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From conflict to compromise: Lessons in creating a state

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From conflict to compromise: Lessons in creating a state 2

From conflict to compromise: Lessons in creating a state 3

A few days ago, the leader of a movement that wants its own state asked me how to get one. It was not of course an easy question to answer. But having been involved in various self-determination struggles around the world, I told him what I’ve learnt. Lessons about self-determination – becoming a state – are drawn not from academic studies, legal analysis or books… but from gritty experience. My organisation, Independent Diplomat, and I have advised two of the last three countries that have become independent, Kosovo and South Sudan (the third to become independent most recently is Montenegro). I’ve advised the governments and parties of some that so far have failed to win that goal: Palestine and Catalonia. I’ve worked for or talked with leaders and activists in West Papua, Kashmir, Western Sahara and Somaliland and even the South Tyrol. Indeed I’ve attended the UN Security Council with no less than five such movements. I was once a British diplomat there, so I’ve enjoyed both the first-class cabin and the cattle class treatment – and being refused entry.

This last experience points to the first lesson, a hard one for aspirant states to hear. Turkeys don’t vote for Christmas (or Thanksgiving). The state-based international system is profoundly ill-disposed towards new states. Perhaps this isn’t surprising. Many states, from Niger to Spain, worry about breaking up. Governments and rulers don’t like having less to rule over. People can be very discomfited by the prospect of “secession” – especially if their own rights are in question. 

But it doesn’t work to simply dismiss powerful sentiments, a dismissal too often expressed in repression. The British government’s decision to allow a referendum on Scottish independence was exceptional and wise. 

Contrast it with Spain’s punitive response to Catalan nationalism: several of those who organised a peaceful vote in Catalonia remain in jail. In every case of self-determination (with perhaps the exception of Palestine), the state-based system was, from the first outset, hostile. In Kosovo and South Sudan, the basic predisposition at the UN, EU and in other bodies was negative, until it wasn’t (and we’ll come to why it changed later, and Kosovo is still not a UN member state). In both cases, there was a painful and tortured diplomatic process to reach a conclusion that was obvious to anyone who lived on the ground: both states had to come into being or there would be war. 

As a result of this systemic hostility, the second lesson is obvious: there is no application process to become a state. There is no committee or UN process to examine such cases. There is no website to explain how it’s done. Each case is different. But in short, you only become independent by pushing for it yourself. No one will give it to you even though, ultimately, it is other states who must recognise you as a state (the basic paradox that is the heart of the problem): unilateral declarations of independence achieve little and often provoke yet more resistance.

And because the process is not institutionalised, self-determination in practice, if not in theory, has very little to do with law (except in some strange cases). There are lots of voluminous legal texts about the criteria for statehood, the Montevideo Convention and so forth. But I’ve seen these to be largely irrelevant, except as tools for retrospective analysis. The choice to recognise a state is always a political one by other states. International courts don’t take the decision, though their rulings can confirm the necessity of a decision (as the International Court of Justice has done in the case of Western Sahara). Legal arguments can bolster political ones, but they are never primary. We once advised the Kosovo government not to circulate a paper on its legal case for statehood. Why? Because it was so weak. But Kosovo’s political case was strong: the overwhelming majority of its population wanted independence and the province had effectively been governed separately since 1999.

In one strange case, however, the law really mattered. But it wasn’t international law. In the case of Montenegro, Serbia and the rest of the world accepted Montenegro’s independence referendum, and subsequent independence, because of Montenegro’s status as a republic in the constitution of the short-lived state of the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia, a state that no longer exists, a status that in turn derived from the Tito-drafted constitution of the communist federation of Yugoslavia. Kosovo did not enjoy such a constitutional status, although it was part of the country, which was one of the arguments Serbia deployed to oppose its otherwise equally legitimate demand for independence. One necessary conclusion, the third lesson: law does not, and should not, define legitimacy.

Fourth, and this is a hard one for liberation movements to hear: the state that matters most in self-determination is the one you are leaving. For Catalonia, Madrid’s ferocious opposition to any process of self-determination has effectively scuppered it, at least for now. 

For Somaliland, the main obstacle to its recognition by other states, who are otherwise very complimentary about Somaliland’s remarkable self-built democracy and stability, lies in Mogadishu. And it doesn’t take an expert on the Middle East to observe that the country that matters most in Palestine’s fight to become a state is, of course, Israel (followed a close second by the United States).

Fifth, and this is more welcome to liberation movements: never give up. For decades, statesmen and so-called experts opined that East Timor would never win independence from Indonesia. East Timor’s leaders, when they weren’t in jail but in exile, would tour the corridors of places like the UN, receiving at best polite brush-offs and outright indifference (I’ve experienced the same many times). They never gave up. And today East Timor is independent. I’ve met the brave leaders of West Papua, a place that should be freed of the same oppression that the East Timorese endured and one day, I trust, will be. They’ve heard that lesson too. I don’t see Kashmiris giving up either: at a minimum, the maintenance of their struggle demands some kind of resolution. This will not go away.

Sixth, the commitments of the “international community”, such as those like international law, don’t count for much. You could fill a library with the UN resolutions demanding a Palestinian state, including General Assembly resolution 67/19 11317 that gave Palestine a sort-of membership of the UN and the ur-resolutions 242 and 338 that ordained the so-called two state “solution”, and yet Palestine is not independent. 

In Western Sahara, the UN Security Council agreed there should be a referendum for self-determination in 1991 and has repeated that commitment on an annual (and sometimes six-monthly) basis ever since. An expensive UN mission was set up and remains to administer that referendum. The “international community” i.e. the powerful countries that run the UN known as the P5, have done nothing to fulfil its own commitment. Not with any pleasure, I’ve told Palestinian friends many times: it’s a great mistake to think that just because “they” have promised your own state, that “they” will one day live up to their obligations and grant you one. It doesn’t work like that.

Seventh, in all recent cases of contested self-determination, the United States is crucial. Kosovo and South Sudan became independent because the US decided it so, and brought the rest of the international community with them. If the US decides that it’s time for a truly independent Palestinian state – as it should – then my guess is that it would happen. In this realm, the multi-polar world has yet to manifest itself – at least not yet. As a sort of counter to Kosovo, whose independence Moscow formally opposed (but in fact privately acquiesced in), Russia encouraged the independence of Abkhazia and South Ossetia. Those would-be statelets have been recognised by a grand total of five other countries, including Russian satraps Venezuela and Syria. But whether the determinative importance of the US will endure its current decline of influence is another question.

Finally, the worst lesson of all. 

Somaliland is a democracy and a beacon of stability in the wartorn Horn of Africa. It has a strong legal case for statehood as it pre-existed the creation of Somalia. Its population has voted overwhelmingly for independence. It has peacefully demanded its acceptance as an independent state since 1991 (and indeed it was once an independent state after the British left).  It has been recognised by precisely nil other states and suffers the indignity of being called a “breakaway” state by the BBC, as if this word defines it.

The Frente Polisario, which represents the indigenous people of occupied Western Sahara, has pursued nearly 30 years of peaceful yet fruitless diplomacy to demand the fulfilment of the international community’s promise of a referendum on self-determination. In all that time, it has refused to return to a liberation struggle by military force, despite many provocations including the purported annexation of the territory by Morocco. They have shown depthless patience and commitment to a peaceful resolution. The result? No referendum and little prospect of one. The Frente Polisario and 175,000 refugees driven out by Morocco in 1975 remain in refugee camps in the Sahara desert.

One New York morning, shortly before South Sudan’s independence referendum, the result of the ceasefire agreement that ended Sudan’s long and incredibly bloody civil war, the UN Security Council held what’s called a formal meeting to endorse the vote. It was attended by luminaries like Hillary Clinton, then the US secretary of state, and the UN secretary-general. I was there with a South Sudanese leader of the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement (SPLM) who was invited to speak in that grandiose forum. By coincidence, that same day, but in the afternoon, the Security Council met privately in so-called “informal consultations” to discuss, and do nothing about, Western Sahara. The Frente Polisario was not invited to speak but waited with them outside the private chamber. The SPLM leader stopped by and I made introductions: two liberation leaders meeting, both former guerilla fighters, both demanding independence. The first question the Saharawi representative asked of the South Sudanese was to the point: why did you get your independence referendum and we didn’t? The SPLM leader did not hesitate before replying: because we told everyone, very clearly, that if we didn’t get it, we would go back to war the next day.

Some lesson, but the very same I had learned in Kosovo. There, the UN Security Council refused to do anything about Kosovo’s final status for several years after the Nato  intervention that ended Serbian control of the province in 1999. There was a lot of talk but no movement to resolve the question of the independence sought by the majority Kosovo-Albanian population. In 2004, there were deadly riots in Kosovo that were caused, in part, by the intense frustration over that lack of progress. Fourteen people were killed. The province seethed with violence. Various senior officials from the US and EU visited with grave faces. I was there at the time (I had been seconded to the UN by the British government) and told them: make this place independent or you will get more of this, and worse. Others said the same. None of the countries concerned would admit it, but it was the violence that triggered the “final status” process that ended with Kosovo’s declaration of independence in 2008.

The lesson could hardly be clearer, but perhaps needs spelling out. There needs to be some kind of international consensus and forum to address the many, and potentially violent, demands for self-determination across the world. The arbitrary drawing of borders by feckless and inept colonial officials in the Middle East, Africa and Asia has left behind an awful lot of unresolved self-determination crises. Kashmir, a source of conflict between two nuclear-armed countries, is not merely of local interest. We need some accepted criteria to assess the legitimacy of such demands, including for instance the protection of minorities, non-interference by outside powers and democratic endorsement (a requirement for non-violence might also help), and we need a place to talk about them sensibly. Not a court, as these disputes do not lend themselves to legal arbitration. They are political matters to be resolved by political means: negotiation, negotiation and more negotiation.

So this was the advice I gave the independence leader. He took it well, but gravely, for not all these observations were welcome. Although embroiled in war, he is a man of peace and reason. I didn’t relish telling him that the threat of war was decisive in the two examples of “successful” self-determination I’ve been part of, but it’s the truth. And in both those examples, the resulting states have been troubled and, in the case of South Sudan, horrifically violent, an outcome born of local rivalries: an example that is often carelessly deployed globally to dismiss all those who seek new states. But I’m sure he, like me, would prefer it otherwise – would prefer that there were some way of dealing with his demand for self-determination more sensibly and, above all, peacefully.

Carne Ross is founder of Independent Diplomat, the world’s first diplomatic advisory group

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Slovakia’s first female president takes office in a divided country

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Slovakia’s first female president takes office in a divided country 5

Slovakia’s first female president takes office in a divided country 6

Zuzana Caputova had been battling to close a toxic landfill in her hometown, Pezinok, in Slovakia for years when she learned that the wife of her closest colleague had been stricken with an aggressive form of cancer. That same week, her godfather was told that he, too, had cancer. “Part of my personal motivation to get involved in this case is that I was scared of cancer,” she says. “And suddenly, in this week, the first week of June 2006, these two roles – the personal and professional – came together.”

That experience convinced Caputova that what counted most was doing her best to win the case and not to worry about the result, which she could not control. She did eventually win it before the European Court of Justice in 2013, and says she now plans to bring that same attitude to her new job.

On 31 March, Caputova, then a 45-year-old lawyer and political neophyte who had never held state office, became the first woman sworn in as president of Slovakia.

At her swearing-in ceremony in Bratislava, the capital, she vowed to continue to work for the forgotten and the dispossessed. “I offer my expertise, emotion and activism. I offer my mind, my heart and my hands,” she said. “I want to be the voice of those who are not heard.” Caputova rode a wave of public disgust with a political system rife with corruption to a victory widely seen as a rebuke of the illiberal and nativist strain of populism that has swept the European continent in recent years.

“I am happy not just for the result, but mainly that it is possible not to succumb to populism, to tell the truth, to raise interest without an aggressive vocabulary,” she told her supporters during her March victory speech. 

Caputova speaks to journalists in the front of the presidential palace in Bratislava, Slovakia after her presidential victory (Getty/iStock)

Caputova is proudly European, supports minority rights and does not shy away from controversial stances, like her support for gay rights, including the adoption of children by same-sex couples. Significantly, she was able to do so in a way that many in this still deeply conservative country did not find threatening, perhaps offering a model for others.

“When I talked about these things, for me, this attitude is based on a value that I believe to be very conservative and Christian – empathy and respect for other people,” she says. “And, for me, this value leads to tolerance and respect.” By any measure, it has been a remarkable year in this small central European nation, which emerged from communist rule in 1989 and became independent in 1993, after a peaceful split with the Czech Republic.

The revolt against the governing party, Smer-SD, began after the murders of a young investigative reporter, Jan Kuciak, and his fiancee, Martina Kusnirova, in February 2018. Kuciak had been looking into the nexus between politicians and the Italian mob, the ’Ndrangheta. A prominent businessman, Marian Kocner, would later be charged with ordering his killing.

But that came only after hundreds of thousands of people filled the streets and town squares across the country, the largest protests since the 1989 Velvet Revolution. The protests brought down the government of the prime minister, Robert Fico, and paved the way for Caputova’s election a year later. But her ascension promises to be anything but smooth, as she is about to enter a political maelstrom that will test her skills and determination. 

Czechoslovakian students face riot police in November 1989 in Prague (AFP/Getty)

Fico’s Smer-SD party remains the dominant political force in the country, and the anger at the government that led many voters to embrace Caputova’s reformist vision has also emboldened the country’s far right, with avowed neo-Nazis winning seats in Slovakia’s parliament.

An unlikely supporter of Caputova is Ivan Kocner, the brother of the businessman charged with ordering Kuciak’s murder. His brother also had a stake in the landfill that Caputova fought to close and had once, not so subtly, threatened her. “I remember the first time we met, and her eyes grew wide,” Ivan Kocner, 48, recalls. “She knew I was Marian Kocner’s brother, and she did not have good experiences with the Kocners.”

By that time, around 2009, Caputova had won a reputation for helping people take on the authorities. Ivan Kocner had gone to her because the mayor of his small village was trying to sell public land to a political patron and he, along with others from the village, wanted it stopped. “Here is this group of angry men, very emotional,” he recalls. “And she took it all in calmly, got to the essence and then focused on what needed to be done to fix the problem.” 

A woman casts her ballot at a polling station in Bratislava during the European Elections. (Getty/iStock)

They prevailed. “She is not easily influenced or distracted by outside things,” he says. “It is going to take real effort to keep this part of herself.”

While Ivan Kocner became a documentary filmmaker, his brother surrounded himself with people who saw the country’s transition to democracy as a chance to get rich quick. Many of them would go on to become central figures in the organised crime world. Caputova, who was born in 1973, grew up thinking that communist rule could never last. “I remember how schizophrenic it felt,” she recalls. “To be talking with your friends honestly one moment and then having to hide your opinions with other groups.”

Then it all changed. Able for the first time to travel without a permit, her family visited Vienna during the Christmas season in 1989. “I can still remember the dazzling lights,” she says. When she entered college, she intended to study psychology. But she forgot to bring her paperwork and was rejected from the department. So she took up law instead.

While still in school, she worked as a legal assistant in the mayor’s office in Pezinok. “We had a feeling that we needed to care for something else than just ourselves and our studies,” she says. She volunteered to work with local children who had been neglected and abused. She left the mayor’s office in 1998, along with the heads of several other departments, after a disagreement with the administration. 

The Slovak President, Andrej Kiska, congratulates Caputova in her headquarters at the time of her electoral win (Getty/iStock)

Jaroslav Pavlovic, who has known her since she was a child, would go on to work with her at city hall and, later, joined in the landfill fight, says he remembers her being fired with “the injustice of it all”.

“It was just brutal how the state could ignore the will of the people,” Pavlovic says.

Caputova says she was pregnant when she joined the landfill case. “Motherhood inspired me to get involved,” she says. The case soon took over her life. The day she went into labour, she says, she was completing a legal brief. Pavlovic says she was nothing if not tough and stubborn. There were many times before they won the landfill case that it all seemed overwhelming and hopeless. “She was the one who would motivate others,” he says. “And she took a lot of the burden on herself.”

Pavlovic says she helped him deal with the pressure by introducing him to meditation, something she had been doing for some time to deal with stress. “I try to meditate every day,” Caputova says. She first came across books on Zen meditation as a teenager and has been a regular practitioner for 13 years. “I’m not sure how we’re going to manage that now,” she adds. “But the regular practice is important for me.” 

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Pavlovic recalls that Caputova first broached the idea of running for president right after a meditation session early last year. “She asked me what I thought,” he says. “I remember she was very unsure about joining politics. My first reaction was, of course, ‘That’s fantastic,’” he says. “But she told me to think about it.”

After thinking it over, he sent her a passage from a favorite book, about how there are two roads one can choose. The dragon’s path, flying up into heaven; and the worm, digging deep into the ground. To do the job of president well, he says, she would have to make the harder choice – to be the worm.

“But on election night,” he says, “I told her that she had finally managed to connect these two roads into one.”

© New York Times

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EU leaders set for summit showdown over 2050 carbon neutral climate change target

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EU leaders set for summit showdown over 2050 carbon neutral climate change target 8

EU leaders set for summit showdown over 2050 carbon neutral climate change target 9

EU leaders are set for a showdown on climate change at a summit in Brussels on Thursday, that could see the entire bloc adopt a target of going carbon neutral by 2050. 

Officials say the “overwhelming majority” of member states – thought to be at least 22 out of 28 countries – have now agreed to the climate change plan in behind the scenes talks ahead of the meeting.

Just a few hold-outs, all member states in central and eastern Europe, were still against the proposal ahead of the the European Council meeting in Brussels.

On senior EU official said that “the mood is changing on the Council”, adding: “At this stage we are talking about the overwhelming of member states that would be ready to accept the objective. 

“There is still no unanimity, and I think this will be the issue for this working session on first day afternoon.”

The official added that “a lot has changed since March” when the proposal only got a lukewarm reception from leaders, and that “member states you would never suspect” were also on-board with the proposal.

Momentum has built for the plan since the last European Council meeting earlier in the year, when just eight countries supported the move.

Theresa May committed the UK to the 2050 target last week, claiming Britain would become the first G7 country to legislate for the target. 

The policy would be significant in the fight against climate change because it would represent climate action by the world’s second largest economy. Some countries have already pledged to go further, with Finland’s new government adopting a 2035 goal, and Labour proposing a 2030 goal for the UK.


The changing political atmosphere comes after Europe-wide school strikes against climate change, protests by groups like Extinction Rebellion, and a surge in support for Green parties at the European elections.

The policy would be included in the EU’s strategic agenda, which is drawn up every five years with each change of Commission and round of European Parliament elections. 

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