Sovereign aspirations and political power games


Child with Scottish flag

Emerging reports suggest that Scotland may be ready for a peaceful exit from more than 300 years of union with the remainder of the United Kingdom. At the same time, a bloody struggle for greater autonomy in Eastern Ukraine appears to be on hold after the start of a wobbly ceasefire and Libya, Syria and Iraq are torn apart by very active wars over their identity. Meanwhile, the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians seethes on.

All of these examples highlight the difficulties underlying the question of 'self-determination'. While ethnic and national tensions have always existed, the term had a particular resonance as World War I drew to a close, when US president Woodrow Wilson's 14 points called for self-determination for peoples in the Austro-Hungarian and Ottoman empires.

Self-determination inevitably became linked with decolonisation and an end to peoples being ruled by foreign governments far away. As this process accelerated in the inter-war and post-World War II years, self-determination became entrenched in the major international instruments, being included in Article 1.2 of the UN Charter. Article 1 of both the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the International Covenant on Economic and Social Rights begins 'All peoples have the right to self-determination'. Indeed, in the decolonisation context, who could possibly object?

Nevertheless, superpower rivalry during the Cold War already pointed to some of the conceptual problems lurking beneath this deceptively simple concept. The Americans were reluctant to have anything to do with self-determination in South America (which, under the Monroe Doctrine, they saw as a fiefdom) while vigorously promoting it in the Eastern bloc. For the Soviets, the position was exactly reversed.

The problem of who qualifies as a 'people' and what the content of the right is becomes particularly acute when the right to self-determination bumps up against that bedrock of international law, national sovereignty. Article 2.4 of the UN Charter protects the 'territorial integrity of states' and bans the use of force against it, while Article 2.7 prohibits interference in a state's domestic affairs.

All of this reflects the fact that, since the Treaty of Westphalia of 1648 (which ended the bloody Thirty Years War by effectively declaring that national boundaries trump religion), the nation state has been seen as the fundamental unit of international law for most purposes. Violation of national sovereignty is seen as the most basic crime a state can commit at international law.

In some cases, the problem goes away by agreement. Where people are given a choice to create a new state or recreate an old one, as in Scotland, there is no issue. There have been an increasing number of such incidents since the end of the Cold War. Think, for example, of Namibia, Timor Leste or South Sudan.

Even here, however, independence may be the 'second best' result for people being denied other options. Opinions polls suggest that most Scots would have supported a maximal autonomy position (popularly called 'Devo-Max') but instead are confronted with a binary choice. Whether autonomy is a possible compromise therefore depends a lot on the goodwill of the parties. Autonomy, too, is unfortunately a very murky term with the parties needing to hammer out the exact powers to be devolved.

The real difficulty lies where self-determination conflicts directly with national sovereignty. Here the sad truth is that each side adopts the rhetoric that suits it and the result depends on the balance of political powers which each can muster.

While the US and its European allies helped the Kosovo Liberation Army bomb Kosovo out of Serbia, they are less than happy for Russia to assist Ukrainian Russian-speakers wanting independence, or at least autonomy, from the Ukrainian-speaking government in Kyiv. Russia, by the same token, has bitter memories of its own campaigns against Chechen separatists. Arming my rebels serves self-determination, arming yours is a violation of sovereignty. The Israel-Palestine conflict is another case where competing conceptions of sovereignty and statehood, grounded in radically different historical narratives have contributed to what has become an intractable quagmire of misery for all sides.

If there is hope, it lies in the United Nations. Unfortunately, one suspects that the current ambiguity is just too convenient for all the great powers.


Justin GlynJustin Glyn SJ is a student of philosophy and theology who holds a PhD in international and administrative law.


Thumbnail image in teaser via the Scottish Government on flickr under Creative Commons licence 2.0. Main image of child with Scotland flag by Neil Winton also on flickr under Creative Commons no-derivative licence.

Topic tags: Justin Glyn, Scotland referendum, sovereignty, self-determination, United Nations, United Kingdom



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Existing comments

one aspect of state boundaries that must be reckoned with in the modern world is trade. These days no country can live in isolation from the rest of the world and healthy trade leads to prosperity and social harmony

john ozanne | 15 September 2014  

"that bedrock of international law, national sovereignty. Article 2.4 of the UN Charter protects the 'territorial integrity of states' and bans the use of force against it, while Article 2.7 prohibits interference in a state's domestic affairs." The idea of 'Sovereign Borders' is no more than a stage to be outgrown as the World shrinks to become a Global Village. As we mature as a Global Community, boundaries will become less meaningful, and we will see each other as fellow passengers on Spaceship Earth.

Name | 16 September 2014  

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