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Thus have we seen in visions of the wise !."

- Tamil Poem in Purananuru, circa 500 B.C 

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Home Self Determination: International Law & Practice > From the Prevention of Genocide, Leo Kuper

Excerpts from the Prevention of Genocide

Leo Kuper 
in The Prevention of Genocide, 1985

[see also other books by Leo  Kuper:
The Pity of It All : Polarisation of Racial and Ethnic Relations
, 1977
Genocide : Its Political Use in the Twentieth Century
, 1983
International Action Against Genocide
, 1982
Race, class and power : ideology and revolutionary change in plural societies
and
Secession: The Legitimacy of Self-Determination by Lee C. Buchheit

 


"As for the highly destructive conflicts between racial, ethnic, and religious groups in plural societies, I argued earlier that some of them might be regulated by recognition of the right to self determination, and that it was entirely consistent with the many declarations in the Charter and in United Nations resolutions and conventions that this right should be generally available and not restricted to societies under colonial or other foreign domination.

Maximum resistance is to be expected from governments when the demand takes the form of secessionist self-determination. I recall a discussion at Geneva with the ambassador for Sri Lanka, who commented, with I think a note of horror in his voice, that the Tamil opposition party was seeking to secede. "No government,' he added, "would agree to that."  And I suppose this is generally true, but it is no reason for excluding the possibility of secession. 

However, criteria for legitimacy need to be established. Buchheit, in a major study of secession, makes some valuable suggestions for establishing legitimacy on the basis of a calculus between the internal merits of the case and its potentially disruptive consequences for the parent state, for other states, and for the general international order.

Claims for self-determination in the form of a measure of autonomy or for more equality in rights and opportunities are certain to be more tractable. But in practice they tend to be resisted, with resultant polarization. A more flexible and responsive approach could be of considerable benefit to the society as a whole, without necessarily threatening the elites of the dominant group. In many cases, it would reduce divisive and potentially destructive conflicts, release energy for cooperative enterprise in developing the resources of the country, and eliminate some of the opportunities for outside intervention offered by internal discord.

There is a large body of research on possible forms of self-determination. Claire Palley has examined the range of policies available in different institutions of the society. Her discussion is particularly valuable for its detailed specification of legal constitutional arrangements designed to promote assimilation or to balance the sharing of common institutions with a measure of institutional "separateness." The U.N. Cristescu report devotes some sections to a general discussion of forms of self-determination. Then there are the broad political approaches of the "consociational school:' associated with the names of Lijphart, Daalder, Nordlinger, and others, which also provide a basis for social engineering.

My concrete suggestion, therefore, is to seek to establish a more tolerant and flexible approach to self-determination in its great variety of forms and to publicize the many contributions it could make to the reduction of destructive internal conflicts. This should be linked to a technical advisory service to assist the governments of member states to respond constructively to claims for self determination or to other contentious issues arising out of the relations of racial, ethnic, and religious groups in plural societies..."

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