The conflict in Georgia has sparked the usual political turmoil. The usual “intense diplomatic activity” is taking place. The President of America has issued the usual stern words of condemnation of a military superpower that has taken the shocking step of violating a nation’s sovereignty. The participants are making the usual mutual accusations of atrocities and genocide, all of which probably have an element of truth. The United Nations Security Council will discuss the matter, and will vote along the usual political lines.
All of these reactions are taking place as though this is a novel situation. But war is not new, and the causes of war, although complex, can be analysed, and analysis raises the possibility that some of the more common causes can be addressed in a non-violent way.
The problems in Georgia are due in large part to the separatist ambitions of South Ossetia and Abkhazia. A majority of the people in those regions do not wish to be part of Georgia. They have already fought a war in the early 1990s to gain their de facto independence, which has held steady for 16 years, although no other country has recognised them as independent countries.
Secession is not a rare phenomenon. There are about 110 places in the world where the people of a region feel uncertain about whether they are living in the right country or not. Of the 37 ongoing armed conflicts in the world, one third have secession as their main motivation.
This raises the possibility that instead of responding to wars in an ad hoc way with the usual intense diplomatic activity and the rest, the international community could lay down a framework of rules to enable reason and negotiation to take place of emotion and gunfire.
Prevention is better than cure. Clausewitz’ famous aphorism was that “War is the continuation of politics by other means”. This should be updated to “War is the continuation of politics by irrational and inhumane means”. Whatever form of words is used, it is clear that politicians have a duty to agree some rules and protocols on separatism, in order to extend the reach of politics to cover this common political situation.
Democracy should have a bearing on the matter. If it is truly the will of the people of a region that they should not be governed by their present rulers, then politicians should give attention to their wishes.
Does the majority of the people truly seek independence or autonomy, or is it simply the desire of an unrepresentative political group? This is a question that can be answered by referendum. Since it is unlikely that the state will be happy to offer a referendum, the process will have to be initiated by a people’s petition, which in some cases will have to be organised in secrecy. Once the designated agency of the UN has received the petition, they can research and evaluate the situation. If they decide that there is a case, negotiations leading up to a referendum can start. If the result of the referendum shows that a two thirds majority (say) is in favour of autonomy, negotiations can start, under the guidance of the UN or regional authorities.
Negotiations will be complex. No state wishes to lose bits of itself, just as no patient likes to go under the surgeon’s knife. However, people do agree to surgery if they are convinced that it is good for them. By allowing secession, the state is avoiding a war, with all its financial and human costs. Politically, it is gaining a cooperative neighbour, instead of a hostile entity on its doorstep. By agreeing to negotiate, they may end up with an autonomous region rather than a total loss of territory.
The arguments for secession are simple: the people do not feel themselves to be citizens of the present state. They feel ethnically or linguistically different. They may feel like second class citizens, or may even point to evidence of repression and human rights abuses. The people will need a good team of lawyers, because the arguments against secession will be complex and legalistic.
The government may claim that loss of the region would make it difficult to defend the rest of the country. It may express anxieties about the safety of its ethnic minorities left behind, and guarantees for their property. They may argue that secession will have unwanted effects on the secessionists themselves. The precedent argument will be rolled out: Who will be next to secede? There will be legitimate arguments about who owns and pays for state’s previous investment in infrastructure. Any natural resources in the breakaway region will be a matter of legal argument.
These are all matters susceptible to study, discussion, debate and negotiation. The negotiations may well be difficult and protracted, but agreement is always preferable in human and financial terms than violent conflict. In the end, it is in the interests of the main state to agree a degree of autonomy rather than to wage a war that results in the end with alienation of territory and people.
There is clearly a case for the United Nations to set up a framework for discussion and resolution of separatist aspiration, and also to provide diplomatic and logistical help both for areas where separatist conflict is ongoing, and where there is a clear separatist sentiment that has not yet turned to violence. In the end, as Churchill said, jaw is better than war.
© Richard Lawson