Randy McDonald (rfmcdpei) wrote,
Randy McDonald

[BLOG-LIKE POSTING] On the Bangladeshi unilateral declaration of independence and Kosovo

Googling idly, I came across a filing submiting by the Government of Canada as part of the Reference re Secession of Quebec put before the Supreme Court of Canada in the late 1990s, which examined the "legality, under both Canadian and international law, of a unilateral secession of Quebec from Canada." The court found that unilateral secessions made without the consent of the parent state very rarely received international recognition.

[O]utside the colonial context, the United Nations has never granted membership to a seceding entity against the wishes of the government of the state from which it has purported to secede. Where the parent state agrees to allow a territory to separate and become independent, the terms on which separation is agreed between the parties concerned will be respected. If independence is achieved under such an agreement, rapid admission to the United Nations will follow. But where the government of the state concerned has maintained its opposition to unilateral secession, the attempted secession has attracted virtually no international support or recognition by other states.

The practice of states of refusing to condone a right to unilateral secession is reflected in the fact that since 1945 no new state has been created outside the colonial context by way of unilateral secession, with the exception of Bangladesh. Even in that case, Bangladesh relied on military intervention by India to defeat the armed forces of Pakistan in Bangladesh. In fact, Bangladesh was not admitted to the United Nations until it was recognized as an independent state by Pakistan nearly four years after its unilateral declaration of independence.

Since 1945, all other new states have been created either with the consent of the state from which they were seceding -- such as the agreement which resulted in the breaking away of republics from the former Soviet Union or that dividing Czechoslovakia into two separate states or, in the case of the republics of the former Yugoslavia, through the total collapse of the pre-existing state.

This made me curious about the case of Bangladesh, quite interesting in its own right. Briefly put, the 1971 Bangladesh Liberation War was triggered by the breakdown of electoral politics in two-winged Pakistan, when the Awami League swept elections across an East Pakistan that was historically disadvantaged by the wealthier West Pakistan and was able to form a majority government. The military, controlled by West Pakistanis, refused to recognize the results of the election. The Awami League responded by calling a general strike in East Pakistan and a boycott of government offices. The military responded by starting, in March, a campaign of wholesale massacre against East Pakistanis, taking particular care to murder intellectuals and Hindus but visiting death indiscriminately to at least hundreds of thousands of people dead and prompting the flight of millions of refugees. A unilateral declaration of independence was issued on the 26th of March, and wholesale defections from the Pakistani army to the military forces of the povisional Bangladeshi government began. Finally, an India that was burdened by the need to tak care of the refugees and saw a chance to permanently weaken Pakistan invaded Bangladesh in December 1971, quickly defeating the Pakistani forces there and coinciding with the recognition of Bangladesh by India and Bhutan promptly followed on the 6th and 7th respectively of that month.

There are a few similarities between the situations in Bangladesh and Kosovo, but one notable difference between the two is the way in which Bangladeshi independence posed a serious threat to the balance of power in the world. In Kosovo, Serbia's traditional protector Russia made some significant posturing with its troop deployments in 1999, and has made some interesting rhetoric of late regarding its various protectorates in Moldova and Georgia, but it has also been qutie clear that it is uninterested in sending troops to Kosovo. (At least Russia's Gazprom owns the Serbian national energy company, but that's a subject for a different post.)

Bangladesh, however, was quite different, since the secession of East Pakistan would ensure India's surpemacy as the dominant power of South Asia. China, which had fought a border war with India in the early 1960s and looked to Pakistan as a strategic partner, was concerned to the point of mobilizing its troops before the war ended. The United States, building on a functional relationship with Pakistan and concerned by India's flirtations with the Soviet Union, felt likewise. Kissinger reportedly compared the Awami League's leader Sheik Mujibur Rahman to Chile's Allende. In fact, one of Kissinger's many positive contributions to humanity was the dispatch of the Enterprise carrier battle group into the Bay of Bengal in an effort to intimidate the Indians. Perhaps fortunately, the Indian government had been in touch with the Soviets, who dispatched a nuclear submarine to the Bay of Bengal (1, 2, 3).

In the end, this military posturing came to nought. The reality on the ground of the disappearance of Pakistani authority and the appearance of a Bangladeshi government had to be taken into account. Between January and May 1972 Bangladesh was recognized by seventy states (like Japan) even before Indian troops had left the new nation's territory. Recognition from Pakistan and China came more slowly, but as the Canadian government filing notes, four years after the war Bangladesh was universally recognized and admitted in 1974 to the United Nations. The initial presence of Indian troops to maintain order aside, Bangladesh had demonstrated that it was a functioning state, thus succeeding in gaining the recognition that Biafra failed to get.

Arguments by Serbian politicians aside, it's unlikely that any of the 27 states which recognize an independent Kosovo will rescind their recognition. The die has been cast, after all. Kosovo's governments and the states which have recognized its independence seem to be making use of the concept of the "remedial secession" first pioneered by Bangladesh, arguing in this case that on the balance of past atrocities it's impossible to expect that Kosovo can ever function inside of Serbia. Certainly the popularity of the sorts of stereotypes of Albanians described by Vladimir Arsenijevic in "Our negroes, our enemies" (Albanians are unclean, Albanians breed too much, Albanians are thieves, Albanians are uncultured, et cetera) is worrying, as a former British ambassador to Serbia plausibly argues that "successive Serbian leaders, unerringly backed by stupidly populist Serbian media, have gone out of their way to offer the Kosovar Albanians, their fellow citizens, nothing but contempt." A happily binational Serbian-Albanian state probably wasn't likely at any point after 1991. Hence, independence.

Comparing Kosovo with Bangladesh, Kosovo seems to be doing quite nicely, with more than two dozen countries recognizing it as independent in less than a month. One complicating factor lies with frontiers. Pakistan and Bangladesh obviously couldn't have any border disputes, but Kosovo and Serbia could, with Albanian majorities in the Presevo Valley in southern Serbia and Serb populations concentrated in the north of Kosovo, but it doesn't seem as if the Kosovar government and its NATO/EU protectors are inclined to make new territorial claims or renounce old ones. And the rest of the world? If Kosovo demonstrates its viability as a state, I suspect that general recognition over the next few years won't be too far away. There is a ping-pong team from Kosovo is playing ping pong in Guangzhou, after all.
Tags: albanians, bangladesh, former yugoslavia, nationalism, politics, separatism, south asia
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