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Today, my International Studies teacher used an interesting, if roundabout, example to demonstrate the ludicrousness of self-determination. He said, “Suppose that Melbourne decides to break away from the rest of Australia. If we have the right of self-determination, we can do that, can’t we? Well, but if you grant that, then perhaps the people of western Melbourne might decide they’re different to the people of eastern Melbourne, so they might exercise their right to self-determination. But then, the people of Sunshine might decide they’re different to everyone else in western Melbourne, and exercise their right. Then the boys of west Sunshine might decide they’re different to the boys of east Sunshine, and before we know it, we’ve got a West Sunshine Republic on our hands. Do we want one of those? So the question with self-determination, therefore, is, ‘Where do we stop?'”

Keep in mind that South Ossetia is on the “Sunshine” end of the scale. (That’s population-wise, which is surely the appropriate statistic to use in this case.)

To some extent, I think the right of self-determination is a bit overused. Seemingly every tiny ethnic group wants their own homeland, and it’s getting a little absurd. I’ve grown up in a multicultural country, and in multicultural countries, everyone gets along regardless of their race (well, theoretically). If every racial group in Australia claimed the right to self-determination, we would have a hundred (or more!) scattered, non-contiguous new states. My street alone would consist of about fifteen. It wouldn’t work. Being ethnically distinct does not — and should not — mean that you automatically need your own state. Haven’t these nationalist movements heard of cooperation? Of tolerance? Why can’t they just… oh, I don’t know, exist as a minority within the larger state without complaining about it?

That said, I still believe in the right to self-determination. I do believe that the people of an area have the right to have a say in the governance of that area. I might not agree with their decisions, but they have the right to make them. If the people of western Sunshine want to declare a West Sunshine Republic, good luck to them. Their state will not be economically viable and will almost definitely collapse, so they need all the luck they can get. Similarly, if Kosovars, Abkhazians and South Ossetians really want independent states, they can have them.

The main problem with that belief is these regions’ inhabitants are rarely united. If one looks at Abkhazia, the Abkhaz people themselves have always been a minority there ((As proof, see the 1925 Soviet census. Run it through a translator first though. Still, 41% Georgian > 30% Abkhazian.)). At the time of the first war in Abkhazia, at least half the population didn’t want independence from Georgia. (The other half did.) Ethnic cleansing ensued. In 2003 Abkhazians made up 44% of the population in the region; in 1989, they’d only made up 20%. It’s obviously not fair to kill or expel opponents until you have a vast enough majority to get what you want — and yet, that seems to be a natural consequence of the right to self-determination.

I guess I’m back to where I began: the right to self-determination is abused. I approve of the idea, and if the people of a region are genuinely united, they shouldn’t be stopped by someone else’s right to territorial integrity. The right to self-determination is important. If only it wasn’t misused.

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2 Comments

  1. Israel comes to mind… A topic which renders me speechless because it’s so hard for me to talk about it without wanting to scream: “WHY CAN’T YOU JUST LIVE TOGETHER IN PEACE?!” However, I’ve met people from either side of that who are very, very dogmatic about their stand on that topic.

    This is kind of a tough subject for me to talk about because I don’t want to come off as the “girl brainwashed by the American media to think that new imperialism is justified.” I read an article about self-determination for the natives of Hawai’i. I felt quite ignorant because I didn’t even know that some of the natives there are STILL fighting for self-determination to this day (the American media has definitely squashed any coverage of that). I’ve always wanted to be understanding about however the suppressed group feels and to be supportive of whatever they want done but I couldn’t help but think that even though her arguments were good, I disagreed with the writer because I’m a big believer in the need for assimilation. She wanted EVERYONE who wasn’t native to the Pacific Islands to leave the area and this seemed neither possible nor ideal. Also, this thinking makes me think that if that can be done, non-Europeans would have to move out of Europe, non-Asians would have to move out of Asia, non-Native Americans would have to move out of the Americas, etc.

    I don’t believe in the idea that we all need to be like a big melting pot. As my friend’s mom once told me, perhaps a better way to put it is that we need to be like a salad… Some flavors rub off on others but every single ingredient doesn’t have to lose its “identity” in being a part of a larger group. I think that’s what most countries should aim for and what many small groups who are all asking for sovereignty need to understand can happen in their being part of a larger group.

  2. That’s the idea of multiculturalism here — everyone retains their cultural identity, but also adopt some aspects of Australian “culture” — speaking English, aligning with our laws and political systems, etc.. I agree that it’s a good one, and I think it’s the best system… but, unfortunately, there are lots of nationalists who argue that it leads to “fragmentation” and oppose it.

    What is really important, I think, is for people to have contact with those outside their own group — and not only that, but to have to have extensive contact, and to get along. It’s easy to hate an entire group of people when you don’t know anyone from that group. I don’t really think people can be forced to do that, but it would be good if people just would.

    Sorry, now I’m rambling in a comment on my own blog. 😛 I’ll stop now!


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