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By Gary Dempsey1

Special to the Western Policy Center2
October 1998

Since February, about 700 people have been killed in clashes between separatist ethnic Albanian guerrillas and internal security forces in the Serbian province of Kosovo. Western reaction to the crisis, however, has been confused.

On the one hand, in demanding Kosovo autonomy and making threats to intervene, the West has exhibited a whole host of double standards.

On the other hand, in rejecting the Kosovar Albanian demand for full secession, the West has reaffirmed the customary principle of international law holding that, outside the context of colonies, and possibly peoples under foreign domination, no sub-entity within an established state has a unilateral right to secede. Instead, that decision must be the collective choice of all the people of the state, operating under a constitutional framework.

In Peoples and Minorities in International Law, Thomas Franck points out that there is considerable evidence that the right of self-determination “has not been endowed by states in texts or practice with anything remotely like an internationally-validated right, accruing to every secession-minded people anywhere, to secede territorially.”

Similarly, international legal scholar Hurst Hannum notes that “self-determination has never been considered an absolute right to be exercised irrespective of competing claims or rights, except in the limited context of ‘classic’ colonialism.”

The prohibition against unilateral secession is central to global stability. As Dietrich Murswiek explains in Modern Law of Self-Determination, “a State-based in-ternational legal order cannot contain a rule that leads to the destruction of most of the States. That is why States would never have accepted self-determination as a legal principle that validates an unlimited right to secession.”

Any retreat from that idea would have destabilizing implications throughout the world. Dozens of ethnic and cultural minorities would be encouraged to use violence to achieve their objectives, with grave consequences for regional stability and international order.

Accordingly, the rule of law compels the international community to reject unilateral acts of secession. For example, on November 15, 1983, the Turkish Cypriot legislative body proclaimed the Turkish-occupied area of Cyprus an independent state, under the appellation “Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus.”

The U.N. found this move incompatible with the treaties establishing the Republic of Cyprus in 1960 and with the country’s constitution. As a result, U.N. Security Council Resolutions 541 (1983) and 550 (1984) concluded that the Turkish Cypriot declaration of independent statehood was “legally invalid.”

Similarly, on November 11, 1965, when Southern Rhodesia unilaterally declared independence from the Federation of Rhodesia and Nyasaland, the U.N. levied sanctions against it because its secession was not based on the majority will of the people. Thus, Western demands for Kosovo autonomy and threats to intervene look especially selective given the West’s handling of other foreign policy matters.

For example, although ethnic Albanians make up only one-fifth of the population of Serbia, they constitute one-third of the population of neighboring Macedonia. Oddly enough, Western countries support both Macedonia’s policy of centralized government administration and Skopje’s unwillingness to grant autonomous status to the country’s ethnic Albanian population, which is proportionally larger than Serbia’s.

In contrast, Western powers, led by Washington, are demanding that Belgrade enter into foreign-mediated discussions with ethnic Albanians to discuss an unspecified form of autonomy.

In addition, Turkey has repeatedly bombed the forces and razed the villages of Kurdish secessionists in its southeastern region. Four days after the Serbian crackdown in Kosovo began in late February, Turkish forces, backed by combat helicopters, killed 26 Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) separatists in the province of Bingol. Washington did not respond to that action with the outcry that the Serbian crackdown provoked.

Nor did the West threaten to intervene when Turkish forces launched a fierce counterinsurgency effort against Kurdish rebels in July 1994, forcing over 5,000 Kurds to leave their homes, or, in March 1995, when another 1,700 Kurds fled to refugee camps in northern Iraq as Turkey's army approached. As Simon Jenkins of The Times of London observed correctly, 'This is boutique foreign policy at its worst.'

Or consider the case of India and Pakistan, which recently traded fire along the Kashmir border, killing 92 people and causing some 20,000 to move to safety. The Indian part of Kashmir is the country's only state with an Islamic majority, and Muslim militants there want to break away from India or unite with Muslim Pakistan.

There have been calls to strengthen the U.N. observer group on both sides of the Kashmir border and to reduce the number of troops in the Indian part of Kashmir. The Indian government has dismissed such proposals as interference in the country’s internal affairs. Despite the obvious parallel to Belgrade’s position on Kosovo, the West has accepted India’s claim that the Kashmir situation is an internal matter.

Lastly, the West has accused Belgrade of 'ethnic cleansing,' defined by the State Department as 'a determined effort to focus a military campaign against one ethnic group, to move people out of villages, [and] to use heavy firepower against one ethnic group.'

But the U.S. has not applied its definition very rigorously in Kosovo. Yugoslav attacks on Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA) holdouts have been described as ethnic cleansing. Yet when KLA forces were winning control of up to 40 percent of the province and were intensifying their attacks on Serb-populated areas, U.S. and Western leaders did not describe the KLA policy as ethnic cleansing. Nor have they decried reports that the KLA has vowed to 'fight until the Serbian authorities, and implicitly the Serb minority . . . in Kosovo, are driven out of the province.'

Other conflicts in which ethnic cleansing was committed have been ignored by the West. For instance, little attention was paid to the 1992 war in Tajikistan between pro-Russian government forces and Muslim insurgents funded and supported by Afghanistan and other Muslim countries. After the government forces recaptured the capital of Dushanbe from the rebels, they engaged in a policy of ethnic cleansing that forced thousands of Muslim opposition refugees and insurgents to retreat into Afghanistan. The West was silent.

The West, it seems, is too often inconsistent in its application of principles and standards. Unfortunately, that is often a sign of a flawed and incoherent foreign policy, a dangerous liability when dealing with the volatile Balkans.

1 The author is a scholar at the Cato Institute.

2 The Western Policy Center is a public policy corporation promoting U.S. geostrategic interests and Western institutions in southeastern Europe by strengthening the debate on American foreign policy toward NATO allies Greece and Turkey, and toward Cyprus. The Center analyzes current U.S. foreign policy toward southeastern Europe and develops policy recommendations for the region. It cooperates with other nongovernmental organizations, leading educational and foreign policy institutions, and the media in providing forums for the analysis of issues concerning the region. For more information, please call (202) 530-1425.