Tag Archives: self-determination

New book review on “the Åland example”: Balancing engagement and exclusion in autonomy regimes

by Rhodri C. Williams

I am very pleased to announce that my review of the Åland Island Peace Institute’s book on “the Åland example” was just published in the Nordic Journal of International Law. The editors at NJIL were quite generous in allowing me seventeen pages to discuss the contribution that the book makes to charting the lessons a distant Nordic language conflict that embraced peace may have for the numerous contemporary ethnic conflicts that evade it.

The review can be downloaded in full here so I will not go into detail in this post. However, it is worth noting that one of the consistent strengths throughout this volume is the emphasis on the process by which an autonomy regime is created and sustained, rather than the substance of its rules, as being crucial to its viability. This echoes one of the fundamental lessons of the ‘new constitutionalism’ described in my earlier research on constitution-building for the Folke Bernadotte Academy, namely that founding documents in ethnic conflict settings should emphasize ongoing dialogue rather than finality in order avoid the recurrence of conflict.

The ironic lesson to be drawn here is that the Ålanders ability to maintain a sustained and constructive engagement with the Finnish authorities in Helsinki has been crucial to securing their highly asymmetrical political status within the Finnish state. However, there is a further irony that will come as little surprise in light of my earlier writings on Åland in these pages. This involves the fact that the strong land rights of the Åland Islanders, including a limited right to exclude outsiders from the rest of Finland from acquiring property, may be a crucial part of the Ålanders bargaining power.

Openness resulting from the right to be closed. Hardly an easy sell in conflict-management settings, but far better than most of the alternatives.

Scotland chooses a bird in the hand

by Rhodri C. Williams

I declined to comment in advance on the Scottish referendum in part because I have been too busy to blog much at all, but also in part because it is none of my business. The wonderful thing about free and fair referenda like this is that they render outside observations almost entirely superfluous. Unless you actually have information that bears directly on the outcome – like EU experts – you are just projecting your own concerns onto somebody else’s drama – like the Spanish government panicking about Catalonia’s impending independence bid. Or China freaked out by any state reaction to regional agitation short of obsessive centralized control.

Perhaps the most spectacular example of such projection has been Russia’s cringe-inducing effort to project its new non-linear warfare to Caledonia. As described in the Guardian, a Russian monitoring team has rubbished the vote there because the rooms where the ballots were counted being “too big”. The same article quotes a Russia Today host questioning the high turnout as “what you would expect in North Korea”. Perhaps they are expecting the Scots to begin demanding an intervention by little green men? Perhaps they had a few geographically challenged paratroopers in the belly of the superannuated bomber they sent to buzz Scotland on referendum day?

As nicely skewered by the “Darth Putin – KGB” twitter account, Russia was clearly hoping that a truly legitimate independence referendum in Scotland would not only distract London from things like sanctions but also somehow cast unearned retroactive legitimacy on the shambles Russia staged in Crimea. However, as observed by Thomas De Waal at the time, the Crimea referendum was not only aggression masquerading as self-determination (even accepting that minorities can secede from states that have blatantly violated their rights, this did not apply in Crimea), but also a departure from what Scotland has now consolidated as international best practice for negotiated democratic decision-making on sovereignty.

Despite some post-referendum ugliness in Glasgow, the Russians’ blatant attempt to make hay on a genuinely democratic referendum, and their misreading of public sentiment afterwards may at least give both sides something to chuckle about. Is it really so inconceivable that placing the fate of a nation in its own hands would not inspire widespread and passionate participation? RT’s cynicism on this point says far more about the state of contemporary Russia than it does about Scotland. Notwithstanding the bruised feelings on both sides, Kevin McKenna points out that the combination of passion and civility throughout the campaign does all sides proud:

Scotland has delivered to the world a new gold standard in how modern political democracy ought to function. This was achieved during a struggle that was as passionate, raw and emotional as anything ever previously encountered in these islands. Yet not a bullet was fired and nor were there any physical casualties. The conduct of those chiefly involved in both campaigns was exemplary and, if not entirely chivalrous, certainly characterised by dignity and mutual respect.

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More cold comfort from Åland in advance of the Crimea referendum

by Rhodri C. Williams

Well the ironies are just flying in thick and fast, as the Russian-speaking local majority on Crimea prepare a referendum to pave the way for the mother of all minority rights protections – secession to the kin state.

There is more and more reporting on how nervous this is making Crimea’s real national minority, the Crimean Tatars – see here in the Washington Post or this Globe and Mail comment by Victor Ostapchuk. And for an eloquent appeal by a forlorn Russian-speaking Crimean who thinks he may have seen the forest for the trees, see this New Yorker piece by Natalia Antelava.

But back to the more obvious ironies. How about this, for starters – Russia, having used arbitrary gas price hikes and occasional winter shutoffs as a disciplinary measure against Ukraine for years, now finds itself sponsoring secession by a Crimean peninsula entirely dependent on the Ukrainian mainland for water, electricity and most of its communications and transportation infrastructure.

Or this one – the Russian sponsors of a Crimean referendum transparently without substantive justification and flagrantly in violation of all accepted procedures for negotiating such processes have now set out an implicit casus belli against the rest of Ukraine by finding fault with the technicalities of its 1991 split from the Soviet Union.

Or simply the fact that Russia’s “support” of Crimea has apparently been justified based on an assertion that the right to external self-determination apparently now applies in situations of contested transfers of power. On this basis, one wonders how much of Russia’s current territory might be interested in a review of their sovereignty arrangements after Putin’s controversial reelection in 2012?

But none of that changes the fact that Crimea is racing toward its referendum, blood has been drawn again in street fighting in Donetsk, and Russian troops are once again massed near the border to Eastern Ukraine. A last minute diplomatic scramble is underway, but Moscow is looking intransigent. So, where does that leave things?

First, a caveat. While I think that the Russian handling of the Ukraine crisis has been dishonest, cynical, inflammatory, illegal, foolish and predictable, I do not deny that Russia has a legitimate stake, and must inherently be as much part of any future solution as it is part of the current problem. I also fear that NATO’s ambitions in the region have a significant and insufficiently examined role in stoking the current conflict, and find arguments for “Finlandization” persuasive.

Second, an omission. In my recent Opinio Juris piece, I forgot to mention that one of the most important similarities between the Åland Islands crisis and that in Crimea may be yet to emerge. Specifically, the Åland crisis began with a controversial referendum in which the local population voted overwhelmingly for union with Sweden. Helsinki condemned it as illegal, but all parties refrained from violence, and the conflict eventually found its way to the League of Nations and was resolved there. 

In all likelihood, the Crimeans will have their say on Sunday. Whether it will be free, fair, representative or meaningful is another matter. But if the ICJ said nothing else in their Kosovo Advisory Opinion, they did uphold some kind of freedom of speech in relation to self-determination movements. The real question is whether the referendum will represent the final word. It should not, and if everyone keeps a cool head, it may not.

Guest-posting at Opinio Juris – Åland and Crimea as distant cousins

by Rhodri C. Williams

I am grateful to the editors at Opinio Juris for facilitating my debut there as a late addition in their Insta-Symposium on the Ukraine crisis. My guest-post (accessible here) focuses on the question of whether the settled autonomy and demilitarization regime in the Åland Islands of Finland hold any lessons for the Crimea crisis. As such, it builds both on my ongoing research on the Åland autonomy and on my more recent commentaries on self-determination issues in the Ukraine crisis.

The Ukraine crisis is really only the latest in a series of post-Cold War crises that have unraveled all the constructive ambiguity built into the UN Charter, slinging concepts like territorial integrity, self-determination and non-aggression into one unhealthy mix and shaking vigorously. As pointed out by Thomas de Waal in the Wall Street Journal, the crisis also invokes many of the baroque debates surrounding sovereignty, regional integration, secession and devolution floating around the EU as Scotland and Catalonia contemplate their futures.

It can all seem dispiriting, but in the midst of the gloom it can be helpful to be reminded that there have been ostensibly intractable and potentially catastrophic geopolitical conflicts that have been successfully resolved, such as the Åland Islands question in the 1920s. And curiously enough, the deeper I dug, the more resonances I seemed to find between the Åland case and that of Crimea in Ukraine. But you, dear reader, should be the judge

Responsibility to provoke? Aggression, self-determination and the Ukraine crisis

by Rhodri C. Williams

With four posts in a row on the tumult in Ukraine, it is starting to feel like this blog has joined Crimea in being overrun by Berkut riot police and Night Wolves biker gangs. But it is impossible not to be distracted by the parade of tragicomedy that almost hourly seems to turn all of our sanctimonious post-Cold War certainties on their head. And the point is that after three posts of, essentially, just trying to keep up with events, this is the one where I finally get to engage with the scrimmage of international law and self-determination discourses being hurled around.

First things first. There is little doubt that the Russian takeover of the Crimean peninsula is illegal under international law, and more specifically the rule against aggression that constitutes one of the central planks of the UN Charter. US Secretary of State John Kerry splashed out early on, decrying an “incredible act of aggression”, with Russia behaving in a “19th century fashion by invading another country on a completely trumped-up pretext.” More soberly, EU Foreign Ministers have condemned “acts of aggression by the Russian armed forces.”

Legally, the charges seem to stick. In a cautious, preliminary analysis in EJILTalk, Daniel Wisehart argues that neither of the relevant conventional exceptions to the non-aggression rule – self-defence or intervention by invitation – can credibly be invoked in this case. A recent appeal by the Ukrainian Association of International Law goes further to claim “not only a violation of the UN Charter and general international law, but also of the bilateral treaty permitting Russia to retain the Black Sea Fleet in Ukraine, and also of the security assurances given in the Budapest Memorandum of 1994 by Russia…” So, what is Russia saying?

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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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What can indigenous peoples learn from the Åland Islands land acquisition regime?

by Rhodri C. Williams

This comment is cross-posted from the Åland Islands Peace Institute’s blog with the generous permission of my colleagues there. The Peace Institute is an independent foundation that examines peace and conflict issues from the perspective of the Åland Islands’ special legal status, as recently described in an edited volume on the utility of “the Åland example” in contemporary peace negotiations and peace-building. My below comment gives an overview of the issues I am currently researching with funding from the Åland Islands Cultural Foundation. For an earlier take on these issues, see a chapter I wrote for a 2009 study on “the foundations of the Åland autonomy” while still a guest researcher at the Peace Institute.

The autonomy regime enjoyed by the Åland Islands within Finland is an extraordinary political experiment that has withstood the test of time better than most of its kind. It has the authority of age, dating back to agreements brokered by the League of Nations during the interwar period. At the same time, the autonomy has not merely survived but thrived, having been progressively expanded in scope both during and after the Cold War. Perhaps most tellingly, Åland negotiated a path into the EU alongside Finland in 1994 that not only allowed it to retain the key features of its regime, but also endowed it with the confidence to negotiate hard for further arrangements seen as necessary to prevent its sub-national powers from being rolled over by the supra-national juggernaut in Brussels.

Having lived on Åland full time from 2004 to 2010 and made regular summer pilgrimages from Stockholm ever since, the place has made a deep impression on me and shaped my thinking about the rights and wrongs of minority protection. This is saying something as well, given that I was a skeptic on arrival. As an American raised on melting pot mythology and Brown vs. Board, my instinct was to believe that separate could neither be equal nor desirable. Moreover, having spent the previous five years as part of the international effort to stitch post-war Bosnia back together, I was painfully aware of the extent to which strategies based on entrenching group difference could feed conflict as easily as they could resolve it. But I was impressed from the start by two things about Åland.

First, Åland really did do a good job governing itself. Sure, there were things to complain about, but people got on with it and government delivered. Given that Åland was both tiny compared with other administrative units in the Nordic countries and relatively rich, the archipelago seemed like a textbook case for the subsidiarity-based efficiency arguments for decentralizing power. Second, Ålanders were incredibly interested in their own autonomy. Most outsiders I talk to have a hard time believing 27,000 people manage to support two daily newspapers that between them hardly have time for stories from beyond Kobba Klintar. The identity-based arguments for autonomy clearly applied as well – in other words, Åland has autonomy because Ålanders wouldn’t settle for less.

For reasons not entirely clear to myself, I have long been drawn to questions about land and property. I wrote a masters thesis in Geography long ago on the effect of East German housing policies after unification, and went on to work in Bosnia on the restitution of homes for families that had been forced to flee during the war. As a consultant, I also focused on property issues in post-conflict countries such as Cambodia, Colombia, Cyprus, Liberia and Turkey. Some of my most recent work included an analysis of property conflicts in contemporary Libya. However, even if my early consultancy career was focused on post-conflict countries, my life was being lived in one of Europe’s flagship autonomies. When I had the good fortune to be offered a guest-researcher position at the Åland Islands Peace Institute, I quickly began to realize how important land and property issues could also be in terms of protection and conflict prevention for minorities and indigenous peoples.

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