The Future of Self-Determination

By Jayasinghe, Shyamon | Contemporary Review, March 2002 | Go to article overview

The Future of Self-Determination


Jayasinghe, Shyamon, Contemporary Review


THE ideal of self-determination, having once enjoyed considerable influence in world politics appears to have stumbled upon itself by over extension.

Originally popularised in the days of the American Declaration of Independence (1776) and the French Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizens (1789), the concept then articulated the inherent right of people (as opposed to their monarchs) to choose their own governments. This signalled the rise of modem parliamentary democracy in the West. In the nineteenth century the struggles to bring about national unity in Germany and Italy caused many disturbances to the balance of power in Europe. Nevertheless the doctrine of self-determination was supported by most political thinkers. After World Wars One and Two, self-determination inspired the demolition of empires and the formation of new sovereign states; the concept being thus extended in the 1940s and 1950s to apply in the context of the decolonisation process. One observes the further extension of the principle today, as it inspires the surge of ethnic politics and threatens the break-up of the established post-colonial order. The current trial in the Hague reminds us of the disastrous consequences that can flow from the violent break-up of a state like Yugoslavia.

The global community has begun to frown on a doctrine that was once considered impregnable. The rise of the urban guerrilla terror phenomenon as seen in the fighting that takes place in parts of Ireland, Spain, Kashmir, the Southern Philippines, Indonesia, and Sri Lanka is the latest factor to strengthen global prejudice toward self-determination. Contemporary urban guerrilla techniques aided by developments in technology and the emergence of the suicide bomber phenomenon -- seen recently in the United Sates and Israel -- have empowered minorities to use violence in ways unseen before.

Reacting to such hostility, ethnic terror movements have been trying hard to redefine their brand of terror by asserting that they are, in fact, 'fighters for self-determination'. This is also an attempt to give the necessary moral underpinning to their campaigns. However, the world community may demand: 'can the means justify the ends'? Big powers including the US, who would not have been traumatised in the past with such issues, have been too shaken by September 11th not to be concerned. Is not Al-Qaeda sticking to 'liberation ideology'?

There is a logical problem about the general claim for self-determination. Where does a given claim for self-determination end? This, of course was a problem that the United Sates faced in 1860 when the southern states began to secede from the Union. It took four years of horrific war to settle that particular case, but there still are modem intellectual battles about secession throughout the world. 'The logic of secession', says Viva Bartkus in her brilliant book, The Dynamic of Secession (Cambridge University Press, 1999), 'would be the infinite division of existing political entities'. Suppose, for instance, the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), currently fighting the Sri Lanka government for the eighteenth year, achieve their goal of setting up a new state of Eelam comprising the Northern and Eastern Provinces, would they disallow the Muslims living in the Eastern Province from subsequently seeking self-determination? 'Should not the Estate Tamils living in the central hill country also demand self -determination? And what about the Sinhalese minorities in these Provinces or even the socially repressed Tamil low caste. Should they also ask for self-determination after Eelam?'

The bottom line is that at some reasonable point, a given minority will have to learn to live with the majority and the latter, equally, would have to reciprocate with the right understanding of its political dependence on good relations with the minorities. …

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