Russia’s behaviour increases and emphasises its isolation will remain cold comfort as long as it remains unclear what Putin really wants. If, as some maintain, he just wants de facto security guarantees, then Minsk II can be the end of the Ukrainian conflict if the West can show enough strategic patience to calm the situation down. If as others claim, he will continue to push as far as he can go on every front, then Western strategic patience will be seen as encouragement. Hard not to be somebody’s useful idiot in this brave new world.

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Cleaning up the maps? Portents of unilateral partition in Syria

by Rhodri C. Williams

One of the chilling by-products of the wars in the former Yugoslavia two decades ago was the development of antiseptic terminology like ‘ethnic cleansing’, a neologism that managed to obscure the most visceral and intimate fratricide Europe had seen in decades behind a whiff of wiper fluid. Personally, I was always most disturbed by the related idea of ‘cleaning up the maps’, a notion that departed entirely from any notion of humanity (at least the cleansing was admittedly ‘ethnic’) and equated living communities with any other natural barriers that might impede the march of progress.

Map-cleaning emerged as a term of art at the time of the fall of Srebrenica, one of a number of embattled enclaves in Bosnia that presented both logistically and strategically challenging anomalies in the territorial carve-up then viewed as an essentially inevitable outcome of the war. Get everybody on the right side of defensible lines, so the theory, and the map becomes a blueprint for a durable peace. The problem, as demonstrated in Srebrenica in July 1995, is that the tidying can take the form of flight, or forced removal, or mass murder, depending on the circumstances. Whatever capacity maps may have to be tidy, wars rarely are.

For some time now, the specter of partition has hung over Syria, albeit in a context in which it was not seen as a desired option for any of the parties to the conflict. Rather, as described by Jim Muir at the BBC, de facto partition of the country is likely to result as an inevitable status quo from a situation in which no side is likely to be able to achieve a complete victory over any other. Meanwhile, commentators such as Robin Yassin-Kassab (here) and Marwa Daoudy (in Open Democracy) remain at pains to point out that the Syria conflict is only sectarian to the extent that the Assad regime has made it so in a bid to consolidate and militarize its most reliable constituencies and demonize peaceful protesters.

As described by Daoudy, this tactic may have taken on a dynamic that the regime may now no longer be able or willing to control: Continue reading

If it’s broke, destroy it? The partition debate arrives in Syria

by Rhodri C. Williams

Almost inevitably in appalling situations like the conflict in Syria, there comes a moment when inhibitions seem to drop among certain sectors of the commentariat and a note of petulant, provocative resignation enters the debate. They can’t live together, goes the standard line, and they have well and truly proved it now. Why should liberals in the West be indulged in their Benetton fantasies? Why spend blood and treasure to preside over the shotgun remarriage of nations so fundamentally unable to tolerate each other’s presence that they engage in fratricide?

The infuriating thing about such ‘partitionist’ arguments is not (only) the curiously visceral satisfaction some commentators seem to take in espousing a vision of humanity unable to accommodate difference by any other means than forced assimilation or strict separation. Nor is it the fact that such arguments tend to rely on speculation about what ordinary people actually want, often in the face of considerable evidence to the contrary. Nor the way that they play into the hands of unprincipled and frequently undemocratic elites and conflict entrepreneurs. It is the fact that they may in some cases be right but for all the wrong reasons.

My first brush with ‘partitionist’ lines of argument came in Bosnia where my initial receptivity to them was challenged not only intuitively (by my unreconstructed persistence in the belief that people can find ways to rub along together) but also structurally (by my job specifically seeking ways to support Bosnians in doing so). However, my best efforts notwithstanding, the partition bandwagon rolled along, perhaps in most raucous form when splitting Bosnia looked like a real option, yet gaily undeterred long after it was clear that partition was neither particularly feasible nor especially desirable.

Perhaps as a result, there was a certain satisfaction in having worked on something as seemingly pollyanna-ish as property restitution in post-conflict Bosnia and seen it succeed. Granted, not everyone returned, but the result was segregation based largely on individual and household choices, rather than partition based on a political sew-up. And, safe in an unprovable negative, I will propose that the brute fact of restitution – the resolution of 200,000 claims that intimately affected many of the families most victimized by the conflict – cannot but have had a calming influence that has helped keep Bosnia’s notorious post-war ethnic politicking from spilling over into new bloodshed.

One can even argue that the pollyannas have been vindicated once again by the recent post-nationalist demonstrations in Bosnia. Perhaps the new generation we have all been going on about so long has now come of age. If this is the case, a new politics could result. Certainly not a politics that transcends nationalism (not even Sweden can manage that), but one that could at least reveal the hollowness at the core of the ‘inevitability’ discourses surrounding partition proposals in places like Bosnia.

Nevertheless, in 2004, the very year that I left Bosnia convinced that partitionism was en route to the dustbin of history, ethnic riots in Kosovo sent carefully orchestrated plans for national reconciliation there into a tailspin. A familiar call and response ensued, with aggrieved international observers eager to wash their hands of the mess and earnest liberal interventionists arguing that the preservation of a multiethnic society was not only possible but necessary.

At that point, my former Bosnia colleagues Marcus Cox and Gerald Knaus of the European Stability Initiative (ESI) were prompted to mount one of the most spirited defenses of ‘post-partitionism’ to date, contrasting the integrity of international efforts to hold places like Bosnia together with the cynicism of an earlier generation of peace agreements in which population transfers were as routine as border demarcations. But in 2004, one year into the US invasion of Iraq, the partition debate had barely begun. Two years later, the festering dispute between Arabs and Kurds over the region surrounding Kirkuk and the spiraling sectarian violence in Baghdad placed partition squarely on the international agenda.

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Good morning South Sudan

Its official! The world’s latest country and one of its most hard-won and fragile can take its seat in the General Assembly. As background reading, my previous musings on the topic here, and a lyrical defense of a right to minority secession by Timothy William Waters here on EJIL Talk.

On an administrative note, apologies to TN readers for the long gap since the last posting. I wish I could say it was because I’d already gone on summer vacation but its actually because, in classic consultant style, I am currently consumed by the work I must finish before I can contemplate taking summer vacation! Please bear with me, some interesting postings and guest-postings forthcoming.

Bosnia update: political crisis, partition proposals and property claims

by Rhodri C. Williams

Bosnia continues to elude complete stabilization in both large ways (such as unquiet territorial debates) and small ones (such as unresolved property claims). A recent run of analysis and reports on Bosnia provides examples of both:

First, a typically engaging piece by Tihomir Loza on TOL updates us on Bosnia’s tormented struggle toward a government after last October’s elections. This article focuses on the way that the Social Democrats – heirs to the ethnically inclusive but authoritarian pre-war Yugoslav political mainstream – have alienated Bosnia’s minority Croats by using a curious loophole in the postwar constitutional framework (and one that was originally pointed out to me by old friend and eminent constitutional expert Gianni LaFerrara when I was a green young intern at OHR).

Specifically, the presidential election rules unintentionally (Gianni?) give non-Croats a decisive vote in electing the Croat member of the Bosnian presidency, an opportunity which they appear to have seized. In reaction, the Croats have begun to demand greater territorial autonomy, asserting (in Bosnia’s curious constitutional parlance) that “the only way for Bosnia’s Croats to protect their interests and dignity was to shape the territories on which they form the majority into a third entity.” Stay tuned…

Second, Gerard Toal has highlighted an interesting exchange of views on the fuure of Bosnia published in the most recent edition of European Affairs. The series starts off with an extraordinarily breezy call for the partition of Bosnia by Ted Galen Carpenter of the Cato Institute. Aside from getting at least one basic Bosnia fact wrong (the “high representative” in Bosnia is distinctive precisely because it is not a UN mission), he appears to conflate the ‘forced unity’ of Bosnian nation-building with a recent history of civil wars fought over the entirely distinct phenomenon of post-colonial inheritance of colonial boundaries (posted on here).

The central policy prescription given is that international actors should ‘withdraw objections’ to the secession of various bits of Bosnia; given that such objections are founded on international treaties, the Bosnian Constitution, the aspirations of a probable majority of Bosnia’s citizens and the regional plan for EU accession of at least three countries, I myself would have a hard time figuring how to campaign for that one, let alone implement it.

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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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The week in links – week 39/2010

A few interesting items last week:

  1. Nicholas Christoph at the NY Times lays out a scenario for a derailed referendum on the independence of southern Sudan to result in yet another post-Cold War genocide in early 2011 – and advises the Obama administration to put punitive pipeline bombing on the table as a foreign policy instrument.
  2. Lazaro Sumbeiywo and John Danforth provide a slightly more prosaic account of what is at stake in the upcoming referendum and take rather a different policy tack in plugging for increased development assistance to help Sudan improve its woeful MDG standing.
  3. Its twenty years since German unification, the event that bumped me out of my teenage apathy and into the slipstream of the New World Order we have all enjoyed the fruits of since. Foreign Policy reports on how Europe’s current economic woes relate to the deal cut back then, while NYT notes that South Korea is scrutinizing the unification model for events foreseeable over the next twenty.
  4. Its also been 20 years since the first human development report. Who knew? UNDP has a dedicated webpage including a number of new thematic research papers on “key issues and concepts of human development”
  5. Finally, a new journal has just come out of Penn Press that bundles together a lot of the issues a lot of TN readers hold dear: “Humanity is a semiannual publication dedicated to publishing original research and reflection on human rights, humanitarianism, and development in the modern and contemporary world.” Enjoy it, o those of you with access to academic databases, and may a little bit trickle down to the rest of us.