Arabian: Impasse in the Articles

A contradiction in the U.N. charter has hindered the peaceful resolution of territorial disputes — Tigray may become the latest example.

by Kami Arabian | 7/9/21 4:00am

Since November of last year, the Ethiopian military has been at odds with insurgent forces in the country’s northernmost state of Tigray. Stirred by an increasing sense of ethnic nationalism, the current fighting has led many to call for the state’s independence. While the state is functionally independent as is, the Tigray People’s Liberation Front has declared its willingness to formally and permanently part with Ethiopia if the violence continues. However, whether the world will accept an independent Tigray is a difficult question to answer. Self-determination has consistently been the subject of controversy in international relations, especially because the United Nations charter does not contain any clear and certain guidance on the topic. In one section, it claims to support the “self-determination of peoples,” and presumably the right of people to become independent — while in another, pouring cold water on any sort of secession, forbidding infringements “against the territorial integrity … of any state.” These respective articles have been used in the past to justify both pro- and anti-independence viewpoints, leaving conflicts with no clear path to peace. The U.N. Charter must be updated to resolve this contradiction once and for all. 

To begin, Article 1.2 of the U.N. Charter establishes its mission to “develop friendly relations among nations based on respect for the principle of equal rights and self-determination of peoples.” This particular clause seems to support the notion that citizens are entitled to determine their own allegiance — an idea that can be traced to political philosophies espousing “the consent of the governed.” In Tigray, the TPLF has already laid the groundwork for a national divorce and shift of allegiances, preparing the optimal economic, political, and social conditions for the region’s eventual departure. If the people of Tigray voted for the formation of their own state in a free and fair referendum, would it not be reasonable to expect the members of the U.N. to support this decision? But history shows this answer is not always a clear-cut “yes.”

Following the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991, the former Socialist Autonomous Province of Kosovo conducted a referendum that resulted in about 99 percent of voting Kosovars favoring independence — though the vote was boycotted by the Serbian minority. Since Kosovo officially declared independence from Serbia in 2008, 97 member-states of the U.N. — among them, 26 of the 30 members of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization — have established diplomatic ties with the newborn republic. Citing Article 1.2, many of these nations, including the United States, have offered security assistance to Kosovo. In fact, the U.S. provides more foreign aid to Kosovo than any other Balkan nation, on top of its numerous troop deployments guaranteeing Kosovo’s security. In this instance, then, the answer was “yes” — but only in the eyes of certain states, with world powers such as China and Russia still refusing to recognize Kosovo.

The Republic of Artsakh, on the other hand, has not been so lucky; the opponents of its independence cite another article of the U.N. Charter in an attempt to justify their view. Despite citizens voting in referendum to part from Azerbaijan — earning 99.89 percent of the vote with 82.2 percent of eligible voters turning out — the international community has largely ignored its declaration due to pressure from Azerbaijan’s closest ally, Turkey. Together, these nations justified suppressing calls for independence with another article in the charter: Article 2.4, which states, “All Members shall refrain in their international relations from the threat or use of force against the territorial integrity or political independence of any state.” So is the Republic of Artsakh a noble and justified attempt for self determination — or a violation of the integrity of Azerbaijan? The answers the international community has settled on are largely motivated by geopolitics and the need to placate NATO-partner Turkey, not any set of moral principles.

Evidently, Articles 1.2 and 2.4 are mutually incompatible. By definition, a declaration of independence is bound to alter an existing state’s territorial boundaries to a certain extent. Therefore, the U.N. should amend its charter by establishing a “supremacy clause” — a commonly held standard for which of the two articles will be prioritized in the event of conflict. Ideally, the supremacy clause would favor self-determination because it is much more democratic than its alternative. Self-determination allows the people to decide their own fate by rejecting any colonial occupation that they deem to be illegitimate.

The consistent application of this standard is key. In the past, the selective application of the articles has led to many unfair situations, as states guide their decisions with ulterior motives instead of moral principles. When given the choice to support or oppose self-determination — a decision that, according to the current U.N. Charter, has no wrong answer — states have aligned with their own interests, ignoring those of the people in question. Hopefully, a commitment to unequivocally respecting the right to self-determination will lead to more equitable outcomes.

As citizens across the world grapple with the legacy of imperialism — their countries fragmented into particularistic sects, clans, and ethnic groups forced to live under the same flag, to obey the same leader and to root for the same soccer team — it is probable that we will witness many more independence movements within our lifetimes. In order to strengthen our diplomatic toolbox and promote conflict resolution in Tigray, as well as to prevent future conflicts before they even start, it is essential that the U.N. clarify its prerequisites for statehood. Without change, legitimate calls for independence and self-determination will remain at the mercy of global politics and self-interested world leaders; the peoples of Kosovo, Artsakh and perhaps Tigray will be left behind in recognition-purgatory, with no viable pathway to independence.