In July 2011, South Sudan
became a new state by seceding from Sudan, follwing decades of civil war and a referendum.
When Kosovo attained its independence in February 2008
, some pundits warned against this precedent-setting event and foresaw a disintegration of sovereign states from Belgium to Russia. This time - their apocalyptic Cassandra predictions having failed - they remained mum.
II. Insurgents in International Law
Traditionally, the international community has been reluctant to treat civil strife the same way it does international armed conflict. No one thinks that encouraging an endless succession of tribal or ethnic secessions is a good idea. In their home territories, insurgents are initially invariably labeled as and treated by the "lawful" government as criminals or terrorists.
Paradoxically, though, the longer and more all-pervasive the conflict and the tighter the control of the rebels on people residing in the territories in which the insurgents habitually operate, the better their chances to acquire some international recognition and standing. Thus, international law actually eggs on rebels to prolong and escalate conflicts rather than resolve them peacefully.
By definition, insurgents are temporary, transient, or provisional international subjects. As Antonio Cassese
puts it (in his tome, "International Law", published by Oxford University Press in 2001):
"...(I)nsurgents are quelled by the government, and disappear; or they seize power, and install themselves in the place of the government; or they secede and join another State, or become a new international subject."
In other words, being an intermediate phenomenon, rebels can never claim sovereign rights over territory. Sovereign states can contract with insurrectionary parties and demand that they afford protection and succor to foreigners within the territories affected by their activities. However, this is not a symmetrical relationship. The rebellious party cannot make any reciprocal demands on states. Still, once entered into, agreements can be enforced, using all lawful sanctions
Third party states are allowed to provide assistance - even of a military nature - to governments, but not to insurgents (with the exception of humanitarian aid). Not so when it comes to national liberation movements.
III. National Liberation Movements in International Law
According to the First Geneva Protocol of 1977
and subsequent conventions, what is the difference between a group of "freedom fighters" and a national liberation movement?
A National Liberation Movement represents a collective - nation, or people - in its fight to liberate itself from foreign or colonial domination or from an inequitable (for example: racist) regime. National Liberation Movements maintain an organizational structure although they may or may not be in control of a territory (many operate in exile) but they must aspire to gain domination of the land and the oppressed population thereon. They uphold the principle of self-determination and are, thus, instantaneously deemed to be internationally legitimate.
Though less important from the point of view of international law, the instant recognition by other States that follows the establishment of a National Liberation Movement has enormous practical consequences: States are allowed to extend help, including economic and military assistance (short of armed troops) and are "duty-bound to refrain from assisting a State denying self-determination to a people or a group entitled to it" (Cassesse).
As opposed to mere insurgents, National Liberation Movements can claim and assume the right to self-determination; the rights and obligations of ius in bello (the legal principles pertaining to the conduct of hostilities); the rights and obligations pertaining to treaty making; diplomatic immunity.
Yet, even National Liberation Movements are not allowed to act as sovereigns. For instance, they cannot dispose of land or natural resources within the disputed territory. In this case, though, the "lawful" government or colonial power are similarly barred from such dispositions.
IV. Internal Armed Conflict in International Law
Rebels and insurgents are not lawful combatants (or belligerents). Rather, they are held to be simple criminals by their own State and by the majority of other States. They do not enjoy the status of prisoner of war when captured. Ironically, only the lawful government can upgrade the status of the insurrectionists from bandits to lawful combatants ("recognition of belligerency").
How the government chooses to fight rebels and insurgents is, therefore, not regulated. As long as it refrains from intentionally harming civilians, it can do very much as it pleases.
But international law is in flux and, increasingly, civil strife is being "internationalized" and treated as a run-of-the-mill bilateral or even multilateral armed conflict. The doctrine of "human rights intervention" on behalf of an oppressed people has gained traction. Hence Operation Allied Force in Kosovo in 1999.
Moreover, if a civil war expands and engulfs third party States and if the insurgents are well-organized, both as an armed force and as a civilian administration of the territory being fought over, it is today commonly accepted that the conflict should be regarded and treated as international.
As the Second Geneva Protocol of 1977
makes crystal clear, mere uprisings or riots (such as in Macedonia, 2001) are still not covered by the international rules of war, except for the general principles related to non-combatants and their protection (for instance, through Article 3 of the four 1949 Geneva Conventions) and customary law proscribing the use of chemical weapons, land and anti-personnel mines, booby traps, and such.
Both parties - the State and the insurrectionary group - are bound by these few rules. If they violate them, they may be committing war crimes and crimes against humanity.
V. Secession in International Law
The new state of Kosovo has been immediately recognized by the USA, Germany, and other major European powers. The Canadian Supreme Court made clear in its ruling in the Quebec case in 1998 that the status of statehood is not conditioned upon such recognition, but that (p. 289):
"...(T)he viability of a would-be state in the international community depends, as a practical matter, upon recognition by other states."
The constitutional law of some federal states provides for a mechanism of orderly secession. The constitutions of both the late USSR and SFRY (Yugoslavia, 1974) incorporated such provisions. In other cases - the USA, Canada, and the United Kingdom come to mind - the supreme echelons of the judicial system had to step in and rule regarding the right to secession, its procedures, and mechanisms.
Again, facts on the ground determine international legitimacy. As early as 1877, in the wake of the bloodiest secessionist war of all time, the American Civil War (1861-5), the Supreme Court of the USA wrote (in William vs. Bruffy):
"The validity of (the secessionists') acts, both against the parent State and its citizens and subjects, depends entirely upon its ultimate success. If it fail (sic) to establish itself permanently, all such acts perish with it. If it succeed (sic), and become recognized, its acts from the commencement of its existence are upheld as those of an independent nation."
In "The Creation of States in International Law" (Clarendon Press, 2nd ed., 2006), James Crawford suggests that there is no internationally recognized right to secede and that secession is a "legally neutral act". Not so. As Aleksandar Pavkovic observes in his book (with contributions by Peter Radan), "Creating New States - Theory and Practice of Secession" (Ashgate, 2007), the universal legal right to self-determination encompasses the universal legal right to secede.
The Albanians in Kosovo are a "people" according to the Decisions of the Badinter Commission. But, though, they occupy a well-defined and demarcated territory, their land is within the borders of an existing State. In this strict sense, their unilateral secession does set a precedent: it goes against the territorial definition of a people as embedded in the United Nations Charter and subsequent Conventions.
In former Yugoslavia (SFRY), Kosovo was an autonomous province within the Socialist Republic of Serbia. The Albanians in Yugoslavia were not recognized as a "people" (narod), merely as a "nationality" (narodnost).
In January 1990, the Constitutional Court of SFRY ruled illegal a unilateral secession from the Yugoslav Federation. The right to secede belonged to "the peoples of Yugoslavia and their socialist republics (and autonomous provinces)". Kosovo was an autonomous province, but the Albanians were not a "people". Indeed, in a later decision, dealing specifically with Kosovo's first declaration of independence, the Constitutional Court spoke:
"(O)nly peoples of Yugoslavia had the right of self-determination."
Still, the general drift of international law (for instance, as interpreted by Canada's Supreme Court) is to allow that a State can be composed of several "peoples" and that its cultural-ethnic constituents have a right to self-determination. This seems to uphold the 19th century concept of a homogenous nation-state over the French model (of a civil State of all its citizens, regardless of ethnicity or religious creed).
Pavkovic contends that, according to principle 5 of the United Nations' General Assembly's Declaration on Principles of International Law Concerning Friendly Relations and Co-operation Among States in Accordance With the Charter of the United Nations, the right to territorial integrity overrides the right to self-determination.
Thus, if a State is made up of several "peoples", its right to maintain itself intact and to avoid being dismembered or impaired is paramount and prevails over the right of its constituent peoples to secede. But, the right to territorial integrity is limited to States:
"(C)onducting themselves in compliance with the principle of equal rights and self-determination of peoples ... and thus possessed of a government representing the whole people belonging to the territory without distinction as to race, creed, or colour."
The words "as to race, creed, or colour" in the text supra have been replaced with the words "of any kind" (in the 1995 Declaration on the Occasion of the Fiftieth Anniversary of the United Nations).
Yugoslavia under Milosevic failed this test in its treatment of the Albanian minority within its borders. They were relegated to second-class citizenship, derided, blatantly and discriminated against in every turn. Thus, according to principle 5, the Kosovars had a clear right to unilaterally secede.
As early as 1972, an International Commission of Jurists wrote in a report titled "The Events in East Pakistan, 1971":
"(T)his principle (of territorial integrity) is subject to the requirement that the government does comply with the principle of equal rights and does represent the whole people without distinction. If one of the constituent peoples of a state is denied equal rights and is discriminated against ... their full right of self-determination will revive." (p. 46)
A quarter of a century later, Canada's Supreme Court concurred (Quebec, 1998):
"(T)he international law right to self-determination only generates, at best, a right to external self-determination in situations ... where a definable group is denied meaningful access to government to pursue their political, economic, social, and cultural development."
In his seminal tome, "Self-Determination of Peoples: A Legal Appraisal" (Cambridge University Press, 19950, Antonio Cassese neatly sums up this exception to the right to territorial integrity enjoyed by States:
"(W)hen the central authorities of a sovereign State persistently refuse to grant participatory rights to a religious or racial group, grossly and systematically trample upon their fundamental rights, and deny the possibility of reaching a peaceful settlement within the framework of the State structure ... A racial or religious group may secede ... once it is clear that all attempts to achieve internal self-determination have failed or are destined to fail." (p. 119-120)