In the last ten years, there have been just five new members of the United Nations: Tuvalu, Switzerland, Serbia, Montenegro and Timor-Leste. Of these territories, three were once parts of existing UN members themselves: Timor-Leste included within Indonesia, and Serbia and Montenegro what remained of the former Yugoslavia. Kosovo, about which I got slightly excited earlier in the year, may still be the coda to this, nearly two decades after the other ex-Yugoslav republics of Slovenia, Bosnia, Croatia and Macedonia became UN members.
So the process of statebreaking and statemaking – where existing states are decomposed into new territorial units – is a relatively rare one in recent history. All too often, these have involved violence, in efforts to force secession or preserve unity (German reunification and Czechslovakia’s dissolution the more notable exceptions to the rule). South Sudan has had an incredibly violent past too, with civil war running for well over two decades, halted only by a peace agreement in 2005 – but an important threshold for full statehood now looms with a coming referendum on independence in early January.
Registering to vote has now begun, but there is a horrendously complex mix of things affecting the prospects for peace in south Sudan – both with the referendum process itself, and the percieved legitimacy of it; and about what happens post-referendum, if (as is widely expected) the vote favours self-determination and independence for the south. Sanctions on the north, an ICC warrant for Sudanese president Omar Bashir, oil in the south, contested boundaries, a southern diaspora population living in the north – as well as, of course, the still-unresolved situation in Darfur – have left me peering at the situation through my fingers.
Possibilities for peaceful secession are indeed being suggested, and the importance of oil to both north and south might even help to grease a nonviolent transition, but how external actors respond is crucial, in the pressure they place on authorities in north and south to settle their differences. One observer has put it this way: “In the end, Bashir is making a straightforward calculation: What do I get for playing ball; what do I lose for breaking up the game? The great imponderable for him is the role of the international community”. Statebreaking and statemaking ultimately, are processes mixed in with the interest and norms of the international community rather than just being the result of compromise (or the failure thereof) between ruling and secessionist parties.
The dream of independence persists for disenfranchised minorities around the world, where the belief in (often ethno-religious) self-determination continues to be a potent one. But the established international order has tended to treat the prospect of secession with caution, fearing destabilizing consequences. Preserving order has tended to trump the injustices and grievances of minorities. And governments in developing countries, themselves frequently multiethnic entities, have tended to fear the slippery slope consequences for their own territories of approving of any general permissiveness towards secession. The social quality of sovereign recognition, an inextricable part of how ‘statehood’ is achieved, has helped to limit the frequency of such secession attempts: independence leaders know that unilateral declarations will often be folly without some external backer to deter the parent state from forcibly asserting control.
But the type of international involvement and interest in this referendum, and the willingness of the international community to see an independent South Sudan, however, may hint that this traditional caution may be somewhat eased.
I’m trying here to see south Sudan in terms of following in Kosovo’s wake, and what current mood of the collective international tolerance to statebreaking and statemaking is. These attitudes are, of course, informed by the constellation of great power interests involved. But the barriers to entry to international society – if perhaps not quite full UN membership – might not be as insurmountably high as the norms of the past half-century would otherwise suggest.