The murky distinction between the principles of self-determination and territorial integrity – As UN rules Kosovar unilateral independence legal, a new precedent is set for nationalist struggles
The secession of Kosovo from Serbia concluded the bitter and bloody breakup of Yugoslavia. However, the onset of independence for Europe’s newest member of the family has been the most contentious.
Kosovo Albanians clearly suffered great atrocities under Serbian rule, leading to NATO intervention and UN protection thereafter. Despite strong opposition from a number of countries including Russia and China, Kosovar’s determination for statehood was undeterred resulting in a unilateral declaration of independence in February 2008.
Although, now recognised by over 69 UN member states, the issue of the legality of the Kosovar independence, facilitated with the support of its American and British allies, has stirred tensions and debate ever since; and crucially has initiated a sense of weariness for a number of countries with their own separatist headaches.
The recent ruling by the International Court of Justice, the first case of secession raised before the World Court, declared that Kosovo’s declaration of independence was in fact legal and did not contravene international law.
This was a highly significant development for Kosovo in its quest for full recognition and UN member status, but it also carries significant ramifications for future cases.
Key global powers in support of Kosovar’s rights have continuously pointed to the notion that Kosovo was a special case, that Serbia’s brutal campaign had forfeited their sovereignty over the province and, as a separate ethnicity, the Kosovar’s were free to choose not to reside with their Serbian counterparts.
However, no matter how this is masked, clearly a strong precedence has been set for nationalist struggles across the world. Furthermore, this is another demonstration of the stark double standards employed by western powers that plagues the notion of a new world order and the ideals of freedom and democracy that the West is desperately trying to promote.
Nowhere in the world is the case of Kosovo more significant than in Kurdistan. The similarities are striking. Ethnic Albanians have suffered under the hands of occupiers and dictatorships as have the Kurds. Albanian’s pose a minority in a number of countries, including Serbia, Macedonia and Greece as do Kurds in Iraq, Iran, Syria and Turkey.
However, while Albanians may have suffered great crimes, their existence as a distinct ethnicity has never been denied and they have an independent state in the form of Albania. Not only was Kurdistan forcibly assimilated, but Kurds in Iraq suffered great campaigns of genocide under the noses of the West; and in Turkey they have never been officially recognised as having a separate identity.
To date, the Kurds still form the largest stateless nation in the world. This begs the question of the criteria for judging the merit of nationalist struggles and just who has the authority to determine and endorse such moves.
Clearly in the case of Kosovo, many countries still refuse to recognise their independence including the veto-holding powers of Russia and China. It was the ardent support of the US and key EU states that was all that was necessary.
The concept of self-determination is not new and was first championed by the then US president Woodrow Wilson after World War I. From colonialism and the fall of great empires, suddenly appeared numerous new countries in the international arena.
Even today, nationalist struggles rage in many countries including Russia, Spain and Georgia.
The issue of self-determination is evidently complicated as it in direct contrast to the principle of territorial integrity. By international law, nations have the right to full sovereignty and the enforcement of their borders but as highlighted in the past, international law can be misconstrued and misapplied based on the strategic goals of global players.
The Kurds, like numerous other nations that encompassed the Ottoman Empire, were afforded the right of self-determination under the Treat of Sevres but somewhat ironically within a few short years, the Kurds were scrubbed-off the map by the Treaty of Lausanne.
No Kurd was ever consulted about the division of its land or its people and the new borders that they were suddenly bound to. This was the decision of global powers and regional actors on the chessboard who held the Kurdish population as inferior pawns that could be ruled and submerged. Once great amounts of oil were discovered in Kurdistan this was the final nail in its quest for statehood as it’s carve up intensified and powers sought to reap the benefits of its immense wealth.
Ironically, although the Kurds have steadily risen in prominence and strategic standing in recent years, any notion of independence would gain no support from the US or other major powers due to geopolitical considerations. By the same token, it is doubtful whether it was purely legal considerations that saw the US support the secession of Kosovo or if it was strategic reasons.
More ironically, the same geopolitical constraints that the West allude to in justifying why Kurdish independence would create instability and a nightmare scenario was created by the West themselves.
Evidently, anarchy would ensue if the principle of self-determination was vaguely applied to all cases. This would amount to great global instability and further bloodshed. However, self-determination can only be applied based on its own merits and not double standards.
The basis of any nationalist struggle is primarily ethnicity. Any established nation has the right to unmolested existence, to decide its own affairs and to express cultural freedom. No nation has the right to submerge, rule-over or deny outright another nation.
These fundamental principles are one of the main reasons why the League of Nations and later the UN was created and why many wars have been waged against rogue regimes and dictators trespassing international charters.
No case demonstrates the lack of international standards than that of Turkey. With a highly nationalistic driven constitution and an oppressive military existence, the Kurds were historically sidelined or merely referred to as “Mountain Turks” and even today do not enjoy key rights granted by UN charters.
The best judge of a nationality is history, culture and heritage. Kurds have existed in the areas that they reside for thousands of years and have been recognised as a distinct nationality throughout history, with their own language, culture, customs and traditions.
In the example of Turkey, the Kurds could benefit immensely from a peaceful and prosperous coexistence with their Turkish counterparts and with it possibly the carrot of EU membership. However, this unison by the virtue of international law must be based on voluntary association, democratic rights, culture freedoms and an equal status.
It was highly significant that Turkey was one of the first countries to recognise Kosovar independence. It was also its flagship of Turkish Cypriot rights that led to the invasion of Cyprus in 1974 and the establishment of a state in Northern Cyprus that was widely condemned.
The Turkish Cypriot right to self-rule and peaceful existence was the vehicle for Turkish intervention. However, what the Turkish Cypriots desire is hardly clear given that they became outnumbered by Turkish settlers brought by the Turkish government.
The principle of “self-determination” is best explained in the words itself. However, by clear contradiction, it is still obvious that owing to the colonial mentalities of Western powers, it is not “self” that determines such a principle but “others”.
As the old English saying goes “what is good for the goose is good for gander”.
First Published On: Kurdish Globe
Other Publication Sources: Online Opinion, eKurd, Peyamner, Various Misc.