Barely two and a half years ago, the Arab Spring began with protests in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, and Yemen, leading to the fall of the leaders of these nations. Other countries in the region—including Jordan, Kuwait, Morocco, and Syria—have experienced their share of sometimes violent civil protests since then. Syria is still engulfed in unrelenting civil violence. Over the last week, a series of antigovernment protests have broken out in Turkey. The Arab Spring is often attributed to a dissatisfaction among citizens with oppressive regimes and persistently weak economic situations.
In Turkey, however, the current government was elected in a democratic process. The protest there, which started as a peaceful demonstration against the demolition of a park in central Istanbul to make way for a new commercial district, has evolved into a nationwide protest against Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s regime. Their common region aside, the governments in question are also quite similar in how they respond to mass protests—with excessive use of force. When heavy protest erupted in these countries, the states each were quick in deploying the military and police to “restore calm”, in most cases resulting in the deaths of civilians exercising their fundamental right to free expression.
Former Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak is currently appealing a conviction in June 2012 for conspiring in the killing of protesters during the 2011 uprising against his regime. In late May, the International Criminal Court decided that the son of the late ruler of Libya, Saif al-Islam Gaddafi, should be tried in The Hague rather than Libya for his role in death of civilians during the 2011 uprising that ultimately toppled his father’s regime.
All governments, whether democratically elected or not, base the legitimacy of their reign on the fact that they have been designated to serve the needs of their people. The sovereignty of a nation is based on the notion, and more or less the assumption, that an existing government has control over a geographical area and the people who live there, and that citizens of that area consider themselves self-determinant, that is, free from external control as to who may lead them. It is this freedom, when expressed, that gives political leaders the mandate to represent the nation. Many centuries ago, before villages, townships, and kingdoms unified—whether voluntarily or under duress—to form nations, these peoples and communities had their own leaders ruling them in accordance with traditional norms and religious beliefs. There is no doubt that order in the modern world is better preserved with two hundred nation-states than with five thousand sovereignties. Nevertheless, it might be worth revisiting the concepts of sovereignty and nation-states that governments so tightly hold on to.
In democratic countries, it is often said that the power of the government is in the hands of the people. The question that arises is who the people are. Most democratic nations conduct periodic elections (usually every four to five years) to allow citizens to choose who is best to lead them. What happens if during the transition and before the next election the wishes of the people change and the electorate no longer wants the government it has just chosen? Clearly, for the sake of stability, elections cannot be held whenever a strong group of citizens decide to remove their support from a sitting government. However, the question remains as to how to best deal with such circumstances.
The situation even becomes more complicated when people of a certain geographical area within a nation state become dissatisfied with the governance of the central regime generally—not just with a ruling political party—and therefore decide to opt out of the nation-state. The war between Georgia and Russia in 2008 was sparked by a declaration of independence by the Georgian province of South Ossetia. For years, monks in Tibet have sought independence from China. The western Sahara is in an ongoing struggle in its claim for independence from Morocco.
In May, Yemen celebrated the anniversary of the unification of its northern and southern territories. During the celebrations, a large number of people, especially from the south, took to the streets to protest the unification and to call for independence of the south from the north. These are just a few examples. International law has develop customary rules containing circumstances under which peoples may rightfully proclaim independence from their central or declare a right to autonomy under the latter. The right to independence or secession is usually recognized by international law in situations of grave humanitarian abuse and severe oppression.
According to the League of Nations International Commission of Jurists in 1920, “Positive international law does not recognize the right of national groups, as such to, to separate themselves from the State of which they form [a] part by simple expression of a wish.” In the advisory opinion delivered by the International Court of Justice (ICJ) to the UN General Assembly on the Declaration of Independence made by Kosovo, the ICJ delivered its opinion that a declaration of independence on its own is not a violation of international law. International law prohibits the use of threat or force against the territorial integrity of any state. This prohibition generally relates to an act by a foreign entity, not by citizens of the state.
In a global economy, no people can live in isolation, and for the sake of a smooth operations of the global economic, financial, and security forces, the world may be much better off with fewer sovereign states than with a plethora of territorially independent groups. It is critical, though, to revisit Woodrow Wilson’s statement in 1917 that “no people must be forced under sovereignty under which it does not wish to live.”