Well before the US invasion of Iraq, the American media was doing all within their power to stir popular support. Second only to claims of “WMDs”, the most consistent subject was the plight of Iraqi Kurds. To the average American this previously unknown people became a symbol of Saddam Hussein’s cruelty, and their suffering a grim example of the vulnerability of a people who do not have a homeland of their own.
That was over five years ago now. While the conflict wages on, the government of Saddam Hussein is nonetheless a matter of history. The United States has had the ability to create a Kurdish state, or at least to make efforts to that end. They could draw up an independent nation for an ethnicity considered “the largest people without a piece of land”. These are a people who desire and deserve one, and the existence of such a state would deter any unforeseen future ethnic oppression like that seen under Saddam.
Yet this has not been done, and will not be done. For all of the hype that surrounded these people before the invasion they have since become unmentionable on American news and forgotten by the American people. The reasons for this inaction are not complex. The creation of Kurdish state in northern Iraq would encourage Kurdish secessionists in south-eastern Turkey, thereby severely angering the U.S.’s closest allies in the region. The token gesture of creating an “autonomous region” within Iraq (not to mention the small yellow stripe on the short-lived “new Iraqi flag”) are pathetic, token gestures. In the long run they will not solve the historical differences between these peoples, as they do not take adequate measure to quench a proud people’s thirst for independence. These efforts amount to a simple postponement to what will be more troubles down the road, a tactic American foreign policy executes flawlessly.
The concept of national self-determination was raised again last Sunday when the 92% ethnic-Albanian people of Kosovo declared its independence from Serbia. This would seem like an inevitable reaction by a people torn by genocide for decades – that an ethnic group will only be dominated by another so long as they feel they have no other choice. When an opportunity presents itself, it will, and must, be taken.
This concept is understandable enough, and many nations, including most in the E.U., have thus far recognized this newest of states. Some have declined for fear of upsetting relations with Serbia, showing once more that elected officials the world over will chose political expediency over doing what is right. Another nation that has deemed the succession “illegal”, and the only one in Western Europe, is Spain.
This is no doubt due to their own troubles with the Basque separatists, and a state that has struggled so hard to contain their own secessionist movements will be less inclined to recognize others. Fascinating stuff, really, and the concept of one nation not recognizing another deserves closer examination, as does the claim that such “unilateral” declarations of independence are illegal.
By contemporary, democratic standards, a government derives its legitimacy directly from its claim of representing the people over which it rules. At the point that the people, or a part of those people, no longer wish to be a part of that state, by extension they are not. There is a potential slippery-slope to this argument, of course, and self-determination does have it’s limitations. One can not, for example, declare their suburban property an independent nation, a la Family Guy‘s “Petoria”. There is little basis for such action, and it is furthermore infeasible, as the people of this new nation would invariably walk on public (and “foreign”) streets, shop at “foreign” grocery stores, etc.
Independence movements such as those seen among the Kurds in Iraq, Turkey and Iran, and the Basque in Spain and France; these have much more in common with the independence movements from which many modern nations have been born. These are realistic nation-states, as the ethnic groups they represent remain in some geographical ethnic ‘homeland’, with shared history, culture, and identity.
Consider the nations these movements would create were they successful. Now consider many independent nations in existence today. Belgium is by all accounts an accident of history. There exists a country for the richest and most arrogant of the French; it is called Monaco. There is a country for the most powerful of the Catholics; it is called Vatican City. Too small and too alike its neighbours for anyone to care, Andorra pointlessly cradles the border of Spain and France, while neither country will extend the same freedom to the people of the Basque land. These states cannot realistically boast a distinct culture or ethnicity, but they are countries which have complete autonomy. Meanwhile, ethnic groups with distinct identity going back thousands of years are relegated to being the subject of another culture’s occupation.
This may seem like too strong a word, but with popular secession movements thwarted by government intervention, “occupation” is exactly what occurs. The American revolution was no less a “unilateral” bid at independence than any other separatist movement. So too was the French Resistance in the Second World War efforts at “unilateral separation” -the Germans themselves seemed in no hurry to leave. These were examples of the ruled not considering themselves of the people who were ruling them, but had at first little recourse due to military inadequacy.
It is a nasty business both in reality and in concept. One could go so far as to consider such occupation tantamount to conquest, with every nation which attempts to control another people through force conquerors, just as a slave-holder is guilty of slavery though he did not personally do the enslaving. To prolong injustice is to commit injustice. To believe no nation has the ethical right to “unilaterally” conquer another necessitates an understanding and support of secessionist movements. Until they do, the greater claims of national representation remain unfulfilled.
We are taught to believe that a flag is a symbol of a nation, and that a nation is the collective will of the culture it represents. Flown together so presumptuously from diplomatic buildings to 4-star hotels, we’ve seen rows and rows of diverse national flags, each presumably representing a different people in this proud and advanced age where we at least attempt harmony despite our differences. With justifiable independence movements suppressed within their borders, these representation of the peoples of the world amount to a great illusion, a lie.
Which begs the question: what is a nation? I realize that the people from Norway speak Norwegian, and Han Chinese have been known to be living in China for thousands of years. But what is a “Kuwaiti”, when the nation did not exist before 1961? What does it mean when we see children waving little plastic Kuwaiti flags on TV knowing that their sense of nationhood is the product of corrupt British politicos and well-connected Arabian sheikhs?
If governments are really supposed to represent proud and distinct peoples, cultures and ethnicities, rather than just people within an arbitrary square bit of land drawn haphazardly on a map by a drunken Englishman some fifty years ago, world governments must own up to true self-determination, that all peoples have a right to pursue government policy even if that means separatism, and that separatism can be a noble and intelligent thing, even if those wishing to separate currently lay within one’s own borders.
This action, though it may be supported by the people it would represent, is frequently condemned as “illegal” by international community, and almost always by the occupying state itself (the “Velvet Divorce” of Czechoslovakia in 1993 and a handful of post-colonial movements are rare exceptions). Even a prominent former colony such as India is not above the oppression of minority secessionist movements. Just over 60 years removed from its own colonial history and knowing well the bitterness of foreign domination, the Constitution of India expressly forbids states from declaring independence. Separatist political parties have been banned, and secessionist movements, such as that of the Sikh-dominated ‘Khalistan’ of Punjab have been suppressed with violence where necessary.
Now the overwhelmingly non-Serbian population of Kosovo has withdrawn from Serbia. Serbia itself is no stranger to essentially nationalist independence movements over much of this last century, lastly from the greater Yugoslavia, then from the greater Soviet bloc, from the Nazis, and originally from the Austrio-Hungarian Empire. It was a Serbian nationalist’s desire for independence that drove him to fire the shots that instigated the First World War. These governments can quite clearly understand the motivation behind secession, but choose not to.
Hypocrisy? Of course it is. Inevitable? Probably.
The reprehensible positions of national governments declaring justifiable independence movements illegal illustrates that, when they conflict, most governments will choose self-indulgent political expediency before higher ideals of what is right. The uninspiring reality is that national governments – every national government – desires power, and the more power the better. Behind every claim of “independence” and “freedom” there is the base materialist desire to be bigger and better, or at the very least not to grow smaller and weaker. They get away with this injustice because they can.
But as ever when political reality does not coincide with political justice, the argument against the status quo is always worth the effort. There is always something to be said for speaking out against it, even if you are never heard. I must presume you feel the same, or else you wouldn’t be reading this article and would never have given this magazine the slightest chance. It is this effort, if nothing else, that keeps politics from becoming just another business, and it is a people’s sense of representation that puts human meaning behind those pieces of cloth at the top of poles.
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This post was written by Richard Maidu