Let Iraq Break Up? Let Kosovo Leave Serbia? The Perils of Separatism

News Abroad

Mr. Mankoff is a fellow at the Olin Institute for Strategic Studies at Harvard University and a writer for the History News Service.

Sometime in the next several months, Kosovo is going to receive international approval for its quest to become an independent nation. While many inside Kosovo and out will rejoice at its liberation from Serbia, there are significant dangers if, as expected, the United Nations backs independence.

Kosovo, which is historically Serbian but today has an Albanian Muslim majority of nearly 90 percent, has been under UN administration since the end of fighting between the Belgrade government and the ethnically Albanian Kosovo Liberation Army in 1999. A special UN commission is supposed to release a report on the province's future by the end of 2006, and will almost certainly recommend steps toward independence. It now appears that the commission will delay its report, in large part because of fears over the precedent an independent Kosovo would set for other separatist conflicts.

The commission is right to be worried; Kosovar independence would represent a sharp break with established practice, and could have serious unintended consequences. These dangers would be lessened, however, if Kosovar independence provided the impetus for creating a new international consensus for handling separatist conflicts.

Today, the international community is supposed to respect existing states' sovereignty and territorial integrity under almost all circumstances; intervening to stop genocide is one of the few, controversial, exceptions. In Europe, the prohibition on secession was codified in the 1975 Helsinki Final Act, which has been accepted by the United States, Canada, and almost every country in Europe. Unfortunately the Helsinki approach is clearly anachronistic. Some states should be allowed to break up.

Without updating the international legal framework, though, Kosovar independence would likely cause more problems than it would solve, strengthening demands for independence in secessionist regions such as Georgia's South Ossetia and Sudan's Darfur. What's needed is an agreed set of principles to determine when, and under what conditions, secession should be allowed.

Ethnic homogeneity, a history of intercommunal violence, and international viability are the key factors that should be incorporated in into any new international agreement governing secession. Unlike South Ossetia or Darfur, Kosovo passes on all three counts. In such cases, the alternatives to secession are typically worse.

The difficulties of holding multiethnic states together by force are visible next door to Kosovo in Bosnia, where international troops have spent more than a decade trying to rebuild the trust between the Serbian, Croatian and Muslim communities that was destroyed in the conflicts of the early 1990s.

These difficulties are also visible in Iraq, where Western forces are struggling in vain to keep the country from fragmenting into Sunni, Shiite, and Kurdish statelets. As with Kosovo, some, including former ambassador in the Balkans Peter Galbraith as well as Leslie Gelb of the Council on Foreign Relations and incoming Senate Foreign Relations Committee chairman Joseph Biden are suggesting it might be better to allow Iraq to move toward dissolution.

Their calls for a confederal Iraq that would eventually devolve into three separate entities, like the Security Council's probable endorsement of Kosovar independence, show that the world is finally awakening to the reality that forcing ethnic and religious communities to live together against their will is not necessarily wise or realistic.

Both the Balkans and Iraq would be better off if their populations could learn to live together again. However, it's not possible simply to forgive and forget the massacres and ethnic cleansing that have plagued Bosnia, Kosovo or Iraq in recent years. Moreover, by trying to paste states such as Bosnia or Iraq back together, the international community is taking on open-ended commitments of troops, money and administrators. The international presence in Bosnia has gone on for 12 years; postwar Iraq will likely be worse.

Secession does carry risks. In Iraq, the threat of outside intervention by Turkey, Iran and Saudi Arabia is real, which might call the viability of ethnic mini-states into question. In the Balkans, Serbs ask, reasonably enough, if Kosovo can secede, what about Republika Srpska, the ethnically Serbian canton of Bosnia whose desire for independence fueled Bosnia's bloody civil war in the early 1990s? Allowing Kosovo, or Iraqi Kurdistan, to become independent could set a dangerous precedent if not embedded in a larger strategy for managing separatism.

That is why a new international framework is necessary. Secession should be accepted by the international community as a last resort, when intercommunal warfare has made reconciliation impossible, and that understanding should be codified in international law. That would require an international conference to amend the Helsinki Act. Difficult as that might be to arrange, Kosovo's looming independence and the possibility of Iraq breaking up show that the existing framework is inadequate. Better to develop a new framework now to manage and regulate secession than to allow Kosovo and Iraq to open Pandora's box on an unprepared world.

This piece was distributed for non-exclusive use by the History News Service, an informal syndicate of professional historians who seek to improve the public's understanding of current events by setting these events in their historical contexts. The article may be republished as long as both the author and the History News Service are clearly credited.

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Elliott Aron Green - 12/30/2006

Arnold, I'm glad we agree on something.
As to double-standards and Israel, I believe that double-standards are much more often used against Israel than for Israel. Further, sometimes it seems to me that, often when critics of Israel assert that a double-standard is being used in Israel's favor, their argument is based on false premises or faulty reasoning.
Otherwise, thank you.

Arnold Shcherban - 12/29/2006

Mr Green,

Though we mostly and principally dissagree on the most of the issues
discussed on HNN, I certainly support
your observations on the issue of double standards traditionally used
by Western Powers, including the US -
the issue (perhaps, most important from the geo-political point of view) I have been focusing on since I started to participate in HNN discussions about three years.
Unfortunately, what I found on these
boards is the same double-standard approach to the issue of double standards: the overwhelming majority of participants consider the great damage produced by a double standard game ONLY when it perceived (by them) to be anti-American or anti-Israeli.

Elliott Aron Green - 12/24/2006

The way the great powers have approached separatism ["self-determination"] has been decidedly two-faced and hypocritical over the years. The UK gave India independence as 2 states [India & Pakistan] to satisfy the Muslim demand for a separate state. Yet, the UK gave Sudan independence as a unitary state, despite the wish of non-Muslim Blacks NOT to be under Muslim/Arab rule. This wish was especially justified given the history of slave-raiding by northern Sudan against the South. The massacre of millions since Sudanese independence in 1956 ensued. Jeff Mankoff unfortunately did not go into the Sudan's special situation.

In former Yugoslavia too we see the hypocritical inconsistency of the great powers. First, they encouraged Slovenia, Croatia & Bosnia to break away, ostensibly because of Serbian domination of the Federation, without stipulating protection for the minority rights of Serbs in Croatia & Bosnia, as if there were no special history in that region that justified concern for minority rights, that even the 19th century had paid lip service too [at the Congress of Berlin]. By the way, the 1910 census showed Serbs as the largest of the three groups in Bosnia [44%]. Then we have the bloody "human rights" farce of Kossovo, as pointed out above. Jimmy Carter's personal "human rights" hypocrisy against Israel has been discussed at length on another thread at hnn. When the MSM and the powers invent one genocide and overlook others, there really is a problem of extreme gravity for which there is no easy answer. But insisting on truthful history and reporting of current events are essential.

Aleks Srboljub - 12/19/2006

Mr. Mankoff,

Your article was interesting to read however, you have made some critical mistakes in your fact finding and analysis. First, it was NOT the Bosnian Serb's desire to break up Bosnia that causes the Bosnian war. On the contrary, it was the Bosnian Muslims who attempted to make Bosnia sucede from Yugoslavia that sparked the war. Alija Izetbegovic, the Muslim leader, was also the author of a thesis that stated, "...there can be no co-existence, Bosnia is a Muslim state and no other religions belong can exist there." He intended to ethnicly cleanse Bosnia of Serbs and Croats since they were not Muslim. The Serbs and Croats wanted to stay either with Yugoslavia or the state that best represented them (Serbia or Croatia). In response to this attempted succession, each group armed and fought the others. In other words, your view of the conflict is quite simplistic and misinfromed.

Dejan Krajinovic - 12/19/2006

Intercommunal violence can never be a creteria for breaking up sovereign countries.In that case this article is calling all separatist movements in the world to make their wars as bloody as possible so International communtiy would consider their claims.Terrorism should be treated equaly everywhere in the world.Kosovo Albanians are maybe now a majority in Kosovo after 300 000 other people were cleansed from the province.International law can't be 'flexible' because that leads to more bloodshed.One can never achieve a peace in a civil war if we support one of the sides and history tought us that many times.That game is very dangerous especially in Europe where state borders are not national borders in 90% of case.Also if you change borders to please one side what about the other side? If one side doesn't accept the 'solution' you are creating a conditions for new war sometime in the future or lets say you have a war on-hold.
And what about Albanian separatist movements in Greece, Macedonia or Montenegro?
Albanians have their state called Albania. In all bordering countries they can be only a minority with all rights that other ethnic groups have if they want to live in those countries.

Bob Petrovich - 12/19/2006

Kosovo is an interesting example what happens when the international law is trampled in the name of support to terrorism and guised into the lofty ideas of humanitarian intervention.
It shows how the real war crimes are commited in order to allegedly prevent fabricated ones.

There are over two hundred countries in the world and some ten thousand ethnic groups. If we allow self-styled humanitarians whose higher moral groud is fuselage of jets dropping bombs from 15,000ft to lead us, the horror of Kosovo separatist savagery will be in your neighborhood anytime soon. Aztlan, Basque, Corsica, there is a place for every letter of the alphabet and then some.

After NATO occupation of Kosovo, more than 1000 Albanians were murdered by KLA terrorists, more than 200 000 people are ethnically cleansed in the presence of NATO troops, and out of 200 ancient Christian churches only 39 exist today. Gross war crimes have been committed and alowed to happen. But do not expect that people who make living shilling for terrorists tell you about it.

For those who need it, word "shame" can be found in dictionary between "complicity" and "terrorism"

Wim Roffel - 12/18/2006

I was disappointed that you avoided to comment on the "principles" of the Kosovo Contact Group. One of those is that the borders of Kosovo may not be changed. That means that Kosovo's Serbs - even those in the ethnically homogenous Serb north - will nearly surely be cleansed.

You include a history of intercommunal violence as one of your criteria. It seems an encouragment for the ETA and other separatist guerrillas.

I find international intervention often hostile against the unity of countries. Bosnia would have a much better chance to survive as a state if the international community had not put its weight behind the effort of the Muslims to create a centralised - Muslim dominated - state. Similarly the US politics in Iraq favour the Shiites and Kurds at the cost of the Sunites.

You give only examples that would not fit the criteria you make. But there are other areas that would fit: Turkish Kurdistan, the Ethnic Hungarian part of Slowakia and many parts of ethnically mixed countries like India, Russia, Thailand, Indonesia, Birma and most of black Africa.