Might Makes Right? (ft Intl relations expert Aleksandar Pavkovic)


Oksana Boyko: Hello and welcome to Worlds
Apart. The Crimean referendum has helped to re-open the cold case of territorial integrity
vs self-determination. With the Kosovo precedent now being relied on by Russia and dismissed
by the West, is it once again a case of might making right? Well, to discuss that, I’m now
joined by Aleksandar Pavkovic, a professor at Macquarie University in Australia and the
author of the book ‘Creating New States’. Professor Pavkovic, thank you very much for
appearing on the show. Aleksandar Pavkovic: You’re most welcome. OB: Now, the recent referendum in Crimea has
revived this old debate about legitimacy or illegitimacy of secessionist movements and
we hear various sides accusing each other of violating international law but, as far
as I understand, the law itself is far from being settled on this issue isn’t it? AP: Well, not being a lawyer, I should say
that I don’t think there is international law on secession. So any appeal to international
law is an appeal to a variety of either judgements or a variety of principles, none of which
really deal with secession. OB: So it’s all about political statements
after all, and scoring political points and making political rhetoric essentially? AP: That’s what I think and it’s not only
my opinion. Quite a number of international lawyer also believe that secession is not
regulated by international law and that consequently, any statement that we make about secession
is a political statement primarily. OB: Now, given that we’ve seen quite a few
secessionist movements since the late 1980’s, why do you think the law is so ambiguous,
so vague on this issue? Isn’t it because this ambiguity leaves plenty of loopholes for political
manipulation by, you know, all sides involved? AP: You can put it that way, but I think that
the answer is relatively simple. States want to preserve their territory, that is one of
their main functions and consequently, any attempt to regulate how you take away territory
from a particular state is going to be controversial because very few states are ready voluntarily
to give up territory. OB: Professor Pavkovic, you just said that
states are not really eager to allow part of their territory to go independent, but
a number of countries have been quite active in supporting independence movements in other
states. I wonder, how often does international politics drive secessionist movements? Is
it possible, in this day and age, to find a truly independent independence movement
that would be free of geopolitics? AP: Well, one lesson that every secessionist
movement has learned by now is that if you do not have the agreement of your host state,
of your state form which you are seceding, if you don’t have agreement to gain independence
from that, then you need an outside sponsor. There are no secessions, no successful secessions,
which occurred without an outside sponsor. Now, given that, whenever you have a secessionist
movement which is serious about gaining independence, seceding, they will seek an international
sponsor, and often they will gain it. Sometimes they don’t gain international sponsors, and
in most cases they don’t succeed in gaining independence. So, there is a dynamic there
which is relatively unexplored, but we are at least aware that you cannot successfully
secede without an international sponsor. OB: Now, this dynamic as you said, may be
unexplored but I think it’s used quite often in modern geopolitics. Now, in the absence
of clear legal guidelines, arguments for or against secessions are often couched in moral
terms and morality is a bit like beauty, it’s in the eye of the beholder. I guess you can
make a moral case both for and against any secession movement, right? AP: This is true, not only, one couldn’t really
say, strictly speaking, that morality is in the eye of the beholder. A lot of people would
disagree with that. But when you look at scholarly work on secession and on morality of secession,
you will find indeed very different theories, and sometimes contradictory theories, of how
morally to regulate secession. So given the variety of these theories that we have, you
cannot have a moral argument for or against secession which will be uncontested, and one
of the reasons, very simple reason for that is that secessions are not moral events. In
other words, these are political phenomena and therefore they have their own political
dynamic. They are not regulated, strictly speaking, by morality. We attempt to do so,
but we won’t ever, I think, we won’t be able to regulate it by moral principles. OB: Now, I don’t want to appear cynical, but
I think in geopolitics, human deaths have long been used as a moral argument and unfortunately
the more deaths there are, the stronger seems to be the argument. You mentioned in one of
your public lectures that up to 80% of secessionist movements involve some form of violence, and
I wonder if this propensity towards violence is a direct result of the ambiguity of the
law, when the ambiguity is, in fact, something that incentivises this violence, which could
later be used to legitimise a secessionist movement? AP: This is an excellent point, and quite
a number of scholars point out that secessionist movements often if they are faced with opposition,
with a rejection by the host state, are in fact motivated to use violence in order to
provoke either moral outrage in outside states or to wear down the enemy. In other words,
violence is a useful instrument when you cannot achieve your aims by other means. Now, I don’t
think that that could be avoided by legal regulation. I have a feeling that one way
of resolving this issue is to make territory less valuable so that the host states would
be more inclined to give up territory when there is a very strong secessionist movement
there. I think that would be a more elegant solution to these problems, and we have such
solutions, for example, in Scotland we might have a solution through a referendum without
any violence. So there are peaceful solutions to secessionist conflicts and I think we should
really foster those instead of trying to find some sort of legal regulation. OB: Now, speaking about bloodshed and excessive
bloodshed, I think this argument was used as a part of the justification for Kosovo’s
independence, and I think it was also used later by western politicians to explain why
Kosovo was such a unique case and why it shouldn’t be used as an international precedent. But
given the statistics you cite in your lecture, that is 80% of secessionist movements being
accompanied by some sort of violence, it seems that Kosovo’s case is not that special, after
all. AP: That’s correct, and the argument that
Kosovo has produced extraordinary amount of civilian deaths, and that itself justifies
independence of Kosovo, is both empirically very difficult to uphold because the question
there arises – ‘how many deaths are sufficient for independence?’. In other words, what do
you compare it with? And when you compare it to other kinds of successful secession
such as secession of Bangladesh in 1971, which had many more deaths involved that Kosovo,
and was indeed a precedent, if you want, for successful secession, we can see that there
are many precedents of Kosovo, both in terms of violence and in terms of successful secession,
so that Kosovo is in no way unique; however, this is not the point. It’s really not the
statement about the uniqueness of Kosovo, it’s really not a point about the history
of secession, it’s rather a point that the governments which are arguing this is a unique
case, what they’re basically saying is ‘we are not going to support secessionist movements
of this kind, so please don’t take us as encouraging secessionist movements’. And, you know, this
might be a way of saying that, but it’s not a very effective way of saying that. Secessionist
movements are not going to listen to this kind of rhetoric. OB: I think it’s also a very political statement,
saying that what you do is right but if the same type of rules were to be applied to your
opponent, well, they would be illegitimate. I think we already, we just discussed how
politics is involved in secessionist movements, but I think it also plays a very significant
role in whether the state, a new state, is recognised after the fact of secession. From
your own research, I wonder how arbitrary or self serving that recognition process really
is? AP: Well, there is a general theory of international
relations, which is often called realism or neo-realism, which says that states are selfish
and behaving in self-interested ways, and all this is a contested theory, there are
many others. It’s difficult to deny that states have their own interests and that these interests
change, of course, but they will act on those perceived interests at any moment of time.
So at some point they would support a secessionist movement, at some point it wouldn’t, depending
on the circumstances. So it’s a very difficult situation in which you, if want to say ‘this
state will always support secessionism and another will not’. And I’ve been looking at
this problem and my very, very, general and very fuzzy impression is that if you are looking
at states which do not support secession, only the People’s Republic of China is consistent
in not supporting secessionist movements anywhere else. The other states which profess not to
support, in fact, from time to time do. So, in terms of consistency when it comes to supporting
secessionist movements, you can’t find very much consistency, especially over longer periods
of time. OB: Now, the UN Friendly Relations Declaration
from the 1970’s enshrined the principle of non-interference in the state internal and
external affairs, and since there is nothing that explicitly bans declarations of independence,
I wonder if it could be argued that this whole process of recognition, or denying recognition
represents a form of interference because, you know, that interference after all, could
have very far-reaching consequences, and one example I could provide is the example of
Yugoslavia where the immediate recognition of both Bosnia’s and Croatia’s secessions
by the West led to a very bloody and very protracted war? AP: Well, the question arises to what extent
recognition itself is the cause of these kinds of bloody events. It’s quite possible that
there are… OB: But surely it could be taken as encouragement
by some powers involved if, you know, you mentioned sponsorship, international sponsorship,
later on. This is also a form of international political sponsorship. AP: That’s correct. Now, when it comes to
the case of Bosnia and Herzegovina and some former Yugoslav republics, the minimal argument
that I think one can advance is that recognition of these states, or promise of recognition
of these states, have discouraged them from trying to resolve their internal and external
conflicts peacefully. Because they, the governments, the new governments, secessionist governments
knew that they’re going to get recognition so they were not at all motivated to negotiate
with their minorities, or negotiate with other secessionist groups within these states, and
this is quite obvious in the case of Bosnia and Herzegovina, where the US has supported
one faction within this state, because that faction they believed, at the time, represents
the whole state. OB: That recognition may have placated one
side, but it has actually made the other side quite angry and, as we know, the war has continued
after all. But we have to take a very short break now, when we come back – the Crimean
referendum has resurrected a decade old rationale for justifying Kosovo’s independence. If it
was solid enough back then, why is it illegitimate now? That’s coming up in a few moments, here, on Worlds Apart. OB: Welcome back to Worlds Apart, where we
are discussing the practice of secessionist movements with Aleksandar Pavkovic, a professor
a Macquarie University in Australia and the author of the book ‘Creating New States’.
Professor Pavkovic, before we go into comparing Kosovo and Crimea, let me ask you this – western
countries have long claimed that Kosovo was a unique case, but legally speaking, can you
really make a solid legal case about uniqueness. Isn’t the whole purpose of law to develop
a set of rules that will be applied without exception? AP: Well, those governments or lawyers who
are arguing about uniqueness of Kosovo, and by the way there are not very many lawyers
who would do that, unless they have to represent governments. Those who are doing that, they
are really not trying to say anything about law. On the contrary, I think if you argue
that Kosovo is unique, you are basically saying that there is no law of secession and no law
of independence, and this is an extraordinary case which is outside of legal regulation,
and I think that’s the point they want to make. It’s not that it’s legal, but rather
that it’s so extraordinary that it’s beyond the legal regulation. But in terms of legal
precedents, you cannot find a legal precedent, a legal judgement, or a legal principal which
would justify only Kosovo and no other secession. I mean, that’s simply not possible. And as
I mentioned, there are precedents to Kosovo, and one of the clearest precedents is the
secession of Bangladesh from Pakistan in 1971, which was not opposed by the United States
at the time, the United States was engaged in the Vietnam War at the time, but that was
a secession which was enabled by an incursion, an invasion of the Indian Army and defeat
of the Pakistani Army by the Indian Army. So it was, in a sense, similar to the whole
process in the case of Kosovo. And also we find that after, the recognition came very
quickly from the allies, first from India and then from the allies of India, and then
UK also came in and Australia. So this was a clearcut case of a secession which was preceded
by a military invasion and intervention by another state and we have the very similar
case in the case of Kosovo. OB: Going back to the inconsistency of this
Kosovo uniqueness argument, I think it’s underscored by the fact of how promptly the tables have
turned since 2008. I mean, back then it was western powers who used humanitarian reasons,
the right of self-determination and the suffering of refugees as reasons for supporting the
independence of Kosovo while Serbia and Russia, as you known, stood on territorial integrity
and sovereignty, but this time around, in the case of Crimea, we see a complete reversal
of these positions. I wonder, from your point of view, how different these two cases are? AP: The major difference to us who study secession
is the absence of violence. And this is an extraordinary case in Crimea, we do have a
sort of, let’s say, hidden military intervention of an outside power, which doesn’t consider
itself to be an outside power because it had it’s own military on the territory. So we
have that, but we have no resistance, no violence, no attempt to use violence, or very little
violence just after the proclamation of independence. So if you look at the history of secessions,
this would be highly unusual. And it shows that both sides, Ukraine and Russia, have,
in fact, a tacit agreement that violence won’t solve anything there. Resistance to this would
not have prevented secession, would not have really done anything, just led to deaths of
people. So, in a sense, we have this, I think, quite a rational calculation. OB: I wonder, Professor Pavkovic, if Russia
could really advance this case of Crimea being a special case, not only because there is
very little violence on the ground, but also, you know, there are historical ties that go
back for centuries. There were some legal irregularities in the way Nikita Khrushchev
handed Crimea over to Ukraine and, you know, back then he strongly, he had no reasons to
believe that it would ever be beyond Moscow’s control. I wonder if that could be used as
a legal rationale to justify Russia’s actions in Crimea? AP: You could use it as a political justification,
it has been used. There is no legal standing for this kind of argument, because if you
try doing that, then Mexico could claim Texas any time. Texas was taken away illegally from
Mexico. So there are some people in Mexico saying that we should get back Texas… OB: Well I think you may be encouraging yet
another secessionist movement here! AP: I hope not. Some people accuse me of doing
that, but I’m really not suggesting anything. I’m simply saying look, if you start using
these arguments then you’ll find all over the world, including the United States, a
number of irregularities of this kind. So I don’t think there’s a legal argument… OB: And I think this is exactly what legal
experts were saying back in 2008 when this western rationale for Kosovo was advanced,
that that would essentially open Pandora’s Box, not only in Europe but all around the
world, and I think this is what we are seeing happening, right? AP: Well, that’s certainly true, but what
I think when Kosovo was happening, what possibly the policy makers were thinking that since
Bangladesh was forgotten very quickly, in a few years, the whole issue of legality or
non-legality, the whole thing, simply disappeared except in scholarly literature. They were
hoping that the whole thing with Kosovo would disappear as an issue; however, it didn’t
disappear and I don’t think it will disappear now because there are other parts of Europe
that would want to secede, particularly Catalonia and Scotland. So these cases, we have a growth
of secessionist movements and therefore you have one successful one, and successful one
unfortunately through the use of force as in Kosovo, that will serve as an example or
encouragement to other secessionists whatever you say in addition. And of course, Crimea
might as well serve as an encouragement to others because they will see ‘OK, if they
did it, we can do it as well’. It’s perfectly normal political thinking. I think there’s
nothing extraordinary about that. OB: Now, speaking about Crimea, Russia made
it clear that it considers the Crimean case to be closed. President Putin has signed an
executive order solidifying Crimea joining Russia, but what is not a done deal is international
recognition of Crimea’s new status, and western countries have already made it clear that
they are not going to recognise it any time soon. I wonder though, if international recognition
in this case matters at all? Because as part of Russia, supposedly Crimea wouldn’t have
to suffer some of the discrimination that other unrecognised quasi-states suffered in
the past. I guess just the fact of it joining Russia will shield it from many of those negative
consequences. AP: That’s probably true, and that might have
been an additional reason for secessionist politicians in Crimea to argue for such a
quick incorporation into Russia, because that provided them protection, which they would
otherwise as a small state not have. And it provided the, of course, recognition insofar
as they are part of a functioning state. So that idea that you find yourself a powerful
sponsor and become part of that as a state, is not a very frequent phenomenon in the secessionist
world, partly because there are not many sponsors who want to take parts of territory and incorporate
into their territory because there’s too heavy a cost. And of course, I think Crimea will
be costly in terms of the incorporation but, given that the Russian Federation can afford
that kind of cost, I don’t think it’s a major issue in this case. Crimea is a particularly
interesting case because it provided a very quick, as it were, secessionist outcome and
then incorporation in a large and powerful state, and some secessionist movements might
think that this is really the way to go, except of course, as I said, there will be very,
very, few sponsors. OB: Well one such example would be, for example,
the case of Northern Cyprus. It’s been 30, 40 rather, years since the Turkish invasion,
and Northern Cyprus is not formally part of Turkey but de-facto it is. And as far as I
know, Turkish Cypriots have been developing, you know, pretty rapidly. Even notwithstanding
the fact that no other country apart from Turkey recognised them formally. AP: Northern Cyprus is also interesting because
there are significant segments of Turkish Cypriot population who would want to unite
back with Cyprus for the benefits of EU membership. And Turkey is not, probably, for some time
to become a member of the EU. Cyprus is already a member, so there is an attraction. And this
is a new element in secessionist movement, and that is the attraction of the EU, because
the EU brings infrastructural funds, it brings investment. So if you can get into a country
which is a member of the EU, there are definite benefits. And you can see that in the case
of the two new secessionist movements, the Scottish one and Catalonian one, they are
very strong on retaining the membership in the EU, because that’s considered to be a
great prize for any state in Europe. OB: Professor Pavkovic, what I find very curious
is that, you know, countries or states that are outside of the European Union really want
to get in, but there are a number of countries like Britain, for example, which would rather
prefer to get out and free themselves from the EU. Since we have only a few minutes left,
international law has traditionally approached secessionist conflicts through the effective
control doctrine. So essentially, it doesn’t mean whether the secessionist movement was
legitimate from the very beginning. What it means is who is calling the shots at the end,
and I wonder if this is, in this sense, any secession movement is essentially a case of
might making right? AP: Well, you can say so but no secessionist
movement is successful without a widespread mobilisation of population. In other words,
you have to get people to vote for you or to support you. And that is an exercise of
political skill and political might but it’s really not an exercise of coercive power.
So secessionist movements, unlike, other, if you want, international relations are not
governed by the sheer fact of coercive power. It is a question of the ability to politically
mobilise a population, and that, of course, is helped if the population has grievances.
So you are, as a secessionist movement you are basically exploiting people’s grievances
to convince them that they need a separate state of their own. So it’s not quite of the
sheer might deciding; however, if you have a very powerful state which s opposing you,
then the question of who has more military skills, or whose sponsor have you got, becomes
a crucial at the end whether you are going to be independent or not. OB: So essentially Professor Pavkovic, we
are back to where we started from, that when it comes to secessions is not so much the
law, but rather politics. I guess we have to leave it there because we ran out of time.
But I really appreciate your being on the show. AP: Thank you. OB: And to our viewers, keep the conversation
going on our Twitter, Youtube and Facebook pages and hope to see you again, same place,
same time, here, on Worlds Apart.

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