Nyet to Self-Determination

Kevin Drum has an interesting post up, building on an LA Times op-ed, on the question of how the U.S. should address separatist movements. My bias up front: I think Woodrow Wilson made but one of his many horrid mistakes when he put this country’s weight behind the concept of ethnic self-determination. As the authors of the LA Times piece, Thomas Meaney and Harris Mylonas, say:

American independence was based on a doctrine of individual rights, whereas the vast majority of self-determination movements today are based on ethnic group rights. Peoples as different as the Kurds and the Tibetans have made repeated appeals for self-governance in the last decade, but the urgency of their calls relies less on any liberal principle than on the sheer fact of their ethnic preponderance in a region and the violence they have endured.

Quite right. There’s no moral principle at stake in these quarrels, most of the time. The exception would be when a government controlled by one ethnic group is behaving in a truly beastly, genocidal manner toward other ethnic groups (e.g. Serbia vs. any of several former associates). Where there’s a democratic outlet and respect for individual rights (such as in Canada/Quebec), there’s no legitimate case for separation. Moreover, I would argue there should be a further case-by-case judgment that looks at whether the new polity would respect the UN charter and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and be willing to live in peace with its neighbors (that is, I’m not in concept a big fan of a Palestinian state).


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