Beyond David and Goliath

Beyond David and Goliath

19 Aug 2008

Aris Gounaris

First published in the Canberra Times on 18 August 2008.

When push came to shove, Georgia never stood a chance of defending these parts of its territory (South Ossetia and Abkhazia) against the military might of its northern neighbour, Russia. Arguably, the decision of Georgian president Mikheil Saakashvili to forcibly wrest control of South Ossetia from so-called Russian peacekeepers was foolish in the extreme. In David-versus-Goliath battles like this, Goliath usually wins.

Russia has violated Georgia's territorial integrity. But whether it was justified in doing so is yet to be determined. Much of the analysis and debate triggered by this conflict centre on the recent actions and consequences of the Russian and Georgian military forces. The violation of Georgia's sovereign rights, it is argued, is bad. Defending democracies against the threats posed by authoritarian states, the argument follows, is good.

Such views are, of course, simplistic. Sovereign rights are not inviolable. There are sometimes good reasons for violating a state's territorial integrity, particularly as a remedy against systematic human rights abuses. Russia has justified its actions along these lines. But our knowledge of the facts on the ground before the outbreak of war remains sketchy. It is therefore difficult to assess the validity of Russia's claims properly.

I do not defend Russia's actions. Instead, I make a broader point about the justifiability of unilateral secession, that is, the forcible break-up of a sovereign state. Perhaps if there were some consensus among policy-makers about the circumstances in which separatism should be supported, there might be less of an ad hoc approach to the recognition of breakaway states such as South Ossetia and Kosovo.

International law states that nations or ''peoples'' have a legal right to self-determination or statehood. But this runs counter to the legal principle of sovereignty, which permits states to defend their territory with deadly force. Russia, China, Turkey, Burma, Thailand, Indonesia and the Philippines, among others, have sought to justify the suppression of separatist forces in their respective countries by reference to sovereign rights.

States should retain the right to defend their territory. But, if the cost of doing so is the continued oppression of minority groups, we need an exception to this rule. After all, a state's primary function is to protect the basic rights of its citizens. If it fails to protect these rights, a state's legitimacy is compromised. Aggrieved citizens and groups would then be entitled to take remedial action in defence of their basic rights.

In extreme cases, secession may be the only way to defend the rights of oppressed groups in the long term. Sovereign rights must give way to human rights. What does this mean in practice? It means that third parties should not stymie an oppressed group's attempt to be self-determining. It also means that third parties would be justified in aiding the separatists.

Consider the Georgian example. If it could be shown that the citizens South Ossetia or Abkhazia were systematically oppressed by Georgia (notwithstanding the presence of Russian forces in these breakaway regions), then Russia would be justified in supporting the separatists, assuming its intentions were noble. If, on the other hand, Georgia's rule were benevolent, there would be no justification for unilateral secession.

Georgia is a fledgling democracy. It is also a multi-ethnic state which has been accused of paying lip service to rights. Saakashvili promised ''equal opportunity'' to all Georgian citizens, irrespective of ethnic identity. The Government has also adopted many conventions, including the Framework Convention for the Protection of National Minorities.

But in Georgia word does not match deed. Those who do not speak Georgian find it harder to access justice, education and employment than those fluent in Georgian. For example, the Azeri and Armenian minorities of Georgia are compelled to have official documents translated into Georgian a language in which they lack proficiency before submitting them to courts or administrative bodies (something they did not need to do as Soviet citizens).

University entry is also difficult for Georgia's ethnic minorities, given that national exams for higher education include a compulsory Georgian-language test. For many ethnic Armenian and Azeri students, studying abroad is the only option.

The International Crisis Group believes that the political will to protect and promote minority interests and rights in Georgia is lacking. Many ethnic Armenians have publicly protested against what they deem to be ''Georgianisation'' policies and have called for limited autonomy.

These are serious shortcomings for a state that claims to be democratic. If such discrimination is not ameliorated by a more enlightened approach to policy-making there is a real chance that political tensions will persist, leading to more separatist violence.

Arguably, Georgia's inadequacies are indicative of a long and difficult transition from one-party rule to liberal democracy. Under communist rule, they say, you could speak any language so long as you didn't criticise the regime. Under post-communist rule, you can say what you like provided that you use the state's official language.

For now, the world's gaze is fixed on the war in Georgia. Sensational images from the warzone continue to be flashed across the world. Short-term solutions have been sought. US President George W.Bush, has indicated his desire to see a return to the status quo of before August 6. France, for its part, has brokered a ceasefire. Early reports suggest it's failing to hold.

I suspect that this conflict will disappear off the media radar as soon as the violence stops. But the underlying problem of how the international community ought to deal with separatist conflict persists. Powerful states such as Russia will continue to act of their own accord. But middle-ranking powers, such as Australia, must adopt a principled approach rather than simply throw in their lot with a powerful ally as these crises arise.

The remedial principle which holds that systematically oppressed groups may secede if other modes of redress are unavailable provides a useful framework for assessing the justifiability of secession in particular cases. This framework looks beyond the immediate causes of violent conflict to properly identify both victim and culpable aggressor.

If middle-ranking powers were to allow this framework to inform their foreign policy, they might, through force of numbers, show up the Goliaths of this world who often justify their aggression on humanitarian grounds. More consistency in this area of international relations may also serve to expedite the resolution of violent separatist conflicts which continue to rage in parts of many parts of Asia, Africa and Europe.

Aris Gounaris is a PhD candidate at La Trobe University. His doctoral dissertation in philosophy and history examines theories of secession and self-determination. Case studies include Kosovo, Chechnya and Aceh.

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