The S Word

Posted January 8, 2011

Categories: Articles

A nation is like a marriage, or so Lenin imagined it to be, with each partner or province having a right to get out if things go horribly wrong. The Soviet constitution of 1918 provided this right to each of the republics. It wasn’t an innovation that many other countries followed. And yet, constitutional provisions or not, the S word – secession – has occasionally brought nations to the brink of dissolution.

Sometimes these separations are amicable. Drawing a line down the middle of its name and its territory, Czechoslovakia dissolved its union without much fuss. Yugoslavia, on the other hand, was a very ugly divorce indeed.

Generally, “secession” is a very bad word in international relations. During the Cold War, many peoples – Biafrans, Basques, Kurds – uttered the word only to be severely punished for their transgressions. Bangladesh managed to break off from West Pakistan to form a new country – but probably only because a thousand miles of Indian territory already separated the two. After the Cold War, secession briefly became more popular, as the Soviet republics tipped their hat to Lenin as they went their separate ways. Elsewhere, Eritrea severed relations with Ethiopia, Namibia split from South Africa, and East Timor broke away from Indonesia. Yugoslavia was more than 15 years in the unmaking.

With so many post-Cold War precedents, you’d think secession wouldn’t be dirty word today. For some, that’s certainly the case. When voters went to the polls last month in Southern Sudan, nearly 99 percent opted for independence. The government in Khartoum has given its okay, so in July, Africa’s largest country will formally split in two. Of course, this separation comes only after a 22-year-long civil war that left two million dead and four million displaced. That’s an enormous price to pay. But many peoples in the world make comparable sacrifices and never get their own state.

Consider Chechnya. It fought two wars against Russia, lost 75,000 civilians, suffered through kidnappings and torture and the leveling of the capital Grozny. Not only have they not achieved independence, the Chechens must now put up with a Russian-installed dictator, Ramzan Kadyrov. A few years ago, one of Kadyrov’s bodyguards ran away to Europe and testified about his employer’s propensity for abduction and torture. At the beginning of 2009, in a botched kidnapping, several of Kadyrov’s lackeys shot the whistleblower to death in Vienna.

In Chechnya’s north Caucasus neighbors – Dagestan, Ingushetia – there’s more talk about exiting Russia. The recent suicide bombing at the Moscow airport was organized by one of the factions pushing for independence. Putin has vowed to eliminate the “nest of bandits” responsible for the crime.

For every successful South Sudan, there are several suppressed Chechnyas. And every leader like Putin who aspires to crush secessionist movements has been looking with awe at Sri Lanka and its leader, Mahinda Rajapaksa.

In May 2009, Rajapaksa orchestrated the eradication of the movement for Tamil independence, the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE). This terrifying culmination of a three-year offensive, according to the former UN spokesperson in Colombo, left as many as 40,000 civilians dead. A number of countries denounced the actions of the Sri Lankan military, and the UN Human Rights Council, with U.S. support, began to look into war crimes. The government has denied the allegations. “I will not allow any investigation by the United Nations or any other country,” said Rajapaksa’s brother, who also happens to be the defense minister.

The official condemnations from governments contrast rather sharply with the reactions of military personnel involved in counter-terrorism operations. They’ve treated Sri Lankan military leaders like rock stars. The New Yorker‘s Jon Lee Anderson attended a recent conference on maritime security in Sri Lanka, where the formal agenda included discussions of piracy and other matters. “But mostly the conference was an opportunity for Sri Lanka’s military leaders to boast to their colleagues about beating the Tigers,” he writes. “The foreign speakers congratulated them on their achievement, and asked eagerly about the techniques they had used. Brigadier General Stanley Osserman, of the U.S. Navy’s Pacific Command, said, ‘Sri Lanka has a lot to offer in the field of terrorism prevention and maritime security.’”

The Sri Lankan “solution” of massive firepower and unrestrained ruthlessness was nothing particularly new. The Sri Lankan military might even have picked up some pointers from General William Tecumseh Sherman, who cut a swath to the sea in 1864 in a bid to make sure that the American south would never utter the S word again. What made the campaign against the LTTE unusual was that it took place in the Internet age. Other countries are studying the Sri Lankan case not so much for how they did it, but how they got away with it.

Of course a third possibility lies between the success of Sudan and the failure of the Tamil Tigers, the Chechens, and most everyone else. Many states exist in a kind of limbo. Taiwan functions like an independent country and can stay that way as long as it doesn’t make any formal declarations that would irk Mainland China. Kosovo has been recognized by 75 countries and last July the International Court of Justice upheld its declaration of independence. But Russia, China, and Spain – which have their own problems with the S word – have still barred entrance to the club of independent countries.

But Taiwan and Kosovo are still pretty lucky. They at least have gotten some recognition. Somaliland seceded from Somalia back in 1991. Yet no other country has recognized it. That’s like throwing a party, inviting the world, and then sitting all night by yourself with all the chips and punch.

Last month, another section of Somalia filed for divorce. Puntland, like Somaliland, has been relatively stable, at least compared to the rest of the troubled country. Puntland’s uttering of the S word may simply be tactical, however. “It is willing to be part of a federal Somalia, so its secession is not irrevocable,” writes Foreign Policy In Focus (FPIF) contributor Hussein Yusuf in Puntland Splits. “Rather, it made its declaration as a kind of wake-up call to the international community. It wanted to call attention to the TFG leadership’s inability and unwillingness to cooperate with the rest of Somalia.”

The fate of these would-be countries is being closely watched. Many Walloons, Basques, Corsicans, Western Saharans, Acehnese, Naga, Karen, Tibetans, Kurds, Baluchis, Vermonters, and many, many others are wondering whether they will be able to say the S word and see it happen. With South Sudan leading the way, divorce might become a great deal more popular in the near future. They might just have to knock down some walls in the UN General Assembly to accommodate all the new seats.

Egyptian “Moderates”

The situation in Egypt remains murky as Vice President Omar Suleiman talks with opposition leaders about what comes next. FPIF contributor Islam Qasem, in Three Possible Scenarios for Egypt, sketches out the trajectories: Mubarak rides out the storm, he resigns but leaves the regime intact, or there’s a more-or-less clean sweep. The last alternative, which the protestors are demanding, will be the most interesting: “Egyptian society will have to endure a hard period of transition, during which lessons will have to be learned in political compromise, pragmatism, and consensus,” he writes. “At the same time, Islamists of all stripes and colors will be emboldened.”

The Obama administration has largely echoed the current Egyptian leadership’s calls for “orderly transition.” As FPIF contributors Asli Bali and Aziz Rana explain in The Fake Moderation of America’s Moderate Mideast Allies, the frame of “order versus chaos” is a false one, for the protestors have been the orderly party in the conflict. Meanwhile, “the regime that Western leaders have lauded for decades as a beacon of moderation has unleashed its salaried, plainclothes security personnel to loot its own cities, set fire to its streets, and attack unarmed protesters with Molotov cocktails, knives, U.S.-supplied tear gas canisters, and live ammunition. The new Vice President Suleiman now promises to employ the same security services to arrest those the regime chooses to blame for the disorder and violence it has wrought.”

In light of its wishy-washy response to the protests in Egypt and earlier in Tunisia, the United States should rethink its whole approach to democracy promotion. “The lesson of Tunis, Sanaa, and Cairo is that democracy rhetoric is more than a strategy for the assertion of American dominance,” writes FPIF contributor Abena Ampofoa Asare in Regime Change Redux. “On the contrary, it is a language that fuses moral and political power into a radical claim that every human being deserves a voice in the decisions that affect their daily lives. The United States tried to promote democracy through the barrel of a gun. It’s time now for Washington to support democracy in the Middle East by pressing its authoritarian allies to put their guns away.”

Finally, in an interview with FPIF, Middle East expert and blogger extraordinaire Juan Cole talks about the jailed Islamists in Egypt. In contrast to extremist Sayeed Qutb, one of the intellectual progenitors of al-Qaeda who spent several years in Egyptian jail before his ultimate execution, “the people jailed in Egypt in the 1990s tended to be reflective about what happened to them, about whether they were right about shooting down innocent tourists,” Cole said. “The Islamic group Gama’a Islamiya actually broke with the blind sheikh Omar Abdel-Rahman, and the leadership in prison started to issue repentance pamphlets. These are short chapbooks in which they reinterpret their own history and the Qur’an. They argue, at least on a practical basis, for a non-violent strategy. The leadership of the movement was announcing themselves as peaceful activists henceforth.”

Don’t forget to visit our Focal Points blog, which is buzzing with information and insight on Egypt and the uprising’s implications for U.S. policy toward the Middle East.

The Perils of Globalization

Many women from the Philippines travel to other countries to work. One of the major risks Filipinas face is sexual slavery.

“The working conditions of many domestics, which include 18-22 hour days and violent beatings, cannot but be described except as virtual slavery,” writes FPIF columnist Walden Bello in Sexual Prey in the Saudi Jungle. “Saudi Arabia abolished slavery by royal decree in 1962, but customs are hard to overcome. Royal and aristocratic households continue to treat domestic workers as slaves, and this behavior is reproduced by those lower in the social hierarchy. Apparently among the items of the “job description” of a domestic slave in Saudi is being forced to minister to the sexual needs of the master of the household.”

The U.S. Congress passed a free trade agreement (FTA) with Peru back in 2007, but with certain conditions governing labor rights and the environment. Two years on, Tereza Coraggio points out, neither side have met their obligations. “Now that William Daley, JP Morgan executive and architect of NAFTA during the Clinton administration, is Obama’s chief of staff, FTAs with Korea and Colombia will be on the table,” she writes in Peru Trade Deal Unravels. “Lessons from Peru show that labor and environmental provisions are meaningless unless backed by political will on both sides.”

FPIF, February 8, 2011

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