The Dark Side of Self-Determination

CAMBRIDGE – National self-determination seems a straightforward moral principle, but it is fraught with problems. After Russia sent troops into Georgia in August 2008, it recognized the independence of two breakaway Georgian provinces, South Ossetia and Abkhazia. When few other states followed its example, Russia pointed out that the NATO countries had used force to help Kosovo separate from Serbia.

Self-determination is generally defined as the right of a people to form its own state. This is an important principle, but who is the self that is to do the determining?

Consider Somalia back in the 1960’s.  Africans used the principle of self-determination to end colonial rule. Unlike many other African states, Somalis had roughly the same linguistic and ethnic background. In contrast, neighboring Kenya was formed by colonial rule from dozens of different peoples or tribes, with different linguistic backgrounds and customs. Part of northern Kenya was inhabited by Somalis.

Somalia said the principle of national self-determination should allow Somalis in northeastern Kenya (and in the southern Ethiopia) to secede, because they were one Somali nation. Kenya and Ethiopia refused, saying they were still in the process of building a nation. The result was a series of wars in northeast Africa over the Somali nationalist question. The ironic sequel was Somalia’s later fragmentation in a civil war among its clans and warlord leaders.