(May 16, 2014) Are people or countries sovereign?
By Lawrence Solomon, published by the National Post on May 16, 2014
Are countries sovereign? Or are a people sovereign? Confusion over sovereignty has contributed to, even created, the conflict in Ukraine. And the civil war in Syria. And in numerous military confrontations over the 20th century. Because of this confusion, the 21st century, too, will be marked by unnecessary conflict.
In international law, people are sovereign — President Woodrow Wilson indicated so toward the end of World War I, in his defining 14 Points speech that affirmed the self-determination of populations and ushered in the League of Nations. The war marked the unraveling of great empires — the Ottoman, which had colonized peoples of the Middle East and environs, the Russian, which controlled peoples of Central Asia and Eastern Europe, and the Austro-Hungarian, which subordinated many populations of Europe. The principle of self-determination would be reaffirmed time and again over subsequent decades, including by the United Nations after World War II.
But confusingly, countries are also deemed sovereign under international law, their territorial integrity considered sacrosanct. The outrage that Stephen Harper, Barack Obama and other Western leaders expressed over the decision of Crimeans to secede from Ukraine in favour of an association with Russia was based on the view that the territorial integrity of Ukraine was being violated.
Yet when a people decide to exercise their right to self-determination, as the people of Crimea did in leaving Ukraine, the country’s claim to sovereignty and a people’s claim to sovereignty clash. Our Western leaders could not simultaneously uphold both claims to sovereignty. International law in fact is muddy on the question of whose sovereignty trumps whose, with numerous scholars mired in one side of the dispute or the other.
But although the theory is decidedly muddy, the overwhelming practice is decidedly clear — territorial integrity, history shows, counts for little, solemn guarantees from the League of Nations and the United Nations notwithstanding. Borders and possessions change all the time — in the last century, most countries experienced changes, often dramatic ones. In fact, most countries that exist today didn’t even exist at the turn of the last century.
Just as clearly, history shows that sovereignty lies in peoples, who tend to have more staying power than here-today, gone-tomorrow countries. Most of the new European countries of the 20th century came of negotiations designed to better align peoples with their regions of residence. Often more than one kick at the can was required to get the alignment right. The peoples of Czechoslovakia, created after World War I, later split up into the Czech Republic and Slovakia. Yugoslavia’s peoples split up into five countries, followed by more changes, some bloody. The bloodshed occurred when countries wielded claims of sovereignty and territorial integrity as rationales to thwart the peoples’ rights to self-determination.
Ukraine, like so many other countries created after World War I and then recreated after World War II, poorly aligned its peoples with their governance. Inevitably, realignments will occur, that in Crimea being the first. The West, rather than resisting Crimea’s departure out of understandable pique at Russia’s maneuverings in the region, should have pro-actively encouraged it, to defuse a potentially explosive situation while upholding Western values. The people of the United States, after all, were the first in modern times to assert a right to self-determination, when “We the People” wrote the United States Constitution. Wilson’s 14 Points again revolutionized the modern understanding of the rights of peoples.
Canada is also a model for the world, in the way we empower the peoples within our borders. In the 1960s, before Quebeckers could express their desire for independence by referendum, separatists made their case through terrorism, bolstered by popular support among students and unionists. Once Quebeckers could decide at the ballot box, both through separatist political parties and referenda, separatists lost the justification of force in promoting self-determination. Quebeckers, in fact, have twice by referendum exercised their sovereignty by deciding to stay in Canada, and thanks to a Supreme Court of Canada decision that laid out pre-conditions for separation, know they will never need to resort to force if they ever do vote to secede. By the same token, the rest of Canada, knowing Quebeckers have the right to leave, have every incentive to do what’s needed to keep Quebeckers in the fold.
We have, in effect, not only decided that Quebeckers’ right to self-determination trumps Canada’s right to territorial integrity but facilitated Quebeckers’ expression of that right by affirming it through the highest court in the land. This domestic policy of ours should also be our foreign policy, promoted in the Ukraine and other potential powder kegs where people feel denied their right to self-determination.
Lawrence Solomon is executive director of Urban Renaissance Institute.