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National Liberation Movements and the UN: Favour Won and Lost?

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Resistance and Change in World Politics

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Abstract

The tension between the right to self-determination and the principle of state sovereignty has important implications for national liberation struggles all around the world. During the 1960s and 1970s, liberation movements came to be widely recognised as legitimate. In later decades, however, this international support waned. Decolonisation had offered a unique window of opportunity: not only did it provide a normative framework that could unite disparate groups from all over the world, it also created additional opportunities for mobilising support and expanding dissidents’ pool of resources. Once this normative framework had disappeared, the movements were no longer able to unite in their struggle. As ‘lone warriors’, they could not generate the same level of support and sovereignty re-emerged as the dominant principle of global order.

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Notes

  1. 1.

    Between 1956 and 2002, there were 75 conflicts in which states faced some sort of self-determination issue (Williams and Pecci 2004: 1). In 2005, there were 25 such conflicts ongoing (Marshall and Gurr 2005: 21).

  2. 2.

    In what follows, I use the terms ‘principle’ and ‘norm’ synonymously.

  3. 3.

    National liberation movements are here defined as groups claiming to fight for the right to self-determination in the name of a particular people. Not all such movements count as dissident per se: as explained here, their activities may in some cases and at some stages come under the rubric of opposition rather than dissidence, as they work with the instruments of conventional politics (e.g. advocacy, lobbying, participation in elections) to assert their right to self-determination.

  4. 4.

    National liberation movements do not always seek to establish their own independent state. Power-sharing agreements and autonomy arrangements are also potential outcomes of struggles for self-determination.

  5. 5.

    I begin with Resolution 637 (VII) of 1952—in which the General Assembly first recognised the right to self-determination as a fundamental human right—and cover all UNGA resolutions up to the mid-1990s.

  6. 6.

    Equally remarkably, national liberation movements were recognised in Additional Protocol I of the Geneva Conventions, which made them subject to an entirely different international legal regime, under which they enjoyed international humanitarian protection (Pangalangan and Aguiling 1983: 45; cf. Dahm 2002; Götze 2002). Since this legitimisation did not occur in the UN context, it is not considered in depth here.

  7. 7.

    Self-determination may of course be individual as well as collective (Fisch 2010: 26), but we are here concerned only with the collective aspect.

  8. 8.

    According to Article 1, the Charter’s aim is “to develop friendly relations among nations based on respect for the principle of equal rights and self-determination of peoples”. The right to self-determination is also enshrined in Ch. XI (on non-self-governing territories) and Ch. XII (on international trusteeship) (Shaw 1983: 20).

  9. 9.

    Specifically, it states that “the establishment of a sovereign and independent State, the free association or integration with an independent State, or the emergence into any other political status freely determined by a people constitute modes of implementing the right of self-determination” (Principle 5, Friendly Relations Declaration).

  10. 10.

    This view, however, is contested. Roberts, for example, points out that determining “which peoples are the bearers of this right and whether statehood must be their destination” (Roberts 1999: 93) remains a problem.

  11. 11.

    Importantly, however, there is no agreement as to what constitutes foreign, colonial, or racist domination. The Tamil population in Sri Lanka clearly viewed government by the Sinhalese as a form of foreign domination which they must combat, but in the eyes of the international community the Sinhalese administration was the legitimate representative of all Sri Lankan peoples (Nadarajah and Vimalarajah 2008).

  12. 12.

    Hannum points to the struggles of national liberation movements against what they call “internal colonialism’, a term which, he says, ‘has been used to describe the exploitation of politically and economically weaker regions and/or groups by the more powerful urban elite” (Hannum 2011: 9).

  13. 13.

    On the difficulty of differentiating wars of national liberation from other conflicts, and of distinguishing peoples/nations from states, see Tyner (1978) and Olalia (2002).

  14. 14.

    Brownlie, for example, views the fulfilment of obligations arising from international law (the protection of human rights, for instance) as an essential corollary of sovereignty (Brownlie 1992: 15). Araujo (2000) likewise argues that sovereignty in international law is not the preserve of the state and that a full picture of it must include sovereignty of peoples.

  15. 15.

    The UN do not view it as such: they list 17 Non-Self-Governing Territories as still awaiting decolonisation (United Nations n.d.a).

  16. 16.

    Resolution 2012 (XX) on the question of Southern Rhodesia, http://www.worldlii.org/int/other/UNGA/1965/17.pdf, accessed 19 December 2015.

  17. 17.

    A request that also features in the following GA resolutions: 2107, 2189, 2326, 2465, 2548, 2649, 2708, 2787, 2878, 2908, 3136, 3328, and 3481.

  18. 18.

    In international law, insurgents do not count as subjects of law until recognised as such by the state on whose territory they are waging their conflict. By contrast, for the UN, national liberation movements count inherently as subjects of international law. As such, they can invoke international humanitarian law unilaterally, without the approval of the state they are opposing (cf. Additional Protocol I of the Geneva Conventions, Article 96 (3); Bilkova 2010: 119).

  19. 19.

    Apart from movements in the countries explicitly mentioned here, this involved groups in Rhodesia, South West Africa, and South Africa, as well as the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) and the Polisario Front in Western Sahara (Peach and Stuby 1994: 606).

  20. 20.

    The committee established a number of criteria for the recognition of national liberation movements. These included degree of support among the local population and level of military effectiveness (Götze 2002: 252).

  21. 21.

    Rights granted to SWAPO and the PLO were even more far-reaching, allowing them access not only to meetings of the General Assembly’s main committees but also to its plenary sessions.

  22. 22.

    In addition to setting up the fund, which was financed by voluntary contributions, the UNDP earmarked some of its own resources for this kind of work (Reddy 2008: 114).

  23. 23.

    Representatives of national liberation movements have also been allowed to participate in a number of international conferences (Tomuschat 1974: 65). Most notably, 11 such movements took part in the Diplomatic Conference on the Reaffirmation and Development of International Humanitarian Law Applicable in Armed Conflicts, held between 1974 and 1977, which resulted in the adoption of the two Additional Protocols to the Geneva Conventions (Draper 1979: 143–4).

  24. 24.

    That said, the role played by the principle of self-determination in the disintegration of the Soviet Union and Yugoslavia was relatively insignificant (Thürrer and Burri 2008: 31 ff.).

  25. 25.

    “The universally hostile attitude of the international community toward policies of the old colonial world is testimony to the purchasing power of the new anticolonial norms” (Jackson 1993: 129).

  26. 26.

    “Instances of indigenous rebels defeating or deterring Western colonial powers by raising the costs of colonialism are important and well known: The Viet Minh in Indochina; the FLN in Algeria; militant nationalist movements in India and Indonesia; guerrilla forces in Malay (Malaysia), Kenya, Portuguese Guinea (Guinea Bissau), Mozambique, and Angola” (Jackson 1993: 127).

  27. 27.

    Of note, not even the states that still had colonies dared to vote against the resolution: 89 states voted in favour and Australia, Belgium, the Dominican Republic, France, Britain, Spain, Portugal, South Africa, and the USA abstained (Crawford 2002: 317).

  28. 28.

    This is not to imply that the self-determination conflicts of the 1960s and 1970s had not been brutal, but the idea of decolonisation had become so strong during that period that Western civil societies were more inclined to accept civilian casualties in the name of self-determination and liberation (Crawford 2002: 325).

  29. 29.

    Although there was disagreement as to which cases would come under the rubric of colonialism, it was clear that, given the link to decolonisation, application could be restricted to a few exceptional cases.

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Herr, S. (2017). National Liberation Movements and the UN: Favour Won and Lost?. In: Gertheiss, S., Herr, S., Wolf, K., Wunderlich, C. (eds) Resistance and Change in World Politics . Global Issues. Palgrave Macmillan, Cham. https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-319-50445-2_4

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