Brown University News Bureau

The Brown University Op-Ed Service
Tracie Sweeney, Editor
Distributed February 1999
Copyright ©1999 by Stuart Gottlieb

Kosovo and the Politics of Self-Determination

By Stuart Gottlieb
Stuart Gottleib is a visiting scholar at the Watson Institute for International Studies at Brown University.

"'Who is to be sovereign' remains a fundamental conundrum. Scores of nationalities residing within established states are striving for statehood - Basques in Spain, Chechens in Russia, Quebecois in Canada, Corsicans in France, Armenians in Azerbaijan, Kurds in the Middle East, Tamils in Sri Lanka, and Muslims in the southern Philippines, for instance."

As the United States and its NATO allies attempt to settle the Kosovo conflict, the overwhelming reaction is justifiably one of relief that a year of bloodshed in the Serbian province may soon end. Less noticed, however, are lessons the world may draw from this most recent Balkan tragedy. Should the United States continue to justify involvement in Kosovo on a creative interpretation of sovereignty rights rather than strategic necessity, delicate norms of statehood and self-determination could be adversely affected, yielding greater regional and global conflict.

In meetings underway in Rambouillet, France, between Serbian authorities and Albanian Kosovar representatives, American-led mediators seek an interim arrangement in which Kosovo is granted a high degree of autonomy within, but remains part of, Serbia. Under the agreement, ethnic Albanians, who comprise 90 percent of Kosovo's population, would gain control over local government, internal security, education, and other functions, with Belgrade maintaining control over foreign, military, trade, and fiscal policy. The question of full independence would be delayed for three years. Should talks break down, or fighting renew, NATO remains poised for military strikes against Serbian targets.

The West's proposed solution to the Kosovo problem is unprecedented and troubling: the United States, NATO, and indeed the United Nations support "limited autonomy" for Kosovo. If the agreement works as designed by Christopher Hill, America's chief negotiator, thousands of American and European ground troops will be deployed in Kosovo to ensure compliance and prevent further fighting. In other words, Washington is apparently willing to allow Americans to fight and die to uphold this new principle. It is therefore important to unpack what "limited autonomy" means in Kosovo, and elsewhere.

The drive for independence by Albanian Kosovars brings to light the tension between two strongly held and widely supported international principles: the sanctity of existing borders and the right of national self-determination. On one hand, it is generally accepted that if international borders are redrawn too easily, all borders become suspect, and with thousands of distinct ethnic and linguistic groups residing in less than 200 countries, the potential for chaos is enormous. This position is backed by Article 2 (7) of the UN Charter, which defends the right of governments to act within their borders, to, among other things, suppress secession movements.

In stark contradiction, the Charter's Articles 55 and 56 also promote the right of self-determination of peoples, and indeed obligates the international community to enforce this principle. These articles provide the impetus for evolving international human rights law which rejects the domestic jurisdiction argument and supports a broader interpretation of international jurisdiction to protect humanitarian and political rights within states.

Adding further complexity to the contradiction between norms of sovereignty and self-determination is the inconsistent enforcement of either: the question of "who is to be sovereign" remains a fundamental conundrum. Scores of nationalities residing within established states are striving for statehood - Basques in Spain, Chechens in Russia, Quebecois in Canada, Corsicans in France, Armenians in Azerbaijan, Kurds in the Middle East, Tamils in Sri Lanka, and Muslims in the southern Philippines, for instance. Although many of these groups experience hardship and repression, the international community has avoided coming out too strongly in support of these independence movements lest the wildfire spread.

In the case of Kosovo, the United States is trying to bridge the gap between the two principles by coming up with a messy compromise - "limited autonomy" - which purportedly balances political independence without statehood. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, for example, describes America's goals in Kosovo as getting "Serbia out of Kosovo, not Kosovo out of Serbia." Trying to make sense of this rhetorical doublespeak is unnecessary: "limited autonomy" is, in fact, a red herring.

Despite President Clinton's assertion that America is involved to protect "the rights of all the people of Kosovo and [give] them the self-government they clearly deserve," the truth is the United States has important strategic interests in halting Serb aggression while simultaneously controlling Albanian Kosovar nationalism. Thus, "limited autonomy" is not a new universal principle to protect ethnic minorities; it is a politically expedient defense of American strategic interests in southeastern Europe. The US seeks to "limit" Albanian Kosovar nationalism in order to restrain Albanian secession movements in Montenegro, Macedonia, and northern Greece, which could ignite conflicts throughout the region. Washington also wishes to avoid giving Serbs a justification for secession from Bosnia, which would jeopardize the $20-billion Bosnia mission. Simultaneously, the US seeks to end the killing in Kosovo by guaranteeing ethnic Albanians some sort of "autonomy." This would end the threat of outside intervention in the conflict due to cross-border refugee flows, and would salvage the credibility of the NATO alliance as it prepares for its 50th anniversary in Washington this April.

That Albanian Kosovar autonomy is deemed worthy of defense, but not, say, Kurdish autonomy in northeast Turkey, shows the expedience of this intervention, based on pragmatism, not principle. Human rights is certainly not driving policy: America watched as more people were slaughtered daily in Rwanda than were killed in Kosovo in the past year. So why not just call American policy what it is: power politics. Calling it something else has only emboldened the Albanian Kosovars to up their demand for full independence. The danger is that dozens of other groups seeking to secede will be similarly inspired.